Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Intoxicated Rat

The fascinating story of Darlington, South Carolina’s Dixon Brothers is proof that musical inspiration need not fall entirely within the province of youth. Dorsey and Howard Dixon grew up in an area of the state dominated by the textile industry, and both were full-time mill workers before they’d even reached adolescence. Music was strictly a hobby for the two until 1931, when they became friends with an itinerant mill-worker-turned-musician named Jimmie Tarlton, who not only turned Howard on to the steel guitar but also turned one of Dorsey’s songs, “Weaver’s Life,” into a record. Soon Dorsey, who’d only just begun writing two years earlier, was regularly setting down on paper his insightful observations on American life and working them into songs with brother Howard’s rapidly improving steel guitar technique. By 1934, their notoriety as singing spokesmen for the mill workers landed them a spot on Charlotte, N.C.’s WBT “Saturday Night Jamboree” broadcast, and in 1936, when Dorsey was 38 and Howard 33, the Dixon’s made their first Bluebird recordings. Over the next three years the brothers recorded almost sixty songs for the label, but when their contract ran out, they decided the miniscule amount of money they were making from the radio and recording work wasn’t worth the hard work they were putting into their act, so they split up. Howard continued moonlighting as an accompanist and sometime sacred singer for several years before leaving the professional music scene entirely. Dorsey dropped out, too, but he later enjoyed a gratifying re-discovery of his work during the folk revival of the 1960’s, highlighted by appearances at the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals.

That the protest singers of the early Sixties would find in Dorsey Dixon a kindred soul isn’t surprising. As can be heard in “Weave Room Blues,” Dorsey wrote unflinchingly about the mill worker’s bleak lot: “Working in a weave room, fighting for my life/Trying to make a living for my kiddies and my wife/Some are needing clothing and some are needing shoes/But I’m getting nothing but them weave room blues.” Dorsey also wrote many songs about the shrinking presence of religious values and moral fiber in the “modern” world, a theme addressed most interestingly in his fable of the Titanic, “Down With The Old Canoe.” Not that the Dixon’s didn’t have their humorous moments, though, as evidenced by the oft-covered and irresistible “Intoxicated Rat,” featuring Dorsey’s expert finger-picking and Howard’s subtly understated sliding steel guitar. -- From the notes to ARE YOU FROM DIXIE? by Billy Altman


Blogger Fire of lovE said...

Excellent record, continue with Ragged but right and Under the double eagle

23/6/05 4:33 AM  
Blogger KS said...

I never found either record while they were still in print. I keep checking the used bins. Someday!

23/6/05 2:19 PM  
Blogger Fire of lovE said...

I blog some from them for you. Keep your eyes open

25/6/05 2:41 AM  
Blogger KS said...

Thanks! I will! And I highly recommend the Fire Of Love blog to anyone interested in a rockin' good time. Check the links section over on the side of the page.

25/6/05 8:15 AM  

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