Local Arts

A murdered singer and a strike in Gastonia: This true story led to ‘Last Ballad’

The real-life union activist and balladeer Ella May Wiggins, who was shot dead during a ride to a union rally, in a photo from “Gastonia 1929” by John A. Salmond.
The real-life union activist and balladeer Ella May Wiggins, who was shot dead during a ride to a union rally, in a photo from “Gastonia 1929” by John A. Salmond.

Five years ago, novelist Wiley Cash sent 25,000 words of what would become his third novel, “The Last Ballad,” to his editor at William Morrow. On the basis of those words, the editor bought the book. But in an early morning telephone interview, Cash tells me not one of those words appears in the finished version.

The New York Times bestselling novelist (“A Land More Kind than Home,” “This Dark Road to Mercy”), who grew up in Gastonia, says he wrote draft after draft, year after year, until the presidential election of 2016, when things began to crystallize for him. He saw how today’s events are a mirror-sharp reflection of those between the haves and have-nots of the mill society of the South in the 1920s and ’30s.

Cash, 40, says that “The Last Ballad,” a fictionalized version of the 1929 Loray Mill Strike, during which ballad singer Ella May Wiggins was murdered, is the best book he’ll ever write.

“I’ve never worked so hard,” he says. He used as his models those who write history with a contemporary feel and who evoke human emotion – North Carolina’s own Charles Frazier and Ron Rash, as well as Alice McDermott and Cash’s mentor Ernest Gaines.

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Cash, writer-in-residence at his alma mater, UNC-Asheville, says everything he knows about the art of writing, about American history and about Southern culture are all rolled into this book.

Q. How long had the idea for a novel about Ella May Wiggins, whom the North Carolina Encyclopedia refers to as the state’s most famous folk heroine, been cooking?

A. It first started cooking in 2003 when I was in graduate school in Louisiana. I had never heard of the Loray Mill Strike. I asked my parents about it, and they’d never heard of it either. My mom was born in Gastonia in a mill village in 1945, and my dad in 1943, in a mill village in Shelby, and my mom’s maiden name is Wiggins. All my family came from mill people. My mom’s dad, Harry Eugene Wiggins, was living in Enoree (S.C.) in 1929 when Ella May was murdered. He would’ve known about it. But I never heard the word Loray. This story was buried. Nobody talked about it.

Q. I understand you listened to a lot of old music as part of your research.

A. Yes. One of my buddies is the lead in a Nashville band called Old Crow Medicine Show, and he turned me on to an album of music called “Gastonia Gallop.” I bought the CD, and I listened to music written in the 1920s and 1930s that I knew nothing about. Those kinds of moments speak to you. That’s blood memory, and blood memory turns you toward things deep in your past – a certain kind of landscape or a certain kind of music or a particular take on the world.

The more I researched the strike of 1929, the more I understood. So this is why my grandmother said the things she said. Why she harbored the suspicions she harbored. This is why this economic anxiety speaks to me. Why I feel it. I recognize the things these people are singing about.

Q. You really brought that era to life. What was your secret?

A. I tried to resurrect the cultural moments of 1929. What people were wearing, their homes, the weather, what people talked about, the economic anxieties – not so much the facts of the strike – the experience of what it felt like.

Q. I really got a sense of the despair of the time through your character Albert Roach, a police officer who feels there’s no meaning in his life, who hates blacks, who doesn’t feel strong unless he’s carrying a pistol.

A. Albert Roach would’ve been carrying a torch in Charlottesville. He never had a chance to be a hero, and he felt like his hold on his own life was being challenged by a society in flux. Much the same way those young white men in Charlottesville feel after our country’s first black president. When you (white males) have been in charge of things that long, and when you see that power begin to be shared, oftentimes your first response is to do violence. That’s what we saw in Charlottesville.

Q. And there’s Verchel Park, a former textile worker, hurt on the job, who looked forward to just one thing each day – a cigarette on the porch in the cool of the evening. How sad. He seemed so defeated.

A. This is 1916 and everything their fathers and grandfathers led them to believe about the strength of men and the righteousness of war is being challenged. The South has lost the war, women are soon to get the right to vote and are economically mobile unlike ever before. So men like Verchel and Albert are feeling persecuted. Verchel is more passive, Albert more confrontational. But both are weak men.

Q. You once tried to find Ella May’s house in Stumptown outside Bessemer City.

A. I found an older couple sitting on a porch, and I asked about Ella May and said that I knew she lived near water, that there was fresh water across the road from her, and that she had worked at American Mill No. 2. And the man said, “My dad worked there.” This man lived to be over 100 so he would’ve worked with Ella. He would’ve known her. And he had just died in the last couple of years. And we think that history is over. But it’s not. These things are still around.

Q. While you were writing the novel, you said you didn’t contact Ella May’s relatives, but you have since. Why did you wait?

A. I didn’t want to contact the family for fear of being beholden to them in any way. In truth, Ella was tough, and she was part of a society that if Charlie (her live-in boyfriend) had hit her, she’d hit him. I didn’t want the family to tell me she deserves some softness. I didn’t want the family to say we remember her fondly. There is very little real information known about her.

Q. What role did Ella May’s ballads – both her written words and her singing – play in her incredible ability to unite workers in their effort to strike?

A. She grew up in Appalachia singing ballads in lumber camps. When she came to the mills she kept the melodies and changed the words. We’re talking about a culture where not everyone could read. This kind of storytelling performance is charismatic. To a certain degree, the strike organizers knew that music was going to be the one thing to unify lives of poverty and desperation.

Q. And she had strengths in addition to her music. That ability to draw blacks and whites together and to inspire loyalty.

A. Ella’s was the only white family in Stumptown. Everyone she relied on was black. She gave them food. They gave her food. Communal living was the only way to survive. She knew the real dividing line was not race. It was class. She was savvy and aware, and she paid attention.

Q. How did Gastonia, once dubbed “the city of spindles,” happen to become the leading textile county in the South?

A. It was because of all the available water. The West Branch of the Catawba River branches off into Gastonia. All this water meant you could make whiskey. The land wasn’t great to grow cotton. But the water made it great to spin cotton. And then once the mills were there in the late 19th century, they brought workers.

Q. What made you want to be a writer? And how much of your incredible success at such an early age is a result of talent and how much of hard work?

A. I would say I work harder than I am talented. What made me want me be a writer was growing up around story tellers. I was reading at a young age and using books to escape the monotony of life. I wanted to put words on a page and I wanted to be a basketball player. I wanted to be good at these two things. When I got to UNC-Asheville, I realized I was better at writing than at basketball. But I didn’t know the degree of determination and sacrifice it took to get good at writing.

Everything I know about the art and craft of writing is in “The Last Ballad.” I’m in the dance club, and the floor clears and this novel is my individual get-down dance. This is everything I’ve got. It’s all there.

Hear/meet Wiley Cash

7 p.m. Oct. 3 at UNC Asheville: Onstage discussion by Cash and novelist Charles Frazier (“Cold Mountain”), with music by Shannon Whitworth and book signing. Lipinsky Auditorium. Free. 7 p.m.

6:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at Kessell History Center, Gastonia: Cash will read, talk about his research and sign books. The event will also honor Lucy Penegar, a champion of the Loray Mill and advocate for historic preservation. Free. Limited seating; RSVP to Amanda Hollander at aholland@presnc.org.

2 p.m. Oct. 8 at Park Road Books in Charlotte. Cash will read and sign books. Free.

6 p.m. Nov. 2 at Verse & Vino in Charlotte Convention Center. Cash will be one of five New York Times bestselling authors presenting at this Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation event. Tickets $125; 704-416-0602.