GASTONIA GALLOP: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues
Piedmont Textile Workers On Record
Gaston County, North Carolina 1927–1931
Old Hat CD-1007
Reviewed by Tony Burke / Blues & Rhythm / March, 2010
“I’m a gonna starve - everybody will, 'cos you cain’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill...”
On 1st April, 1929, 1,800 textile workers employed at the giant Loray Mill in Gastonia, Gaston County, North Carolina- the centre of the USA’s textile industry- struck in protest against the working conditions they were forced to endure- sparking off a bitter labour dispute.
The workers, and the recently formed National Textile Workers Union, who were trying to organize the mill demanded a $20 minimum [weekly] wage, a forty hour week, union recognition and an end to the “stretch out” (A euphemism for workers being required to take on more tasks, with fewer staff, often at reduced pay).
Other mill workers rallied to their cause, notably from Bessemer City and Pineville. The battle between the mill owners, civic leaders and their hired guns lead to the strikers and their families being evicted from company-owned housing and the destruction of union property by company-hired goons.
A police raid on a company encampment lead to the local chief of police being shot dead. Fred Beal, an organiser for the National Textile Workers Union and six others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. They never served them. They jumped bail and headed for the Soviet Union while on appeal.
Ella May Wiggins was a singer, songwriter and union activist at the American Mill Number One in Bessemer City. She played a key role in the dispute, penning and performing songs such as “The Big Fat Boss And The Workers” and “Chief Aderholt” (the policeman who was shot dead) and “The Mill Mother’s Song”- a popular tune played at rallies throughout Gaston County. She became a major target for the mill owners.
On 14th September 1929, a group of company-hired thugs attacked a group of unarmed strikers from Bessemer traveling to Gastonia to a strike rally. They shot Wiggins, then pregnant with her tenth child, dead.
Her murder raised massive protests across North Carolina and the USA- but nobody was ever convicted of her murder. Soon after the Loray Mill strike collapsed, but it lead to an ongoing wave of strikes by hard-pressed textile workers.
It was against this background and the cycle of poverty and debt that ensnared mill workers that a number of local singers, instrumentalists and hillbilly string bands recorded the songs contained on a new CD from Old Hat Records- “Gastonia Gallop- Cotton Mill Songs and Hillbilly Blues”- between the years of 1927 and 1931.
These musicians, who played at picnics, square dances, fiddling contests and union meetings, headed out of Gaston County to Memphis, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina or Johnson City in Tennessee to make records which eighty years later are the precursor of country music and give us an insight into the life, hopes, fears and musical traditions of working people in America’s textile industry.
Chief amongst these was David McCarn, who worked at the Winget Yarn Mill in South Gastonia and was also a fine guitar and harmonica player. He cut the instrumental title track in Memphis in 1930 and two versions of “Cotton Mill Colic” (one dubbed “Rich Man, Poor Man”) for Victor Records, which expressed anger at the treatment of textile workers who were not only forced to work long hours for starvation pay, they had little choice but to spend that meagre pay at company-owned stores, or on hire-purchase for life’s necessities.
Although the song title “colic” refers to “collicking” or “grousing,” it struck a chord among mill hands facing lay-offs and “stretch-outs.” McCarn also recorded with Howard Long as Dave and Howard, waxing “Bay Rum Blues” for Victor in 1931. Bay Rum, a patent hair tonic and aftershave lotion, cost a dime. Because of its high alcohol content it became the liquor of choice in Prohibition-hit North Carolina.
They also recorded “Serves ’Em Fine,” chronicling the travails of workers who left their “mountain homes” for what they perceived as a “darned gold mine” and ended up living in urban poverty working in textile mills.
Among the other notable artists here, the majority of whom were full-time textile workers and part-time musicians, are the Three ’Baccer Tags, a mandolin string band featured here on sides cut for Victor. As the Tobacco Tags they went on to record over eighty sides for the Bluebird label between 1936 and 1941.
Mandolin player George Wade was to become a member of the Three Tobacco Tags, but before he did he cut two sides for Columbia in 1929 with harmonica player Francum Braswell, including the cautionary tale of “When We Go A Courtin’.”
Gwin Foster was regarded as a harmonica virtuoso who worked in a mill in Mount Holly. He and his partner David Fletcher recorded as the Carolina Twins and as Fletcher & Foster for Victor in Atlanta in 1929, this session included the wonderfully skillful instrumental “Charlotte Hot Step.” Foster went on to record over fifty sides with, among others, the Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers.
On 29th October 1929, Wilmer Watts, a loom fixer, and his string band- The Lonely Eagles- who had traveled to New York to record for Paramount, cut a number of sides including “Cotton Mill Blues,” a song about a “gold-digging” woman, “She’s A Hard Boiled Rose” and “been On The Job Too Long.” as version of a murder ballad known as “Duncan and Brady”- the story of a killing in 1880 of a policeman by a black bartender in St. Louis. They made these records the day after the stock market crash of “Black Tuesday.”
The Great Depression began and the commercial recording of hillbilly music almost ceased. Although some of the artists did continue to record, many of the artists included here never entered a recording studio again. But they left us a wonderful musical legacy.
Complete with detailed booklet, discographical details, photographs and digipak sleeve, this is a marvelous historical compilation documenting the struggle of working people, musical traditions and the music of the textile workers of Gaston County, North Carolina, and it’s an absolutely essential purchase.