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Books, Fiddles and Spindles 

Musicians and authors join forces to help Pillowtex workers

Last summer, Pillowtex in Kannapolis -- the remains of Cannon Mills, one of the nation's textile giants -- closed its doors for good, leaving more than 6,400 people out of work with no health benefits or severance pay. Chief Executive Officer Michael Gannaway thanked employees for their years of service, but stated that the company was faced with its "worst-case scenario" and the decision to close was not made lightly or without regret. While the company was certainly up against some tough challenges, like soft consumer demand and brutal foreign competition, many feel the company's top five executives took the low road, sharing nearly $800,000 in bonuses among each other, the majority going to Gannaway and President Mike Harmon.

It's a year later and many of the Pillowtex workers who lost their jobs have yet to find new, adequate work, and have run out of unemployment funds.

On Thursday, July 29, regional award-winning musicians and writers will come together to raise funds for these folks and try to ease the strain many are experiencing due to the harsh economic climate in the area's once-dominant textile industry. The fundraising event will take place at the Levine Museum of the New South, beginning at 7pm. Three writers and two musical acts with close ties to textile workers and their struggles will, respectively, read from their work and perform musical numbers.

Participants include Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, creator of the "Kudzu" comic strip, and author of The Bridge, which centers around life in a cotton mill town during, and years after, the huge national textile strike of 1934.

Many of Marlette's family members worked in cotton mills, including his grandmother, who he says was bayoneted by National Guardsman during the 1934 strike.

"The textile industry really renewed the South after the Civil War," says Marlette, who now lives in Hillsborough. "A lot of the South's civilization is because of the mills. It's sad and poignant to see the passing of a culture and a way of life that's so thoroughly American. I'm a descendant of that world and grateful for it."

Author Pam Duncan will also be on hand to read excerpts from her critically acclaimed novels Moon Women and Plant Life, which are centered in the emotional lives and strong family ties of textile town women. Duncan says both books were largely inspired and influenced by the fact that both her parents worked in textile mills.

"It breaks your heart a little bit every time you hear that another mill is closing down," says Duncan, who lives in Graham, NC, and is currently working on her third novel, Hurricane Season. "People have invested so many years of their lives in a company and then come out with nothing. I was brought up with my parents and grandparents saying that if you're loyal to a company they'll be loyal back, and that's just not the case anymore. Some companies can't help it, but others are selling out at the employees' expense. I wanted to do something to help out, and to show the value of these people's lives."

Si Kahn, an internationally acclaimed folksinger and community organizer, will participate in the benefit by singing some of the 40 or so songs he's written and recorded about cotton mill workers' lives. Kahn moved to Charlotte in 1978. At the time he was working as an organizer for what was then the Textile Workers Union of America.

"When I was working for the textile union, there were approximately one million mill workers in this country, and three-quarters of them were in North and South Carolina," says Kahn. "In its heyday, the mill was the bedrock of the economy for the Carolinas. Mills helped build a society. And for many families, it was their life and livelihood. It's heartbreaking for the individuals, families, neighborhoods, community and the whole region. It's the passing of an era.

"I don't think you need to know these people personally to feel for what's happened to them," Kahn continues. "These people built their hopes and dreams and their family security on mills, and then one day it's all just cut out from under them. This is a revolution taking place in our lifetimes, and not a good one. I want to sing songs that remember and honor the people of the mills."

The Stanly County Boys, an excellent old-time and bluegrass band, will play a variety of songs popular during the early days of Piedmont mill towns, including old-time fiddle tunes as well as mill-specific tunes.

John Grooms, editor of Creative Loafing, will read from some of the shorter works he has written on textile mill towns and the people who live there. "I have something in common with Senator John Edwards," says Grooms. "Unfortunately, it's not his millions of dollars, but I am the son of a mill worker. Being very familiar with the whole cotton mill town culture, I know how hard those people worked and how little respect they got for their trouble. People in the "New South' frankly wouldn't be here without those mill workers. Cotton mills were the foundation of the Piedmont's "economic miracle.' The huge banks we have now were originally started as a needed service for the powerful textile industry that dominated this area. So in a very real sense, the financial success we enjoy in this area today was founded on the hard work of those people who spent their lives working in the region's spinning rooms, weave rooms and card rooms. The Pillowtex closing is the greatest disaster to ever hit the industry in this area, so it seems like the least we can do as a community to help out those folks."

Organizers will ask for a generous donation at the door, with a $10 suggested contribution, with proceeds going to the Pillowtex Fund. Attendees can park for free at Seventh Street Station, next to the museum, after 5pm. Questions can be directed to Rachel Eldridge at the Levine Museum of the New South, 704-333-1887, or John Grooms at Creative Loafing, 704-944-3603.

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