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“Cotton Mill Colic”

Doffers and sweepers, 1908. Lewis Hine. New York Times

Doffers and sweepers in 1908

McCarn wrote “Cotton Mill Colic” in 1926. Released on record in August, 1930, it was soon being sung by striking Piedmont mill workers. Absolute truth about the lives of mill workers was real to the cotton mill families. Probably it is McCarn’s best composition; revealing with wry humour the often grim situation of the millhand unable to get straight financially.

When you buy clothes on easy terms,
Collectors treat you like measly worms.
One dollar down, then Lord knows,
If you can’t make a payment, they’ll take your clothes.
When you go to bed you can’t sleep,
You owe so much at the end of the week.
No use to colic, they’re all that way,
Pecking at your door till they get your pay.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

When you go to work you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you’re not on the level.
Payday comes, you pay your rent,
When you get through you’ve notgot a cent
To buy fat-back meat, pinto beans,
Now and then you get turnip greens.
No use to colic, we’re all that way,
Can’t get the money to move away.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

Twelve dollars a week is all we get,
How in the heck can we live on that?
I’ve got a wife and fourteen kids,
We all have to sleep on two bedsteads.
Patches on my britches, holes in my hat,
Ain’t had a shave, my wife got fat.
No use to colic, everyday at noon,
The kids get to crying in a different tune.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

They run a few days and then they stand,
Just to keep down the working man.
We can’t make it, we never will,
As long as we stay at a lousy mill.
The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer,
If you don’t starve, I’m a son of a gun.
No use to colic, no use to rave,
We’ll never rest till we’re in our grave.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

5. According to the photographer, everyone in this family photo works at the mill.

According to the photographer, this Spartanburg family all worked in the cotton mill.

16. This photo taken in May 1912 shows a young boy walking ahead of some adult workers.

The boy above was Eddie Norton, who worked in Saxon Mill, Spartanburg. He has just completed a twelve-hour shift, along with those behind him. He probably made around 40 cents an hour, but this contributed to the family’s finances.

High hopes and dreams of a weekly pay check, a home, and a steady job brought the first workers to the cotton mills. Leaving the Appalachian mountains, their lives became controlled by a mill whistle, but the families stuck together. Both young and old might stay “worn slap out,” but “if your blood kin, then ye stick together no matter what.”

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