Seems when we hear someone sing or tell a story it means more if these people have actually experienced the events. In other words, it comes from the heart. Such was the case of the Dixon brothers who wrote and sang songs of actual events that happened right here in Richmond County or around the southeastern section of our great country.
Dorcey Dixon was born on Oct. 14, 1897. Howard Dixon was born in June of 1903. They were just two of seven children from the Dixon family who at the time lived in Darlington, South Carolina.
Dorcey was a small boy who, at age 12, left school and went to work along with his father at the local cotton mill. His sister, Nancy, began working as a spinner at the same mill at age 8 and earned half a dollar a week. Their brother, Howard, soon followed them into the cotton mill at age 10.
Children working in the mills were very common in the early 1900s. Child labor laws were very slack and were mostly non-existent in our country during this time. Even though some children couldn’t even reach the machinery, they were provided a stool or bench to work from, sometimes 10- and 12-hour shifts.
As you can see, the Dixons were not the only family who put their children to work in the mills at such an early age. Most families had given up farming and moved to the mill villages to find steady work at the local cotton mill. Back then, folks did what they had to do to survive.
During slack times at the mill, and on Sundays, the Dixon family and their friends made their own entertainment by singing and playing whatever instrument was available. Dorcey and Howard learned to sing and play at a young age.
While World War I was going on, the Dixon brothers got themselves jobs as signalmen for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which ran though Darlington. In 1919, they lost their jobs, along with thousands of other folks who were employed at the local mills.
Being a hard-working man, Dorcey managed to land a job as a mill hand in Lancaster, South Carolina. In 1927, he got a better paying job in the cloth room at Aleo Mills in East Rockingham. Why, it won’t long before his brother, Howard, sister, Nancy, and their parents moved up from Lancaster and joined Dorcey working at Aleo.
Also in 1927, Dorcey met the love of his life and married a fellow worker by the name of Beatrice Lucele Moody. Through the years they had four boys: Dorcey Jr., William, Thomas and Roger.
Back in those days, a dime- or quarter-an-hour difference in pay could make a mill hand go to work at a different mill. So it was with Howard Dixon, who left Aleo and went to Little Hannah Pickett Mill. Then it wasn’t very long before Dorcey and Beatrice followed him.
When the mills were at full production, there was little time for personal interests or hobbies. Somehow Dorcey found the time to write poems and play music, things he found he was good at. He liked to write about past events that had really stood out in his memory. One of his poems was about a disastrous school fire in 1923 that had taken the lives of so many children in Cleveland, South Carolina. With these same lyics from Dorcey’s poem, his mother and brother Howard set them to the tune of “Life’s Highway to Heaven.”
This song became an instant hit among all their neighbors and Dorcey began to compose in earnest, developing a pattern he would follow for the rest of his life. By using his religious background and his knowledge of mill work as a backdrop for many of his original songs, things took off for him as he and his brother formed a musical duet. With the help of Beatrice, Dorcey and Howard were now playing at many functions across Rockingham and beyond.
In the 1930s, two events played a big role in forming Dixon’s musical career. It was a time of great unrest in the Carolina textile mills. The violent 1929 union strike in Gastonia, which saw people get hurt and even killed, fueled unrest in Rockingham where workers went out on strike in 1931. In retaliation, William Cole, the intractable owner, shut down two of his mills, which included Little Hannah Pickett. Why, the strike also took in Aleo, East Rockingham’s third mill. The town became locked in a bitter dispute between the mill owners and workers.
Being on the picket lines and backing the union, Dorcey and Howard began to write and sing occupational songs like “Weaver’s Life,” “Spinning Room Blues” and one of their favorites, “Weave Room Blues.” The first verse of this song went like this: “Working in a weave-room fighting for my life, trying to make a living for my kiddies and my wife, some are needing clothes some are needing shoes, but I getting nothing but the weave-room blues.” These songs and others expressed the dissatisfaction of the people who swapped the plough for the looms to make the big textile giants their fortunes. All these songs were being relished by the strikers in a time of great change for the textile industry. The mill strike continued for days and only by the intervention of the North Carolina governor was it ever resolved by both sides.
Next week, I’ll tell you more about the Dixon brothers and how seeing a horrible wreck on a local highway inspired Dorcey to write one of country music’s favorite songs of its day.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, member of Anson County Writers’ Club, member of Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and co-author of the new book “Just Passing Time Together.”