Saturday, January 24, 2009

Show 40 - Boll Weevil Blues



The boll weevil--its a beetle that's less than a quarter of an inch long, but capable of destroying entire crops of cotton. In the 1920s, the boll weevil infested virtually every cotton growing area in the United States. To singers in these areas, the boll weevil became simultaneously a disaster that could destroy someone's livelihood and something that could be identified with. A seemingly powerless creature capable of completely subverting the goals of the agricultural ruling class. Its no surprise that one of the Mississippi delta's great storytellers wrote and recorded a song about the boll weevil. Charley Patton recorded Mississippi Bo Weavil at his first recording session in 1929 but there are reports of him playing the song a early as 1908 when the boll weevil might first have shown up at Dockery plantation where he lived.
It's a little boll weevil moving in the .... lord
You can plant your cotton and you won't get half a bale, lord
Boll weevil boll weevil, where's your little home?
"Louisiana and Texas is where I'm bred and born, lord"

Well I saw the boll weevil, Lord a‑circle Lord in the air, lord
The next time I seen him, Lord he had his family there, lord
Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me fare you well, lord
Where you going now?

"I'm going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell"
Boll weevil told the farmer that I ain't going to treat you fair
Took all the blossoms and leave you an empty square
Next time I seen you, you have your family there, lordy

Boll weevil and his wife went and sit down on the hill
Boll weevil told his wife let's take this forty in
Boll weevil told his wife, I believe I may go north, lord

Aw, I won't tell nobody

Let's leave Louisiana and go to Arkansas
Well I saw the boll weevil, Lord a‑circle Lord in the air, lord
Next time I seen him, lord he had his family there, lord
Boll weevil told the farmer that I ain't going to treat you fair

...
Boll weevil boll weevil where your little home?
"Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn, lord"
Boll weevil boll weevil call that treating me fair, lord
Next time I seen you, you had your family there
Paramount Records originally released Mississippi Boweavil Blues under the artist name "The Masked Marvel." The song tells the story of the Boll Weevil coming from Texas and spreading throughout the South. Ma Rainey also sang about the boll weevil being everywhere you go in her 1923 recording Bo-Weavil Blues:
Hey boll weevil, don't sing the blues no more
Hey hey boll weevil, don't sing the blues no more
Boll weevils here, boll weevils everywhere you go

I'm a lone boll weevil, been out a great long time
I'm a lone boll weevil, been out a good long time
I'm going to tell you people, the evil boll weevil loves some vine

I don't want no man to put no sugar in my tea
I don't want no man to put no sugar in my tea
That bug is so evil, I'm afraid it might poison me

I went downtown and bought me a hat
I brought it back home, I put it on the shelf
Looked at my bed, I'm getting tired of sleeping by myself
Harmonica player Jaybird Coleman also recorded a boll weevil song. Its one of the many that explicitly compares the boll weevil to a man out to give the farmer a hard time. Boll Weevil Blues:
Boll weevil boll weevil you think you treat me wrong
Eat up all of my cotton, you done started on my corn

...
If you don't let me have it, down the road I'm going

Boll weevil's got mustache, boll weevil's got hands
Sometimes he's walking in the tall canes, just like a natural man

Boll Weevil told the farmer
... your cotton, plant it in your yard
Blind Willie McTell recorded a great take on the Boll Weevil theme:
Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil where you get your great long bill?
"I got it from Texas, I got it from the western hills."
"I got it from Texas, I got it from the western hills."

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, said "don't you buy no more pills,"
"You aint gonna make enough money to pay your drugstore bills."
"You aint gonna make enough money to even pay your drugstore bills"

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, "don't you plow no more."
"Ain't gonnna make enough flour in your back door."
"Ain't gonnna make enough flour to even put in your back door."

Boll Weevil, he told the farmer, "don't buy no Ford machine"
"You aint gonna make enough money to even buy gasoline."
"Aint gonna make enough money to even buy gasoline.

Boll Weevil said to the farmer, "don't buy no fields"
"You aint gonna make enough money to even buy your meal."
"Won't make enough money to even buy your meal."

Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil where you say you got your great long bill?
"I got it from Texas, out in the western hills."
"Way out in the panhandle, out in the Western hills."
Boll Weevil ballads were recorded by dozens of artists in the 20s and 30s. The black singer's identification with the boll weevil is clear, some singers even took Boll Weevil for their name. The best know recorded for Vocalion under the name Sam Butler. His real name was probably James Jackson, but he's known best from the name on his Paramount recording, Bo Weavil Jackson. Devil and My Brown Blues is his take on the boll weevil.

Charlie Dad Nelson recorded another song about the interaction between farmer and boll weevil, Cotton Field Blues:
Boll weevil, boll weevil, where did you come from?
Boll weevil, boll weevil, where did you come from?
From Beaumont Texas, I'm just over here on the farm

Farmer said to the boll weevil, don't you know you doing me wrong?
Farmer said to the boll weevil, don't you know you doing me wrong?
Eat up all my cotton and eat up all my corn

Says I'm going to town to buy a little gasoline
Says I'm going to town to buy a little gasoline
He's the worst boll weevil I believe I ever seen
With Let Me Be Your Boll Weevil, Lee Brown took a different take on the boll weevil, finding the sexual metaphor in its burrowing inside of the cotton boll.

Dozens of field recordings were made of boll weevil songs. Check out the Document Records collection, Boll Weevil Here, Boll Weevil Everywhere. Finious "Flat Foot" Rockmore recorded one of the more memorable versions.

Songs about the Boll Weevil were recorded in every cotton state. The devastation caused by the little bug had a tremendous impact on the lives of those connected to agriculture. The weevil seemed indestructible and did its work in secret, hatching in the boll to consume from within. You can see why it might appeal to those oppressed by the agricultural system in the American South. The boll weevil continued to frequently destroy crops in North America until the US Department of Agriculture started the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in 1978. Now, the weevil may not be the force it once was, but the songs testify to its ability to wreak havoc with the agricultural ruling class.


Songs:
Mississippi Boweavil Blues - Charley Patton
Bo-Weavil Blues - Ma Rainey
Boll Weevil - Jaybird Coleman
Boll Weevil - Blind Willie McTell
Devil And My Brown Blues - Boweavil Jackson
Cotton Field Blues - Charlie "Dad" Nelson
Let Me Be Your Bo Weavil- Lee Brown
Boll Weevil - Finious "Flat Foot" Rockmore

Robert Johnson and Records

If you cannot see the audio controls, your browser does not support the audio element Robert Johnson was both a consumer and creator...