Farmer, can you spare a cot­ton boll?

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Your Life - BY KAT BERG­ERON

Oh, when them cot­ton bolls get rot­ten,

You can’t pick very much cot­ton,

In them ole cot­ton fields back home.

Can you hear the Cot­ton Fields song in your head? Per­haps Johnny Cash is singing it? Charley Pride? The Beach Boys? Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter?

It says some­thing about cot­ton’s role in Amer­i­can his­tory that so many greats take this one song and add their own twists. But if you want to hear the orig­i­nal, go to your fa­vorite mu­sic site and lis­ten to Hud­die Led­bet­ter sing it.

You might know him bet­ter as Lead Belly, the Amer­i­can blues mu­si­cian who wrote Cot­ton Fields and first recorded it in 1940. His ver­sion starts: When I was a lit­tle baby, My mother rocked me in the cra­dle,

In them ole cot­ton fields back home ...

Why am I singing about cot­ton? I re­cently re­turned from vis­it­ing aunts in north Alabama, where cot­ton fields were def­i­nitely rockin’. A cot­ton field ready for pick­ing is a beau­ti­ful sight to be­hold, a stark white against dried green and brown gumbo or clay soil.

On this trip, many fields were al­ready har­vested by mech­a­nized pick­ers, and gi­ant plas­tic-wrapped bales awaited their turns at the gin. Oh, how dif­fer­ent from the days of hand pick­ing cot­ton, when bent backs and sore fin­gers reigned.

No, I’ve never picked cot­ton to ex­pe­ri­ence the sen­sa­tion first-hand. But my Dad did, and so did his father, both Ca­juns from Louisiana. The same day my sis­ter and I pur­loined cot­ton bolls from an un­har­vested Alabama field, I con­fessed our ques­tion­able deed to an Ocean Springs friend.

Bob Ste­wart laughed on the phone’s other end: “You know, cot­ton paid for my school clothes. I’d get 50 cents for 100 pounds and I could pick 312 pounds in a day. A whole $1.56, enough for over­alls and shoes. For the

whole sea­son I might make $15.”

The voice of this nearly-90 friend was tinged with youth­ful pride. Cot­ton meant a lot to Bob, as it once did to so many. In to­day’s mech­a­nized farm­ing world with af­ford­able off-the-shelf syn­thetic cloth­ing, I think we for­get what it took to get us to this point. Af­ter the Civil War and into the 20th cen­tury, cot­ton fields were im­por­tant small-farm rev­enue to both blacks and whites.

Cot­ton was also the main rea­son slav­ery is an un­happy, some­times un­rec­on­ciled, chap­ter in our coun­try’s his­tory. AfricanAmer­i­cans who trace their an­ces­try to South­ern plan­ta­tion slav­ery are likely here to­day be­cause of cot­ton, and our state is steeped in that his­tory.

“To the world, Mis­sis­sippi was the epi­cen­ter of the cot­ton pro­duc­tion phe­nom­e­non dur­ing the first half of the 19th cen­tury,” ex­plains eco­nomic his­to­rian Eu­gene R. Dat­tel in “Mis­sis­sippi His­tory Now.”

“The state was swept along by the global eco­nomic force cre­ated by its cot­ton pro­duc­tion, the de­mand by cot­ton tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing in Europe, and New York’s fi­nan­cial and com­mer­cial deal­ings. Mis­sis­sippi did not ex­ist in a vac­uum.

“Cot­ton ac­counted for over half of all Amer­i­can ex­ports. ... In short, cot­ton helped tie the coun­try to­gether. This eco­nomic growth ex­acted a severe and tragic hu­man price through slav­ery and the prej­u­di­cial treat­ment of freed blacks.”

Lin­coln’s 1863 Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion lib­er­ated 3 mil­lion slaves from re­bel­lion states but ex­empted slav­ery in bor­der slave states re­main­ing in the union. Even­tu­ally, all were freed and cot­ton con­tin­ued its agri­cul­tural im­por­tance, with 1930 re­port­ing Mis­sis­sippi’s high­est acreage ever planted.

The New Deal, World War II, and cot­ton boll wee­vils forced South­ern crop di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, but at least six South­ern states still grow cot­ton com­mer- cially.

His­tory aside, my sis­ter Estelle and I had an­other rea­son for re­liev­ing that farmer of a few cot­ton stems in a soli­tary field with no nearby house to ask per­mis­sion.

Our con­fes­sion: We wanted cot­ton not just be­cause the bolls are beau­ti­ful but be­cause our Mom was named Cot­ton.

Our par­ents met at the Pen­sacola Naval Air Sta­tion, where they resided as World War II came to a close. Our Penn­syl­va­nia mother, who’d never ven­tured South be­fore don­ning a uni­form for war, was short and petite with thick, fluffy blondish­white hair. When Dad met her, that gor­geous hair re­minded him of the cot­ton fields back home in Louisiana.

He im­me­di­ately nick- named her “Cot­ton” and they soon mar­ried. Cot­ton re­mained Mom’s name for the rest of her life, and she even made it legally so.

It was down in Louisiana Just about a mile from Texarkana,

In them old cot­ton fields back home ...

Kat Berg­eron, a vet­eran fea­ture writer spe­cial­iz­ing in Gulf Coast his­tory and sense of place, is re­tired from the Sun Her­ald. She writes the Mis­sis­sippi Coast Chron­i­cles col­umn as a free­lance cor­re­spon­dent. Reach her at Berg­ or at South­ern Pos­sum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Bar­boursville, VA 22923.

KAT BERG­ERON Spe­cial to the Sun Her­ald

Cot­ton was one of the first large eco­nomic boosts of the young Amer­i­can econ­omy, and to­day at least six states con­tinue to com­mer­cially pro­duce cot­ton, in­clud­ing Mis­sis­sippi. This soon-to-be-har­vested field is in north­ern Alabama.

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