Thursday, February 16, 2012

Singing in the Cotton Mills or Mountain Music from the Sweat Factories

In these parts, Union, Towns, Fannin and surrounding counties in North Georgia and also in nearby Tennessee and North Carolina, we like what we call “country music.” During the Great Depression era and even prior to that economic downfall in America, many people had to leave their farms and seek employment elsewhere. Many went to towns where cotton mills operated, offering jobs for men, women and children at very low wages. The employment provided enough to keep food on the table, if they could find food to buy, a shelter of sorts over their heads, and clothing on their backs. Out of this sad time came much “country music,” for those with the abilities to play guitar, banjo, fiddle, “French” harp and autoharp and sing their plaintive, sad folk songs brought about what has been called “Singing in the Cotton Mills.”

Recently I came across and read a delightful book about how our mountain folk music was preserved by those with a will to be happy despite circumstances. Patrick Huber has written/compiled a book chronicling the history of country music. It tells of those who got their start as music artisans as they worked in cotton mills of the Piedmont South. The title is Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the South.

Huber devotes a chapter to Fiddlin’ John Carson (1868-1949) who, some biographers say, was born in Fannin County, Georgia. Carson described himself on one of his Okeh recordings in 1929: “I’m the best fiddler that ever jerked the hairs of a horse’s tail across the belly of a cat.”

Life was not easy for cotton mill workers in the era covered by the “Linthead Stomp” book, 1923-1942. Many left farms that had been their way of life for a long time and sought work in the cotton mills. Many with musical inclinations took with them their ability to play the fiddle, a guitar or a banjo, and their plaintive voices that sang the ballad-type songs they had heard all their lives.

Others, with a talent for writing rhyme, composed new ballads about the life they had left for hard work in the cotton mills. In John Carson’s case, he wrote a song about a newsworthy event, the murder of a young girl in Atlanta in April, 1913.

John Carson wrote “Little Mary Phagan” about the murder trial of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year old pencil factory worker who was murdered and her body buried in the basement of the factory. Leo Frank, manager and part-owner of the factory, was accused of the murder and a notorious trial ensued. While he was in prison serving a life sentence, a group calling themselves “Knights of Mary Phagan” stole Frank out of prison and hanged him.

Fiddlin’ John Carson wrote his song about Mary Phagan in 1915 and sang it from the steps of the Georgia State Capitol to a crowd gathered to hear. In 1925, his daughter, Rosa Lee Carson, who was his guitar player and did duets with her father, sang the Phagan song and it was recorded. Those interested may access U-Tube clips of many of the John Carson songs as well as this ballad sung by his daughter.

John Carson and a fellow musician, Ed Kincaid, another Fannin County native, who was a member of Carson’s Virginia Reelers Band, often did concerts together. Both appeared at the annual Georgia “Old Time Fiddler’s Convention” at which entrants were judged for their playing ability. In 1913, John Carson entered the competition for the first time and was named to fourth place that year. However, with more practice and much determination, Fiddlin’ John Carson was named first place winner seven times from the years 1914-1922. Both Carson and Kincaid worked at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in Atlanta. Their work at the mills and association through their music and recordings gave them the distinction of being included in the Huber compilation, Linthead Stomp.

For the country music lover, especially of the more vintage (old-fashioned) type, Huber has included valuable information in appendices in his book. Appendix A is a directory of southern textile workers who made hillbilly recordings between 1923-1942. And Appendix B lists the discography of recordings of these artists during the same time period.

Many of the old records have been re-recorded and are now available on disk. Johnny Carter of Rome, Georgia, who has Union County roots (his grandfather was Frank Dyer of Choestoe, who was a noted “shaped note” music teacher of the twentieth century, and inducted a few years ago into the Union County Gospel Music Hall of Fame) has the National Recording Studio in Rome. We commend Johnny Carter for this mission. You can read about him and his recording studio by going online to National Recording Corporation (NaReCo). He is not included in Linthead Stomp because he is after that era; but he is saving some of the recordings of the era Huber writes about.

In looking through Huber’s appendix on recording artists, not only did I read about John Carson and his daughter, Rosa Lee, nicknamed “Moonshine Kate,” and Ed Kincaid, all of whom were partners in recording on the Okeh records, with Carson’s first being made in 1923, but I also found the listing of Hazel Cole who was born in Fannin County. She left Fannin County to go to Rome, Georgia to work in a textile mill there. She met her future husband at the mill, Henry W. Grady Cole from LaFayette, Georgia. Since both liked to sing and play, they formed the “Grady and Hazel Cole Duo.” During 1939 and 1940, Hazel and Grady recorded twelve sides on RCA and Victor recording labels. Huber gives a total of twenty-five natives of areas of North Georgia who contributed significantly to this particular era of country music. I don’t know if any he lists were from Union County, as he did not know or did not give their birth counties, except for a few of them. Noted in his listings are three with the last name of Chumbler who have North Georgia ties: George Elmo (1907-1956), Irene (1913-?) and William Archer (1902-1937) who often recorded as the Chumbler Family and also with “Jim King and His Brown Mules” as well as with “Hoke Rice and His Southern String Band.”

With the Great Depression and its financial woes, a very real challenge to cotton mill workers (as well as almost everyone) during a major portion of the period covered by Huber’s history of country music in Linthead Stomp, there’s a heartening note to think that they might have been singing in the cotton mills as they operated the looms or made garments and worked hard to make their production quotas. The tone of much of the music they produced matched the depressed times, sad and plaintive, longing for better times, and remembering why they had to leave their farm homes in the first place.

Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin inthe Lane” touched on that very nostalgic theme. But then, on their time off, the fiddlers could play at barn dances and community gatherings, providing music for weekend parties and get-togethers where they might share food they’d bring for the best meal their means could provide. They sang their blues away by singing sad songs and dancing. They were grateful for work, whatever it was, and singing in the cotton mills was better far than crying, even though their songs were often melancholy. Their music and their expressed pathos make up part of the fabric of America and the hard times they lived through.

c2012 by Ethelene Dyer Jones. Published February 16, 2012 online by permission of the author at GaGenWebProject. All rights reserved.

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