boll weevil blues

Two significant developments in the South contributed to the great migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities due to the lack of employment opportunities: 1) the boll weevil invasion of the 1890s and 2) the invention of the automated cotton picker in the 1920s. Both reduced the demand for black laborers in the southern cotton fields, forcing these workers to seek employment in the North’s industrial cities such as New York City, Chicago and Detroit. A total of six million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970.

Here we will focus on the former as the cotton-ruining bug from south of the border devastated cotton crops across the deep south. The insect first crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, entering the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reaching southeastern Alabama and Georgia by 1909. Since the boll weevil entered the United States, it has cost U.S. cotton producers about $15 billion, causing massive loss of crops and layoff of manual workers.

Since the boll weevil invasion coincided with the historical development of the blues, it was natural that blues artists wrote songs bemoaning the resulting loss of their main form of employment. Bluesmen, and other artists, from Georgia to Texas recorded songs about the misery caused by the influx of these Mexican bugs. Some of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s 1934 version of “Boll Weevil” goes like this:

“Well the boll weevil and the little black bug
Come from a-Mexico they say
Came all the way to Texas
Just a-lookin’ for a place to stay
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the first time that I seen the boll weevil
He was a-sittin’ on the square
Well the next time that I seen him
He had his a-family there
Just a-lookin’ for a home, just a-lookin’ for a home

Well the farmer took the boll weevil
And he put him on the red hot sand
Well the weevil said this is a-mighty hot
But I take it like a man
This will be my home, this will be my home.”

The origin of the boll weevil song can be traced back as far as the turn of the century writes Wikipedia: “Perhaps as early as 1908, blues pioneer Charley Patton wrote a song called ‘Mississippi Boweevil Blues’ and recorded it in July 1929 (as ‘The Masked Marvel’) for Paramount Records. Some of the lyrics are similar to ‘Boll Weevil,’ describing the first time and ‘the next time’ the narrator saw the boll weevil and making reference to the weevil’s family and home. ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey recorded a song called ‘Bo-Weavil Blues’ in Chicago in December 1923, and Bessie Smith covered it in 1924, but the song had little in common with Lead Belly’s ‘Boll Weevil’ aside from the subject matter.”

Later recordings of the boll weevil song came from such diverse artists as rocker Eddie Cochran (1959), country singer Tex Ritter (1966) and British skiffle artist Jimmy Page (1968). A 1961 adaptation by Brook Benton became a pop hit, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently, cotton farmers’ fear of this bug still exists despite successful eradication efforts throughout southern states since 1990, with the notable exception of Texas. Has this fear of a resurgence of the bug kept blues artists writing boll weevil songs? Apparently so, because the contemporary blues band White Stripes recorded a version in 2011 called “The Ballad of the Boll Weevil.”

Maybe the great jazz singer and Cotton Club performer Cab Calloway said it best:

“We took the good and we took the evil,

Laughter and song and the old boll weevil,

Time has gone by, now here am I,

Wishing that I only knew.”

Lead Belly sings “Boll Weevil”

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