When I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, being of a left-wing bent, I was attracted to the workshops of Mine and Mill. The environment of a Carolina cotton mill was where I first heard Dorsey Dixon. I had owned an LP record called Smokey Mountain Ballads for a few years that featured a tune by Dorsey and Howard Dixon (called “Down with the Old Canoe”) that I had even been singing for a while.
The environment of a Carolina cotton mill in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s could hardly be expected to foster musical talent. The primitive conditions were similar to the earlier Industrial Revolution in Britain, and both adult and child workers were exploited accordingly. To help them survive, workers had two systems of support—the family and the Union. The last was a double-edged sword in a country notoriously prone to equate unionism with syndicalism and, through that, to the ogre of communism. “Mill workers” was another word for “Reds.” Dorsey would grow up to write a song on the subject, which he recorded 60 years later, called “Babes in the Mill.”
Get out of bed you little sleepy heads and get you a bite to eat.
The factory whistle’s calling you, there’s no more time to sleep.
Dorsey Murdock Dixon was born October 14, 1897. He managed to stay in school until he was 12, then went to work in a mill as a loom fixer in 1909. Dorsey was followed in turn by his brother Howard Briten Dixon who was born June 19, 1903. At 14 Dorsey began playing the guitar and, later, the violin. Howard picked guitar. At one time they both found employment as signal men on the Atlantic Coast Railroad, which ran through their home town of Darlington, South Carolina. That didn’t last long, and they were both soon back in the mill and playing their music at private parties and to accompany movies at the local theater. By this time Dorsey was married to Beatrice Lucille Moody and on the way toward completing his family of four boys. The Dixon brothers moved around a lot, working at mills in Lancaster and Greenville South Carolina, and in the early ’30s in East Rockingham, North Carolina where they met Jimmy Tarlton. He was five years older than Dorsey and already well known for his recording. His group, Darby and Tarlton, hit with “Columbus Stockage Blues”/”Birmingham Jail” but by the time he met the Dixons the Great Depression had him working in the Little Hanna Pickett mill in East Rockingham.
Jimmy Tarlton had a big impact on the Dixons and vice versa. He and Dorsey both had an interest in old songs (picked up from their mothers) while Howard was impressed by Jimmy’s bluesy slide work played with his steel National guitar flat in his lap. Howard soon begin practicing slide guitar.
Dorsey moved from the violin back to guitar but with a new more positive style. In return Darby and Tarlton later recorded some of Dorsey’s songs, including “Weave Room Blues” although it was listed as “The Weavers Blues” on the record.
Some time in 1932 the Dixon Brothers landed a radio spot on the Saturday Night Jamboree on WBT out of Charlotte, sponsored by J.W. Fincher’s Crazy Water Crystals (Country music’s favorite laxative). This led to many fine recordings for the Victor company. The songs they recorded ranged from their biggest hit, “The Weave Room Blues” to tragic ballads like “The Schoolhouse Fire’,” novelty songs like “The Fisherman’s Luck,” and more topical novelties like “When They Put a Sales Tax on the Women” and their famous anthem praising the end of prohibition “That Old Home Brew.”
They even recorded a song, “Call Me Back Pal of Mine’,” which was regularly preformed by blues man Blind Willie McTell.
In many ways it was the differences their personalities that made Howard and Dorsey such a successful combination. Although Dorsey was the more retiring of the two, he was the amateur poet that wrote many of their most important songs. Howard on the other hand was the extrovert. He was the most impressed with Jimmy Tarlton’s style, which he echoed in his own laptop-slide playing and strange falsetto vocal strains. It also seems he was more interested in making a career with his music. With Frank Gerald he recorded as the Rambling Duet. After Dorsey and Beatrice finished their mostly religious set at the recording session in 1937, the boys (Harold and Frank) stepped forward to cut four more numbers. On the first two they seemed to be showing a studied awareness of what was attracting the public’s attention at the time. The first was “Just Because,” originally recorded by the Shelton Brothers and, later, by pretty much every country artist right up through Elvis Presley. Then they took a swipe at a cowboy song which seemed a bit unexpected from South Carolina boys.
The standout song from this session was “The Bootlegger’s Song” to a tune very similar to “The Great Speckled Bird” by Roy Acuff recorded two years earlier. Of course, this tune had been used many times before and has been used even more later. Roy Acuff recorded “Wreck on the Highway,” which he thought was a traditional song but was later forced to buy it from Dorsey Dixon who actually wrote it and had recorded it two years earlier as “I Didn’t Hear Anybody Pray,” a moralizing tale of drunken driving that presents a lurid picture of blood and whiskey mixed together in the aftermath of a car crash. Dorsey had based the song on an incident that he witnessed himself in 1936.
Although Howard continued to work with Wade Mainer as one of the Sons of the Mountaineers at WWMC in Ashville, involvement in the world of commercial music never released either of the brothers from the grip of the mills. Dorsey, blind in one eye but still proud, retired in 1951. Howard was still working when he died in 1960.
Dorsey came into contact with various researchers, notably John Edwards and Archie Green, during the Folk Revival of the ’60s, which led to his appearances at the Newport Folk Festival where I saw him in 1963. He also recorded cutting tracks for the Library of Congress, which remain unissued, and other recordings with his sister Nancy that were released but are now obscure and hard to find. Dorsey continued to perform and relocated to Florida where he died in 1968.
I was fortunate to see him.