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.