LISTENING POST: Chronicling the ‘Cabbagetown Chronicles’
The onetime mill town has nurtured a diverse music scene
Documenting a century’s worth of music-making in one of Atlanta’s most historically idiosyncratic neighborhoods is a daunting task. Rising to the challenge is James Kelly, a behavioral psychologist, songwriter, leader of Slim Chance & the Convicts, and longtime resident of Cabbagetown.
Cabbagetown Chronicles is a recording-project-in-process spearheaded by Kelly along with John Dirga, who books the annual “ Chomp & Stomp Chili Cook-off and Bluegrass Festival ,” and Steve Seachrist, sound engineer and co-founder with viola player Katie Butler of The Chumblers. Scheduled for release in the fall, Cabbagetown Chronicles features a unique track selection format to showcase original, cover, and never-before-released material by former inhabitants of Cabbagetown — the neighborhood squeezed into a small spiderweb of streets flanked by Oakland Cemetery to the west, the railroad yards to the north, Pearl Street to the east, and Memorial Boulevard to the south. Contributors to the project include Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Elise Witt (Small Family Orchestra), Kelly Hogan (The Jody Grind), Tommy Roe, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Joyce Brookshire, members of the Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke, The Rock*A*Teens, and a specially formed gospel troupe from a local Pentecostal church.
“For a hundred years, Cabbagetown has been a powerful, nurturing environment for a wide array of music,” says Kelly, who periodically contributes to Creative Loafing. “It’s a phenomenon that needed to be documented in a tangible, lasting way.”
In 1992, Kelly purchased a single-story home with an front porch glider on Pearl Street. Today, he and his cohorts are plumbing the rich musical legacy of their neighborhood from multiple intersecting angles. Last year, the trio launched the Cabbagetown Concert Series (CCS). The next event in the series, on Thursday, June 20, is a double bill featuring the Parsons Rocket Project with K. Michelle DuBois and W8ing4UFOs. Both DuBois and W8ing4UFOs are featured on Cabbagetown Chronicles, covering songs by seminal Cabbagetown artists and contributing original work.
Two more CCS events are on the 2019 calendar, each on the third Thursday in September and October. All of the concerts are staged outdoors in Cabbagetown Park in the Joyce Brookshire Amphitheater, named for the late folk singer-songwriter, community activist, and descendent of the original Cabbagetown community who died in 2017. Brookshire’s music is celebrated on Cabbagetown Chronicles by close friend and singer-songwriter Elise Witt.
“The last time I saw Joyce, she was in the hospital, lying in her bed in a coma,” Witt says. “I started singing and she started singing with me — in harmony. We sang six or seven songs.”
Cabbagetown as a music mecca dates to the late 1800s and the construction of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, now the site of Fulton Mill Loft Apartments and The Stacks Condominiums, on the southeast corner of downtown. Adjacent to the textile manufacturing facility, the original owners constructed the “Factory Lot,” a warren of small, one- and two-story cottages and shotgun shacks where mill workers were cheaply and conveniently housed. For reasons that remain in dispute, the “Factory Lot” eventually became known as Cabbagetown.
Lured by the promise of steady factory work, which was somewhat less arduous and dangerous than coal mining and not nearly as fickle as farming, many of the first Cabbagetown residents hailed from the Piedmont lowlands and other Appalachian locales. Others came from the back hollers and cotton fields surrounding post-Reconstruction era Atlanta, as well as the city’s sizable population of hardscrabble denizens and itinerant laborers. At the height of production, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill employed around 2,600 people.
One of those employees was John Carson, an experienced textile worker and prodigious fiddle player from north Georgia who in 1911 moved with his family into a four-room house on Carroll Street. When his 11-hour shift operating a weaving machine ended, Carson busked the streets of Cabbagetown and neighboring enclaves for pocket change. He also competed in contests, which he usually won, at state fairs and showcase venues, such as the Municipal Auditorium (now Georgia State University’s Dahlberg Hall). Regular appearances on broadcasts from the studio of newly established WSB, the South’s first major commercial radio station, elevated Carson’s stature as one of the state’s most popular entertainers.
In June 1923, engineers from New York-based Okeh Records set up a temporary recording studio in a vacant building on Nassau Street in downtown Atlanta. Using one of the first portable recording machines, the Okeh crew documented Carson performing “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow.” Sales of the resulting 78 rpm record established Fiddlin’ John Carson as a bona fide national celebrity and, in hindsight, signaled the arrival of the genre now commonly known as “country music.”
Cabbagetown Chronicles is organized in a series of tripartite track groupings. Each grouping features an original song by a seminal Cabbagetown musician, a cover of one of the artist’s songs by a current or former Cabbagetown musician or band, plus an original song by the same musician/band.
The album kicks off with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s 1924 recording of “Boil Dem Cabbage Down,” a traditional folk song, which predates Cabbagetown. The Carroll Street Troubadours, a group of area residents who regularly perform at The Patch Works Art & History Center , are contributing a Fiddlin’ John cover, which the band has not yet chosen. The Troubadours original selection is titled "Hell No.”
Tommy Roe, one of the biggest names from the world of bubblegum pop in the 1960s, known for Top 40 radio hits including “Sheila” and, “Dizzy,” lived on Wylie Street in Cabbagetown for the first six years of his life. His memoir, From Cabbagetown to Tinseltown, was published in 2016. When Kelly contacted Roe about the Cabbagetown Chronicles, the mostly now-retired singer, who toured England with The Beatles in 1963, was eager to contribute to the project.
Roe authorized the use of “Cabbagetown,” a guitar-twanging, classic country fandango from a 2019 EP titled Tommy Roe Meets Barefoot Jerry. The four-track release, recorded in Nashville, features Roe with longtime session guitarist Wayne Moss who played on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” among other landmark recordings. On Cabbagetown Chronicles, Roe’s ode to his beloved home village is matched by K. Michelle DuBois covering his 1970 single “Pearl,” plus one of her originals, yet to be chosen.
“When I first heard Tommy’s song, I almost cried,” Kelly says. “It set the bar very high for everything else we’re doing.”
The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill closed in 1977, leaving Cabbagetown a blighted community isolated by urban geography, economic prospects, and cultural proclivities. Many of the original residents and their offspring fled for greener pastures.
In the mid-1980s, John D. Thomas, then a CL staffer with an irascible sense of humor and a gift for bohemian rabble-rousing, pioneered the occupation of Cabbagetown’s empty, neglected abodes, spurred by the lure of the cheapest rent in the city and a youthful urge to become a global superstar.
Soon, a subculture of musicians emerged. Bound by a no-holds-barred, DIY aesthetic, they wrote songs while lounging on each other’s thrift-store couches. They practiced and partied like it was the 1980s in each other’s front porches, dilapidated kitchens, and bedrooms. The Chowder Shouters with Thomas, roommate Eric Kaiser, and Cleveland transplant Bill Taft; An Evening with the Garbageman, Taft’s band that spawned The Jody Grind; The Opal Foxx Quartet, another Taft project, which led to Smoke, both featuring the inimitable vocal styling of the late Robert Curtis “Benjamin” Dickerson; Slim Chance & the Convicts; Amy Pike and Greasetrap; Dirt; Seersucker; and countless others played in ramshackle honky tonks like the White Dot, the Austin Avenue Buffet, Sylvia’s Atomic Café, Dottie’s, and The Clermont Lounge, as well as in warehouse spaces including Pillowtex, the Mattress Factory, and 800 East.
Cabbagetown Chronicles documents this extraordinarily fertile period in the neighborhood’s history with several track groupings including a yet-to-be-revealed recording by Cat Power, Chan Marshall’s nom du art, combined with W8ing4UFOs’ cover of “Headlights.” The latter, a nightmarish first-person account of a fatal car wreck, received limited distribution as a single in 1993. A subsequent version, with different accompanists, was included on Cat Power’s 1995 debut album, Dear Sir.
Most analyses of “Headlight’s” fail to note the song’s significance as a darkly elegiac tribute to three of Marshall’s friends who lost their lives in an automobile accident in April 1992. Tim Ruttenber, better known as poet- performance-artist Deacon Lunchbox; Robert Hayes, bassist for The Jody Grind, with whom Marshall once shared a house in Cabbagetown; and the band’s drummer, Robert Clayton, were returning to Atlanta from a gig in Pensacola when their car was struck head-on by a drunk driver whose motor home crossed the grassy interstate divider.
“Yes, ‘Headlights’ is about the accident on Easter morning,” Marshall confirms in an email exchange. “The black crows were all gathered in a nearby tree,” she recalls, “all cawing and suddenly silent when I began weeping, when I went to sit with Robert Hayes at his grave the day I left to move to New York City.”
The torchy southern-fried brilliance of Jody Grind vocalist and former Cabbagetown resident Kelly Hogan is showcased on a still-to-be- determined recording from the period between the quartet’s first (One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure, 1990) and second (Lefty’s Deceiver, 1992) albums on DB Recs. The Chumblers will cover The Jody Grind’s “ Eight-Ball ”; their original contribution is called “Ghost Story.”
Many Cabbagetown Chronicles track groupings have blank spaces to be filled out. The Opal Foxx Quartet/Smoke entry features a TBA recording currently under consideration by Taft and W8ing4UFOs cellist and former Opal Foxx/Smoke bandmate Brian Halloran. That selection will be allied with a performance of “Somebody's House Always Burns at Christmas” by T. Thomas Mahoney, plus a Mahoney original. The Rock*A*Teens have yet to choose their showcase number, while their song, “Arm in Arm In the Golden Twilite, We Loitered On,” is covered by Anna Kramer and The Lost Cause. And the list goes on.
From the roots of country music to the heights of international pop stardom, Cabbagetown Chronicles traces an arc of artistic expression through the music of people who lived, loved, laughed, and struggled in a village wrought by Southern industrialization after the Civil War. The album’s producers hope to release a video document of the project. The plan is to schedule a CD-release show at the Milltown Arms Tavern and have CDs for sale at Cabbagetown’s Chomp & Stomp Festival in November. All proceeds will be donated to the Patch Works Art & History Center.
“This is something I can do to give back to the community,” says Kelly, who routinely holds yard sales of records, CDs, and DVDs that he’s collected, to benefit musicians with health problems and doctor bills.
It’s a gift that promises to benefit a much larger community of music lovers and historians.