Among their many memorable sacred originals were “Wonderful Day” and “Not Turning Backward.” Lyrics that concerned life in the textile mills included “Weave Room Blues,” “Spinning Room Blues,” and “Weaver’s Life.”
Musicians. The Dixon Brothers, popular in the mid-to-late 1930s, composed many original songs on diverse subjects, including the life and labors of textile mill workers. With Dorsey on guitar and Howard leading on steel guitar, their sound was more distinct than the traditional mandolin-guitar or twin guitar duets. Their vocal harmony–albeit somewhat rough–nonetheless had a style uniquely their own.
The Dixon brothers’ parents, William McQuillan Dixon and Mary M. Braddock, worked as mill workers in Darlington, where Dorsey Murdock Dixon was born on October 14, 1897, and Howard Briten Dixon was born on June 19, 1903. At age twelve Dorsey began laboring in the mills, as did Howard at age ten. During World War I both worked on the railroad, but they returned to textile work, settling in East Rockingham, North Carolina. The boys played for local dances until the Columbia artist Jimmie Tarlton visited their community and inspired them to greater ambitions. Tarlton’s skills on the steel guitar impressed Howard, who started playing that instrument. The Dixons began appearing on radio on WBT Charlotte’s “Crazy Barn Dance,” and they also appeared on WPTF Raleigh.
The Dixons recorded for two and one-half years for Bluebird, beginning in February 1936, and some of their material was also leased to Montgomery Ward. They cut some fifty-five sides, some of which are exceedingly rare. Most of their songs tended to be either originals or parodies composed by Dorsey. Among their popular numbers of a protest nature were “Sales Tax on the Women” and “How Can a Broke Man Be Happy.” Their humorous lyrics included “The Intoxicated Rat” and “She Tickles Me.” Songs such as “School House Fire,” “Down with the Old Canoe,” “Two Little Rosebuds,” and “I Didn’t Hear Anybody Pray” (also known as “Wreck on the Highway”) commemorated local tragedies. Among their many memorable sacred originals were “Wonderful Day” and “Not Turning Backward.” Lyrics that concerned life in the textile mills included “Weave Room Blues,” “Spinning Room Blues,” and “Weaver’s Life.”
Not only did Dorsey and Howard perform together as the Dixon Brothers, but Dorsey and his wife Beatrice recorded six sacred duets. Howard and a friend, Frank Gerald, recorded eighteen numbers under the name Rambling Duet. Another mill worker named Mutt Evans joined them on a few cuts. Howard Dixon also did some radio work as a band member for Wade Mainer at WWNC Asheville.
Both Dixons ended their performing careers and returned to the Aleo Mills in East Rockingham. Dorsey finally got credit for writing “Wreck on the Highway” after 1946. Howard worked as part of a local quartet called the Reaping Harvesters until suffering a fatal heart attack on March 24, 1961. Soon afterward the folklorists Eugene Earle and Archie Green rediscovered Dorsey and made field recordings of him and his older sister Nancy, released on a Testament album in 1964. Dorsey also made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and three of his new recordings came out on a Vanguard album. After suffering a heart attack, Dorsey went to Florida and lived with his son, Dorsey Jr. He died there on April 17, 1968, a revered figure among old-time music buffs. The enduring appeal of the Dixons can be demonstrated by the fact that most of their music has been reissued, first on vinyl albums and again on compact disc.
Paris, Mike. “The Dixons of South Carolina.” Old Time Music 10 (autumn 1973): 13–16.