The industrial revolution, which started in England in the late 1700s, was responsible for a great increase in the overall standard of living, but at the expense of the people who had to work in the mills and factories. Dangerous and miserable working conditions, maltreatment, and the use of child labor produced a lot of protest songs. For some examples, see previous Old Songs articles Factory Girl (March 2001) and Hard Times in the Mill (July 2006). Or listen to Mike Seeger's Tipple, Loom, and Rail (Folkways LP FH 5273, 1966, available as a CD from Smithsonian-Folkways).
This song is different. Instead of protesting working conditions, it tells of the loss of the only local source of employment: the town's steel rolling mills. They won't be rebuilt. The chorus provides the backdrop of economic disaster, enhanced by three desperate verses about personal emotional loss: domestic conflict, suicidal despondency, and infidelity (the pain is due to pregnancy).
The only known source for this song is from George Landers (1886 - 1969) of Marshall, NC, who recorded it in 1965 for John Cohen (High Atmosphere, Rounder LP 0028, 1975, re-released as a CD). Landers played the banjo and sang the song with some idiosyncratic vocal decoration and timing. I started singing it, and the Brandy Snifters worked it into a string band piece. We recorded it in 1985 for the Marimac cassette, Going Nowhere Fast (re-released on Lak-O-Tone CD). Recently, some other string bands have performed this song, correctly crediting Landers as the source; but I claim that we were a secondary source: we showed that it could be done as a string band piece with harmony vocal.
Rolling Mills is the second time I've experienced the thrill of being imitated. One morning many years ago, the clock-radio came on just in time to hear Garrison Keillor (who then had a morning DJ program on KSJN) playing Hallelujah To The Lamb, which Uncle Willie & The Brandy Snifters had recorded in the mid-1960s for Elektra's String Band Project LP (out of print). It sounded almost, but not quite, like us, so I was puzzled until Garrison came on and announced it was sung by the Double Decker String Band.
The next time you hear a memorable arrangement of an interesting song, imitate it. Imitation, after all, is critically important to the way traditional music is spread around and passed on to the next generation.
1. Oh darling, oh darling, I'm here
'Cause I can't stand to see you cry;
The best of friends must fall out and fight,
And why not you and I?
Them rolling mills are burning down, plumb down;
Them rolling mills are burning down;
Them rolling mills are burning down, plumb down to the ground
And we'll never get them back anymore.
2. Oh, go get your revolver,
And come on and blow out my brain,
For I'd rather be dead and in my grave
Than to be in this trouble I'm in.
3. There's a pain in my finger, I know,
There's a pain in my toe;
There's a pain in my true love's side,
Where somebody has fooled her I know.