You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill

Posted by | December 17, 2015

When you buy clothes on easy terms,
The collector treats you like measly worms;
One dollar down and then, Lord knows,
If you don’t make a payment they’ll take your clothes.

When you go to bed, you can’t sleep,
You owe so much at the end of the week.
No use to collect, they’re all that way,
Peckin’ at your door till they get your pay.


I’m a-gonna starve, ev’rybody will.
You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.

When you go to work, you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you’re not on the level.
Pay day comes, you pay your rent.
When you get through, you’ve not got a cent

To buy fat-back meat, and pinto beans
Now and then you get a turnip green.
No use to collect, they’re all that way,
You can’t get the money to move away.


I’m a-gonna starve, ev’rybody will.
You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.

Twelve dollars a week is all I get
How in the heck can I live on that?
I got a wife and fourteen kids,
We all have to sleep on two bedsteads.

Ben Shahn photo of musicians at Skyline Farms, AL, 1937Photographer Ben Shahn made this 1937 photo on the same trip he photographed square dancers at Skyline Farms in Jackson County, AL. He doesn’t identify the player by name, however. More commentary at end of lyrics.

Patches on my breeches, holes in my hat,
Ain’t had a shave since my wife got fat.
No use to collect, ever’ day at noon
Kids get to cryin’ in a different tune.


I’m a-gonna starve, ev’rybody will.
You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.

They run a few days, and then they stand,
Just to keep down the workin’man.
We’ll never make it, we never will,
As long as we stay in a roundin’ mill.

The poor are gettin’ poorer, the rich are gettin’ rich,
If I don’t starve, I’m a son of a gun.
No use to collect, no use to rave,
We’ll never rest till we’re in our grave.


I’m a-gonna starve, ev’rybody will.
You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.

from Our Singing Country, A Second Volume of American Ballads and Folk Songs, collected and compiled by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1949
online at

Notes to piece from Our Singing County: No. 1629. Acc. on guitar and sung by Joe Sharp of Skyline Farms, Scottsboro, Ala., in Washington, D.C., 1939. By courtesy of Nicholas Ray. See also “Cotton Mill Blues.” Decca 5559.

Sharp played mandolin for the Skyline Farms square dancers when they performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, and his band was recorded by the Library of Congress on that trip. Players: Chester Allen, guitar and violin, Joe Sharp, mandolin, Herbert Green, violin, and Thomas Holt, guitar.

One Response

  • Somewhat misleading info — NOT a “traditional” folk song but penned in 1926 and commercially recorded by Dave McCarn for Ralph Peer in 1930 with two sequels (after the recording sold successfully), POOR MAN, RICH MAN (COTTON MILL COLIC No. 2) (1930) and SERVES THEM FINE (COTTON MILL COLIC No. 3) (1931).

    “Born in 1905 in Gaston County, North Carolina, Dave Mccarn entered the textile industry at an early age. He had a great interest in music and played both guitar and harmonica. He developed what might be termed a ‘hot-guitar’ style, light and syncopated — and which could well owe its origins to the raggy, Carolina Blues style of Blind Boy Fuller and Gary Davis. During the mid-1920s, McCarn was playing with a local string band when he began to write his own songs. In 1926 he wrote ”Cotton Mill Colic”, perhaps his most significant composition. Yet none of the band had any idea of trying for a career in music — McCarn least of all. Music was purely a relaxing hobby, providing a welcome relief from millwork.

    But the textile industry was hard-hit by depression and industrial trouble, and in 1929 Gastonia witnessed the brutal murder of Ella May Wiggins, a union organiser and strike leader, by a textile company incited mob. Shortly after this, McCarn and his brother set out west in search of more regular employment. However, after a fruitless search, the brothers returned south mostly by courtesy of the railroad companies box-cars. In May 1930, they were in Memphis, Tennessee. Their financial situation was desperate and Dave was about to pawn his guitar when a negro musician told him that the Victor Company were holding auditions for local talent. McCarn, with nothing to lose, auditioned for Ralph Peer. Peer was impressed with McCarn and recorded two songs — Everyday Dirt and Cotton Mill Colic. The recording fee was sufficient to get the brothers home to Gastonia and the record was later released the following August.

    The record sold well and six month later Peer cabled McCarn to record again. For this session (November 1930), McCarn wrote or adapted five pieces — including a sequel to his Cotton Mill Colic. He recorded once again, for the last time, in May 1931. For these sessions he was accompanied by Howard Long on second guitar. Long was probably a fellow mill worker, and may have been a member of McCarn’s string band in the 1920’s. Four titles were issued as Dave & Howard. lt is surprising that McCarn was not recorded again, for his records apparently sold well. But his brief foray into the recording industry was over, and he returned to millwork, forgotten by all except a handful of country music enthusiasts. In 1961, he was located and interviewed by Mike Seeger in Stanley, NC. Dave McCarn died on November 7th, 1964, “Unaffected by folksong boom and somewhat amused that his songs still lived”
    (Archie Greene notes to “Tipple, Loom and Rail” — Folkways FH 5273).”
    — Mike Paris, liner notes for “Singers of the Piedmont,” Folk Variety/Bear Family Records 15505. 1970s.

    Interesting to see, though, that this commercial recording had already entered oral tradition by 1939 when the Lomaxes “collected” it — and seem to have transcribed it PARTIALLY WRONG — it is NOT “No use to COLLECT….” (collect What?) but “No use to COLIC…” (interestingly Merriam-Webster does not list a verb “to colic”, but only a noun and adjective —

Leave a Reply

− 3 = 2

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2018 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive