At least that’s the hope of some local residents who have put Jacksonville’s history to song.
“Music and writing will put the people as close to history as possible,” said George Areno, a former city councilman who has encouraged local artists to convey the feelings of what life was like through songs that will resonate.
When the Union Yarn Mill closed its doors more than a decade ago, an almost century-long way of life ended in the city. Although the large brick building on Alexandria Road now lies dormant and many homes in the mill village are suffering from neglect, the once-thriving neighborhood is being brought back to life in song.
Megan Parris, 23, never worked in the mill, but the place is a part of her. Three of her grandparents worked there. Homer Barnwell, her grandfather, was born and raised in the mill village and worked there before being drafted into the Army during World War II. As someone who has spent most of his more than 80 years living within a few blocks of where he was born, her “Paw Paw Homer” is practically Jacksonville’s local historian. So when Parris had an opportunity to sit down and tell a story about him, she jumped at the chance.
Inspired by her grandparents, Parris composed the easiest song she’s ever written — “Jacksonville Village Days,” a song about daily life in the once-bustling mill village.
“Jacksonville Village Days” references the whistle blowing to start the day and workers spending ‘clinkers’ — tokens accepted at the company store — but goes much deeper, exploring the complicated relationship of the community to the mill.
“It was about how hard it was for the working man in those days,” Parris said.
While the song’s chorus rings of nostalgia, talking about time to sit down with the family, calling the way of life in the village “how it’s supposed to be,” the song also provides examples of the pain and difficulties of those who lived it. One verse asks, from the point of view of a mill worker, “Can I feed my family? Can I pay my bills? Is this really how the working man feels?”
“It was a very complicated thing,” said Rick Bragg, author of “The Most They Ever Had,” a book about the lives of mill workers. “They hated what the mill took from them, but they loved what it gave them.”
Bragg said rural folks, especially those in the surrounding mountains, literally starved after fighting in the “rich man’s” Civil War, coming home to a Reconstruction and struggling in the Great Depression. The mill, he said, was a salvation to these struggling families, who came walking and in wagons to take jobs in horrible conditions — heat, noise and nerve-shattering vibration of the machines.
The exhausting and often hazardous work helped foster the sense of community in the mill village. “The people in the mill village knew that there would always be somebody trying to put a boot on their neck,” he said. “So they hung together.”
This situation became fertile ground for emerging musicians. According to Bill C. Malone, a retired professor emeritus at Tulane University and a Southern music historian, music became a way that rural people in the increasingly industrialized South reacted to their changing way of life as they moved into cities and towns to find work.
Revisiting mill life through song is an appropriate way to convey the history of working folks in Jacksonville, according to Malone.
Cotton mills, he said, were particularly fertile ground for producing musicians. “I think there are probably more country musicians that came out of cotton mill backgrounds than any other occupations.”
He said that over the years, musicians pick up what they hear and transform genres, but the best keep that core tradition.
“I think the basic thing about country music always — whether it was 100 years ago, 20 years ago or now — is that it tells a story,” he said. “It’s story music.”
Both seeking answers, Parris and Eric Key, another Jacksonville musician, continue telling stories with songs about two long-dead figures.
Key’s song is about the 1858 execution of convicted murderer Larkin Bramlett in Jacksonville, which had survived in common lore as the sight of a drunken riot among the crowd that gathered to watch his hanging.
“The legend has it they ran out of liquor and people started going crazy because they were half drunk and looking for more liquor,” Key said. The story as it survived said the crazed crowd paraded his body around the square.
Key researched the incident in the Jacksonville State University library’s digital archives of the Jacksonville Republican newspaper. And the account he found was far different from the legend he’d heard. “It was very human the way they treated him,” Key said. “You want to find some heart in a city, even in the midst of a hanging, and I found it.”
Parris’ other song, “Harriet’s Grave,” ponders the fate of Harriet, who is buried in the Jacksonville City Cemetery among the servants of the Hoke, Forney and Abernathy families. The grave is marked simply with the name Harriet and an unusual image — a tree falling toward the figure of a woman.
“That image has always stuck in my head,” she said. “Nobody knows the true story about it; nobody’s still here to tell about it.”
Parris imagines the tree fell on Harriet, but nobody knows how it happened. The song proposes several possibilities, including lightning or just someone chopping it down. “In a sense it’s a true story,” Parris said. “You guess what happened to her because nobody knows … I love having that mystery there.”
Key and Parris performed their historic songs for the first time at “Music and Stump Speeches,” an event organized last summer to promote the city’s culture and give residents an opportunity to meet local candidates prior to last August’s municipal elections.
Parris continues to perform her songs with father and daughter Joe and Gillian McCary, the other two members of her band A Quarter Short. Violinist Gillian McCary noted the long history of folk music in the kind of storytelling being done locally, and Joe McCary, who plays mandolin on the songs, is close to the subject matter, having worked at the mill in college.
“It still is kind of a special place,” he said after a performance last month. “There’s so much history there, and this whole town.”
“Music,” his daughter added, “may be something that might get people interested in preserving history that we have in our area that is being overlooked.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.