Before I get started on this final part of my story on the Dixon Brothers, let me correct myself from something I wrote about last week. The correction is that the Dixon family came to East Rockingham and went to work at what was then Entwistle No. 1 Mill, which was built in 1911. It was later sold to Aleo Corp. in 1945. Also, the Little Hanna Pickett Mill was just known as Hanna Pickett Mill and was solely owned by Mr. William Cole. Later Mr. Cole sold it to Joseph Safie. Ya’ll keep me straight now, you hear.
The 1930s brought in a bitter textile strike to East Rockingham, but it was during this same time period that the Dixon brothers met a man by the name of Jimmy Tarlton. Tarlton was a fine instrumentalist but a confirmed drifter. Mr. Tarlton had some relatives living around the Hanna Pickett village in East Rockingham. Why, many a time he was known just to pop in for a visit. He would only stay until his urging called him to go elsewhere.
During these visits, Tarlton and the Dixons would play music together. The Dixons were so impressed with Tarlton’s style of finger picking and the way he could play the slide guitar that they abandoned their style of playing with a guitar and violin. After that, Dorcey developed a unique finger-picking style and Howard took to playing the slide, or Hawaiian, guitar.
The brothers’ new sound soon gained them local fame and was noticed by Fisher Hendley, a fellow musician and talent scout for radio station W.B.T. in Charlotte. In 1934, the Dixons became regular performers on J.W. Fincher’s “Crazy Water Crystals” Saturday Night Jamboree, a popular and influential program that brought the Dixons some recognition.
In February 1936, the Dixon Brothers had their first recording session with a R.C.A. Victor crew in Charlotte. Over the next six years, there were six more sessions in which 55 songs were recorded. Dorcey also recorded 12 songs with his wife, Beatrice. These recordings brought the Dixons little financial return and Dorcey’s compositions were thwarted by better-known artists of the day. Why, even a lot of Dorcey’s so-called friends, such as Jimmy Tarlton and Fisher Hendly, recorded Dorcey’s songs like “Weaver’s Life,” “Weave Room Blues” and “Intoxicated Rat” (which is a very funny song).
Probably the best-known song that Dorcey Dixon wrote was “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” This was one of the first songs that were written about drunk driving on our highways. It seems Dorcey and his friends witnessed a tragic accident around Rockingham in the 30s involving a drunk driver and this accident inspired Dorcey to write the song “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” The song went like this:
“Who did you say it was brother?
Who was it who fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood run together
Did you hear anyone pray?”
Chorus — “I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother
I didn’t hear nobody pray
I heard the wreck on the Highway
But I didn’t hear nobody pray”
There were originally six verses to the song and the Dixons recorded it in late 1938. The song didn’t seem to take off until 1942 when Roy Acuff, high on the country music charts, recorded it as “Wreck on the Highway.” The jury is still out on how Acuff learned of the song and how he chose to copyright it under his own name.
Although “Wreck on the Highway” quickly became a country music standard, it brought no financial assistance to the Dixons. In fact, Dorcey was still working in the mill, along with his brother, Howard.
Disheartened from reliance on mill work and not getting any recognition for his songwriting abilities, Dorcey hired a lawyer to fight Acuff’s recording of “Wreck on the Highway.” Expecting a large settlement, Dorcey and his family moved to New York and later to Baltimore, Maryland, where he went to work in a rayon plant. Seems after several years of going back and forth in court, an out-of-court settlement was made between the two parties. But what do you think happened? Very little gold but a lot of shaft went Dorcey Dixon’s way. He received credit for writing “Wreck on the Highway,” but the courts and lawyers certainly got their part and Dorcey’s wife, Beatrice, why, she even left him holding the bag, all in Baltimore.
His hopes of a musical career dashed, Dorcey moved back to East Rockingham and went back to working as a lint head in a local cotton mill. Sustained by his religious beliefs, he and his brother, Howard, and their sister, Nancy, were content to play and sing their music at the Church of God of Prophecy in Hamlet. During this time, the three Dixon siblings managed to cut an album called “Babies in the Mill.” It sold fair but seemed to stay close to the bottom of the music charts.
The years of hard work had caught up with brother, Howard, and he passed away from a heart attack, still working at the mill on March 24, 1961. Dorcey took this very hard but continued with his compositions and music.
The Dixons’ music was still on the minds of interested folks who loved hillbilly and occupational type songs (songs of the working man). In 1963, Dorcey was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Late in 1963, he was asked to record his music for the Archive of Folk Songs in the Library of Congress and he also got a recording contract with Piedmont Record Co. It was while he was doing these sessions that he had his first of several heart attacks.
Forced to decline further musical invitations, he retired to the care of his son, the Rev. Dorcey Dixon Jr., in Plant City, Florida. On April 18, 1968, Dorcey Murdock Dixon, passed from this earthly form to be with his Lord and Savior and was brought back to his beloved East Rockingham and buried at Eastside Cemetery.
Dorcey Dixon said in some of his writing, “I don’t want nothing ‘bout my life wrote out, because I had it too rough in life.” Folks, it’s a pure-tee shame that these hardworking local boys never got the break they deserved in the music field. In my way of thinking, the Dixon brothers still left their legacies in song about what the working man, women and children had to endure while making a living working in southern textile mills.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and co-author of his new book, “Just Passing Time Together.”