Wherever Nancy Carroll’s travels take her, she heads for the nearest library.
One of these jaunts took her to the village of Slatersville - which she called “a jewel of a town” - before reaching North Smithfield.
The discoveries she unearthed in the town’s public library were devastating. During the 19th century, several infectious diseases ran rampant through the area’s textile mills - cholera, smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, Carroll explained, “the citizens of nearby Providence owed their good health to Charles Value Chapin,” a public health pioneer and expert in infectious diseases.
Song lyrics written by Carroll illustrate this chapter in history:
In ’88 typhoid fever come a callin’ two hundred twenty cases, forty-seven dead
Filthy filters were the cause, Pawtuxet River was the source.
Charlie’s calculations brought him to the very river bed.
And all that while another devil smiled as tuberculosis called at factory’s door
Almost half of textile deaths had TB on their last breaths.
The contagion in the mills filled the beds in Burrillville’s Wallum Lake tuberculosis sanatorium. Chapin determined the spread of TB was not merely confined to the air; the mills themselves were a veritable Petri dish where germs flourished.
At the time of the Civil War, Indian cotton was used, as American and British cotton was needed for the war effort. “Indian cotton was fragile, requiring a moist environment,” Nancy continued. “A boiler recycled moist air throughout the factory,” where employees worked in stifling, close quarters. Using a shared shuttle to manually thread the looms, mill workers used their saliva to guide the thread “and passed the shuttle down the line.”
Breathless, I listened in abject horror with the way Nancy could weave a dark passage of history as if solving a mystery.
Now, imagine history and mystery set to music:
Three hundred times a day she held a shuttle in her hand, laid a thread across its open eye
Kissed that filthy hole, sucked the thread and licked the drool
Passed it on to give another worker a try.
The history of tuberculosis and Rhode Island’s mills is just part of the story that Carroll - who previously served as director of the Community College of Rhode Island’s chorus - has woven for an upcoming performance at the school.
“Threads: A Musical Path to CCRI’s Knight Campus” will be presented at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, in Room 0540 at the college’s Knight Campus at 400 East Ave. in Warwick. It is part of the Emerald Concert Series.
According to a description, the concert will include “Nancy’s original songs about Rhode Island events, from 1774 to the opening of the Knight Campus in 1972.” The performance will be accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.
General admission tickets $10, while tickets for students, seniors and CCRI faculty and staff will cost $5. More information is available on CCRI’s website, ccri.edu.
During her tenure as CCRI’s chorus director, Carroll wrote and produced programs for the Emerald Concert Series, which is overseen by Music Department Professor Audrey Kaiser.
John Collins, serials and cataloguing librarian, who began the archival project in the CCRI library, has provided 22 historical photographs of the college building for the current project on the Knight family.
Accompanist Dave McNally, a CCRI graduate private instructor, and CCRI music instructor Ryan Campos will create a soundscape of piano and electronic music, allowing the audience members to immerse themselves in the performance.
Ben Leveillee, instructional design specialist, whose role may best be described as director, along with Ryan, encouraged Carroll to write and sing her own songs.
It’s easy to see why. Her retellings of Rhode Island lore have been sung in recent performances at Smith’s Castle in Wickford - “Where Roger William walked!” she noted enthusiastically - as part of her “Rhody Voices” reawakening.
“Rhody Voices are the people in the songs,” she said. “I just give them voice.”
Editor’s note: This is a sampling from the “Threads: A Musical Path to CCRI’s Knight Campus” that purposely is left incomplete so that it’s closing verses will remain a surprise.
FRUIT OF THE LOOM
By Nancy Carroll
Fruit of the Loom, Fruit of the Loom, Apple and grapes that made an industry boom
Trademark 418, future ever green, Granted e'en before a Coca Cola was seen
Fabric so fine, top of the line, precision warp and weft in perfect intertwine
Dressed those Union men, War came back again
Fifty million shorts sent off to our own GI's - Better than apple pies.
Pontiac Mill, just down the hill, For 18 cents an hour they showed up with their skill
Never went to school, Masters of the spool, working for a company worth 20 mil.
Shirts made with a pocket, Hold your cigarettes?
Some all set to print your favorite star upon your chest.
First to sell in numbers, Sets of two or three
First to set up holiday sales, give an unconditional guarantee.
Kids underwear, Spider-Man pair, Santa please bring some to me; the shelves are all bare
That's all that I choose, with them I can't lose, I'll be the bestest hero in my Underoos.
She makes up her day, jumps in the fray, Her anti-gravity bra leads the way
Watch her clear the aisle, As she walk in style, Leaving behind a pile of wistful smiles.
See that young buck, high on his luck, Happily tucked in his banana hammock
Soft through thick and thin, Cozy on his skin, He might as well be walking in the Garden of Eden.
Fruit of the Loom, CCRI, the odds that they would ever meet were pie in the sky
Years and years go by, always fresh supply, underwear and knowledge - what a gift to RI!