Cotton Mill Colic

Here's a mill song from the 1920's, one of several variations similar to ''Leven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat' by Bob Miller and Emma Dermer. This version was recorded by North Carolina singer and textile worker David McCarn for Victor in Memphis Tennessee,May 1930. I learned it from the singing of the brothers Seeger (Mike and Pete - separately).

Here is what David McCarn said about the song.

If you were lucky enough to have a job, you didn't make very much and, in other words, wages didn't compare with the price of food. Food was always higher than the wages. In other words, if the cotton mill announced that they meant to raise a few cents, groceries would automatically go up before the raise come. So there was no point in the raise, it didn't help any; the wages probably made it a little worse. Some people had good jobs - I mean they didn't work too hard - but you didn't make too much and things got worse after that, especially after 'Twenty-nine'. And it was bad enough before! The way times were and the way things were going and the mills were running, I imagine that was where I got the idea for 'Cotton Mill Colic'.


When you buy clothes on easy terms,
Collectors treat you like measly worms.
One dollar down, then the Lord knows,
You don't make the payments they'll take your clothes.
Go to bed at night, you can't sleep,
You owe so much at the end of the week.
No use to colic, they're all that way,
Pecking at your door 'till they get your pay.
I'm gonna starve and everybody will.
You can't make a living at a cotton mill.

Twelve bucks a week is all we get,
How in the heck can you live on that?
I got a wife and fourteen kids,
We all sleep on two bedsteads.
Got patches on my britches, holes in my hat,
Haven't had a shave since the wife got fat.
No use to colic every day at noon,
The kids get to cryin' in a different tune,
I'm gonna starve and everybody will,
You can't make a living in a cotton mill.

When you got to work, you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you're not on the level,
Payday comes, you pay your rent,
When you get through you haven't got a cent,
You buy fatback meat, pinto beans,
Now and then we get turnip greens,
No use to colic we're all that way,
Can't get the money to move away,
I'm gonna starve and everybody will,
You can't make a living at a cotton mill.

We run for a few days and then they'll stand,
Just to keep down the working man,
We can't make it, we never will,
As long as we work in the lousy mill,
The poor are gettin' poorer and the rich are gettin' rich,
If I don't starve I'm a son of a (whatever),
No use to colic, no use to rave,
We'll never rest till we're in our grave,
I'm gonna starve and everybody will,
You can't make a living at a cotton mill.

C Standard