Pick a Bale of Cotton

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"Pick a Bale of Cotton" is a traditional American folk song and spiritual or work song recorded by Lead Belly (Huddie William Ledbetter).

Lyrics and criticism[edit]

The song, particularly its original lyrics have been criticized as racist and reminiscent of the slave period in American history. The original lyrics contained the word "nigger" multiple times. One of the verses according to American Ballads and Folk Songs, goes like this: ("Dat nigger from Shiloh / Kin pick a bale o' cotton / Dat nigger from Shiloh / Kin pick a bale a day")[1].

Amended better-known lyrics say:

Gonna jump down, spin around
Pick a bale of cotton
Gonna jump down, spin around
Pick a bale a day
Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton
Pick a bale a day

Ensuing verses have "Me and my wife pick a bale of cotton / Me and my wife pick a bale a day" with "me and my wife" replaced again later as "me and my gal", "me and my papa", "me and my friend" etc.

The more the lyrics progressed, the faster it was sung, reminiscent of slave labor.

Covers and adaptations[edit]

The song has been covered by many artists including Harry Belafonte (in Belafonte, 1955), The Vipers Skiffle Group, The Quarrymen and Lonnie Donegan.[2] A version by Johnny Cash appears in the Cash compilation album The Legend.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee recorded it as a duo. Sonny Terry also recorded it with Woody Guthrie.

Allan Sherman performed a parody in the early 1960s which included the lyric, "Jump down, spin around, pick a dress of cotton / Jump down, spin around, pick a dress o' wool."

ABBA recorded it as a medley, the other tunes in the medley being "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Midnight Special". The track just titled "Medley" was recorded in 1975 and was the B-side to the 1978 vinyl single "Summer Night City". The medley also appeared as a track on the German charity album Im Zeichen eines guten Sterns on Polydor. The medley reappeared in the 1994 4-CD boxed set compilation Thank You for the Music.

Ludacris implemented the verse in his 2005 single "The Potion" as a breakdown before the third verse. He also references the verse in his feature on Missy Elliott's 2002 song "Gossip Folks" on the last line of his verse.

In 2014, Country and Irish singer Derek Ryan covered it in his 2014 album The Simple Things also releasing a music video.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

In both the opening and ending credits to the 1979 American comedy The Jerk, Navin R. Johnson (played by Steve Martin) dances along as his entire adoptive black family sing the song on the house porch.

The song was featured in an episode of The League (season 4, episode 7).

The song was referred to in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted by a patient to the nurse.

The song was referred to in an episode of Law & Order (season 13, episode 15) when Arthur Branch is relating a conversation to Jack McCoy.

The song is sampled in the song The Potion, performed by Ludacris.