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Ernest V. Stoneman
The Sinking of the Titanic

Summary

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North Carolina music in the first half of the twentieth century reflected Americans' interest in a burgeoning new genre—country music. While what is now known as "country music" existed before the 1900s, "the form came into being as a commercial enterprise in the 1920s" (Dickson 212). Based on "traditional ballads and folk songs," country music featured often melancholy lyrics, a distinctive twang, and instruments such as the banjo to explore the problems and challenges of the day, including Prohibition, the effects of the Great Depression, and racial tensions (Dickson 212).

Rosa Lee Carson's 1925 song "Little Mary Phagan" exemplifies the country music of the time. Carson, who was better known as Moonshine Kate, a nickname meant to "enhance her hillbilly image," began performing and traveling at a young age with her father, Fiddlin' John Carson, and his country band, the Virginia Reelers ("Moonshine Kate"). Carson was "one of the first women to record country music" and "one of the most extensively recorded country stars of the 1920s" ("Moonshine Kate"). "Little Mary Phagan" was one of her earliest solo attempts, recorded in 1925 when Carson was fifteen. The song was written by her father in 1915 as a response to the Leo Frank case, "one of the most notorious and highly publicized cases in the legal annals of Georgia" ("Leo Frank Case"). In 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered in an Atlanta pencil factory after picking up her paycheck from factory superintendent Leo Frank. Later that evening, the night watchman found her lifeless and brutalized body in the cellar; rumors spread quickly that Phagan had been sexually assaulted. Leo Frank, who was a northern Jew, was arrested and tried for Phagan's murder, despite a lack of clear evidence and the changing testimony of the main witness, a janitor at the factory; indeed, many now suspect that the "witness" was actually the killer. Frank was found guilty amid much local fervor and anti-Semitism, and subsequent appeals failed. Governor John M. Slaton reviewed the case, the appeals, and the scene of the crime, and found Frank likely to be innocent; he "commuted the sentence . . . to life imprisonment, assuming that Frank's innocence would eventually be fully established and he would be set free" ("Leo Frank Case"). Riots in Georgia followed the decision and Slaton was forced to declare martial law. Nonetheless, a lynch mob removed Frank from his cell and hanged him in Phagan's hometown in 1915. Members of the mob, the "Knights of Mary Phagan," would join with other men in 1915 to found a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (Worthy).

Carson's rendering of the song, despite the ending no longer being audible, reflects the sensationalist rhetoric and emotions that surrounded this case. "Little Mary Phagan," according to Carson, went forth to "get her little pay" after she "kissed her mother good-bye." Instead, she is met by Leo Frank "with a blues we hardly know" and told "Lil' Mary, now you go home no mo." Playing up the innocence and femininity of Phagan in order to condemn Frank, Carson shows Phagan falling "upon her knees" and pleading "because she was virtuous." Frank is described as hitting her "across the head" as "the tears rolled down her rosy cheeks, the blood flowed down her back." The listener hears the details of the case, but Frank's guilt is pre-supposed and he "took his damnation in the courthouse in the sky."

Ernest Stoneman was a country singer who had his biggest hit around the same time as Carson's "Little Mary Phagan." Stoneman's "The Sinking of the Titanic" was his first single and "one of the biggest hits of the 1920s" (Brennan). His doleful tune's chorus reminds listeners that "It was sad when that great ship went down, / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives. / It was sad when that great ship went down." Because the "rich . . . would not ride with the poor . . . they sent the poor below" and thus the poor "were the first that had to go." But rich or poor, Stoneman acknowledges that "death came riding by, sixteen hundred had to die." Stoneman himself faced hardship soon after; he lost everything in the Great Depression. He eventually began touring again with his children, however, in a group known as the Stoneman Family (Brennan).

Perhaps no country singer from this time period is better known than Charlie Poole. Poole, who along with the North Carolina Ramblers, was known as "one of the most popular string bands of the 1920s . . . had a great influence on the development of bluegrass music" ("Charlie Poole"). Poole helped to popularize the banjo and "created a unique playing style involving his thumb and two fingers" ("Charlie Poole"). The son of poor millworkers, Poole was unable to buy a banjo and thus began playing on a banjo he made himself out of a gourd (Rorrer). His music still resonates with listeners today, as evidenced by the annual Charlie Poole festival in North Carolina ("Charlie Poole").

Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers made their first record in 1925 and "Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister" was one of the first releases (Rorrer). The record sold 102,451 copies at a time when the "average sales for a Columbia country music record . . . was about 5,000" (Rorrer). "Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister" tells the story of the singer who is wandering away from his home with a sad story that "rests in [his] heart like a thorn." He used to have a wife, child, and home until "three years ago last summer . . . / A stranger came out from a city / And he wanted to stop for his health." The "fair, tall and handsome" stranger runs away with the singer's wife and child. The singer can do nothing but hope that "God up in heaven / . . . will do as the stranger deserves."

Poole also recorded "It's Moving Day." While the exact date of the song is unknown, Poole and the Ramblers recorded more than 70 songs between 1926 and 1931, suggesting that the song may have been recorded during that time (Rorrer).The subject of "It's Moving Day," which deals with the singer's eviction after failing to pay rent, also suggests it was performed during the Depression era. After the landlord tells the singer to "give me your key, this lot ain't free," the singer decides to "rip the carpet up off the floor," advising others that "if you spend every cent you can live out in a tent."

Following the death of Charlie Poole in 1931, his son, Charlie Poole, Jr., "reformed Poole Sr's band the North Carolina Ramblers and eventually changed their name to the Swing Billies, which was more appropriate to their swing influenced sound" ("The Swing Billies—Complete recordings"). Very few recordings remain from the Swing Billies, and the band was short-lived. Poole, Jr. narrowly survived after being "bayoneted in the throat by a German at the Anzio landing [in] Italy" during World War II ("The Swing Billies—Complete recordings"). The injury ended his singing career.

The Swing Billies' "Leaving Home" tells the melancholy tale of sweethearts Frankie and Johnnie who "had a quarrel one day / Johnnie vowed he'd leave her / Said he was going away / Never coming home / Going away to roam." When Frankie's pleas go unheard by her lover, she draws "a forty-four gun" from "underneath her silk kimono" and shoots Johnnie "five times with a root-toot-toot." Frankie calls for the "rubber-tired hearses" and a "thousand policemans / To take me away," but ultimately blames Johnnie's death on his desire to leave.

Violent death was a song topic for singer Dorsey Dixon as well. Dixon was a millworker-turned-songwriter/singer who would "rise at five o'clock in the morning to pursue his art" of songwriting while also working at the Darlington, South Carolina, cotton mills and performing with his brother Howard after hours (Denatale). Dixon often wrote and sang about the concerns of the working class, including poor working conditions or the mill strikes these conditions led to. His 1938 "Wreck on the Highway," originally titled "I Didn't Hear Anybody Pray," told the story of a fatal car accident in East Rockingham, North Carolina (Denatale). Another artist, Roy Acuff, recorded and copyrighted the song under the title "Wreck on the Highway" (Denatale). While Dorsey eventually proved his ownership of the song, leading to a settlement, he was deprived of most of the profits created by the song (Denatale).

"Wreck on the Highway" remembers the moment when "whiskey and blood run together." While the singer "went to the scene of destruction" after he "heard the crash on the highway," he does not know the names of those who died and he "didn't hear nobody pray." After noting the combination of "whiskey and glass all together," he pleads with the listeners to "give up the game an' stop drinking, / For Jesus is pleading with you. / It cost him a lot in redeeming, / Redeeming the promise for you." Dixon's combination of morality, current events, and the melancholy are reflected in many of the country songs represented here, as men and women attempted to grapple with the social, economic, and political changes of the early twentieth century.

Works Consulted: Brennan, Sandra, "Ernest V. Stoneman," Answers.com, accessed 30 May 2010; "Charlie Poole," Charlie-Poole.com: The Official Site of the Charlie Poole Music Festival, accessed 30 May 2010; Denatale, Douglas, "Dorsey Dixon, 1897-1968," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography via Documenting the American South, accessed 30 May 2010; Dickson, Paul, "Singing to Silent America," Nation 210.7, 23 February 1970, accessed 3 July 2010, pgs. 211-213; "Leo Frank Case," The New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 30 May 2010; "Moonshine Kate," The New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 30 May 2010; Rorrer, Clifford Kinney, "Charlie Poole, 1892-1931," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography via Documenting the American South, accessed 30 May 2010; "The Swing Billies—Complete recordings," Western Swing on 78, accessed 30 May 2010; Worthy, Larry, "Little Secrets: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the death of Leo Frank," About North Georgia, accessed 6 June 2010,

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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