The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #90399   Message #3505244
Posted By: GUEST,Autoharper
18-Apr-13 - 08:31 AM
Thread Name: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
That cotton picking was done by enslaved African-Americans before the Civil War, and by workers of both races, afterwards, is a matter of fact, and should not be taken as derogatory or demeaning of or to African-Americans.

"Pick a Bale of Cotton" is an American "bragging," folksong, not unlike "John Henry" or "I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago." Its composer is unknown. It may have been sung by enslaved African-Americans; however it did not appear in print before 1936.

"Pick a Bale of Cotton" was first recorded in 1993 by an incarcerated black man named James "Iron Head" Baker, (born approx. 1885) at the Texas State Prison in Sugarland, Texas. The song was made popular in the 1950's by recordings by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte (neither of whom is easily characterized as a racist) who learned it from Leadbelly's 1935 recording.

In his youth, Leadbelly, (Huddie Ledbetter 1888-1949) picked cotton in Bowie County, Texas. According to his biographers Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in "Life and Legend of Leadbelly," Harper Collins, 1992, page 65:

"Even today, many decades after Huddie worked in the Bowie County fields, old-timers still recall his capacity to pick huge amounts of cotton – up to five hundred and six hundred pounds a day. In later years, Huddie would sing one of his most famous songs about how it was to "Pick a Bale o' Cotton." Texas farmers will laugh at this, though, and point out that a bale of cotton is usually fifteen hundred pounds, and that no man, regardless of how fast he is, can pick more than five hundred or six hundred pounds. There was often, apparently, a competition among pickers to see who "weighed out" the most cotton at the end of the day…"

In "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly," Macmillan Company, 1936, page 92, John and Alan Lomax write:

"In other versions of this song (see same title in "American Ballads and Folksongs") such lines as "Ol' massa tol' de niggers, Pick a bale o' cotton," and "Massa gimme one dram to Pick a bale o' cotton," are frequent. We are led to believe, [my italics] therefore, that "Pick a Bale o' Cotton" is a slave song, another of the old Negro tunes the Texas prison system has kept alive, while the prisoners died… The tune…is well known, especially among older prisoners, throughout the Texas penitentiary system."

-Adam Miller