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Up Beat Down South ''Battle Songs ofthe Southern Class Struggle" Songs ofthe Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929 BY PATRICK HUBER The bitterhatreddisplayed by the capitalists andtheirspokesmen, thepress,government andpulpit, against the Gastonia strikers, has imprinteditselfso indelibflyj in the hearts ofthe southern working class, that their children are singingfolk songs that have arisen spontaneouslyfrom theirstruggles. —Daily Worker, 26July 1929 On 25 August 1929 Margaret Larkin attended an outdoor strike rally near Mount Holly, a textile-mill town eight miles northeast of Gastonia, North Carolina. A left-wing journalist from New York City, Larkin had come south that summer to cover the upcoming trial of sixteen members of the National Textile Workers Union (ntwu) accused of murdering Gastonia police chief Orville F. Aderholt. On this particular day, despite occasional showers, more than five hundred striking workers from several Gaston County textile mills had gathered at the all-day "speakin'" and barbecue. When Larkin arrived at the event, a union member named Ella May Wiggins was leading the assembled workers in a rousing rendition of "Chief Aderholt," a ballad she had composed about the police officer's death and the falsely-accused strikers' imprisonment. Wiggins was a " 'slighdy' woman," Larkin noted, "rather short and round," with "bobbed brown hair" and "lively brown eyes that had survived the early aging of the Southern working woman." But Wiggins's ringing alto voice and the crowd's enthusiastic response to her songs made the deepest impression on the northern journalist. "She had a clear, true tone in her untaught voice, an unmodulated vibrancy that touches the emotions more nearly than the purer notes of trained singers," remarked Larkin. "Hundreds ofworkers" crowded around the speaker's platform, "their faces upturned to the singer, their lips following the words": We're going to have a union all over the South, Where we can wear good clothing and live in a better house. Now we must stand together and to the boss reply, We'll never, no, we'll never let our union die. 109 "Many of the audience had heard it and learned it already; dozens more were memorizing it on the spot." Such songs, Larkin concluded, were "better than a hundred speeches," because they "would travel through the textile towns, telling better than speeches or leaflets of the people's faith in the union to give them a better life." Margaret Larkin's colorful description of this union rally reveals the central role that protest songs played in the Gastonia textile strike of 1929. It also suggests the extraordinary effectiveness of singing as a means of political mobilization in that prolonged labor struggle. Although songs of social protest had deep roots in the American South, the Gastonia strike marked one of the first labor conflicts in the region that produced a large repertoire of protest songs written specifically for the occasion. Strikers composed literally dozens ofprotest songs that described the grim plight ofcotton-mill workers, outlined the broader issues of the strike, and chronicled the major events of the conflict. Thanks primarily to the ballad-collecting efforts ofLarkin and other sympathetic journalists, no fewer than fourteen of the Gastonia strike songs have survived. Taken together , these innovative songs illuminate the ways in which singing united strikers in public displays of union solidarity, expressed the shared grievances of the strikers, and revived flagging enthusiasm as the doomed strike dragged on. Such functions, of course, were crucial in sustaining the prolonged Gastonia strike amidst the brutally repressive campaign waged by the powerful combined forces of mill bosses, community leaders, national guardsmen, and local law enforcement officers. The Gastonia protest songs actually emerged during a much larger, regionwide series of strikes unleashed by an economic depression in the southern textile industry. Throughout much of the 1920s textile manufacturers struggled to keep afloat amidst shrinking international markets, increased overseas competition , and soaring production costs at home. Under such deteriorating economic conditions, mill superintendents responded with drastic measures: laying off workers, slashing wages, installing new labor-saving machinery, and introducing new managerial practices. Chief among management's new shop-floor practices was the notorious "stretch-out," the name southern millhands used to describe the series ofworkload redistributions that not only often doubled...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 109-122
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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