Ella May Wiggins and Depression-era Textile Worker Ballads in North Carolina Part 1

Page from the Working Women's Music songbook featuring "The Mill Mother's Lament" words and music

“The Mill Mother’s Lament” words and music found in the Working Women’s Music: The Songs and Struggles of Women in the Cotton Mills, Textile Plants and Needle Trades by Evelyn Alloy from the Irwin Silber Papers.

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.  

Front cover of Working Women's Music songbook

Cover of Working Women’s Music: The Songs and Struggles of Women in the Cotton Mills, Textile Plants and Needle Trades by Evelyn Alloy from the Irwin Silber Papers.

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

American Industrial Ballads by Pete Seeger LP Cover

Cover of American Industrial Ballads from the commercial albums selection in the Southern Folklife Collection.

American Industrial Ballads track listing on record

Track listing of American Industrial Ballads featuring Pete Seeger’s cover of “Mill Mother’s Lament” written by Ella May Wiggins.

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. 

Big Boss Man lyrics typed out

Lyrics to Ella May Wiggins’ “The Big Fat Boss and the Worker” from the Archie Green Papers.

Up in Old Loray lyrics type out

Lyrics to Up in Old Loray from 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 BookAppalachian 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.