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GASTONIA GALLOP: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues

Piedmont Textile Workers On Record
Gaston County, North Carolina 1927–1931
Old Hat CD-1007

Reviewed by Joe DePriest / The Charlotte Observer / December 7, 2009

Songs Born in Tough Times and Raised on the Rhythm of Spindles

New “Gastonia Gallop” CD highlights the music that helped textile towns get through the Depression.

In the early days of the Great Depression, they sang about hard times in textile plants and good times in mill villages.

The records they made in such places as Memphis, New York and Chicago had titles like "Gastonia Gallop," "Walk Right in Belmont" and "Charlotte Hot Step."

Most of the musicians worked in Gaston County mills and played on the side, never making much money and sliding into obscurity.

A new CD anthology - "Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mills Songs & Hillbilly Blues" - reintroduces the work of unsung musicians like Gwin Foster, Wilmer Watts & the Lonely Eagles and David McCarn - the Woody Guthrie of textiles.

The collection is the first CD celebrating the artistry of Gaston's largely forgotten music scene - a hillbilly Jazz Age that laid the foundation for modern country music.

"It sounds like the musicians were sitting right next to you in the barbershop while you're getting a haircut," said Tom Hanchett, historian at Charlotte's Levine Museum of the New South. "This is not commercial music. There's nothing slick about it. It's neighbors playing for neighbors."

Marshall Wyatt with Raleigh-based Old Hat Records, which released "Gastonia Gallop," said the voices from the past "tell stories and record lives, both the good and the bad sides."

The musicians were the first generation off the farm, many leaving the mountains of Western North Carolina for steady jobs in Gaston's textile plants. By 1926, the county had 100 mills, 42 in Gastonia. The city's Loray Mill was the largest cotton mill in the South.

In Gaston's working-class neighborhoods, fresh arrivals "found a new kind of lifestyle," Wyatt said. "They were less isolated and were introduced to a broader spectrum of society."

The millworker musicians loved old-time tunes from the hills, but they embraced a wider range of music that included blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley.

"It was almost cutting-edge in its day," Wyatt said.

"Cotton Mill Colic"

"Gastonia Gallop" has two 1931 recordings made in Charlotte by a group called the Three 'Baccer Tags.

According to Patrick Huber, who co-wrote the album's liner notes with Wyatt, the group made up of George Wade, Luther Baucom and Reid Summey was the most extensively recorded Gaston string band before World War II.

The band's name came from a comment that if their records didn't sell they'd be discarded like "the tin tag on plugs of tobacco."

"The 'Baccer Tags were professional musicians," said Huber, author of "Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South." "They were able to get through the Great Depression performing on radio, utilizing radio to get live performances. Stage shows were where the real money was."

When McCarn wasn't working in cotton mills, he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains from coast to coast. A self-taught musician, he wrote songs with biting lyrics like "Cotton Mill Colic," which criticized mill owners for failing to pay workers a living wage; it became a classic protest song during the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s. Dust-Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, also a Depression-era hobo, called it one of his favorites. McCarn died in 1964.

In today's economic crisis, Huber said McCarn's songs speak to a new generation unable to share in America's bounty.

"McCarn's humor makes his message all the more powerful," said Huber, who teaches history at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo. "He was very creative and witty. But he was plagued by alcoholism and anti-social tendencies."

"A learning tool"

Helen McCarn Wertz remembers her father as a rambler who neglected his family. "He wasn't much of a daddy," said Wertz, 74, of Bedford County, Va., "He liked his booze and the women."

Still, she's glad that some of his musical legacy is preserved in the new anthology.

McCarn's "Cotton Mill Colic" lives on in Gaston County through performances by Bob Bigger, who sings for schools, churches and other groups.

"That song is beautiful as a learning tool," said Bigger, a former mill worker. "With a mixture of the bittersweet and the humorous, it shows people the conditions workers had to tolerate. I'm proud Dave was from Gaston County."