Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 2006)

The industrial revolution started with the British cotton mills, built to take advantage of the newly-invented machine looms. The British tried to monopolize manufacture, but Americans stole the technology and built their own mills near waterfalls in the northeastern US. When economic conditions there improved enough so that workers demanded decent conditions and pay, the mills moved to the American southeast, where recurrent bank panics and depleted soil forced farmers off the land. The southeastern mills were built by the tobacco merchants who had already amassed fortunes from the same farmers who now had to work in the mills.

The cotton mill town was the ultimate planned community. The mill owners supplied the land, houses, stores, churches, and just enough schooling so the workers could operate the machinery. All family members, including children above about age 6, had to work 70-80 hours a week, getting paid by the piece rather than by the hour. The owners determined both piecework pay and store prices. Needless to say, there was almost no spread between the two rates. If textile demand fell off, "short time" meant even less pay, leaving the workers broke or in hock to the company store.

After being picked, cotton was separated from seeds at the gin (short for "engine"), which was located near the fields. There was still plenty of cleaning required when the baled cotton arrived at the mill. After cleaning, carding straightened the fibers that were then spun into yarn to be woven into cloth. These processes took place in different rooms, or at least different parts of the mill, and different skills were required to operate each type of machinery. Nobody has ever alleged that a cotton mill was a good place to work, even discounting the long hours. Large rooms were filled with loud machinery (causing deafness), with lots of exposed moving parts. The air was full of dust and lint, causing brown lung disease. The mill workers ("lintheads") were scorned by those who held better positions in life. The company towns, labor surplus, and a tradition of violence in employer-employee relations meant that labor unions had a hard time organizing anyone, and strikes were seldom successful. The workers did, however, make up lots of songs, usually with many verses, about hard work and unfair treatment. The songs tend to have a strong rhythm, perhaps influenced by the machines, and you could sing about the boss, because he couldn't hear you over the noise.

This song was recorded as Cotton Mill Blues in Atlanta in 1930 by the Lee Brothers Trio (Brunswick 501, re-released on Hard Times in the Country, County CD 3527). It had probably been sung in the cotton mill towns for a number of decades before that, picking up floating verses like lint. This song concentrates on work in the weave room. The loom tenders were paid by the number of cuts they produced, where "cut" is an old measure for cloth length = 60 yards.

Improved economic conditions in the southern US has resulted in most of the mills closing, with the nasty work moving to India and China. I wonder what songs those workers sing?


Complete Lyrics:
Work in the cotton mill all my life,
I ain't got nothing but a Barlow knife,
REFRAIN: And it's hard times in this old mill,
It's hard times in here.

Country folks, they oughta be killed
For leaving their farms and coming to the mill. REF.

They raised their wages up a half a cent
But the poor old hands didn't know what it meant. REF.

They raised our wages up a half a cent more,
But they went up a dime at the company store. REF.

Old man Jones, taking up cloth,
Won't give you half that you take off. REF.

If it lacks one yard of being a two-cut roll
He won't give you but one to save your soul. REF.

Card room kids and the spinning room babies
Can't keep up with the weave shop ladies. REF.

Come downstairs to get a drink of water,
Along come the boss, says, "I'll dock you a quarter." REF.

"You can dock me a quarter, you can dock me a dime,
I'll go to the office and I'll get my time." REF.

Got to where now you can't show a dime,
You're running on such short time. REF.

If I ever marry, I'll marry a weaver,
And if she won't work, then I won't either. REF.

Working in the cotton mill ain't no harm,
I'd heap rather be down on the farm. REF.

See that train go around the curve,
She's loaded down with cotton mill girls. REF.

See that train go down the track,
Saying "Goodbye, boys, we'll never come back." REF.

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