Farmer, can you spare a cotton boll?
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 BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.
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.