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This Day (Cotton Mill Colic Edition)


Seeking higher wages and more autonomy, on this day in 1930 workers at the Dan River Cotton Mills joined the United Textile Workers of America in walking out on strike. After four months, the strikers returned to work, partly because the union ran out of funds to feed them.
I knew this much going in. But I didn’t know about Dave McCarn and the “Cotton Mill Colic.” It’s not in our entry, but here’s the story: McCarn was a mill worker from North Carolina who, in May 1930, recorded his song in Memphis.

McCarn probably never intended to make a serious social statement. He was, as the song’s title indicates, “colicking,” or merely grousing.  Nonetheless, the song struck a chord with hard-hit millhands in the midst of massive layoffs and stepped-up work rhythms in the Piedmont South’s ailing textile industry. McCarn’s song fostered, even as it was inspired by, the stirrings of class consciousness that exploded between 1929 and 1931 in one of the largest waves of textile strikes to ever engulf the Piedmont South.

You can listen to the song here using Windows Media or here using QuickTime. It’s funny and dark and eminently hummable:

I’m a-gonna starve, everybody will
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill

And that’s the thing: there’s nothing more dangerous for the powers-that-be than a dark, funny, hummable song that also raises awareness about injustice. Soon people in Danville started humming along, too—and that’s when the trouble started. Doug DeNatale and Glenn Hinston explain:

Seeing the commercial possibilities of the song during the strike, Luther B. Clarke, a Danville record store owner who had previously arranged recording sessions for several mill worker musicians, promoted the record through his store and arranged to have it played on a local radio station. Strikers then took up the song as an appropriate expression of their grievances.

Tom Tippett was a labor organizer from New York, and in January 1931 he attended a United Textile Workers rally in a Danville house rented from the Ku Klux Klan. There “a small boy, not yet in his teens, sang a solo accompanying himself with a guitar swung from his shoulder. It was called ‘Cotton Mill Colic’ and accurately portrayed in a comic vein the economics of the textile industry, as well as the tragedy of cotton mill folk …”
Not surprisingly, H. R. Fitzgerald, the president of Dan River Mills, tried to have the song suppressed, arguing (perhaps not persuasively) that “it was degrading to cotton mill work.” One Danville musician said he couldn’t recall “exactly what happened, but they quit playing it anyway, didn’t broadcast it no more.”
And so the strike ended …
IMAGE: A group of young spinners and doffers gathers for a portrait by photographer Lewis Hine at the Riverside Cotton Mills in Danville in June 1911 (Library of Congress)

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