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Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton


Related threads:
Chord Req: Pick A Bale of Cotton (16)
PC-Where is thy sting?-'Pick a Bale of Cotton' Ban (149)

GUEST 17 Apr 13 - 04:15 PM
GUEST,Autoharper 18 Apr 13 - 08:31 AM
GUEST,leeneia 18 Apr 13 - 09:20 AM
Azizi 18 Nov 13 - 11:22 AM
Azizi 18 Nov 13 - 11:41 AM
Jim Dixon 08 Mar 20 - 02:22 PM
GUEST,Gerry 08 Mar 20 - 08:32 PM
Mrrzy 10 Mar 20 - 04:14 PM
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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
Date: 17 Apr 13 - 04:15 PM

Got this from the Smithsonian...

"Pick a Bale of Cotton" from the recording entitled Get on Board: Negro Folksongs by the Folkmasters, Folkways FP 2028, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1952.

It's a very old slave work song.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: GUEST,Autoharper
Date: 18 Apr 13 - 08:31 AM

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

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 18 Apr 13 - 09:20 AM

Some people seem to assume that only black people, whether slaves or not, were the only people who ever picked cotton. But take a look at this photograph of young white kids picking cotton about 1910.

I hope this works

People with no money and no protectors get the worst jobs - that's what it comes down to. And if they want to sing to make their lives more enjoyable, who are we to criticize?

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: Azizi
Date: 18 Nov 13 - 11:22 AM

I'm writing to share this link about a post on "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" that I've just published on my cultural blog:

Here's my introduction to that post:
"Pick A Bale Of Cotton" (PABOC) is a song of African American origin whose lyrics have become quite controversial since at least the last part of the 20th century.

Hyperlinks to some online discussions about the controversial nature of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" [since at least the late 20th century] are provided in this post. However, unlike most online blogs & articles about "Pick A Bale Of Cotton", this post focuses on the history of that song, with particular attention to documentation of pre-Lead Belly citations & performances of this song."
Selected comments from this thread and from another Mudcat thread on PABOC are included in that post, along with citations and hyperlinks.

Thank you.

Azizi Powell

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: Azizi
Date: 18 Nov 13 - 11:41 AM

Here are two of my comments from that post:

It appears that John Lomax considered the inclusion of the word "massa" in 'Iron Head' Baker's and 'Clear Rocks' Platts' version of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" to be enough evidence to support his assertion that "PABOC" was sung by Black people during slavery while they were picking cotton or at other times. However, no folklorist has found documentation of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" being sung during United States slavery. I wonder if Iron Head Baker & Clear Rocks Platt used the word "massa" in their rendition of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" to veil the fact that they actually were referring to their prison overseers.


Given that so much of the toxicity that surrounds the song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" particularly when it is sung by young school children is because of the word "cotton", I wonder if anyone has ever taught this song with the substitute words "Pick a bunch of flowers".

The song would still be easy to learn & sing for children. The tempo and accompanying movemets that young children love would be retained, but singing that song that way removes its controversial connection to Black slavery, which is widely-and I think erroneously thought to be the song's source.

Even if that easy fix were adopted, I still think that Lead Belly's version of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" and other's versions of that song including Iron Head Baker's & Clear Rock Platt's version should be introduced to older children. teens, and adult for those song's historical, sociological, and musicial content.

Azizi Powell

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Subject: Lyr Add: JUMP DOWN SPIN AROUND (Allan Sherman)
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 08 Mar 20 - 02:22 PM

This parody seems to be based on the version recorded by Harry Belafonte, called JUMP DOWN, SPIN AROUND, from "Belafonte" (1956)

As recorded by Allan Sherman on "My Son, the Folk Singer" (1962)

{Gotta jump down, spin around, and pick a dress o' cotton.
Gotta jump down, spin around, and pick a dress o' wool.} 4x

Grab those bargains off those racks.
Who needs Bergdorf? Who needs Saks?

{Gotta jump down, spin around, save a dollar eighty.
Gotta jump down, spin around, save a lot o' dough.} 2x

Here's what I've been searching for:
A genuine copy of a fake Dior.

{Gotta jump down – take it off the rack.
Gotta jump down, spin around, try it on your back.}

Here's a size eight I could fix.
Gotta let it out to forty-six.

{Little Shirley jumped down, took one off a hanger.
Little Rose jumped down, grabbed it right away.}

See how this one looks on me.
Just like Jackie Kennedy. (It does?) Yeah!

{Gotta jump down, spin around, and pick a dress o' cotton.
Gotta jump down, spin around, and pick a dress o' wool.} 2x

[I have simplified the above arrangement quite a bit. There is a lot of variation in the way various phrases are grouped together and repeated, and it seemed like too much trouble to transcribe it exactly. It is sung by Allan Sherman with several female backup singers.]

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: GUEST,Gerry
Date: 08 Mar 20 - 08:32 PM

Way upthread, 19 Jun 07 - 08:33 AM a guest wrote,

-There is a Hebrew song sung by Jewish people on the Sabbath
-that is the exact tune of "Pick a Bale of Cotton".

There may be such a song; I've never heard one, but there are a great many Hebrew songs sung on the Sabbath, and undoubtedly a great many that I have never heard. But I think the guest may have been referring to a song for the Jewish holiday of Purim (which, coincidentally, begins here in a few hours from now), which consists of a repetition, to the tune of Pick a Bale, of a Talmudic phrase to the effect that the month of Adar brings joy.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
From: Mrrzy
Date: 10 Mar 20 - 04:14 PM

I learned this song as pick a bale o' hay, not a day. Therefore that is always how I heard it.

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