Irene, goodnightIrene, goodnightGoodnight irene, goodnight ireneI’ll see you in my dreamsThese lyrics and Hank William’s “Jambalaya” were the first songs I ever learned. My Dad said I sang them when I was just over two years old. I remember my Dad singing “Irene goodnight” pretty much all my life. For some reason, he would just break into the chorus from time to time…especially when I was a child. I loved the song, and have ever since. I heard yesterday where Pete Seeger died and in looking at his biography, I saw where his cover of this “Huddy” song ran at number 1 for 13 weeks back in late 1950 which was the year I was born. I never knew that. I know Pete Seeger for all of his other musical achievements during the late 50’s and 60’s. From him and Peter, Paul and Mary…Dylan, and the other early folk groups came my most deep musical influence. I still can do “Puff the Magic Dragon” pretty well on the guitar, and “Turn, Turn, Turn” will always be in my top five songs of all time. I never knew about “Irene” though. I imagine my Dad probably listened to the that song in 1950 and liked the imagery of the lyrics…being in the Navy and away from home. Thanks Pete Seeger for all you did for music in America and for all you did for the people of America. Thanks Dad for memorizing “Goodnight Irene”
The first thing I remember about Trion, Georgia is the smells of the cotton mill. I was somewhere between two and three years old when Daddy got out of the Navy, and we all moved into a little old house on sixth street, and Mom and Daddy “set up housekeeping”. I’d been living in Blue Ridge with my Mom and Grandparents, and Mom’s little sister who was 11 years old when I was born. Daddy finally got out of the Navy in ‘52, went to Riegel Textile and got a job, rented a house, and moved us in. We were officially Trionites.
But, back to the smell of the mill. I had no complaints as a three year old. I’d been used to smelling the smoke from a wood burning stove, the scents of bacon frying, cornbread baking, biscuits in the oven. I don’t know if I ate any of it, but I was used to olfactory stimulation. The smells of a cotton mill became familiar quickly. There was the slightly musty, but pleasant smell of bales of cotton. They had an earthy odor, accentuated by the pungency of the burlap they were wrapped in. I found out later how huge they were, passing by them sitting out on the open cotton docks like huge marshmallows that had been half way toasted in a fire on the end of a wire coat hanger. There was that smell which was sort of like the one that occurred when Momma would iron blue jeans with a hot clothes iron. Kind of on the edge of burny, extremely hot cotton having the wrinkles pressed out. Found out later on, it was cloth being sanforized. I never really realized what that process entailed until many years later when I worked in the mill as a supervisor in the denim finishing department where denim was being sanforized. I learned that the cloth was run through this huge machine, wet down first then partially dried, and run under a gigantic rubber belt that was tightly pushed up against a steel roller. This process pre shrunk the denim, which kept it from shrinking once it was made into blue jeans and sold. It ran over a gigantic steam wheel to totally dry it out, and the exhaust fans above it carried that smell that I’d smelled so many years earlier out into the night air.
There was also the briny, and very stinky sulfuric smell of the bright dye runoff coming from the printing department. At the time I was a child, they just dumped that excess dye after they were finished into a little creek that ran under the mill and out into the Chattooga River. I used to stand at the little bridge above where the stream ran when I was little and marvel at how beautiful and colorful that water was. I had no idea it was polluting the river something awful, and killing the fish. Back in the fifties, it wasn’t that big an issue. So, I played out on the front steps and in the yard on sixth street. In the bright summer sunshine and during the cold of winter with my heavy coat on, making roads in the dirt for my tootsie toy cars, and pretending to drive all over town. All the while smelling the smells of a Southern cotton mill town wafting through the air.