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hard times cotton mill girls (1979) Editors’ Note: A frequent contributor to the New York–based folk song magazine Sing Out! West often related the longtime role of music in his family and its dynamic in chronicling the history of the region. This article appeared in Sing Out! volume 27, number 3, in 1979. A year earlier, in volume 26, number 5, 1978, Sing Out! published a profile on West’s mother, Lillie West, “No Fiddle in My Home,” written by West’s daughter Hedy, a national recording artist and folk singer. A transcription of the song by Hedy West appeared in Sing Out! volume 6, 1962. She was singing: Hard times cotton mill girls Hard times cotton mill girls Hard times everywhere. The voice was a high soprano. The sound drifted through the log cracks of the cotton house where I played at the edge of the cockle-burr patch. My Aunt Mattie sang as she washed dishes. Our people always sing. The clatter of plates and forks was an undertone to the high clear voice. My Aunt Mattie was a spinner at the Atco Cotton Mill. It was a Goodyear plant.Our Grandpa BudWest moved his family from the north Georgia mountains to the foothills of Cartersville in 1915. My own family still lived back in the mountains.We dug a hard-scrabble living from the steep hill patches.Corn and beans and collards and tomatoes. A cow, a few sheep, chickens, yearlings, pigs, a few bee gums, and a pair of wiry-legged mules. Wepeeledtanbarkorhewedcrosstiesandhauledthem15milestoEllijaywhere the railroad ran.We got $3 or $4 for a load. It took all day, from before daylight till after dark. There were no driving lights. Knowing mules kept the wagon on the single-track road. Sometimes it rained and we were stuck. My Dad would hunt a pole or fence rail.We pried and pushed and the mules finally pulled out. We took lunch of home-made rye bread or wheat biscuits. Once grandpa 01.Prose.1-blnk 96/West 12/2/03, 11:48 AM 14 selected prose 15 Kim Mulkey gave me a dime to buy lunch. I got some loose soda crackers and cheese at Sebe Burrel’s store. That was plumb different. Now we were visiting Grandpa Bud West. Back in the mountains Dad had hitched the mules to a covered wagon. Kids piled in on top of quilts and mule fodder. Rough roads made a three-day trip. We camped along. Some slept in the wagon; others made a pallet underneath. I listened to the singing. It was about work time. Aunt Mattie would hitch the big iron-grey Woodrow horse to the buggy and drive six miles to the mill. It was a twelve-hour night shift and she had to get going. “Cotton Mill Girls” was her favorite song. She sang just like she was making it up out of her own self. Like it was her story being told. I listened. I listened a lot of times and learned it. After the sound of Old Woodrow’s ironshod feet and buggy tires on gravel died down I tried singing it. I wanted to sound just like Aunt Mattie: Worked in the cotton mill all my life Ain’t got nothing but a barlow knife Hard times cotton mill girls Hard times everywhere It sounded right good, almost like Aunt Mattie. And I went on: When I die don’t bury me a-tall Hang me up on the spinning room wall Pickle my bones in alcohol Hard times everywhere Thought I did pretty good on that one, too, raising voice in the sad tragic humor of it. Then I repeated the part about the barlow knife. That I could understand better.Once old Santa made me about the proudest kid in the mountains when he left a barlow with the usual peppermint stick and orange in my Christmas stocking. The barlow was the poor man’s knife. It cost only a dime. It still tempts me. Every time I see a knife with a Barlow label on a counter I want to buy. Reckon I’ve given Hedy at least a half dozen. But the stanza that fetched up the most vivid imagery was about the body on the spinning room wall and bones in a pickle barrel. I shut my eyes and leaned back on the cotton pile. I saw it plain as the sun-ball coming up over old Stover Mountain...


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