I was reflecting on this crazy year recently, and feeling grateful for our Elizabeth Cotten event earlier in November, a heartwarming hour amid all the noise of the previous few months that was fun to share and experience with all who tuned in.
In case you missed it, the full event is available to stream below from the UNC Libraries YouTube channel.
Cotten’s great-grandson John Evans, Jr. and his family, along with Yasmin Williams, bookended the event with performances that recalled the origins of Cotten’s music, along with how it continues to inspire contemporary musicians.
There was also a glimpse and mention of Dick Waterman in Gerrard’s slideshow, and the SFC holds the Dick Waterman Photography Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20533/), a rich resource of photographs documenting the blues, country, and rock music scenes from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
The Elizabeth Cotten appearance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show that opened the event can be found here a little more smoothly than the video capture over Zoom. The SFC has the original 2″ quad video of that show in the Pete Kuykendall Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20546/).
This hour-long virtual program will feature guitarist Yasmin Williams, musician and scholar Alice Gerrard, and Cotten’s great-grandson John W. Evans Jr., who is pictured above as a young boy listening to Cotten.
Many live concert recordings are held in the McCabe’s Guitar Shop Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20511/), which also includes a video interview, from around 1984, of Cotten and some of her family. The Grammy-award winning Elizabeth Cotten, Live! recording (pictured above), a sampler of live performances from Cotten in her 80s, includes selections from sets recorded at McCabe’s and preserved in the collection.
The Stefan Grossman Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20578/), picked up in December 2019, also offers some classic Cotten material through his Vestapol label, a deep source of a variety of video recordings of jazz, blues, country, and folk artists.
Perhaps the richest source of Cotten material is held in the Mike Seeger Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20009/). It was while in employment as a housekeeper for the Seeger family that Cotten picked up a guitar again after a period of musical inactivity, and Mike Seeger’s reel-to-reel recordings of her playing propelled her to becoming a popular figure on the folk circuit, and a touring and performing career that lasted into her 90s.
And if you ever find yourself down our way in Elizabeth Cotten’s hometown, check out this recently installed mural by North Carolina artist Scott Nurkin, near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro border, as part of the Musician Murals Project.
We are happy to invite you to the second of our two virtual first-ever screenings of these films made possible by the grant, Tuesday, October 6th, at 7pm. To view A.R. Cole, Potter, 1969, by Terry W. Rushin (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20402/), click the link below to register and join us for this wonderful short film covering a day in the life of ceramicist A.R. Cole and his family’s multi-generational pottery shop in Sanford, NC.
UNC student and frequent Field Trip South contributor, Hunter Randolph, will be presenting a short film he made, “Stories in the Clay: The Pottery & Poetry of Neolia Cole Womack,” and discussing the eastern Piedmont’s pottery traditions.
Revisit Anne’s excellent post about the grant award below.
Directed by Kenny Dalsheimer, You Gave Me A Song (http://www.alicegerrardfilm.com/) “offers an intimate portrait of old-time music pioneer Alice Gerrard and her remarkable, unpredictable journey creating and preserving traditional music.”
Check your local member stations for when it might air in your area, but North Carolina’s UNC-TV will air it in the coming days over its various stations:
Reel South – You Gave Me A Song
Thursday, May 14, 10:00 pm – UNC-TV
Friday, May 15, 04:00 am – North Carolina Channel
Sunday, May 17, 10:00 pm – North Carolina Channel
Explore a few of the SFC’s resources featured in the film and related to Alice Gerrard below:
Welcome back to Field Trip South. This period of isolation is a great time for recollections of a couple of our own recent field trips—my first collection pickups as Collection Assistant with the SFC. It might help during this time to remember ventures outside and connections with people, the history we all share, and the community that shared history creates.
Bobby Patterson (#20574) connected people for years from his hub in the Coal Creek Community near Galax, Virginia, as a musician, producer, and documenter of the old time mountain music of the region, operating Mountain Records with Kyle Creed before building his own studio and starting his Heritage Records label.
As another SFC connection Paul Brown (#20382) mentions in his excellent celebration of Patterson’s life and work here (Across the Blue Ridge – episode 95), many of the musicians recorded on both the Mountain and Heritage labels would not have been heard without Patterson’s dedication to recording and preserving this culture. Patterson could also pick a bit himself, accompanying on a variety of instruments with a number of collaborators like Kyle Creed and the Camp Creek Boys, the Highlanders, Tommy Jarrell, and Fred Cockerham. He later played regularly alongside his long-time musical partner Willard Gayheart, who offers his own recollections in the episode, which highlights not only Patterson’s playing, but a number of sessions recorded by him for the labels, and his documentation of performances at festivals and conventions throughout the region.
In 1987, Patterson was instrumental in launching the Old Time Herald(#20067) with founder and editor Alice Gerrard (#20006), a magazine that celebrates traditional music and dance, particularly in the southeastern United States, which still operates out of Durham.
SFC Curator Steve Weiss, AV Archivist Anne Wells, and I traveled to Galax in early Fall 2019 to pick up Patterson’s collection from the studio he built next to his home just outside Galax. Our local guides Kilby Spencer and Mark Sanderford, without whom we would have struggled to navigate through this pickup, provided context to the collection and pointed out recordings and musicians that could be of particular significance. Steve and Anne assessed the condition of the different formats and began the organization process. I helped them pack, tote, and haul, and learned a great deal.
It was a rewarding and satisfying experience to work with these colleagues and friends, reminding me why we do what we do, and reinforcing the importance of this work, preserving not only the physical materials but the spirit they capture. We would also like to thank Kelley Breiding, and—most of all—Janice Patterson, for their support of this project.
Below is a guest post from Phillip MacDonald (pictured below), who is going into his second year at UNC’s School of Information Science’s Master of Science in Library Science (SILS) program. Before attending SILS, Phillip received a masters in Folklore at the UNC and started his interest in archives and special collection by working on the Frank Clyde Brown’s field recordings at Duke Libraries. After graduation, Phillip hopes to work in archives and special collections. Over this past summer, Phillip helped process over 1,000 videotapes found in SFC’s Highlander Research and Education Center Collection(#20361) for his program’s field experience. At SILS, students can gain professional practice in an information organization for class credit. Phillip hoped to specifically work with audiovisual in an archival setting for his field experience and found working at SFC over the summer as “an ideal place to do so.”
The Southern Folklife Collection has been housing analog audio discs from the Highlander Research and Education Center since the early 2000s. These materials include acetate discs and transcription discs of radio programs, recorded songs, and voices of leaders from the civil rights movement, including Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Miles Horton, and Zilphia Horton. Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the research interests of past Wilson research fellow, Genevieve Hay, many of the acetate discs are accessible and streaming on the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361) finding aid.
In 1971 the Highlander Folk School was re-chartered as the Highlander Research and Education Center. Before the name change, Highlander was best known as an institution for working towards labor union mobilization and Citizenship Schools to help African Americans gain access to voting before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Highlander Folk School also contributed to music’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In the years after the renaming, the center continued to focus on labor organizing. In Appalachia, the center focused on the anti-strip mining and worker safety. On a global scale, Highlander worked on environmental and labor issues around the world. A vast amount of these efforts is documented in the new addition of Highlander Research and Education Center videos.
In March of this year, arsonists set the center’s main office building ablaze. The center later announced on their Facebook page that they found a symbol associated with the white power movement in the parking lot next to the rubble of the building. Soon after the fire, the center contacted Steve Weiss, SFC’s curator, to pick up more audiovisual materials as soon as possible. Weiss and former SFC Assistant, Aaron Smithers, arrived the next day.
This new addition to the Highlander’s collection consists of over 1,000 items, including 16mm films and various analog audio and video formats, but the bulk of the incoming items were videos used at the center’s library. The video addition contains materials that speak to the center’s labor support efforts through workshops and conferences on the Bhopal disaster, North Carolina farmworkers, environmental health, furniture workers, women’s health and safety, community-based economic development, and many more.
In regards to the center’s efforts on labor and social justice organizing throughout Latin America, the addition contains numerous Spanish and bilingual materials dealing with Chiapas textiles, political unrest, higher wages, the Aguas Blancas massacre, and more. Additionally, this video collection documents the Highlander Research and Education Center’s history- containing raw and edited footage of the center’s numerous workshops, their 50th and 75th-anniversary celebrations, interviews with Myles Horton, and his memorial.
This addition also represents numerous video formats. The most ubiquitous video format is probably VHS, which is here in abundance, but the addition also contains U-Matic, U-Matic SP, DVCAM, and 1/2 inch open reel video. This variety of video formats document how long the Highlander Center has been creating media. Overall this collection contains a plethora of information on social justice and labor organizing from the latter half of the twentieth century.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ THANK YOU Phillip for your many contributions in processing the videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection – your passion and hard work will undoubtedly aid researchers for years to come. And a special shout out to AV Assistant, Melanie Meents, who also assisted with the project. She’s currently hard at work processing additional audio and film elements found in the collection. Both Phillip and Melanie’s inventories of AV materials will soon be live on the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361) finding aid – stay tuned!
The first film (Jarrell and Cockerham, 1971, by Blanton Owen) captures footage of legendary old-time fiddler and banjo players, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, both of Surry County, NC, while the second film (A.R. Cole, Potter, 1969, by Terry W. Rushin) looks at the traditional ceramist and potter, A. R. Cole, and his family’s multi-generational pottery shop in the eastern Piedmont region of the state. The NFPF grant will support the production of new 16mm preservation prints and digital access copies of both films.
Both films present their local subjects directly and honestly, giving them the space to share their own stories, songs, and art, which they express through traditional creative practice. Both documentary projects also present exciting research opportunities, not just for folklorists, scholars, and students, but also for artists, musicians, filmmakers, and our region at large. The films complement and connect closely to other Wilson Special Collections Library materials, particularly those held by the Southern Folklife Collection- an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South.
The National Film Preservation Foundation is a nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. The Foundation supports activities nationwide to help organizations and institutions preserve American films and improve film access for study, education, and exhibition.
The grant-writing process was a cross-departmental effort at Wilson Library. Thanks to Anne Wells (that’s me, hi!) and Jackie Dean of Special Collection Technical Services; Steve Weiss, Erica Titkemeyer, Hunter Randolph, and Andrew Crook of the Southern Folklife Collection; and Aaron Smithers of Special Collections Research & Instructional Services.
We’ll be sure to keep you posted as the grant process proceeds. Please read on below to learn more about both films – their subjects and makers.
Jarrell and Cockerham (1971, by Blanton Owen, found in the in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027)
Back in the summer of 1970 Blanton Owen (1945-1998) traveled to Surry County in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains to document old-time musicians, Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985) and Fred Cockerham (1905-1980). Blanton was a folklorist, musician, and photographer. He studied folklore at Indiana University and for nearly three decades engaged in the documentation of folklore and music in Appalachia, other regions of the South, and in the West.
The outcome of Blanton Owen’s 1970 documentary project on Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham resulted in close to thirty image and sound elements, including an edited workprint (F-20027/10) and a corresponding 16mm magnetic soundtrack (F-20027/9) created by Owen (if you frequent this site, you might remember Aaron Smithers’ post about these film elements back in spring 2016) – all of these elements are found in the Blanton Owen Collection #20027. Sadly, Owen never made or released a final composite print from his edited workprint and soundtrack (pictured below). The NFPF grant presents an exciting opportunity to merge the images and sounds created by Owen almost a half century ago, making this footage accessible to the public for the first time.
Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham played their instruments in the Round Peak music traditions of Surry County. During the folk revival movement of the 1960s and 1970s, this regional style of playing gained popularity with outside audiences. Folklorists and old-time enthusiasts and musicians would flock to the region to hear and learn from Jarrell, Cockerham, and others, including Kyle Creed and Sydna Myers. Some of these visitors, like Blanton Owen, Alice Gerrard, Cece Conway, Les Blank, and Mike Seeger, would come to the region not just to listen and play, but also to document and record images and sound of these local musicians.
Fred Cockerham made a living playing the fiddle and banjo, performing on radio broadcasts and for medicine shows across the state. Cockerham was a member of The Camp Creek Boys, an old-time string from Surry County that was active from the 1930s-1960s. Banjo player, instrument maker, and Surry county native, Kyle Creed, was also part of this group. In the footage captured by Owen, we see Cockerham playing Kyle Creed’s handmade banjo with gold-flecked Formica fretboard – a banjo that is now housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Owen’s footage captures distinct personalities as well as the chemistry between Cockerham and Jarrell, who had that time had been playing together for many years. As folklorist and musician David Holt points out, “while Tommy Jarrell was outgoing and never met a stranger, Fred was more reserved and circumspect. But when he let loose on the fiddle or clawhammer banjo there was no one any better.”
Tommy Jarrell learned to play the banjo when he was just eight years old, learning most of his tunes before the influence of commercial recordings and radio broadcasts. As Cecelia Conway points out, “In addition to being a remarkable musician, Tommy was a singular vocalist with a powerful style; his repertory included many unusual fiddle and banjo songs, ballads, and Primitive Baptist hymns. An exceptional storyteller, he related family reminiscences and regional lore with a fine wit and was an inspired performer and transmitter of regional styles and repertory. To his last days he continued to add imaginative and subtle variations to his stories and tunes” . Jarrell dedicated himself to music after his retirement, gaining notoriety later in life by participating in fiddlers’ conventions and festivals across the United States. Almost a decade after Owen captured these two musicians playing together, Jarrell would receive the National Endowment for the Art’s National Heritage Fellow award in 1982. And a year later, Alice Gerrard, Cece Conway, and Les Blank would premiere, Sprout Wings and Fly, a short documentary film about Jarrell, at the Chicago International Film Festival (if you’re curious, we recommend checking out our post on Sprout Wings and Fly materials in the Alice Gerrard Collection).
I’ll end this section with a lovely photograph found in the J. Scott Odell folk music collection at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It was taken in 1966 by musical instrument conservator and researcher of American music traditions, J. Scott Odell. I love how similar the scenes are between the film stills of Blanton Owen’s 1970 documentary project and Odell’s photograph – it’s like they’ve just been playing for four years straight on Cockerham’s front porch. I wonder if the geraniums are the same?
A.R. Cole, Potter(1969, by Terry W. Rushin, found in the the Terry W. Rushin Documentary on A. R. Cole #20402)
As the title suggests, this documentary film looks at the artistic practice and pottery shop of Arthur Ray “A. R.” Cole, whose family has worked in the ceramic arts in the eastern Piedmont for more than three generations. Filmmaker, Terry Wayne Rushin (1945-2012), made the film while he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he took film courses under Professor Earl Wynn in the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures.
The Southern Folklife Collection’s Terry W. Rushin Documentary on A. R. Cole #20402 contains a unique 16mm black and white composite print of the film. Terry W. Rushin shot the film entirely at A. R. Cole’s pottery shop in Sanford, North Carolina in the Seagrove area of the eastern Piedmont, one of three regions in the state known for its pottery production, with Catawba Valley and Buncombe County being the others. The film includes footage of A. R. Cole grinding clay and throwing a pot on the wheel, as well as scenes of A. R. Cole’s daughters, Celia and Neolia, making their own pottery and preparing orders for the shop.
North Carolina has a rich pottery tradition that reaches back centuries. As David M. Egner notes, archaeologists have documented nearly complete pots crafted by Cherokee and other indigenous makers that date from the early 1500s. After Europeans colonized the region in the eighteenth century, folk potters adapted techniques from their native England, Germany, and elsewhere. These potters took local clay, glazed their pieces with lead, wood ash, or salt, and fired them in wooden kilns to produce functional vessels for daily use. Through the nineteenth century, although functional use of folk pottery declined, the state’s potters continued to practice and refine their craft, passing it to subsequent generations. In time, folklorists, collectors, tourists, and others came to appreciate the distinctive forms of North Carolina pottery as artistic expressions .
A. R. Cole and his family are embedded in this statewide tradition. According to the News & Observer, the first Cole potter moved to North Carolina from Staffordshire, England, in the 1750s. The Coles settled by the rich clay beds of Seagrove, 75 miles west of Raleigh, and have been turning and firing pots ever since. They helped make the Piedmont into one of America’s centers for traditional, handmade pottery .
A. R. Cole was born 1890 in Asheboro and moved to Sanford in the mid-1930s to open his own pottery shop, A. R. Cole Pottery, to cater to tourists traveling alongside the busy Route 1. Terry W. Rushin’s film mostly depicts a day in the life of A. R. Cole, but we also see the traditions being passed down and practiced by Cole’s daughters, Celia and Neolia. Their voice-over provides essential family history and context from which to understand their family’s ties to the region’s ceramic arts. After A. R.’s death in 1974, Celia and Neolia took over the operation with grandson, Kenneth George, and renamed the shop, Cole Pottery. In 2003, Neolia Cole Womack received a North Carolina Heritage Award. Sadly, the shop closed ten years later, followed by Neolia’s death in 2016.
I’d like to end this post with a short film by UNC student and frequent Field Trip South contributor, Hunter Randolph, who was a tremendous help during the grant writing process. Hunter grew up in Sanford, where he and his family have close ties to the Cole Pottery shop and the local Railroad House Historical Association. Hunter’s film, Stories in the Clay: The Pottery and Poetry of Neolia Cole Womack, showcases the work and inscriptions of A. R. Cole’s daughter, Neolia Cole Womack, weaving together original footage of her pottery, video footage shot by Hunter’s father, Jimmy Randolph, and clips of a previously digitized version of Terry W. Rushin’s A.R. Cole, Potter.
“First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.
June Appal Recordings was founded to release traditional and contemporary mountain music, recorded by and for the people of the Southern mountains near their Whitesburg, Kentucky home. At the time, it would have been difficult to find a more complete embodiment of that mission than Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens. Nimrod Workman had been a mine worker, singer, and union activist in the mountains of West Virginia for over six decades by the time June Appal Recordings was created in 1974. Phyllis Boyens, Nimrod’s daughter, had been raised in that culturally rich environment and quickly took to the musical and activist inclinations of her parents and grandparents. Passing Thru The Garden marked the recorded debut of June Appal, Nimrod and Phyllis, the first example of the cross-generational efforts that would come to define June Appal as a label. Most of the songs on Passing Thru The Garden are credited as arranged by Nimrod Workman, and most are sung unaccompanied by instrumentation. Nimrod and Phyllis take many of the songs alone, while joining voices on others. Listen to excerpts of two tracks from the album, and read on below.
Here is an excerpt from Track 1, “I Am a Traveling Creature,” featuring both Nimrod and Phyllis:
Also listen to a clip from Track 10, “Oh Death,” featuring Phyllis Boyens with some spare instrumentation:
Born in 1895 in Inez, Kentucky, Nimrod Workman moved to West Virginia to work in a coal mine at the age of 14. For the next 42 years, Workman continued to mine coal, until black lung and other injuries forced him to retire. He was an active union member and activist for worker’s rights from the early years of his career, but he became most well known later in life as a singer of unaccompanied ballads. Nimrod Workman was already 79 in 1974, the year his first album, Passing Thru The Garden, was released. While he was an active performer for the rest of his life, he recorded only one more album, Mother Jones’ Will, for Rounder Records in 1978. Workman continued to be associated with his career as a coal miner, frequently singing coal mining songs and contributing to different coal mining-related projects. He recorded several songs for Come All You Coal Miners, a collection of coal mining songs also produced by Rounder Records, and he appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.
His appearance in the acclaimed documentary, which followed the “Brookside Strike,” translated into a brief appearance in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. In the film, Nimrod leads a group of mourners at a funeral in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The recording appears on the soundtrack to the movie, and Nimrod can be heard calling out each line before the rest of the crowd joins in. Listen to a brief clip from the song below:
At first glance, Workman’s appearance always seemed to announce his increasing age – from his uniquely dimpled cheeks to his tall and lanky frame. However, whenever Nimrod Workman sang or moved, he constantly betrayed just how young his spirit was. To help demonstrate that trademark youthfulness, below is a clip from Carry It On, a nine-part series produced by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in 1984 and aired on PBS. In the clip, Nimrod states his age (“87 in years, 18 in feelings”) and demonstrates to his daughter Phyllis Boyens and host Mike Seeger how to do the “frog walk.” The full video, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004) is streaming through UNC libraries here.
Phyllis Boyens-Liptak was born Phyllis Workman in 1947 in West Virginia, one of the youngest of Mollie and Nimrod Workman’s 13 children. Raised by musical parents, she quickly took to singing the songs that her father sang, and frequently accompanied him in casual venues and on tour. 1974’s Passing Thru the Garden was, like her father, also Phyllis’s first album. Also like Nimrod, Phyllis only recorded one more album, the 1983 solo outing I Really Care. Phyllis was active in the same musical and activist groups as her father, contributing songs to albums like They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs and touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project. Although she did not have a prolific recording career, she maintained an active presence in the folk music world, and she also expanded into the world of acting. Phyllis had appeared in the documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. alongside her father, and attention from that appearance helped her land a supporting role as Loretta Lynn’s mother in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Phyllis’s mother Mollie Workman was also an accomplished singer, as she demonstrates in this field recording made by Mark Wilson for Rounder Records’ “North American Traditions Series.” In this clip from FT-20503/16073, Mollie Workman sings “I’m Going Back With Jesus When He Comes” unaccompanied:
The Appalachian Film Workshop was founded in 1969 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, part of the United States government’s legislative War on Poverty. Federal funding helped create several of these community workshops, which aimed to provide access to film production training and education in impoverished areas. In 1974, the organization underwent a few major changes, diversifying beyond film production and evolving into an independent nonprofit company. Around this time, the name of the organization was shortened to Appalshop, reflecting broader goals and a new direction.
These 1974 changes included the creation of June Appal Recordings, a record label within Appalshop. The goals of this new label reflected those of Appalshop as a whole – producing content for, by, and about the people that live in Appalachia. The June Appal discography includes Kentuckians like Buell Kazee, I.D. Stamper, and Nimrod Workman, but it also includes a broad range of traditional and contemporary folk musicians from across the U.S. June Appal has maintained a relatively steady pace since 1974, releasing more than 80 albums on LP, CD, or cassette in the past 45 years since its founding. Some of that discography is still available through the June Appal portion of Appalshop’s website, found here.
June Appal Recordings is unique among its contemporary independent record labels for many reasons, chief among them being its origins within a cooperative nonprofit company. Due to these unique beginnings, there are no individual founders widely credited with the creation of June Appal Recordings. However, there were of course individuals involved in the creation and maintenance of June Appal from its beginnings, including: Rich Kirby, who produced many records on the label and recently retired from Appalshop’s Mountain Community Radio station, and Jack Wright, who recorded on June Appal with The Payroll Boys, produced a film for Appalshop, and ultimately became a professor of film.
THE Southern folk cultural revival project
The Nashville-based Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP) was founded in 1966 by musicians and activists Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The primary goal of the SFCRP was to “present traditional musicians from black and white cultures in performance together at a time when this was considered controversial.” In pursuit of that goal, the group recruited a large number of musicians, including Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, to perform on tour together. However, the work of Romaine and the SFCRP extended far beyond these tours. One such endeavor was the production of a nine-part series on traditional music that aired on PBS in 1984, Carry It On. Each episode of Carry It On consisted of interviews with and performances by traditional musicians. Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens are featured in an episode of the series on mountain ballads. A videotape recording of the episode, VT-20004/21 in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (20004), is streaming through UNC Libraries here. Watch two brief clips from the episode below, featuring Nimrod and Phyllis singing “Passing Through The Garden” together and Nimrod singing “Burglar Man” alone:
Appalshop, true to its origins, is perhaps best known for the films it produces as Appalshop Films. Appalshop’s current website hosts over 80 films, ranging from narrative features to documentaries on a wide range of subjects. There are documentaries on craftspeople, like 1976’s Quilting Women and 1980’s Oaksie, about eastern Kentucky basket maker, fiddler, and harp player Oaksie Caudill. There are activist documentaries and documentaries on activists and protests, like 1995’s Justice in the Coalfields and 1992’s Belinda, about Kentucky AIDS prevention and education activist Belinda Mason.
One of the largest shares of the Appalshop filmography, however, is occupied by music documentaries, following performers and traditions rooted in Appalachia. These include works on Sarah Ogan Gunning, John Jacob Niles, Lily May Ledford, Ralph Stanley, Hazel Dickens, and Nimrod Workman. In 1975, the year after the release of Passing Thru The Garden, Appalshop released To Fit My Own Category, a 35 minute documentary following Nimrod Workman. Directed by Scott Faulkner and Anthony Slone, the black and white film features interview and everyday footage and incorporates Workman’s music. Watch a brief trailer for To Fit My Own Category below, and stream the entire film for free on Appalshop’s website.
ROADSIDE THEATER AND THE LOCAL CONNECTION
Appalshop also created several other prominent divisions beyond June Appal Recordings, including the Appalshop Archive, the Appalachian Media Institute, Culture Hub, Roadside Theater, and Mountain Community Radio (WMMT 88.7). Roadside Theater, one of the earliest new divisions of Appalshop, shares the spirit of the original film workshop and June Appal Recordings. Focused on providing a platform for young people in Appalachia to tell the stories of their lives, Roadside Theater is “a company of unreconstructed Appalachians who make stories out of the kind of history ‘that generally never gets written down.'” The group began by producing and maintaining a repertoire of Appalachia-centered plays, like South of the Mountain,Brother Jack, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, and Mountain Tales. Written by and starring members of the troupe, these productions would tour around the country, visiting schools and larger performance venues along the way. The below article from the April 3, 1987 issue of the Durham Morning Herald describes a Roadside Theater stop in Carrboro that day. Sponsored by The Arts Center in Carrboro, the group was set to offer a workshop on “Storytelling from Oral History” and perform South of the Mountain at Carrboro Elementary School. Roadside Theater continues to produce and perform new plays, and more of their work and history is available here.
SHOW ME MORE!
There are an abundance of materials related to June Appal Recordings, Appalshop, Nimrod Workman and Phyllis Boyens, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the June Appal catalog on LP and CD. Check out a few other items of interest below or search the collection yourself.
In addition to the intrepid works of Ella May Wiggins, conflicts at textile mills in North Carolina in the late 1920s inspired quite a bit of commercially released labor songs relating specifically to textile work. The working class’ struggles with their employers immediately surrounding the depression were so pervasive that labels became interested in releasing strike songs due to high demand for this material – even if the artists releasing the music had little stake or political affiliation with the striking community. Regardless, many of the songs had a sympathetic attitude and stood in solidarity with laborers.
One such example is Welling and McGhee’s “The North Carolina Textile Strike”/”Marion Massacre,” available in the SFC as 78-16684.
“The prolific duo of Frank Welling, a vaudeville entertainer, and John McGhee, a lay preacher, using the name the Martin Brothers, composed and recorded “The Marion Massacre”/“North Carolina Textile Strike” for Paramount in 1929. They had no political agenda but used the strike to create event songs to sell records, a common strategy at the time.”
My hope was to make a transfer of this recording to share as part of this blog post. However, I noticed a severe crack in the disc. Occasionally it’s possible to play back a disc with a minor crack, but attempting to play back this one would have potentially damaged the media, or lobbed off the tip of the playback stylus. There are various ways to play back broken and cracked discs – optical playback systems and scanners have become more accessible in recent years – but our audio preservation priorities are typically dedicated to materials not already commercially available.
Fortunately, there was an easy solution: The Archie Green Collection (20002) already contained an audiotape transfer of this disc – alongside many other labor songs about textile work and accompanying papers. These are available as FT 188-90 and folder 397, respectively. While not of equivalent quality of a modern preservation transfer, this copy contains an acceptable level of intelligibility.
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the June 7th, 1929 violence at the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. The strike started in April of 1929 with the arrival of the National Textile Workers Union. The workers at the mill began striking for their demands. On June 7th sheriff’s deputies raided tents set up near the mill by striking workers. Violence ensued, and Police Chief Orville Aderholt was killed. Just a few months after the culmination of the Loray Mill Strike, in September of 1929, Ella May Wiggins, a 29-year-old working mother and strike organizer, was killed by a mob of men trying to run the strikers out of town. The union was preparing for a large rally at which Ella May Wiggins would sing her ballads. On the way to the meeting, Ella May and other union members were attacked by anti-strikers. Ella May was one of many mill women and girls who protested the working conditions, hours and little pay in the Gaston County Mills in 1929. Often overlooked, the women working in the mills had a huge impact on the future of labor organizing in the South.
Ella May’s legacy lives on in the protest songs and ballads she wrote and sang. Her most popular protest song is “Mill Mother’s Lament,” a ballad covered by Pete Seeger on the album American Industrial Ballads.
She also penned songs such as “The Big Fat Boss and the Worker” and “Up in Old Loray,” that were sung at union meetings and rallies. Some accounts say that Ella May did not write “Up in Old Loray,” but the lyrics in the Archie Green Collection have Ella May credited as the writer. Handwritten and typed copies of the lyrics to a few of her songs can be found in the Archie Green Papers.
Many of the mill workers that fought for better working conditions during the strikes in 1929 will go unnamed. We are lucky to have Ella May’s songs as a reminder of her spirit and tenacity.
If you are looking to learn even more about Ella May Wiggins, check out The Southern Historical Collection’s oral histories of Ella May’s daughters, Millie Wiggins Wandell and Charlotte Wiggins. These tapes were digitized and are streaming online thanks to our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Cox, Annette. “The Saga of Ella May Wiggins.” Southern Cultures, The University of North Carolina Press, 4 Oct. 2015, muse.jhu.edu/article/594509. Web. 7 June 2019. Huber, Patrick. “Mill Mother’s Lament: Ella May Wiggins and the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929.”Southern Cultures, vol. 15, no. 3, 2009, pp. 81-110. Web. 7 June 2019. Jones, Loyal. “On the Death of Union Organizer and Balladeer Ella May Wiggins, A Tale of Two Families.” Review of Book. Appalachian Journal, vol. 43, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 252–262. Web. 7 June 2019.
McShane, Chuck. “Tar Heel History: The Loray Mill Strike.” Our State Magazine, 17 May 2015, www.ourstate.com/loray-mill-strike/. Web 7 June 2019.