“We Always Tried to Be Good People”: Respectability, Crazy Water Crystals, and Hillbilly Music on the Air, 1933-1935 by Pamela Grundy

If you are easily exhausted, or too nervous, you have headaches or backaches or can’t sleep as you should, if your complexion is sallow or your tongue coated; maybe you’re just being warned by Nature that the troubles with far more serious names may be on the way. Faulty elimination, the sluggish and delayed passage of waste throughout the system, causes many serious disorders, disorders with all kinds of names…. Don’t give up to pain and illness…. Why all you need is determination, ordinary drinking water, and Crazy Water Crystals. Won’t you try it? -Crazy Water Crystals radio advertisement.

From the summer of 1933 to the fall of 1935, the soothing messages of the Crazy Water Crystals Company filled the airwaves around Charlotte, North Carolina, offering temporary relief to residents’ intestines and working permanent change on their cultural traditions. The fast fiddle tunes, sweet harmony duets, country-style jokes, and barnyard noises that made up the radio shows sponsored by the popular laxative helped ease the pain of economic troubles for thousands of hard-pressed listeners, who tuned in to radio station WBT to hear the Crazy Mountaineers, the Crazy Hickory Nuts, and a rooster imitation that “almost has feathers on it.” The South’s rich traditional music, heard for centuries at square dances and community gatherings, had grown into a nationwide radio sensation, and shows with such down-home names as “National Barn Dance” and “Grand Ole Opry” sold products and delighted listeners with this apparently carefree form of entertainment.

But like many aspects of the vibrant popular culture that emerged during the Great Depression, this surface frivolity masked the concerns of an audience struggling with a troubling and uncertain world. Like their fellow citizens across the nation, those who listened to the Crazy Water Crystals programs were drawing on long-standing traditions to help them confront the difficulties of their present situations. And in the region around Charlotte, where the hardships of the Great Depression had only intensified the social and economic turbulence sparked by post-Civil War industrialization, these performances carried particular significance. The interactions the shows set off between sponsors, musicians, and audience members altered the music and affected its listeners, illuminating in the process essential elements of regional history, the nature of radio broadcast, and the complex dynamics of cultural change.

Radio broadcasts of “hillbilly” music emerged out of a period of sharp social conflict in which clashes erupted with particular force within the swath of rolling land that cut through the center of North Carolina and the northwestern corner of South Carolina. This area, the Carolina Piedmont, underwent intensive industralization between 1880 and 1930, driven largely by the growth of an enormous textile-producing industry. Enterprising investors looking for ways to modernize the postbellum South had fixed upon the region, taking advantage of improved rail transport, abundant water power, and the labor of a growing stream of farm families displaced by the spread of commercial agriculture to transform it from an area of small farms and trading towns into the largest textile-producing region in the world. Charlotte, which sat at the precise center of the region, boomed as well. In 1870, Charlotte had 4,473 residents and 35 “manufactories” that averaged fewer than 4 employees each. By 1930 the city had swelled to a population of 82,675, with close to 200 industrial plants averaging more than 50 employees apiece.2

The industrial prophets who called forth this growth articulated a vision of modernizing harmony, in which textile mills and the company-owned villages that grew up around them would rescue area residents from the wreckage of agricultural poverty and cultural backwardness and transform them into steady, reliable modern workers. The middle-class ideals of self-control and sober respectability that had ac- companied industrialization elsewhere in the country came to dominate the Piedmont’s public culture, as those individuals who had reached the top of the industrial mountain touted the virtues that they saw as contributing so much to their success.

But outside the pages of industry publications, the transition to an industrial economy had not proved so smooth or seemed so blessed by divine grace. The men, women, and children who had forsaken farming to tend the looms and spindles of the region’s textile plants found that despite promises of reward for steady work, the twelve-hour days, low wages, and loss of independence that often came with textile labor made it enormously difficult to gain the respect of their urban neighbors or to grasp many of the material benefits of industrial society. Many workers chose to fashion alternate identities, drawing on their rural pasts, on a growing sense of camaraderie with each other, and on tantalizing new diversions such as the automobile and the movie theater to lay out cultural paths that took them well beyond their appointed places in the industrial order.

The gap between the promises and the realities of textile production burst into view in the late 1920s, as a wave of strikes began to roll across the region. In 1929, workers protested the “stretch-out,” the drastically increased production quotas with which the industry responded to hard economic times and which rendered textile employment almost unbearable. In 1934, pay cuts, layoffs, high production quotas, and the manipulation of New Deal labor regulations sparked resentments that erupted into the largest labor action in the nation’s history, the general textile strike of 1934. For three weeks, nearly half a million workers nationwide walked picket lines in pursuit of fairer treatment, contending with the protests of industrial leaders and the blows of newly deputized National Guard troops. Only after a combination of violence and sharply limited concessions forced an end to that massive walkout did a period of relative peace return to the industry.4

It was in the tense months that led up to this final conflict that the Crazy Water Crystals shows had their Charlotte debut. But aside from an occasional song describing the woes of textile life, the shows -which were among the most widely heard such broadcasts in the nation -seemed to reflect little of this social tumult. Unlike many performances by the preceding generation of tradition-based musicians, they posed no challenges to the prevailing social order. Rather, they presented groups composed largely of clean-cut young men who sang songs about lost loves and wise old mothers, mixed with prominent accounts of the dangers of drink and a large number of religious tunes.

This configuration raises questions about the forces shaping this incarnation of southern popular culture, an industry that would eventually grow into the enormously influential field of country music. It would be easy to dismiss the shows as a kind of panacea, an escape into a sentimental world that had little more effect on their listeners’ real situations than the much-touted crystals could work on any ailment more severe than temporarily blocked intestines. It would even be tempting to suspect some more direct manipulation, to link the shows’ messages about religion and sobriety with the words of the mill-supported preachers who urged their flocks to accept worldly inequities, work soberly and faithfully, and place their hopes in Heaven. The long-term results of these alterations, in which one of the most significant forms of American popular culture has often served as a potent advocate of political and moral conservatism, certainly point toward the benefits this form of the music held for those with stakes in established social hierarchies.

An examination of the programs, however, suggests a different set of influences. The ties between musicians and their audiences, connections that included the players’ own backgrounds and the ways in which listeners expressed their preferences, meant that bands were affected as strongly by the traditions and circumstances of their public as by any demands of sponsors or station owners. The thousands of cards and letters that arrived in radio station mailboxes, requesting songs and offering theaters and schoolhouses for personal appearances, point toward further complexities in the social patterns that had formed during the previous half century of change, arrangements that reflected both the region’s rural past and its industrial present. Just as the crystals claimed to offer Piedmont residents some measure of control over a bodily process complicated by a limited, often unhealthy diet, the program musicians’ emphasis on religion, sobriety, and respectability reflected one of the ways that residents believed their own determination could bring a portion of dignity and stability to extremely difficult lives.

On August 13, 1933, the “Commerce and Industry” section of the Charlotte Observer published what seemed like a commonplace business announcement, no different from hundreds of others that had graced the section’s pages through the years: “Crazy Crystals Have New Head,” the title read, and the copy, clearly taken from a press release, introduced J. W. Fincher, a salesman who had come to Charlotte to direct the Carolina division of the Texas-based Crazy Water Crystals Company. The accompanying photograph showed a well-dressed, slightly balding man who despite the somewhat unorthodox name of his product looked the embodiment of sober business sense. The crystals, the article explained, resulted from the evaporation of mineral water drawn from the “world renowned Crazy Wells” of Mineral Wells, Texas. When reconstituted, the copy claimed, “Crazy Water is believed to be the most effective natural mineral water treatment known for stomach disorders and other ailments arising from faulty elimination.”5

The Crazy Water Crystals Company had risen to national fame on an odd blend of old-fashioned imagery and modern advertising zeal. Convenient legend placed discovery of the “Crazy Well” back in the 1870s, when “pioneer family” Amandy and James Lynch were said to have discovered the miraculous effect the Mineral Wells water had on Mrs. Lynch’s failing health. But the well gained national attention only after it was purchased by a group of Dallas-based entrepreneurs headed by Carr Collins, the son of a well-connected political family, who combined a flair for devising innovative insurance plans with the moral conservatism that would soon make him a highly prominent member of the Baptist church in Texas. Collins and his colleagues had acquired the well property along with a small resort hotel. When tourist profits failed to materialize, they began to look for other ways to produce some return on their investment.6

The well’s dehydrated crystals, already being sold in small quantities to resort pa- trons, seemed an obvious remedy. Laxative pitches had long been a familiar part of southern rural life, whether for mail-order remedies such as Black-Draught or the exotic concoctions sold through traveling medicine shows. The expansion of the advertising industry during the 1920s had only increased the public profile of the disease such products were supposed to cure, blaming “civilization’s curse” on the stresses of modern living and suggesting that the best way to regain bodily control was to purchase a specific product. The limited diet that most southerners continued to consume – a diet weighed down by pork fat in a variety of incarnations – certainly prompted a steady need for intestinal relief.7

A promotional strategy also lay close to hand. By the 1930s, radio broadcasts had become enormously important in the lives of ordinary southerners, many of whom lacked access to or funds for other diversions. “Saturday morning, you’d go uptown on the trolley,” explained Everett Padgett, who worked in a Greenville, South Carolina, textile mill during the period. “Go uptown on the trolley and buy you a little stuff and come back. Saturday evening, go watch the ballgame. Saturday night, listen to the radio. There wasn’t nothing else doing.” On farms, in towns, and throughout mill villages, wireless sets had become cherished possessions. In North Carolina alone, more than seventy-two thousand families owned sets in 1930, and by 1938 Liston Pope would report seeing a radio in almost every mill village house he visited. Many who could not afford receivers listened to programs at friends’ homes or such establishments as drugstores, barbershops, car dealers, furniture stores, and even funeral parlors.8

In a statement whose imagery reflected both a strict religious upbringing and a sense of commercial destiny, Carr’s brother Hal Collins claimed that the way to promote the crystals “materialized as dramatically as the vision of an Old Testament prophet.” Outside the building where a key strategy meeting was taking place, an “old country boy” called Dick Ware was playing the harmonica. “It sounded real good,” Hal Collins explained, and he acted on the inspiration.

I had an old Model A Ford. I took Dick to Dallas and paid $42.50 for 15 minutes on KRLD radio. From then on, every Sunday night we’d go to Dallas. Dick would start out playing something like “Redwing,’ and after that I’d preach. I don’t mean I gave commercials. I preached. The first time we broadcast was in February of 1930. Almost before we got back to Mineral Wells money was piled up on Carr’s desk. Subsequent advertising successes allowed the company to expand its distribution. By 1933, when J. W. Fincher and his son Hubert arrived to expound the Crazy message in the Carolina Piedmont, the crystals were sold all across the country, yearly sales reached close to three million dollars, and advertisements claimed ten million believers in the product.9

When Fincher arrived in the Piedmont, one of his first stops was at WBT, whose fifty thousand watts made it the most powerful broadcast station in the region. Below the admiring profile of the company published in the Charlotte Observer sat a small advertisement, complete with National Recovery Administration eagle. It invited readers to stop by the Charlotte office, where they could learn about the Crazy Wells and partake of “electrically cooled” Crazy Water. Most important, it urged them to listen to WBT; the company had begun to sponsor a daily program. At a quarter past eight on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and just after noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, area residents could tune in to lively arrangements of fiddles, guitars, and banjos, accompanied by smooth assurances that a problem often discreetly labeled as “intestinal fatigue” could be solved by the crystals in the bright green box.

Crazy Water Crystals quickly joined the jumble of people and commerce that filled the bustling Charlotte streets. Advertisements in newspapers and on handbills bore pictures of the large, modern Crazy Water processing facility and of strings of refrigerated railroad cars with the Crazy logo (the crystals disintegrated if not kept cool). Drugstores displayed prominent arrangements of the trademark green boxes, augmented by green and white streamers. A cooler of Crazy Water sat outside the company’s downtown office to tempt passersby into trying a sample, and inside, where the walls had been adorned with the same photos that appeared in the advertisements, the staff “believed” in the product and drank it all the time.10

Such promotional efforts, even in the depths of the depression, proved immediately rewarding; by March 1934, the Charlotte News reported that sales of the crystals had doubled in the Carolina region. The somewhat optimistic News writer portrayed the growth as an indication “that the Carolinas have gone a long way since President Roosevelt started the recovery program.” More of the credit was probably due to the power of the airwaves. The original fifteen-minute daily spot had become two, and J. W. Fincher had broadened the radio coverage to more than a dozen other stations. He was also about to launch his most ambitious project, an ensemble broadcast modeled on such shows as “National Barn Dance” and “Grand Ole Opry.” Each Saturday night from March 1934 to the fall of 1935, “Crazy Barn Dance” offered about a dozen area bands each week the chance to reach a radio audience. In the process, Crazy Water Crystals ceased to be just a cleverly named purgative and became an important force in commercializing the Piedmont’s musical traditions.”11

Many of the Crazy musicians, most of them young men who combined rural roots with at least a taste of textile work or town life, helped set the patterns from which a vast industry would grow. The show contained a number of short-lived acts, perhaps most notably that of Hubert Fincher, who wore a white jacket and yellow tie to the broadcasts and who loved to sing, although his entire repertoire seems to have consisted of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” But most of the program presented extraordinary talent: preacher and songwriter Dorsey Dixon, whose compositions are still performed today; brothers J. E. and Wade Mainer, whose energetic musical arrangements were copied throughout the country; Bill and Earl Bolick, who gained fame as the sweet-singing Blue Sky Boys; and Bill Monroe, who would come to personify the style known as bluegrass, were among the many prominent musicians who got their first full-time professional employment through the Crazy Water shows.

Locating this talent took little effort. J. W. Fincher was always on the lookout for new acts, as was show manager Fisher Hendley, a renowned Carolina banjo player and music promoter who would later become the leader of a popular ensemble known as the Aristocratic Pigs. But many of the groups simply showed up at the Charlotte office. Homer (“Pappy”) Sherrill, a native of Hickory, North Carolina, who played for Fincher for almost five years, recalled hearing from friends in a band called Tobacco Tags that the company was looking for acts. He took his East Hickory String Band to Charlotte, where Hendley gave them a brief audition. A few days later, the band received a telegram telling them of their first barn dance date.12

The quality of local musicians built the Crazy Water Crystals barn dance into one of the most influential in the nation. While “Grand Ole Opry” eventually became the nation’s dominant country music broadcast and Nashville the industry’s hub, these changes did not take place until after World War II. The Crazy Water Crystals shows, broadcast over fifty-thousand-watt WBT, provided one of the major outlets in the Southeast; they were comparable in both signal strength and talent to such productions as “National Barn Dance” on Chicago’s WLS and “Grand Ole Opry” on Nashville’s WSM. Listeners had no trouble appreciating the array of skill. The show’s popularity soon spurred the Finchers to move it out of the WBT studios and into an auditorium where they could have a live audience and charge admission. They began in Charlotte, often in the Charlotte Observer building, but eventually branched out to any community with a facility that could accommodate a large audience.13

The Finchers were far from the first entrepreneurs to discover the commercial potential that lay in the South’s musical traditions. Record companies had been profiting from the region’s extraordinary talent since 1924, when an unlikely- sounding recording called “The Old Hen Cackled,” played by a man who called himself Fiddlin’ John Carson, had promptly sold out its first pressing. Recording industry executives, who were trying to offset the threat radio was posing to their sales, seized on this potential market. Representatives began to cross the region, set- ting up small recording studios in hotel rooms and office buildings and etching wax disks into patterns that would reproduce fiddle breakdowns, centuries-old narratives, sentimental ballads, and gospel tunes for a record-buying public. Musicians were cheap – many were paid little or nothing for recordings – and sales proved steady enough to justify continued investment. Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte emerged as major recording centers because of the depth of area talent.14

The variety found in early recordings suggests the richness and complexity of the South’s musical heritage. The English, Irish, German, African, and other traditions that settlers had brought into the region had mixed both with each other and with elements of national culture drawn from religious movements, minstrel shows, and other forms of popular entertainment. Early recordings included ballads with Elizabethan roots, cacophonous square dance routines, Victorian parlor songs, blues-inspired laments, and gospel songs from a wide variety of sources. Playing styles ranged from bursts of reckless exuberance to close harmonies and highly patterned arrangements. The one characteristic common to these recordings was that they were produced by white southerners with mostly rural backgrounds; record executives defining them for the market settled on the term “hillbilly.”15

The word “hillbilly,” often spelled “hill billy” or “hill billie,” had been used since the start of the century to describe rural southerners, and it had the regional flavor promoters were looking for. Many rural dwellers, including a number of musicians, considered it “a fighting word” because of its negative connotations. But it was an ideal marketing tool, and its meaning proved ambiguous enough for most players and consumers to accept. “Hillbilly” would remain the most common general term for the music until the 1940s, when it was replaced in many circles by “country and western.”16

As the “hillbilly” name suggests, early promoters tended to stress the more rustic aspects of the music, often casting it in opposition to the orders and conventions of town life. When Victor record scout Ralph Peer stopped in Charlotte on his famous 1927 southern recording tour, the Charlotte Observer’s description of his visit combined romantic images with hints of distinctly unmodern passions:

Mountaineer musicians of western North Carolina who know little of cities except by legend and who play by native instinct will come to Charlotte today to perpetuate their art for an invisible audience of hundreds of thousands of people…. Folk-lore songs and banjo selections by artists of the soil who have never read a note but through whose music runs the passion of river torrents and mountain feuds and the melody of valley meadows, are to be recorded.17

Stars of the 1920s, who made their reputations through records and personal appearances, often found it paid to play up aspects of their lives and music that departed from prevailing standards of social order. Many groups dashed off their tunes in rough and raucous style. Others laced their performances with off-color jokes and frequent references to moonshine whiskey. One of Ralph Peer’s 1927 recordings simulated a rural corn-shucking party in which loud slurps of corn liquor played as prominent a role as musical performance. Georgia’s Skillet Lickers, one of the most popular early bands, once went on for fourteen 78 RPM record sides with a mix of comedy and music entitled “Corn Licker Still in Georgia.” Fiddlin’ John Carson gave his daughter the stage name of “Moonshine Kate,” and North Carolina’s own Charlie Poole drank and rambled himself into an early grave, singing about his exploits in such songs as “If the River Was Whiskey” and “Take a Drink on Me.”18

By the 1930s, however, the commercial climate was shifting. Wireless broadcast was becoming the most important force driving the growth of the hillbilly music industry, with radio exposure serving as the key to record sales and to scheduling the personal appearances from which most bands derived their income. The South was full of enormously talented musicians, who combined vocal skills with instruments that ranged from fiddles and banjos to washtubs and Hawaiian steel guitars. But it was those groups able to land a regular radio spot, either on a fifteen-minute daily program or a Saturday night barn dance, who had a chance to make a living from their art.

The musicians who made their careers through those shows differed substantially from their predecessors in both image and style. By 1934, when the Finchers began to print souvenir programs for the Crazy Water shows, musical promoters were aiming their productions at audiences that seemed to have as much interest in the present as in the past. The Crazy Water programs described “good old-fashioned music,” “sweet old time tunes,” “the real untarnished mountain tunes,” and “the good old tunes that we all like so much to hear,” but they pointed out the musicians’ connections to the region’s industrial plants, referring to the Towel City, the Furniture City, and the City of Spindles. They also stressed the bands’ skills with “popular” selections, which could stray as far from tradition as the “Hot Saxophone numbers” played by a band called Raymond Lindsey’s Combinators.19

A sense of lively energy still suffused the performances “peppy” seems to have been one of Fincher’s favorite adjectives, and descriptions of the bands emphasized toe-tapping excitement. “These boys have got plenty of rhythm, vim, vigor and vitality, and when they play, everybody listens,” one program noted of the W. 0. W. String Band. But photographs, descriptions, and comments from players suggest that this exuberance differed considerably from that of the Skillet Lickers or Fiddlin’ John Carson. Off-color jokes had been largely eliminated. The whiskey jugs that had served as colorful props in early shows had vanished. Songs that celebrated drinking had dropped considerably in number, and bands were placing a new emphasis on religious tunes.20

Versions of traditional music that emphasized order and conventional morality had been popular in Piedmont communities long before the first hillbilly records were made. Religious gatherings had nurtured community spirit, and many nineteenth-century popular songs contained morals that fit easily into this world view. Practitioners of more orderly styles had moved into the commercial field as well -most notably Virginia’s influential Carter family. A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle performed gospel songs, traditional ballads, and sentimental tunes, and handbills advertising their shows proclaimed: “The Program is Morally Good.” The radio broadcasts of the 1930s would bring a new prominence to this side of tradition, exemplified in the contrasting fates of the Carters and Fiddlin’ John Carson. While Fiddlin’ John found that the appeal he held outside his native Georgia had all but vanished in the early 1930s, the Carters secured a broadcasting niche on one of the most powerful stations in North America.21

The developing radio industry had some influence on this shift in musical tone, affecting both the musicians who appeared and the songs they sang. The potential complications of airing a radio show that would be heard by an extremely broad range of listeners made radio repertoires in all fields particularly conservative. In the 1920s, many hillbilly entertainers had appeared without sponsors, serving largely to help stations fill up their airtime. By the 1930s, however, almost all the acts were sponsored by companies who saw the musicians as direct representatives of their products. Throughout the industry, avoiding questionable material often seemed the wisest path. “Controversy is Dangerous,” New York Times radio editor Orrin Dunlap warned radio performers in 1929. Dunlap specifically criticized the broadcast of a recitation entitled “Jazz and Gin,” which he claimed was applauded by urban audiences but drew protest from more conservative rural listeners. J. W. Fincher was no stranger to these concerns, and he spoke about both liquor and con- duct to his musicians in no uncertain terms. “That’s the first thing he said,” Homer Sherrill recalled. “You’ve got to be a gentleman, and you don’t drink, to represent Crazy Water Crystals.”22

The logistical requirements of the radio industry also played a role in the selection of musicians. The industry demanded steady commitment from its participants -playing a fifteen-minute live radio show required hard work and punctuality, and some bands rehearsed as much as two hours for each show. Such constraints tended to eliminate those musicians whose life-styles did not accommodate this kind of discipline; Charlie Poole, for example, made only sporadic radio appearances. When it came to recommending musicians for employment, qualities of responsibility and morality were sometimes stressed even over those of musical talent and stressed in a tone that suggested employers were at least as concerned with whether the musicians showed up for work as with what they were singing on the air. “Mr. Campbell possesses moral, sober habits, and I am glad to say that he has shown himself to be a gentleman in every sense of the word during his stay here,” wrote Charles A. Smithgall, assistant manager of Atlanta’s WGST, in a letter of recommendation for the musician Cecil Campbell in 1935. J. W. Fincher noted in a similar communication to Campbell, “Your energy and punctual observance of engagements and duties impressed me very much,” adding in the next paragraph, “Your habits of energy, thrift, and principles of honesty make you worthy of consideration wherever you may be.”23

Although the Finchers and other sponsors could set some parameters for perfomance, they seem to have exercised little influence over which songs were played or how they were arranged. Musicians realized that they were engaged in a commercial enterprise and compromised with the Finchers over a number of questions. Many bands allowed the trademark Crazy to be added to their names. Bill Bolick, one of the Blue Sky Boys, recalled that Fincher once asked him to dress in a country- style checked shirt and hat, thinking it would be “cute.” He didn’t care for the idea, he said, but went along with it because Fincher was paying the bills. Asked whether he was bothered when Fincher dubbed one group he played with the Crazy Hickory Nuts, he replied, “At that time, it really didn’t bother me, because I was only thinking of the money I was getting out of it. I mean it was more than I’d been making, and at that time it didn’t make too much difference to me.”24

The music, though, was another matter. Most of the players on the shows were extraordinary musicians, among the finest representatives of a remarkable tradition. They were proud of their talents, and while they could perform a wide variety of tunes, most had a sense of personal style and sound from which they would have been reluctant to depart. “Our style was for real,” explained Zeke Morris, who per- formed first with the Crazy Mountaineers and then with his brother Wiley as the Morris Brothers. “It’s something that we done ourselves, you know…. I wouldn’t dare to change my style for nobody’s style. Because it wouldn’t fit me.”25

Neither Fincher nor any of the many other sponsors of hillbilly music seem to have tried to dictate musical issues-even Bill Bolick, whose relationship with Fincher was problematic at best, never accused him of trying to tamper with the repertoire. Players were generally given a specific amount of time to fill, and the content was up to them. For “Crazy Barn Dance,” bands were notified by mail before a scheduled appearance and told simply to prepare three songs -two to perform and one for a possible encore. “They didn’t tell you what to do-you done what you wanted to,” Homer Sherrill said. “Just what you practiced and you thought you was doing good, that’s what you carried there.”26

The shows’ audiences played the main role in performers’ accounts of what they chose to play. Most musicians felt close ties to their listeners, many of whom could easily have been their friends or neighbors, and the affection they felt comes through in their descriptions. “Real down to earth good people,” was the way Homer Sherrill described hillbilly listeners. “We wanted and tried our best to please the audience,” Wade Mainer explained. Zeke Morris found himself considerably less emotional about many tunes than his audience seemed to be, but he respected their reactions. Describing a performance of Wade Mainer and his sentimental hit duet “Maple on a Hill,” he noted, “You could see the older people out in the audience a-wiping tears from their eyes.” Then he added: “It’s just something about the tune, I suppose, that really caught the people. It had a lot of meaning to it.”27

Players had plenty of opportunities to assess listener reaction. Audience members commented at performances and even sent telegrams while a live broadcast was taking place-Zeke Morris recalled that he and Wade Mainer had to sing “Maple on a Hill” four times during one barn dance broadcast, because so many telegrams arrived at the auditorium requesting it. The Crazy Tennessee Ramblers reported receiving sixty thousand pieces of mail in a single year. “They would write to the group, and they would say how much they enjoyed our program, and would you please send us your earliest date that you could come to see us,” Homer Sherrill recalled. “Most of them were postcards. Penny postcards. And they’d say would you please play the song-something we’d been playing that got popular, you know.”28

Grasping the significance of exchanges that consisted largely of a song title scribbled on a postcard, or a few words spoken from a stage, is not an easy task. Little physical evidence remains even of those brief comments. Neither musicians or radio stations gave much thought to preserving the large quantities of mail that arrived at their doors. Program recordings saved by WBT from that era were limited largely to a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt and a group of Confederate veterans reenacting a rebel yell. But hints and fragments of evidence do exist, particularly in the assessments and recollections of the musicians. And the patterns in this material point toward some of the central conflicts in Piedmont life, suggesting aspects of the broader social dialogue to which the Crazy musicians belonged. The many requests for religious tunes formed perhaps the clearest pattern in the musicians’ correspondence. Both Bill Bolick and Homer Sherrill recalled that half of their requests asked for religious songs. In two songbooks put together by Wade Mainer, which he said reflected mail and audience requests, 36 of 57 songs dealt with specifically religious matters, and several of the rest touched on religious themes.29

But the significance of playing gospel tunes went well beyond simply satisfying listeners’ musical tastes. It also helped musicians convey to an audience com- posed largely of strangers that the performers did not intend to challenge prevailing standards of social order and morality. As Zeke Morris put it, You were out there to entertain people with clean, wholesome entertainment. And so we just figured that if we put a couple or three gospel tunes in there that people would like that better. They would kind of figure us out as good people. Which we always tried to be good people. We never intended to be roughnecks or any- thing like that, like a lot of musicians are today.30

This use of religious music to send indirect messages about a band’s moral character points toward some of the cultural reconfigurations that had come with the breakup of the close-knit rural world that had previously characterized the region. As people poured into urban centers and mill villages, residents in both areas found themselves interacting with strangers ranging from employers to neighbors to people encountered on the streets, sidewalks, and dirt paths of their new communities. Without the cushion (or the handicap) of family background, which formed such a key element of reputation in rural areas, residents began to look for other ways to present themselves and to judge others. Whether they were confronted with a potential business partner, a new neighbor in a textile mill village, or a radio voice touting the virtues of an untried product, they were forced to find new criteria for determining whom to believe, associate with, and trust. Outward appearance formed one criterion. Clothing and grooming, as well as manners, came to symbolize adherence to the ascendant middle-class virtues of thrift and self-control, and the most common pejorative applied to textile workers – “linthead” also focused on appearance. Workers were keenly aware of these standards, and years later many seized on lack of appropriate dress as a symbol for the poverty they suffered through. “I just lived day to day,” recalled Ruth Elliot. “I didn’t have decent clothes to wear, and the kids, [their] clothes were just used -donated. Well, that’s no way to live.” “I didn’t even have maternity clothes to wear’, echoed Mozelle Riddle. “I had a friend that give me one dress, and that’s what I had to wear. I had to wear old clothes, didn’t have no money to buy nothing with.” The broad reach of this concern also found voice in publications of the time: “A reason frequently given by mill people for their failure to go to church is that they haven’t clothes good enough to wear and that they would be laughed at,” Methodist minister Gilbert Rowe once declared in the Charlotte Daily Observer 31

Rowe had no difficulty linking perceived deficiencies in appearance with assumed lapses in character. “The fault lies not so much in the quality of the clothes as in the taste with which they are gotten up,” he stated, adding, “This lack of taste . . . is common to all who have not had the advantage of social culture. Enough money is spent on their clothes, but many mill people have poor taste, and they know it.” Those with a clearer view of the situation, however, knew that the small paychecks of even the highest-paid mill workers made judging them by the quality of their dress an extremely unreliable method. Dorsey Dixon, a musician with long experience in the textile mills, pointed to this problem in one of his most popular compositions, “Weave Room Blues.” “Some are needing clothing / Some are needing shoes,” he sang on the Crazy Water shows. “But I’m getting nothing / But them Weave Room Blues.” Charlotte mill worker Ada Mae Wilson saw the situation from a different perspective but still used the combined symbolism of clothes and churchgoing: “‘Poor white trash,’ they called us. They thought people ought to wear overalls and brogan shoes to church, you know. They didn’t think we should have anything.”32

Religious faith, which required no cash outlay, offered a more universal standard. Christianity had deep roots in the region, and as the pressures of industrialization began to separate residents along class lines, religious belief was one of the few characteristics that continued to cross those divisions. Business leaders cited churchgoing as a symbol of the region’s stability and used the confidence inspired by shared beliefs to smooth business dealings among themselves. Job interviews commonly included questions about church affiliations, based on the theory that believers made better mill village residents and more reliable hands. The practice of mill owners personally conducting Bible classes for workers had died out by the 1930s, but many owners still monitored Sunday activities. “I tell my foremen to watch a man who has stopped attending church,” one owner told sociologist Liston Pope, noting ominously that the supervisors “nearly always report that my warning was correct.”33

Religion-based assessments were common at other levels of society as well. Some workers used churchgoing as an indicator of respectable stability, drawing distinctions between believers and “sorry people” or “damn rascals” who stayed outside the religious circle. Labor organizers found it advantageous to declare their own respect for belief, just as anti-union propaganda often took on a religious tone. “No attack of any kind against religion has been made by our leaders at any time,” read a circular distributed by labor organizers at Gastonia’s Loray Mill during the 1929 textile strike. “To the contrary, preachers have spoken from our platform.” Mill worker Louise Riggsbee Jones, who lived near the town of Pittsboro, North Carolina, provided a more commonplace example of the loose association between religion and social acceptability when she described a community schoolteacher. “He had some people at Pittsboro,” she explained. “It seems like he had a brother that was a preacher or his father was a preacher. Anyway, he was a good man.”34

For those living in mill villages, judging musicians on the basis of religion had practical as well as moral implications. String band music had always occupied a somewhat ambiguous position within southern society, caught between the tendencies toward order and those toward disorder that created such striking contrasts in descriptions of the rural South. Almost any description of the region involves a contrast between saints and sinners, Saturday-night frolics and Sunday morning solemnities. Although many such depictions seem more like conveniently dramatic simplifications than reflections of the realities of people’s lives, they did reflect definite tensions in rural culture. Residents of the rural Piedmont had fashioned a culture that corresponded well to their difficult living conditions, with a world view that combined ideals of mutual assistance, strong religious beliefs, and a wide- spread ethic that extolled hard work and often looked on idleness as sin. Music had served as one of the great cementing elements in rural life, bringing people together in family picking sessions or neighborhood square dances, lightening community tasks such as raising barns and shucking corn, and helping to express both religious and secular concerns. Many musicians, particularly those who used their talents to evangelize as well as entertain, held honored positions within their communities. But musical entertainment also raised troubling questions for some segments of this society. Members of some religious denominations rejected the notion of nonsacred entertainment, particularly when dancing was involved. At one of his first recording sessions, A. P. Carter refused to perform square dance tunes because he knew his highly religious parents would object. Those without strict philosophical objections to secular entertainment could also view musical gatherings with suspicion, seeing them as a threat to prevailing social standards. Professional musicians, who per- formed outside the context of community labor, were often under particularly close scrutiny. Music making could seem deceptively, even immorally, easy compared to the backbreaking labor required of many other southerners. Playing also tended to divert people from more directly productive tasks, a concept embodied in Charlie Poole’s habit of leaving a mill job and retiring to a bridge outside the factory, where he would pick his banjo and wave to fellow workers leaning out the windows.35

The problematic potential of musical performance shows in the way that long- time mill worker Ethel Hilliard described the parties that took place in the rural community where she grew up. She clearly anticipated criticism, and she drew sharp lines between the gatherings she was describing and those that deserved condemnation. “They’d go to different ones’ houses every once in a while and have a dance,” she explained. “They didn’t think it was no harm, said nothing about it. But now some people think something like that’s awful. Well, some of them is awful, but like they was a-doing it, it weren’t bad. It was right smart of fun.”36

In the minds of many Piedmont residents, one of the main lines dividing “awful” entertainments from those that were “right smart of fun” was the quantity of alcohol consumed, particularly by male participants. Mozelle Riddle’s account of a musical competition in which her husband Randolph played suggests how the themes of drinking and musical performance could influence her experience of a single musical event, making her at once ashamed and proud: When Randolph would take two drinks his face would light up just like a candle, red as blood! … And Randolph and Robert was backstage, and had that old half a gallon of liquor back there. And Robert, he would fix Randolph a shot and give it to him. And when Randolph come out there, they introduced who it was, you know, and what he was going to play, Golden Slippers, on the piano. And when he come out, his face, you could have lit a cigarette on it, it was so red -he drunk too much…. But he got up there and played that thing. He made that piano talk! And he won the first prize, twenty-five dollars. He sure did!37

Playing and drinking often went hand in hand, jointly immortalized in such tunes as “Give the Fiddler a Dram” and in such stories as that of the Danville, Virginia, sheriff who once suggested that every man seen drunk or carrying a guitar case should be immediately arrested. Liquor was readily available at many musical events, sometimes as private as a bottle discreetly offered to musicians before they stepped out to play, sometimes as public as a common bucket and dipper. Many musicians used drink to inspire their performances; after his first shaky recording session, Charlie Poole declared that he would never again record sober. This use of alcohol had fostered both pleasures and problems, functioning sometimes in community creation (the shared bottle at a music-making session) and sometimes as a danger (a drunken brawl at a square dance). But in the New South, the pressures of industrial labor, the physical hazards created by technological advancement, and the growing disdain for activities that suggested even momentary lapses in self- control often swung that balance to the threatening side.38

Heightened concern about the nature of musical entertainment formed part of the widespread disdain for traditional rural culture that had accompanied the Piedmont’s urban growth. Although some of the more sedate aspects of tradition, particularly Appalachian ballads, gained sympathetic treatment in literary portraits of highly romanticized rural lives, most country ways were increasingly subjected to derisive laughter or pointed criticism. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, writings that ranged from accomplished novels to the doggerel verse published in small-town newspapers began to shift from accounts of stalwart yeoman farmers to portraits of laughable bumpkins, unfamiliar with city ways. Textile industry spokesmen provided particularly harsh critiques, in part because ideas of rural backwardness provided a convenient way to deflect criticisms of mill village conditions. Critical descriptions of mill village residents often cited unruly elements of rural culture, particularly drinking and boisterous entertainment, as unproductive habits that needed to be changed before workers could improve their situations. These constant rhetorical pressures brought new uncertainties to many mill workers’ views of the culture they had inherited.39

But workers also had powerfully practical reasons for worrying about alcohol. In a world full of large, potentially destructive machines, drinking could lead to swiftly tragic results. One mill supervisor claimed that most industrial accidents took place on Mondays, and he attributed them to weekend binges. At the same time, as more families owned cars, accidents involving drunken drivers created terrifying moments of community trauma. Mozelle Riddle recalled being at a candy-pulling party when news arrived of a drink-induced wreck that killed five members of her community. “There was three houses here on the hill at one time with corpses in them,” she re- called. “Boy that really tore up the party. I remember, that’s the last party I remember ever having in Bynum.” One of Dorsey Dixon’s most famous songs, “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” treated the effects of such indulgence in starkly dramatic style: “Whiskey and glass all together / Were mixing with blood where they lay…. I heard the groans of the dying / But I didn’t hear nobody pray.” A few years later, when Roy Acuff recorded this song as “Wreck on the Highway,” it became one of country music’s best-known hits.40

Still, the most serious effects of drinking came not in dramatic, accidental tragedies, but in long-term results – consequences particularly evident in mill village The pressures of low wages and stressful working conditions encouraged more drinking in textile villages than there had been on farms and gave the social aspects of the practice an edge of desperation. Musically, the difference could be seen in the shift from portrayals of drinking as an enjoyable way to create bonds among friends and strangers to descriptions that cast alcohol as a sign of despair. Blind Alfred Reed, a prominent Virginia performer, sang of the man who was “sick and tired of life and takes to drinking,” and Dorsey Dixon’s “Weave Room Blues” contained a verse that expressed similar sentiments: “Our hearts are achin’ / Let’s take a little booze / For we’re goin’ crazy / With them Weave Room Blues.”41

Drinking could be seen as rebellion, as a proud defiance of industrial demands, but the weekend bouts with liquor that characterized many mill villages put much more pressure on individual families than they did on mill finances. In the country, drinking and music making generally took place either as a part of communal labor or during seasonal lulls in productive activity. In such contexts, a three-day dance or a week-long binge had limited effects on a family’s monetary well-being. Indus- trial employment offered fewer opportunities for such indulgences, and many families found that days and weeks lost from work upset already precarious financial situations, making it hard to maintain basic standards of decency, let alone to reach any loftier goals. In many cases, women bore the major share of these burdens. Men had always been more closely associated with the disorderly side of Piedmont life, and many of them had more trouble adjusting to the demands of textile work than did their female counterparts. Ruth Elliot, who was so embarrassed by her children’s donated clothing, attributed much of her trouble in feeding and dressing her family to her husband’s drinking. “I couldn’t count on Jesse for anything,” she explained. “I lived poor,” echoed Mozelle Riddle, “a poor way, cause my husband, he wasn’t worth much. He wouldn’t hold a job no time. He’d work a little while, and then he’d get on the bottle, and he wouldn’t work. He’d drink and throw the money away.”42

The spread of commercial agriculture also affected this dynamic. A family growing a commercial crop such as cotton or tobacco received payment for a whole year’s work in one cash sum. A drunken spree at the wrong moment could have much more drastic consequences for such a family than for one whose labors resulted in a crib full of corn and a smokehouse full of meat.43

Some mill owners sought to keep their villages in order through methods that ranged from conducting Bible classes and personally enforcing curfews to dismissing those workers caught drinking or fighting. By the 1930s, however, the paternalistic zeal of earlier periods had dropped considerably. Much of the responsibility for creating and maintaining village stability was taken up by residents, particularly women. Like their middle-class counterparts, who were organizing in clubs and church groups with the goal of improving their surroundings, mill women actively worked to alter their own world. In addition to creating an atmosphere of community through front-porch talks and mutual assistance, women in many communities set out to take some of the rough edges off mill life. Religion served as a potent weapon in these efforts, as prayer groups, services, and individual admonitions were directed at convincing husbands and neighbors to join the church, sober up, and settle down.44

This penchant for organization and action was not lost on hillbilly performers. Women made up a large and vocal segment of the hillbilly audience. Radio surveys of the 1930s showed that despite the stories of farmers hurrying from their fields to listen to noontime shows, the major daytime audience comprised women and children. Women wrote more than two-thirds of the letters received by stations, sponsors, and performers in the period. Pleasing letter writers was a prime concern of radio performers. Systematic audience surveys still lay many years away, and adding up the mail was the main way that results-hungry sponsors judged a group’s popularity.45

Perhaps more important, however, was the role of women in arranging personal appearances for hillbilly groups. Personal appearances provided the lion’s share of most musicians’ income. Radio and recordings might bring a player fame, but they only rarely produced enough money to support a full-time career. Recording companies often paid no royalties, and when they did, the half-cent-per-record standard rate meant that only the most popular tunes brought much return. The compensation pattern of the Crazy Water Crystals shows, in which Fincher paid small salaries to the most popular groups and nothing to most of the rest, was standard throughout the industry. As a result, most groups relied on the income from personal appearances, the five- or ten-cent-admission shows they put on in theaters and schoolhouses across the region. Local organizations played an essential role in this system; in most cases they were the ones who rented a space, provided publicity, and handled the finances, dividing the profits with the musicians at the end of a performance.46

Church groups and women’s clubs were frequent sponsors of these appearances. And as Tobacco Tag member Harvey Ellington suggested, the members of these groups often held bands to strict moral standards:

I’m telling you right now, you get the women against you, you is in bad shape. Word gets around, and it didn’t take but one word that didn’t sound right, and brother, you was in bad shape. They always looked at you up there as a bunch of nice people, you see, and all that sort of thing. That’s a little picture they formed.47

The need to appear as “nice people” was not a new concept for hillbilly musicians. Many performers walked a fine line between acceptability and censure. Charlie Poole included sacred songs in performances that contained plenty of distinctly nonsacred material, and when he drank at a schoolhouse performance or on a stage, he often hid his liquor in a partly empty Coca-Cola bottle. The charm that most successful performers possessed in abundance could go a long way toward defusing potentially offensive material – Fiddlin’ John Carson, old colleagues recalled, was able to get away with jokes and stories for which most people would have been harshly condemned. Ellington’s comment, however, suggests that by the 1930s the range of acceptable behavior had narrowed considerably, even as audience opportunities to assess groups in advance – often, no doubt, through their radio shows – had increased.48

Musicians’ reactions to these new demands thus seem to have involved less a wholesale change than a polishing away of some aspects of earlier styles, even as they used the new influences of “popular” music to add to and elaborate on the material that remained. The resulting shows provided the kind of entertainment many local groups no doubt desired. They mixed sentimental songs that linked listeners to their childhoods with new arrangements that sounded thoroughly up-to-date. They allowed audience members to tap their feet, to clap, and maybe to shed a tear or two, but they raised few concerns about whether the entertainment would encourage the kind of behavior that might embarrass “respectable” members of the community or threaten a social stability that, in those turbulent years, seemed all too difficult to maintain.49

Differences between men and women, between wholesome and unwholesome entertainment, and between stability and challenges to order remained far from clear cut. Many of the supposedly medicinal products sold by hillbilly musicians contained high percentages of alcohol. Attempts to reform mill village life were often led by male preachers. Moonshine Kate made no recorded objections either to her colorful stage name or to her father’s skits, and residents of almost any mill town could point to women who drank or who acted in what was considered “sorry” fashion by the more self-consciously respectable. Drinking and rambling remained important themes in the hillbilly field-themes that would return to prominence with 1940s honky-tonk performers such as Hank Williams (although, significantly, such tunes were played much more frequently in jukeboxes than on the radio). Mozelle Riddle’s ambivalent description of her husband’s drink-inspired performance suggested some of the complexities of individual reactions, as did the woman who pronounced: “I hated Charlie Poole, but when he died, I cried.” 50

Music, women, and religious faith could and did combine to challenge the social and economic conditions prevailing in the Piedmont. When tied directly to a larger social movement, music could serve as a galvanizing force for both protest and action – action in which women played prominent roles. Militant songs such as those composed by Ella May Wiggins galvanized support for textile strikes in 1929, and “dancing pickets” kept strikers in good spirits during 1934. Religion could lend credence to a vision of justice that differed substantially from worldly standards, and depression-era letter writers drew on biblical references to justify complaints about their bosses, while strikers at some mills held religious services and sang hymns on the picket line.51

But in a world that seemed to offer few opportunities for sweeping change, one where the largest labor action in the country’s history could be crushed within a month, many people chose to concentrate on less dramatic efforts, building day after day a world where they could live with some sense of peace and dignity. “It was just one day of living at a time,” Ethel Hilliard explained. And the very dailiness of hillbilly radio, the regular schedule of twice-daily shows and Saturday night special events, suited it to support precisely these kinds of efforts. Wade Mainer defined his songs as dealing with “things happening in everyday life,” and most hillbilly tunes chronicled the love affairs and family relationships that formed the emotional core of many of their listeners’ lives. This daily quality may also suggest why so many of the audience requests were for religious songs.52

When textile workers spoke of their faith, they rarely focused on the dramatic Sunday morning displays that so interested outside observers. Rather, they described feelings that ran through everyday lives, lending them strength to carry out the tasks and duties that often crammed their hours to overflowing. “I prayed all the time, walking and a-working,” Ethel Hilliard noted. “I’d pray a lot while I was working, and I felt like the Lord helped my looms to run,” said Pauline Griffith. The hymns and gospel songs that came across the airwaves on a daily basis may well have helped to reinforce this kind of day-to-day religious life -a life from which many hard-pressed workers drew the strength to carry on. “If I hadn’t the faith in God, I’d have never got by,” Mozelle Riddle explained, echoing the words of many of her fellow workers.53

Finally, religious music may also have helped to nurture a reconfigured vision of a coherent community. One of the most troubling effects of the prolonged period of labor unrest for many mill workers was the deep divisions it opened within communities, pitting not only worker against owner but sometimes neighbor against neighbor. Religion had served as one of the fault lines for such breaks; religious strikers charged management with acting against divine will, and churches who op- posed the actions expelled union members. But musical programs that included “two or three gospel songs,” drawn from a variety of traditions that tied them to no specific line of doctrine, placed Christian belief back into a role of suggesting connections and shared values rather than divisions.54

The extent to which Piedmont culture could accommodate at least a vision of shared values helps to explain both the configuration hillbilly radio assumed and the popularity it gained. Shows composed of songs that posed direct challenges to social hierarchies would probably have had an extremely short life in an industry that depended on business sponsorship for its survival; programs that offered only palliatives for difficulties too harsh to ignore would probably have had less appeal. The Crazy Water musicians, who negotiated a cultural ground where the back- grounds and concerns of a wide variety of individuals could seem to meet, managed to avoid both fates. The nature of that ground reflects the history of the region and the backgrounds of the individuals who lived there. Carr Collins and J. W. Fincher were religious teetotalers as well as canny salesmen who knew how to win consumers’ confidence. Homer Sherrill and Wade Mainer cared as much about their own tradition-based integrity as they did about commercial success. Mozelle Riddle and Ethel Hilliard worked to make the best of difficult situations with the means they found available. Appeals to images of stable religious beliefs served each of these interests. Not all the Piedmont’s residents felt at home within this space. But it gathered a group large enough to shape a highly influential form of popular culture at a critical moment in its development. The successful adaptation of Piedmont musical traditions to the demands of commercial broadcast held long-term implications for the region. The Crazy musicians’ shift toward themes of respectability and order had followed a familiar path. Numerous purveyors of commercial entertainment had already found that conservative controls on content and behavior helped them to win broad audiences and thus increase profits. Vaudeville entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth century diligently polished away the more risque aspects of their art as they sought to appeal to new groups of spectators, particularly women. Following World War I, the owners of many moving picture establishments turned away from the informal, sometimes boisterous atmosphere of nickelodeon theaters in favor of lavish movie “palaces” whose plush surroundings, carefully chosen films, and increased emphasis on audience decorum attracted patrons from the middle class and the “respectable” working class, both of which had previously avoided this form of entertainment.55

Still, the 1930s stands out as a period when the development of national popular entertainment involved not simply alterations in mass-produced culture but also the modification and incorporation of many regional traditions. The radio and recording scouts who showed such a keen interest in southern music found remarkable tradition-based performers in many corners of the United States, usually within communities whose members were also working to reconcile uncertain social standing with the demands of middle-class respectability and cultural reconfiguration. Musicians ranging from Cajuns in Louisiana to Mexican Americans along the Texas border to African Americans in northern cities began to fashion powerful new styles during this period. Many of those artists, like the Crazy Water Crystals per- formers, struck a balance between allegiance to tradition and incorporation of changing community concerns. In Chicago, Thomas Dorsey adapted the “sinful” rhythms of blues music to the highly ordered services of urban African-American churches, invigorating the worship without unduly threatening the middle-class ideals that many church members had adopted. Along the Texas border, Narcisco Martinez was shaping the distinctive sound of conjunto music, retaining the flavor of his rural Mexican heritage while developing a following in assimilation-minded corners of the border community.56

Wireless broadcast did not in itself transform the tone of those diverse incarnations of musical culture. Its power lay rather in the way it influenced processes of alteration that had begun well before the sounds that issued from countless radio receivers became a major source of entertainment nationwide. In the Piedmont, residents had already been struggling for many years with the difficulties of industrial transformation, responding with a complex mix of personal accommodation and collective opposition. During the 1930s, the dynamics of radio broadcast combined with the strain of depression-era hardships to magnify those aspects of this emerging culture that emphasized stability and social reconciliation. The confrontations of the general textile strike of 1934 lasted an intense few weeks; they then began to fade from many participants’ thoughts, submerged in the larger tasks of day-to-day existence. Commercial hillbilly music, which emphasized a very difficult side of this cultural reconfiguration, became a daily part of those same people’s lives.57

But even as this shift altered Piedmont music, it also helped maintain it as a broad-based cultural tradition. Although mass popular culture continued to expand its influence nationwide, the commercial success of tradition-based music such as hillbilly, black gospel, or con/unto kept audiences connected to alternative sources of cultural strength. The middle-class promoters of early radio broadcast had hoped that the medium would encourage a more radical transformation, winning converts to the disciplined harmonies and complex arrangements of classical music, which had become a potent symbol of industrial social order in the late nineteenth cen- tury. Such efforts generally failed, and classical broadcasts often gave way to more popular productions of locally based music. In the Piedmont, the rise of broadcast hillbilly music was therefore fraught with irony, as this often-disdained genre prob- ably served as a more effective advocate of social order than any classical performance would have. But the music also held within itself alternative possibilities. In the 1950s and 1960s, the distinctive style of conlun to music became an important factor in consolidating working-class identity along the Texas-Mexico border, even though the songs rarely conveyed direct political sentiments. Hillbilly music retained the potential to unite groups of working-class southerners around a common stylistic sensibility.58

The final interpretation of the music thus rested with its listeners. Recent students of popular culture have suggested that its significance can be found, not by assuming that it provided people a temporary escape from the realities of difficult situations, but by exploring, as Lawrence Levine put it, “whether and in what ways it allowed them to cope with the effects of these realities.” In the hard-pressed 1930s, concerns about social and economic stability helped to determine both the content of hillbilly performances and the ways they were interpreted – strategies that made the difficulties of depression-era lives a little more bearable. As these circumstances changed, the significance of the music had the potential to change as well. But the transformations of the 1930s meant that most alternate meanings lay submerged beneath words of accommodation. The audience itself would have to draw these meanings forth.59

Hillbilly audiences did continue to interpret the many messages that poured into their homes. The diverging fates of the Crazy Water Crystals and of the music that their manufacturer sponsored both suggests some of this discrimination and provides a final indication of the significant role that hillbilly music continued to play in the lives of its audience. The claims made for the product were often grandiose: “For fifty-six years ‘Crazy’ Water has come to the aid of the weak and the ailing,” promised a publicity document, “and it has made of them men and women ready to face life’s hardships.” The troubles that the advertisement writers identified – exhaustion, nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness -were certainly common during the depression (“He stays up late at night because he’s worried / And because his home is not what it should be,” sang Blind Alfred Reed). But the product that was supposed to cure these ills had a relatively short life. By 1937, demand in the Piedmont had dropped considerably, forcing Fincher to cut back on his radio endeavors. 60

Carr Collins’s biographer blamed the crystals’ eventual demise on a campaign by New Deal administrator Rexford Tugwell, who she said targeted the product for ridicule. Carolina division employees, however, attributed the decline in popularity to the growing realization that while the crystals were much more expensive than other laxatives, they proved no more effective. Homer Sherrill, who had moved with Fincher to Atlanta after financial disputes ended the Charlotte shows in 1935, re- called seeing the decline dramatically reflected in the soiled boxes that resulted when the crystals -which tended to disintegrate in warm temperatures -sat on the drugstore shelf too long:

You could tell by the drugstores, by the orders they’d order. When it was really hot and selling, the drugstores had big displays on it. Then, if you seen where they just had maybe a box here and there, and they had already done melted until the bottom had turned brown, it was time to pull it off the shelf, it wasn’t going. But when it was going right, everybody was buying it. 61

The Atlanta headquarters shut down in 1937, Sherrill recalled, and the Charlotte office closed soon afterwards. The citizens of the Piedmont were thus deprived of the Crazy Water Crystals’ “wonderful eliminative effects.” But the cultural influence of the product’s promotion, which had contributed to a broad national shift in the character and purpose of radio broadcasting and encouraged a particular road out of the region’s social and economic hardships, would stay with them much longer. 62


1. At least two souvenir programs were printed in conjunction with the WBT radio shows. I am using Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands (Charlotte, [1934-1935?]) (Country Music Foundation Library and Media Center, Nashville, Tenn.). For the effects of urbanization, industrialization, commercial agriculture, and mass culture on the South’s working-class population, see, for example, W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York, 1941); Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven, 1942); David L. Carlton, Milland Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Baton Rouge, 1982); Ronald D Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 (Knoxville, 1982); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, 1987); and Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont (Chapel Hill, 1989). 2 A detailed description of Piedmont economic transformation can be found in Hall et al., Like a Family, 3-43. Figures on Charlotte’s growth come from Tullos, Habits of Industry, 143; and Thomas Hanchett, “Sorting Out the New South City: Charlotte and Its Neighborhoods” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1993), 2, 31, 202. 3Minister quoted in Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 25. Accounts of the cultural transformations that accompanied industrialization in the Northeast can be found in Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-183 7 (New York, 1978); Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); and John F Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York, 1990). Specific developments in Charlotte are discussed in Hanchett, “Sorting Out the New South City”; and in Pamela Grundy, “From II Trovatore to the Crazy Mountaineers: The Rise and Fall of Elevated Culture on WBT-Charlotte, 1922-1930,” Southern Cultures, 1 (Fall 1994), 51-73. A particularly thoughtful discussion of the world view of Piedmont industrialists can be found in Tullos, Habits of Industry, 86-107.4Hall et al., Like a Family, 205-36, 289-357. 5 Charlotte Observer, Aug. 13, 1933, sec. 4, p. 2. 6 Dorothy Neville, Carr P Collins: Man on the Move (Dallas, 1963), 62. This book is mistakenly listed in a bibliography as Carr P Collins: Man on the Make, which is probably a more accurate description of its contents: see Bill C. Malone, Country Music, US.A. (Austin, 1985), 444. 7 The goal of bodily control saturated national advertising during the 1920s and 1930s, and laxatives played a prominent role: Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, 1985), 17-18, 223-28. 8 Everett Padgett interview by Allen Tullos, May 28, 1980, transcript, p. 6, Piedmont Industrialization Project (Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 67; Wesley Herndon Wallace, “The Development of Broadcasting in North Carolina, 1922-1948” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1962), 206-7. Charlotte News, Oct. 5, 1928, p. 29.9 Neville, Carr P Collins, 66-67. 10 E. Ward Flowers interview by Thomas Hanchett, April 17, 1985, notes, 1 (in Thomas Hanchett’s possession); Margaret D. McCombs interview by Hanchett, April 17, 1985, notes, 1 (ibid.). 11 Charlotte News, March 18, 1934, sec. 3, p. 7; Pat Ahrens, “The Role of the Crazy Water Crystals Company in Promoting Hillbilly Music,” JEMF Quarterly, 6 (Autumn 1970), 107-8; Flowers interview, 1. 12 See Homer Sherrill interview by Pamela Grundy, June 11, 1990, audiotape, tape 1, side 1, Southern Folklife Collection (Southern Historical Collection). 13 For a description of the Grand Ole Opry, see Malone, Country Music, US.A., 209-11. For other shows, see James F. Evans, Prairie Farmer and WLS: The Burridge D. Butler Years (Urbana, 1969), 158-61, 215; Charles K. Wolfe, The Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years, 1925-35 (London, 1975); Bill C. Malone, “Radio and Personal Appearances: Sources and Resources,” Western Folklore, 30 (July 1971), 215-25; Wayne W. Daniel, “The National Barn Dance on Network Radio: The 1930s,”Journal of Country Music, 9 (no. 3, 1983), 47-62; Timothy A. Patterson, “Hillbilly Music among the Flatlanders: Early Midwestern Radio Barn Dances,” ibid., 6 (Spring 1975), 12-18; and Richard A. Peterson and Paul Di Maggio, “The Early Opry: Its Hillbilly Image in Fact and Fancy,” ibid., 4 (Summer 1973), 39-51. For WBT, see Flowers interview. 14 Thomas Hanchett, “Recording in Charlotte: 1927-1945,” in The Charlotte Country Music Story, ed. George Holt (Charlotte, 1985), 12-16.15 The complex exchanges between the South’s black and white musical traditions have been of particular interest to students of southern music, who have found that African-American musicians played important roles in the development of a large percentage of prominent white performers. For a comprehensive discussion of the roots of string band music, including black-white interactions, see Malone, Country Music, US.A., 1-29. 16 For the classic account of the history of the word hillbilly, as well as a thoughtful reconstruction of some of the important moments in early hillbilly recording, see Archie Green, “Hillbilly Music, Source and Symbol,” Journal of American Folklore, 78 (July-Sept. 1965), 204-28. I have chosen to employ the term in part because I believe that the passage of time has softened its pejorative meanings and in part to distinguish the music discussed here from the later developments in the “country” music field. 17 Charlotte Observer, Aug. 9, 1927, sec. 2, p. 1.18 Descriptions of these performers can be found in Bill Malone and Judith McCulloh, eds., Stars of Country Music (Urbana, 1975), 27; Gene Wiggins, Fiddlin’ Georgia Crazy: Fiddlin’ John Carson, His Real World, and the World of His Songs (Urbana, 1987), 8-10; Norman Cohen, “The Skillet Lickers: A Study of a Hillbilly String Band and Its Repertoire,” Journal of American Folklore, 78 (July-Sept. 1965), 229-44; and Kinney Rorrer, Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole (London, 1982). For Peer’s recording, see “Old Time Corn Shuckin’, Pts. 1 & 2:” in The Bristol Sessions, Vol. 1 (cassette tape, 2 tapes; Country Music Foundation Records CMF-011-C; 1987), tape 1. 19 Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands. The portrayal of the musicians reflected both the market that textile workers represented and the changes that industrialization had worked on regional musical traditions. By the 1920s and 1930s, many of the region’s best string bands could be found not on isolated farms, but in the growing industrial towns of the Piedmont New South: Harvey Ellington and Sam Pridgen joint interviews by Tullos, March 1, 1979, and April 5, 1979, combined transcript, p. 13, Piedmont Industrialization Project. 20 Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands. An eloquent description of this shift in tone, which also identifies the early 1930s as a pivotal period in the nationwide development of the hillbilly music industry, can be found in Bob Coltman, “Across the Chasm: How the Depression Changed Country Music,” Old Time Music, 23 (Winter 1976-1977), 6-12. 21 John Atkins, “The Carter Family,” in Stars of Country Music, ed. Malone and McCulloh, 95-120. See also Wiggins, Fiddlin’ Georgia Crazy, 125. 22 Orrin J. Dunlap, Advertising by Radio (New York, 1929), 97-98. Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 2.23 Rorrer, Rambling Blues, 45-49; Charles A. Smithgall, “To whom it may concern,” May 6, 1935, Cecil Camp- bell scrapbook (Country Music Foundation, Library and Media Center); J. W. Fincher to Cecil Campbell, Aug. 16, 1935, ibid. 24 Bill Bolick interview by David Whisnant, Jan. 26, 1974, audiotape, side 1, tape 1, Southern Folklife Collection. 25 Zeke Morris interview by Grundy, April 19, 1990, audiotape, side 1, tape 1, ibid. 26 The source of disputes among players and sponsors -disputes that generally revolved around money rather than aesthetics-reinforces this idea: see Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 2; Morris interview, side 2, tape 1; and Wade Mainer to Pamela Grundy, April 23, 1990 (in Pamela Grundy’s possession). 27 Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 1. Mainer to Grundy, April 23, 1990 (in Grundy’s possession). Morris interview, side 1, tape 1. 28 Morris interview, side 1, tape 2. Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands. Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 2. 29 Bolick interview, side 1, tape 1; Sherrill interview, side 2, tape 1; Mainer to Grundy, April 23, 1990 (in Grundy’s possession). The songbooks were Songs as Sung by Wade Mainer (Zebulon, N.C., n.d.) (Country Music Foundation Library and Media Center); and Wade Mainer, 1940 Song Book No. 2, Southern Folklife Collection. Several of the songs in these collections specifically warned of the dangers of drink. For another example of the influence of religious listeners on commercial singing groups, see Bill Malone, “The Chuck Wagon Gang: God’s Gentle People,” Journal of Country Music, 10 (no. 1, 1985), 8. 30 Morris interview, side 1, tape 1. 31 Ruth Elliot (pseud.) quoted in Hall et al., Like a Family, 165; Mozelle Riddle quoted in Douglas DeNatale, “Bynum: The Coming of Mill Village Life to a North Carolina Community” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsyl- vania, 1985), 283; Charlotte Daily Observer, Aug. 2, 1903. The term “linthead” referred to the waste cotton that coated mill workers from head to toe while on the job. Many tenant farmers were also concerned about and at times embarrassed by their clothing: see Margaret Jarman Hagood, Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman (Chapel Hill, 1939), 12, 130, 183-98. On the development of middle-class notions of conduct and appearance in the nineteenth century, see Kasson, Rudeness and Civility, 112-16. 32 Rowe in Charlotte Daily Observer, Aug. 2, 1903. The lyrics to “Weave Room Blues” were printed in Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands. When recalling the Crazy Water broadcasts, Dorsey Dixon said that he and his brother specialized in sacred songs on those productions: see Rodney McElrea, “A Portrait of the Life and Phono- graph Recordings of the Dixon Brothers- Howard and Dorsey,” Country News and Views, 1 (July 1963), 6-9. Ada Mae Wilson interview by Tullos, Feb. 1, 1980, transcript, p. 25, Piedmont Industrialization Project. 33 Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 30. See also the description of department store magnate Henry Belk in Tullos, Habits of Industry, 37; and of reform efforts in Hall et al., Like a Family, 121-39.34 Loray Mill circular quoted in Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 89, 246-47. In subsequent southern organizing campaigns, Communist party strategy often employed religious themes, adding a “From Churches” column to the Southern Worker and encouraging members to join religious organizations. See Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, 1990), 135. Louise Riggsbee J ones interview by Mary Fredrickson, Sept. 20, 1976, transcript, p. 39, Piedmont Industrialization Project. 35 A discussion of the saints and sinners split can be found in Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1990). Detailed descriptions of Piedmont rural society can be found in Tullos, Habits of Industry, 40-85; and Hall et al., Like a Family, 3-43. Ivan M. Tribe, Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia (Lexington, Ky., 1984), 17. Many people who liked string band music still viewed its makers with ambivalence: Charles K. Wolfe, Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 1982), 17. 36 Ethel Hilliard quoted in Tullos, Habits of Industry, 218. 37 Riddle in DeNatale, “Bynum,” 282. 38 Rorrer, Rambling Blues, 35, 51. Several people interviewed for the Piedmont Industrialization Project de- scribed individuals who attended musical gatherings while living on farms but avoided them in mill villages. See Mattie Shoemaker and Mildred Shoemaker Edmonds interview by Mary Murphy, March 23, 1979, transcript, pp. 37-42, Piedmont Industrialization Project; and Jessie Lee Carter interview by Tullos, May 5, 1980, transcript, p. 14, ibid. 39 See David Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an Appalachian Region (Chapel Hill, 1983), 73-81, 184-86; Carlton, Mill and Town in South Carolina, 178; DeNatale, “Bynum,” 370-95. Whisnant provides a particularly thoughtful discussion of the social, economic, and political dynamics that surrounded the romanticization of rural traditions, another significant cultural development of this period. 40 Mozelle Riddle interviews by Douglas DeNatale, Nov. 1 and 13, 1978, combined transcript, p. 22, Piedmont Industrialization Project. Pope, Millhands and Preachers, 31; Dorsey Dixon, “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” per- formed by Dorsey and Howard Dixon [1938], Something Got a Hold of Me: A Treasury of Sacred Music (compact disk; BMG2100-2-R, 1990); Malone, Country Music, US.A., 109-10. DeNatale’s treatment of the material in “Bynum” proved extremely helpful to this analysis. 41 John A. Burrison, “Fiddlers in the Alley: Atlanta as an Early Country Music Center,” Atlanta Historical Bulletin, 21 (Summer 1977), 80; “Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down,” performed by Blind Alfred Reed [1927], Something Got a Hold of Me; Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands. 42 Hall et al., Like a Family, 165; DeNatale, “Bynum'” 283; Tullos, Habits of Industry, 73. For further discussion of changing attitudes toward male drinking and roughhousing, see Ownby, Subduing Satan, 50-55, 167-72. 43 Dolores E. Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (Philadelphia, 1985), 30.44 See particularly the description of Piedmont Heights, in Burlington, N.C., where members of the Glen Hope Baptist Church did much more to reform village life than owner Spencer Love ever attempted: Hall et al., Like a Family, 273-88. 45 Mary Murphy, “Messenger of the New Age: Station KGIR in Butte,” Montana, 39 (Fall 1989), 58; Malone, Country Music, US.A., 116; Dunlap, Advertising by Radio, 36. Women may also have been more frequent purchasers of patent medicines. The notorious Dr. John Romulus Brinkley was best known for peddling his “goat gland” operation, a supposed impotency cure, but he also sold patent medicines, and estimates claimed that women provided 95% of that business. See Erik Barnou w, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. I: A Tower in Babel (New York, 1966), 170; and Malone, Country Music, US.A., 98-99. For discussions of letter writing, see Dunlap, Advertising by Radio, 74-76, 97-98; and Sherrill interview, side 2, tape 1. 46 For the early commercial industry, see Malone, Country Music, US.A., 94-96; and Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 1. Descriptions of the Piedmont’s sponsoring groups come from Ellington and Pridgen interviews, 90; Bill Bolick interview, side 1, tape 1. 47 Ellington and Pridgen interviews, 90. 48 Rorrer, Rambling Blues, 16, 48, 65; Wiggins, Fiddlin’ Georgia Crazy, 93. 49 It seems worth noting here that audiences who insisted that musicians behave as “nice people” generally did not mind when they put on blackface skits that stereotyped African-American life to extreme degrees: Robin D. G. Kelley, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Folk,”‘ American Historical Review, 97 (Dec. 1992), 1405-6. 5Wolfe, Kentucky Country, 55. Hank Williams, the supreme star of honky-tonk, had only sporadic radio exposure precisely because the drink about which he sang so eloquently kept him from keeping a long-term radio contract. See “Hank Williams” in Stars of Country Music, ed. Malone and McCulloh, xx; and Rorrer, Rambling Blues, 5 5. This discussion draws on Kai Erikson, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (New York, 1976). Erikson suggests that cultures always contain conflicting tendencies; the balance between those highlighted and those downplayed at any particular time depends on historical circumstances. This model seems to fit the complexity of musical culture in this region much more than the conveniently dramatic dichotomy between self-righteous saints and fiddling sinners that seems to fascinate so many observers of the region. 51Hall et al., Like a Family, 200-229. 52 Mainer to Grundy, April 23, 1990 (in Grundy’s possession). 53 Hilliard in Tullos, Habits of Industry, 249; Pauline Griffith and Riddle in Hall et al., Like a Family, 175 54 Hall et al., Like a Family, 221, 355-56. 55 On changes in vaudeville, see Kasson, Rudeness and Civility, 248-55. On shifts in movie going, see Roy Rosen zweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (New York, 1983), 213-14. 56 See Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Oxford, 1992), esp. 241-71; and Manuel H. Pefia, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin, 1985), 46-69. 57 For a thoughtful discussion on memories of the 1934 strike, see Hall et al., Like a Family, xv. 58 For the political significance of con/unto music, see Pefia, Texas-Mexican Con/unto, 146-57. See also the discussion of the cultural significance of hillbilly music among depression-era migrants to California in James N. Gregory, American Exodus. The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (Oxford, 1989), 222-45. For early radio philosophy, see Grundy, “From II Trovatore to the Crazy Mountaineers,” 51-61. 59 Lawrence W. Levine, “The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences,” American Historical Review, 97 (Dec. 1992), 1375. The article was part of a recent forum on depression-era popular culture, which also included Kelley, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Folk,”‘ ibid., 1400-1408; Natalie Zemon Davis, “Toward Mixtures and Margins,” ibid., 1409-16; and T. J. Jackson Lears, “Making Fun of Popular Culture,” ibid., 1417-26. 60 Crazy Barn Dance and the Crazy Bands; “Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down”; Sherrill inter- view, side 1, tape 2. 61 Neville, Carr P Collins, 69; Sherrill interview, side 1, tape 2; Flowers interview, 1. National Crazy Water Crystals broadcasting continued in Texas through the rest of the 1930s: see William Jolesch, “Not Cracked but Crazy,” Rural Radio, 2 (April 1939), 8-9. 62 “Col. Jack with Shorty’s Crazy Hillbillies.”

Pamela Grundy, shamrockparent@earthlink.net

2 thoughts on ““We Always Tried to Be Good People”: Respectability, Crazy Water Crystals, and Hillbilly Music on the Air, 1933-1935 by Pamela Grundy

  1. So very interesting and informative it really helps to understand the success of CRAZY CRYSTALS .

  2. My family lore has been that my grandfather, Elvin B. Robinson, was a member of the Crazy Water Crystals. He was from Gastonia and the time of the band is right. As it has been repeated in the family, he was known as the “Zeke” in what we have been told was “Zeke and the Crazy Water Crystals.” Any information you may have or suggest for further research on this would be most interesting. Thanks so much for this well researched article!

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