- Mill Mother’s LamentElla May Wiggins and the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929
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Woody Guthrie considered her one of our nation’s best songwriters. Alan Lomax published her stark union ballads in his acclaimed collections of American folksongs. Pete Seeger recorded a version of her most famous song on a Cold War folk revival album. Her name was Ella May Wiggins, and although she is not well known today, she was one of a handful of southern grassroots composers who combined traditional balladry with leftwing politics to forge a remarkable new song genre just prior to and during the upheaval of the Great Depression. She also helped to spearhead a Communist-led labor uprising of unprecedented scale in Gastonia, North Carolina, then the textile-manufacturing capital of the American South and, indeed, the entire world. And then, before her ringing Appalachian alto could be captured on a phonograph record, she was gone. Ella May Wiggins, the “poet laureate” of the Gastonia Textile Strike of 1929, peer of such southern folk-music giants as Harlan coal-mining singer Aunt Molly Jackson, Arkansas sharecropper poet John Handcox, and Okie balladeer Woody Guthrie, was silenced by a mill thug’s bullet on September 14, 1929. She was only twenty-nine years old, but she left in her wake an extraordinary legacy of protest songs and union activism.1
Ella May Wiggins’s protracted struggles with poverty, factory labor, and motherhood shaped both her balladry and her union activism. Like many of the other rural white migrants drawn to the Carolina Piedmont’s textile mills for a chance at a better life, Wiggins hailed from southern Appalachia. She was born in 1900 into a large farming family, the second of at least twelve children, near the mountain town of Sevierville, Tennessee, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Fewer than fifty years later, the nearby rural community of Locust Ridge would produce another gifted singer and songwriter named Dolly Parton.) Her father, James A. May, a native of northwest Georgia, struggled to scratch out a living for his family on a rocky hillside farm, but around 1906 exhausted soil and a series of poor harvests drove the Mays across the mountains to Cherokee County, North Carolina, where James May found work first as a railroad construction laborer and then as a logger.2
Ella May’s adolescence accustomed her to strenuous physical labor and the rough-and-tumble existence of a logging family in southern Appalachia. The Mays led a rootless, nomadic life, making their home in shanties and converted boxcars and, when a stand of timber played out, following the march of the lumber camps back and forth across the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Ella and her mother, Catherine Maples May, the granddaughter of German immigrants, earned much-needed cash by boiling and scrubbing the grimy work clothes worn by bachelor loggers. After the workday had ended, the teenaged Ella sang for the loggers and their families, already displaying the budding talent that would later win her widespread acclaim during the Gastonia Textile [End Page 82] Strike. “She was popular in camp, for she was a ‘purty young ’un,’” her biographer Margaret Larkin wrote in a November 1929 New Masses article. “She had a fine, ringing voice, and nobody else could sing ‘Little Mary Phagan,’ ‘Lord Lovel,’ and ‘Sweet William’ with such plaintive sweetness as she.”3
When Ella was around fourteen years old, she married John Wiggins, a handsome but shiftless logger seven years her senior. She remained close to her family, though, and the next few years brought a...