Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber (University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 440 pages, $35.99/19.99) tells the story of how workers in cotton mills and other industrial settings in the Piedmont were essential to the development of what we know as country and bluegrass music just after World War II. Focusing on the lives of four seminal mill hands during the 1920's and 1930's, Linthead Stomp argues persuasively that without the intermediary insertion of the factory experience, country and bluegrass music could not have developed. The legend says that the music grew and developed on the back porches and parlors of farms in the mountains of Appalachia. This myth has been ably reinforced by the heavy emphasis upon the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers important recordings during the 1927 Bristol sessions held by Ralph Peer of the Victor Recording Company, whose newspaper advertisements invited country musicians to come make recordings, many of which soon became "Hillbilly" hits. This book emphasizes that Peer also made field recordings at sessions in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham which featured many old-time musicians whose skills had been developed in the environment of the mill villages surrounding textile mills in that region.
In his priceless introduction, Huber develops the ideas surrounding the upwelling of musical expression in which men and women migrating to the industrializing South after post Civil War reconstruction were housed in mill villages, employed in the menial drudgery of factory work, and paid near starvation wages which were still better than what the way they were able to live on their subsistence farms back in the mountains and on marginal farms. These workers were exposed to a range of musical influences previously unavailable to them which included radio, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and African-American Piedmont blues, jazz, and the popular music of Tin Pan Alley. Even in the rigidly segregated society of this time, the songs of Appalachia, many handed down for generations from their English, Scottish, and Irish origins, were able to merge and be influenced by a broad cultural mix. Many of the mills provided educational programs, particularly in home-making skills, athletics, and music, which served to provide recreation for the mill hands, largely in order to forestall labor unrest and discourage organized labor from becoming influential in the South during the post WW I era. The availability of cheap, factory made instruments was also crucial in this development. Using four emergent musicians as representatives of this influence, Huber concentrates on biographical portraits of Fiddlin' John Carson, Charlie Poole, Dave McCarn, and Dorsey Dixon, each of whose contributions were significant while representing different strains that found their voice as country music and its offshoot, bluegrass, developed and dominated.
Fiddlin John Carson (1868 - 1949) was an old-time country fiddler who portrayed himself as a Hillbilly from the north Georgia mountain environment of moonshine liquor was born in Fannin County on the Tennessee border, lived most of his life in and around Atlanta, where he worked in a succession of cotton mills in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He performed in and around Atlanta, at regional and national fiddler's conventions, at political and KKK rallies. His song "Little Mary Phagan" son inflamed protesters that a black worker was wrongfully convicted of murder. Later in his life, he became a strong supporter of Governor Herman Talmadge, often playing at his election rallies. Huber discusses at some length whether Carson was simply a vicious racist or, a more nuanced view, an opportunistic music professional who played where he could make money, i.e. a union rally supporting a black worker and wherever else he and his daughter and touring partner Rosa Lee Carson (Moonshine Kate) could get work.
Charlie Poole (1892 - 1931) spent most of his short, alcohol soaked life seeking to avoid working in the cotton mills. Born in the northern Piedmont of North Carolina near Eden, Poole lived most of his life in the mill village of Spray, now incorporated into Eden. Poole recorded and traveled with the aptly named North Carolina Ramblers. Sammy Shelor once told me that his grandfather had had a mill, and "where there was a mill, there was a still, and where there was a still, Charlie Poole could often be found." Poole taught Shelor's grandfather to play the banjo, and Sammy learned from him. Poole was strongly influenced early ragtime banjo player Fred van Eps who experimented with an early three finger style. Though frequently drunk and often in jail, Poole, as a performer was a disciplined student of music who always performed in a suit and tie with his trio. The revolutionary three finger rolling style made famous by Earl Scruggs (a later refugee from the textile mills) can be directly traced to Poole's work and recordings.