Review: “Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues”
In 1929, two people were murdered in Gaston County, North Carolina during a particularly violent labor strike. One was Orville F. Aderholt, the local police chief. The seven men charged with his slaying would all eventually escape to the Soviet Union. The second victim was Ella May Wiggins, a young cotton mill spinner and songwriter (among her compositions was “The Mill Mother’s Song” which was later recorded by Pete Seeger among others). Neither Aderholt nor Wiggins are heard on Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues and that really isn’t necessary for the listener to be aware that the music contained here came from people living hard, impoverished lives where music was often the only escape.
The 24-track disc, released by Old Hat Records, is subtitled “Piedmont Textile Workers on Record, Gaston County, North Carolina 1927-1931”. This is the third release in a series for the label chronicling the pre-WWII musical legacy of North Carolina. The first release was 1999’s Music from the Lost Provinces: Old Time Stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina & Vicinity. The second was In the Pines: Tar Heel Folk Songs and Fiddle Tunes (that release is two years old, but if anybody would like to read a review of it let me know and I’ll write it). Gastonia Gallop will be followed by at least two other releases: Crazy Barn Dance: String Bands & Brother Teams on North Carolina Radio and Lumberton Wreck which will be, according to the label, “an album of artists under the management of entrepreneur James Baxter Long (including Lake Howard, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, and Sonny Terry)”. It goes without saying that Old Hat is one of the best archival labels working today, a fact best seen through their two-disc set Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926 – 1937 .
In the liner notes to Gastonia Gallop it is argued that the music contained on the disc is not so much rural folk and “hillbilly” music as it is a hybrid of those earlier traditions and the popular music of the day. Living in an industrialized southern city that was at that time one of the top producers of cotton in the United States (Gastonia alone contained 42 mills in 1926 and there was a total of 100 in the county), the residents and workers of Gastonia and the surrounding areas (the performers heard here, in other words) had access to radios and phonographs, as can easily be heard on the disc. To quote Patrick Huber’s wonderful liner notes, “The music heard on this anthology actually provides today’s listeners with a rare opportunity to eavesdrop, as it were, on the moment when rural folkways and modern lifestyles combined to create a thoroughly new American musical genre, the forerunner of today’s multi-billion-dollar global industry of country music.”
The collection opens with “Gastonia Gallop”, a ragtime-inspired guitar and harmonica instrumental performed by David McCarn. This is far from the best on the album and definitely far from McCarn’s best (as you will see) but it does have a simplistic beauty and one can easily dance to this tune. Therefore, it makes for an effective opener.
The first track from the Three ‘Baccer Tags follows. A string band song consisting of two mandolins and a guitar with a slight Tin Pan Alley feel, “Get Your Head in Here” contains fairly risqué lyrics for the era. It is a very enjoyable, fun performance that I quickly found myself humming along too.
“Gal of Mine Took My Licker from Me” represents the first track from the Carolina Twins and thus, the first time we hear from Gwin Foster, who’s masterful harmonica playing is a highlight throughout the album.He is clearly one of the best on the instrument during this, or any other, period, but he also proves to be an adept guitarist and harmony vocalist.
David McCarn is heard again on “Cotton Mill Colic” and upon listening to it for the first time my first thought was “why isn’t this guy better known?” I am not exaggerating at all when I suggest that had McCarn continued recording he would have been on the same level as Woody Guthrie. In fact he had many of the same qualities that made Woody so great, including the ability to address social issues with humor. This tune, about McCarn’s experiences in Gastonia’s cotton mills, is a perfect example of this. “I’m a-gonna starve,” he sings, “Everybody will/Cause you can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill”.
Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles follow this with “Been on the Job Too Long”, an African-American murder ballad more commonly known as “Duncan and Brady”. Wilmer Watts proves to be an amazing banjo player with a style that was a definite forerunner to bluegrass.
The second offering from the Carolina Twins is “Southern Jack” a laid-back railroad song with beautiful harmonies and, even better, Foster’s wonderful harmonica playing. It is clear from the arrangement that these two men had listened to the popular recordings of the day, yet they hold onto some of the traditions of the area as well.
David McCarn’s “Everyday Dirt” is up next and atop a finger-picked blues lick, McCarn tells the tale of a cheating wife and the subsequent events that land the husband in jail (more than once). This tune is very funny and, once again, displays a similarity to Woody Guthrie (it should be noted that it would be almost a full decade after these recordings before Woody Guthrie gained any large scale notoriety. I am using this as a point of comparison because you all should be familiar with Woody’s music.)
“Bonnie Bess” by Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles is another railroad tune, this one based on an 1893 poem. The recording possesses some excellent harmony vocals and steel guitar, possibly courtesy of Palmer Rhyne. However, as on all of the Wilmer Watts recordings found here personnel details seem to be a little murky and in fact, it is not clear who is actually singing on any of them.
“Think a Little” is a gospel tune by George Wade and Francum Braswell. Wade was a member of the Carolina ‘Baccer Tags and Braswell presents a harmonica style very similar to that of Gwin Foster. The pair harmonize amazingly well together and the song’s message is timeless: “Why must you always kick a feller when he is just about to fall?/If you do not care to help him why mention his name at all?”
“Bay Rum Blues” is a drinking song by Dave and Howard. The Dave of the duo is actually David McCarn and he actually sounds more like Jimmie Rodgers on this track than Woody Guthrie, despite a verse critical of Uncle Sam. According to the liner notes, Bay Rum was an aftershave that proved to be an affordable source of alcohol during Prohibition. McCarn sings, “When you can’t get liquor and you can’t get no gin/Don’t get disgusted for you have a chance to win/Get a long goose-neck bottle and you’ll never be sober again”.
Watts and Wilson, a duo consisting of Wilmer Watts and Frank Wilson, are up next with “Walk Right in Belmont”. It is essentially a re-write of “The Midnight Special”, but the duo gives an exceptional reading of the tune.
“Red Rose Rag” is a 1911 ragtime piece performed by Fletcher and Foster. Foster is Gwin Foster of the Carolina Twins and although he presents none of his distinctive harmonica playing here, it is nonetheless a great instrumental.
David McCarn follows this with “Poor Man, Rich Man”. The song is subtitled “Cotton Mill Colic No. 2” and indeed it contains the same melody as the first song and is also very similar thematically. “When wintertime comes, there’s hell to pay,” he says, “When you see the boss, you’ll have to say/I want a load of wood and a ton of coal/Take a dollar out a week or I’ll go in the hole”.
“She’s a Hard Boiled Rose” is a 1924 Tin Pan Alley song performed here by Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles. The decidedly pop style of the song, combined with Watts’ clawhammer banjo picking is perhaps the best example of the music on the disc being inspired by both the urban popular music of the time as well as earlier rural folk traditions that the musicians likely grew up with.
The Carolina Twins are up next with “I Want My Black Baby Back,” a tune dating back to 1898. The tune once again displays Gwin Foster’s excellent harmonica playing.
“Ain’t Gonna Do It No More” by the Three ‘Baccer Tags is a folk song more commonly known as “Creeping and Crawling”. As with their previous offering here, the song once again contains fairly risqué lyrics for the time period. Musically it is inspired by many of the “race records” of the era, but also contains instrumentation played in a style that would have been loosely classified as bluegrass a few decades later.
“Sleepy Desert” is credited to Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles, but according to the credits Watts does not appear on the record. Regardless, it is an excellent tune with an especially great performance by the steel guitarist, who again is a mystery.
“Take Them for a Ride” is easily the most blues-inspired track by David McCarn and it takes a humorous look at how the dating game had changed with the advent of the automobile.
“Charlotte Hot Step” is another great guitar and harmonica instrumental rag by Fletcher and Foster. This one shows Foster at the height of his harmonica prowess and that is indeed something that needs to be heard by all fans of roots music.
This is followed by Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles’ “Cotton Mill Blues”. With the exception of David McCarn, this is the most socially conscious track heard here. The unidentified vocalist refers to Belmont as a “lousy town” and decries the treatment of cotton mill workers.
“When We Go a-Courtin'” is the second track from the duo of George Wade and Francum Braswell. It once again showcases their beautiful harmonies and the lyrics can only be described as hilarious.
“A Change in Business All Around” is the final track here from the Carolina Twins and it is easily the hardest track to review as well. It would never go over in 2010 with lyrics like “Keep your wives out of automobiles/Make them stay at home and serve your meals”, but it is perhaps the track that bears the most resemblance to what would eventually become country music and the slow ballad contains one of the best melodies on the album. And the fact is that it was recorded in 1929, not 2010 and as such it is as much a history lesson as it is an enjoyable piece of music. It succeeds on both counts.
“Workin’ for My Sally” is a Gold Rush-era folk song performed by Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles. Once again, Watts’ banjo playing is a real highlight of the track.
The compilation ends with “Serves ’em Fine” by Dave and Howard. A kazoo is prominent on the track and the melody is once again very similar to “Cotton Mill Colic”. The lyrics present David McCarn at his most bitter, blaming the cotton mill workers themselves this time and not the bosses. “If we had any sense up in our dome,” he sings, “then we’d still be living in our mountain home/It serves us people right, serves us fine/For thinking that a mill was a darn goldmine”.
This release presents the music of one region of one state and it is amazing how much great music came from that particular area. All of the performers here are above average, even for that era. But most importantly it presents two performers in particular as among the best in the history of roots music: Gwin Foster, with his haunting harmonica, and David McCarn who was, in a sense, the Phil Ochs of his generation, often overlooked, but rarely equaled.