Last week I promised some cotton songs — here they are.
This one’s very well known. It was written by two white guys for the famous opera Porgy and Bess. Even though it was written for African Americans, not by them, they seem to have claimed it as their own. There are many lovely versions of it; I like this one from Ella Fitzgerald.
The lyrics paint a rather idyllic portrait of the lives of those who picked cotton, but perhaps the message of hope — of spreading wings — is more important than historical accuracy. This next video from Bessie Brown, however, tells it like it was.
As does this, from Lightnin’ Hopkins, who was born on a cotton farm.
You know I gotta pick cotton tomorrow, Monday little girl you know that’s gonna be a solid bet
Whooah I don’t weigh but 95 pounds, hundred pounds is too much load for me to pull.
And finally, a song that was actually sung while picking cotton. The singer is a man named Joe McDonald. Joe was born into slavery and some of his recollections, and several songs, were recorded in 1940 by the famous folklorist John Avery Lomax. Lomax was primarily collecting folk songs*, but he and his second wife Ruby also interviewed several ‘ex-slaves’, including Joe. Their interviews followed on from the massive project of recording oral histories — ‘slave narratives’ — in the late 1930s, sixty years after slavery was abolished. Over 2,000 people were interviewed; the last survivors of a system that exploited millions.
Africans enslaved for the cotton plantations were freed in 1865, and we can still hear their stories in their songs … on YouTube, of all places. But halfway around the world, 150 years later, cotton is still associated with abuse of the human right to ‘just and favourable conditions of work ‘. I’m talking about the suicides of cotton farmers in India, caught in the deadly pincers of debt, pesticides, seed patents, the free market, and climate change. I don’t know if there are any songs for them, but the songs I’ve shared today might well ring true.
* Lomax, his wife and later his sons collected thousands of folksongs from all over America, the Caribbean and even parts of Africa, from the early 20th century through to the 1990s.