BERMUDA RUN — The mountains of northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia were the epicenters of string music but the echoes of banjos, fiddles and guitars had reach beyond the hollers, reverberating through the textile mills and shotgun shacks of the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmont.
The music made in mill towns such as Spray and East Rockingham in North Carolina and Danville and Fieldale in Virginia was the topic of an all-day conference last week at WinMock at Kinderton in Bermuda Run. The program was part of the Come Hear NC campaign developed by the N.C. Arts Council and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources that puts a spotlight on the state’s rich musical heritage and musicians throughout 2019. The Blue Ridge Music Center sponsored the event, part of its ongoing effort to spread the music of the mountains into the foothills and Piedmont.
Carolyn Ward is the chief executive of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which operates the music center.
“Our original mission at the Blue Ridge Music Center is to educate and preserve the cultural history of the parkway. We’re taking the music center off the mountain,” she said. “This takes that educational piece and puts it on the road.”
The day’s guests included Patrick Huber, author of “Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South”; Kinney Rorrer, who has written extensively on old-time legend Charlie Poole; musicologist Hunter Holmes; and musicians Tony Williamson and Laurelyn Dossett. Wiley Cash, the author of “The Last Ballad,” gave the keynote address.
Huber, a professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science & Technology, talked about how mill workers folded the world around them into their lyrics. As an example, he talked about the song “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” by Dorsey Dixon, who worked in a mill in East Rockingham, and was one half of the Dixon Brothers.
The song was later renamed “Wreck on the Highway” and became a hit for Roy Acuff (Bruce Springsteen also had a song called “Wreck on the Highway,” inspired by Acuff and Dixon).
In the song, Dixon casts a wary eye toward the automobile, a sentiment that was shared by many conservative Christians of the time.
The lyrics talk about people flocking to the scene of a horrific car wreck, drawn to the wreckage and blood.
“There was whiskey and blood all together/mixed with glass where they lay/death played her hand in destruction/but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”
Huber juxtaposed that song with a song by another mill-based band, Three Tobacco Tags, who met in the mills of Gastonia. Their song, “How Can I Keep My Mind on Driving?” had a different take on the automobile experience, with lyrics about a couple getting frisky in the front seat.
“Textile mill workers are presented as homogeneous people,” Huber said. “They were very eclectic in many respects, and we can hear that in their songs.”
Rorrer, who taught history at Ferrum College in Virginia for years, called the music made by mill workers as “Millbilly music.”
He painted a fascinating picture of mill life in the 1930s, revealing the weekly wages of someone who worked at the Spray Cotton Mill in 1931. The weekly wages ranged from $8.70 to $15.25.
Rorrer, whose uncle, Posey, played fiddle in Poole’s band, worked in a mill in the 1960s. He recalled the noise and heat inside the weaving room.
“Charlie had a choice, working in the spinning room or picking his banjo and singing. Which one would you do?” Rorrer said.
Textile mills offered attractive jobs for hard-scrabble mountaineers. They fled the hills for the mill towns, carrying with them their instruments and love of music.
“They had to find a source to relieve their tension,” Rorrer said.
Mills often offered music lessons for their workers, hiring accomplished musicians to serve as teachers.
Poole is probably the most famous of the textile troubadours. He worked at a cotton mill in Spray (now Eden) but quit as soon as he could to pursue music. He recorded several songs for Columbia Records in New York and popularized a three-finger style of banjo playing.
Richard Emmett, the director of the Blue Ridge Music Center, said it’s important to tell the stories of people like Poole, who recorded years before the Bristol, Va., sessions in 1927, which are often called the “Big Bang” that launched country music.