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Book Review: Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber

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Linthead. US dial., a worker in a cotton mill; (in contemptuous use) a person of whom one disapproves. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Linthead Stomp is the story of the creation and infancy of country music in the rural South, specifically in the Piedmont area of mainly North Carolina. It also marks the progress of the music and the recording of it, along with the musicians who played and recorded it. It’s a very well researched and written history of this segment of the musical development of the US in general, and the Piedmont South, in particular. The US Southeast Piedmont is the area which separates, more or less, the coastal regions and the inland mountains in the crescent-shaped swath of land covering the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastal plain which runs south from Richmond, Virginia, through the central Carolinas, into north Georgia, and ending at Birmingham, Alabama.

The title of this book comes from a 1946 bluegrass instrumental, “Lint Head Stomp,” recorded by the obscure mandolin virtuoso Phebel Wright. The illustration on the dust cover of the book is Charlie Poole, the man who was the subject of my very first review published on this very website, Blogcritics, a review of a Charlie Poole CD box set.

Although much has been written about textile workers, and even some about their music, “… few studies consider, in any substantive way, what workers did on their front porches, in YMCA community centers, dance halls, and church revivals.” This is the first book-length study of the musical culture of Southern millhands. It offers details about the people, their lives, and the impact that the various forces shaping them had on their lives and music. Additionally, Huber offers detailed insight into the many outside influences which shaped their music, including radio and records, fiddlers’ conventions, various industrial welfare programs, strikes, and many others which had a profound impact.

Linthead Stomp is the story of country music in the Piedmont’s textile mills. “No group contributed more to the commercialization of early country music than southern factory workers.” [Taken from the dust jacket on the book.]

The Piedmont South was in a constant state of upheaval and growth during this period. In 1860, the year before the Civil War began, North Carolina had a total of 39 textile mills. In 1880, the total was 49, with 3300 workers. By 1906, the figure was 304, almost a quarter of the total of the entire United States. And by the 1920s, the area counted 556 textile mills, including those manufacturing cotton, silk, rayon, and woolen goods, and which employed more than 97,500 workers.

The change in the music was about the same, with the vast majority of musicians recording “hillbilly” records up to about 1925 consisting of self-taught amateurs or semiprofessionals who earned a living by working regular jobs by day and playing music on nights and weekends. Most of them recorded a couple sides in a single recording session, then never recorded again. By the end of that same decade, the success of the hillbilly recording industry was such that many musicians could now spend all their time in the pursuit of what had originally been a pastime. In 1927, more than 100 million records were sold. The Great Depression saw that figure fall to six million by 1932.

Huber also touches upon one north-Georgia fiddler named Joe Lee. Lee, who never made one single recording in his entire life, was, according to Huber, directly or indirectly responsible for the eventual appearance of scores of fiddlers in his style, the subsequent explosive growth of country music in general, and fiddle music in particular.

Huber goes on to give us detailed information of five of the more prominent musicians of the period: King of the Mountaineer Musicians, Fiddlin’ John Carson; Charlie Poole; Dave McCarn; and the Dixon Brothers, Howard and Dorsey. Linthead Stomp also contains two appendixes. The first is a directory of Southern Textile Workers Who Made Hillbilly Recordings, 1923-1942; Appendix B is a Discography of Southern Textile Workers’ Commercial Recordings, 1923-1942. The contents also include a Notes section, a bibliography, a discography, and an index.

Linthead Stomp won the 2009 Belmont Book Award, and is a valuable addition to America’s story of Country Music.

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