Cotton Mills & Southern Music
The town were I grew up was founded as a company town when a large cotton mill was built along the Patuxent River. The mill was closed in the 1880s and its ruins stretched along the river where I paddled my kayak on the rapids that once powered its great wheel.
The industrial revolution had a huge impact on the people of the South and their music. The Southern United States was largely an agrarian landscape with large plantation holdings blanketing the Piedmont and subsistence farms clinging to the hills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. The cotton and tobacco grown on the plantations was loaded on ships and sent to England to be made into salable goods.
The first cotton mills in the New World were built in New England in the late 1780s. With the end of the Civil War the Industrial Revolution invaded the South. Cheap land, unexploited rivers, and cheap labor were all available closer to the fields where the cotton was grown. Many a family that had worked the land for generations now had several generations working the machinery in the mills or mining the coal to power them.
The family homestead was abandoned for the identical little houses in the neat rows of the company town. Instead of growing or bartering for the essentials of life, everything a mill family wanted could be had for script at the company store. The mills changed the landscape, community, and music of the people that worked them. As the minstrels and medicine shows had done, the mill towns brought together people from different areas and with different musical styles. These styles were shared at Saturday dances and Sunday picnics.
Industry would bring another change to the music of the South with the build up to WWII and the migration from the rural South to the big city factories of the North, but that’s another story for another time.