Sunday, July 9, 2017



    Back in the early 50’s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little coed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills.  I followed her about like a devoted puppy and although she never encouraged my attentions, she didn’t reject them either.  Sometimes, I would ask her to sing “Cotton Mill Girls” and when she complied, I would quake with mindless joy, and I don’t have the slightest idea why.

      I worked in a cotton mill all my life;
     I ain’t got nothing but a Barlow knife.
    It’s a hard time, cotton mill girls,
    It’s a hard time everywhere. 

     Why did I find this spunky little lady so fascinating?  Well, there were several reasons.  I noticed that she was totally unimpressed by everyone at WCTC (not just me); she was “different” in some fundamental way, too.  In class, she frequently challenged instructors and argued with them while the rest of us sat in astonished silence.  Most of us had never heard a teacher’s statements questioned, and we were impressed when Hedy was kicked out of several classes for being “disruptive.”

  Hedy usually wore Levis and plaid shirts (which I found provocative in an era of cashmere sweaters and saddle oxfords).  But more than the banjo, her rudeness or her Levis was another singular fact that caused me to perspire.  On the rare occasions that she wore a skirt, I discovered t that Hedy didn’t shave her legs.  From mid-thigh to ankle, she displayed provocative silken swirls that seemed designed to drive me crazy.  Why?  I have no idea.  Admittedly, I was a “quare” fellow.

     On rare occasions, her somewhat “notorious” father, Don West, a union organizer, visited Hedy.  He had been involved in several north Georgia mill towns strikes
And had the scars to prove it.  Hedy finally invited me to meet him at the Townhouse, a student hangout in the ‘50’s; Don gave me a stack of books to read, including
Howard Fast’s “The American,” and a ragged copy of his latest volume of poetry, which contained rousing lines like, “Worker’s arise! The day is coming!”  He also told me that a well-dressed gentleman who was drinking coffee at the Townhouse counter was actually an FBI agent who “accompanied” him in his travels.   “I’m supposed to be dangerous,” he said.   Wow.  I was impressed!

   From Gilmer to Bartow is a mighty long way,
From Cartoogechaye to Elijay
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere.

     Well, the years have rushed by and Hedy and Don have vanished over the horizon.  Hedy became relatively famous and strummed her way through engagements in Greenwich Village and a half-dozen eastern universities, including some high-tone folk music preservation jobs.  At one point Don took up with a fellow named Myles Horton and the two of them began the Highlander Center over in
Monteagle, Tennessee – the place where Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and Ralph Abernathy would meet to plan strategies to fight segregation and poverty.

     Eventually Don left the Highlander and established an Appalachian museum up in Pipestem, West Virginia. He continued to support unions, preach and write poetry (No Lonesome Road) until his death 1992.  His old friend, Myles Horton went on to become a mentor for some of America’s most noted leaders.  He died in 1900.  His autobiography is called “The Long Haul.”

     Last winter, during a bout of insomnia that lasted for the better part of a month, I became maudlin and sentimental about the past.  What became of my hirsute temptress, Hedy?  Well, I gritted my teeth and plunged into the internet where I eventually found an email address in somewhere in Pennsylvania.   I got an immediate response.  Hedy wanted to know who the hell I was, whereon I delivered a modest package of saccharine memories:  the banjo, “Cotton Mill Girls,” Don West’s poetry, the FBI agent, plays and recitals in which she participated, etc.  (I decided not to mention the unshaven legs.)

    In effect, Hedy told me that the majority of what I recalled “had never happened.”  She assured me that her memories of WCTC were so unpleasant, she refused to dwell on them, and she wasn’t sure she remembered me at all.  Certainly, there was no FBI agent.  She was thinking of writing a book and she was performing again – mostly in eastern universities.  I believe she holds the copyrights for “Cotton Mill Girls” and “500 Miles.”

     Naturally, I wish I hadn’t called, but at least, I’m glad that I didn’t mention those unshorn limbs.  That way, they are still true and the memory of them is still inviolate.  At this late date, I am beginning to learn how to protect the good memories.

When I die, don’t bury me at all;
Just hang me up on the spinning room wall;
Pickle my bones in alcohol.
It’s a hard time cotton mill girls,
It’s a hard time everywhere. 


  1. Gary,

    I think we are related through Solomon King of Buncombe County. Am I correct?


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