Textile Mills have a long and varied history in America. Some of that history is not pleasant. Today, as textile mill employees are laid off due to cheap overseas labor we take a look at some of the music that speaks to the plight of the textile worker. From the days when working conditions were sub-human and unions waged war against mill owners to the plight of today's unemployed.
1. Si Kahn — "The Aragon Mill" from the album "New Wood"
The Aragon Mill was written by Si Kahn in 1979 and refers to the closing one of the main employers in Aragon, Georgia; The Aragon Textile Mill.
2. Pete Seeger — "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "American Industrial Ballads"
Winnsboro, SC is about 75 miles south of Gastonia, NC. This track comes from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "American Industrial Ballads", which documents the unprecedented industrialization of the 19th century. The album contains songs of struggle, which emerged from the coalmines, textile mills and farmland of America.
3. Dave McCarn - "Cotton Mill Colic" from the compilation "Hard Times Come Again No More Vol. 2 CD"
In 1905 Dave McCarn was born in Gaston County, NC. Like many in the area, he became a textile industry worker. He took up guitar and harmonica and began writing songs, which became a vehicle to express the hardships of a mill-working life. In 1926 Dave McCarn wrote "Cotton Mill Colic" and released it in August 1930. The song was soon adopted by striking Carolina Piedmont mill workers. In 1939 Alan Lomax found the song and published it on the compilations "Folksongs of North America" and "Our Singing Country".
4. Almanac Singers - "The Weaver's Song" from the compilation "Songs For Political Action"
Members of the the Almanac singers included such names as Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. The group's music remained closely tied with the members political beliefs, which were far-left and at times controversial. "The Weaver's Song" is a traditional folk song from the late 1800's, which speaks about the hard life of the weaver.
5. Fisher Hindley — "Weave Room Blues" from the compilation "Hard Times Come Again No More Vol. 2 CD"
The "Weave Room Blues," was written by Dorsey Dixon in 1932 and is perhaps his most significant industrial composition, he called it his "first blues". In "Weave Room Blues" the author expresses his dissatisfaction with farmers who traded their vocation for the life of a mill worker.
6. Pete Seeger, Jane Sapp and Si Khan — "Bread and Roses" from the compilation "Carry it On: Songs of American Working People"
On a bitterly cold New Year's Day, 1912, textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, began a 9-week strike. The strike would have national repercussions. During one of the striker's parades, a group of young girls carried a banner with the words: "We want bread and roses too." This sign sparked James Oppenheim to write the poem, "Bread and Roses," later it was put to music by Caroline Kohlsaat, and is performed here by Pete Seeger.
7. Lee Brothers — "Cotton Mill Blues" from the compilation "Work Don't Bother Me: Old Time Songs from North Georgia" on Rounder Records
The Lee Brothers were an obscure folk trio that made their living in the industrial South. "Cotton Mill Blues" tells the dispiriting story of life in the cotton mill straight from the horse's mouth.
8. Pete Seeger — "Mill Mother's Lament" from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "American Industrial Ballads"
Gastonia, NC resident and union leader Ella May Wiggins wrote "Mill Mother's Lament". Pete Seeger performs it here. Ella May Wiggins was shot dead by anti-unionists on September 14, 1929 during the Gastonia Loray Mill Strike.
9. Natalie Merchant — "Owensboro" from the 2003 album "The House Carpenter's Daughter"
One of only a few modern songs in this collection, "Owensboro" by Natalie Merchant is a poignant and updated spin on the textile mill hardship song.
Grow up unlearned
With no time to go to school
Almost before they learn to walk
They learn to spin and spoon"
10. The Star Room Boys — "Gastonia" from the 2005 album Why Do Lonely Men And Women Want To Break Each Other's Hearts?
The Athens, Ga country band The Star Room Boys released this track in 2005. Although it is a traditional country song about lost love, the antagonist lives in Gastonia, NC, which happens to have one of the nation's richest textile histories, including the Loray Mill Strike in 1929.
11. Charlie Poole — "White House Blues" from the album "You Ain't Talkin' To Me: Charlie Poole And The Roots Of Country"
Charlie Poole is not necessarily known for textile mill protest songs like many others included here, but he is from Randolph County, NC and is credited with being a founding father of Country and Bluegrass music. Charlie Poole was also a textile mill worker who traveled and worked in many mills throughout the region. Charlie Poole died in 1931 of alcoholism.
12. The Chieftains with Sinead O'Connor — "Factory Girl" from the album "Tears of Stone"
Sinead O'Connor sings with the Chieftains on this traditional and melancholy song. In the 1800s, many young women worked in American textile mills. Working conditions and pay were deplorable, but Mill owners ran dormitories with strict rules, which helped the recruitment effort since parents were not apt to let their daughters leave home without such oversight.
13. Pete Seeger — "Hard Times In The Mill" from the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "American Industrial Ballads"
Living legend Pete Seeger is now 86 years old; both of his parents were faculty members of the famous Julliard music school. He was an assistant in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and has penned or revived many great songs that speak to the plight of the American worker. "Hard Times in the Mill" is specific to the Textile worker.
14. Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley — "The Old Man at the Mill" from the album Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962
North Carolina's own Doc Watson is considered a living American Folk Music legend. On this track Watson, who is blind since birth, teams up with banjo picker Clarence Ashley who worked with a traveling medicine show in the south from 1911 to 1943.
15. Malvina Reynolds — "Carolina Cotton Mill Song" from the Smithsonian Folkways album "Ear To The Ground"
Born into a socialist family in 1905, Malvina Reynolds was an activist singer-songwriter up until her death at age 75 in 1980. "Carolina Cotton Mill Song" is a scathing rebuke that points the finger at textile companies for the brown lung (Byssinosis), which is a disease caused by inhaling cotton, flax, hemp, or jute fibers.
16. Pete Seeger - "We Shall Not Be Moved" from the album "Carry It On: Songs Of American Working People"
"We Shall Not Be Moved" is most closely associated with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. What most people don't know is that the song was originally penned in the 1920s by striking African-American textile workers in North Carolina. The song has since been tweaked to fit a variety of causes.
17. Peter, Paul and Mary — "Weave Me The Sunshine" from the album "Around The Campfire"
I thought this track would be the perfect ending for the playlist since it uses a "weaving" metaphor, fits in with the folk-heavy theme and has an optimistic tone for the future.
Weave me the hope of a new tomorrow,
And fill my cup again.
Weave, weave, weave me the sunshine
Out of the falling rain.
Weave me the hope of a new tomorrow,
And fill my cup again."