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 (full name 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 where blacks used to do most of the work including collecting the bales of cotton. The original lyrics contained the word "nigger" multiple times. One of the verses according to American Ballads and Folk Songs, goes like this: ("O massa told de nigger / Pick a bale of cotton / O massa told de nigger / Pick a bale a day").

Amended better-known lyrics avoid the N word and quote instead:

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

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.[1] 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 also with Woody Guthrie.

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 vynil 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.

In 2014, Country and Irish singer Derek Ryan covered it in his 2014 album The Simple Things also releasing a music video.[2]

In popular culture[edit]

The song was sung in the American comedy The Jerk. With the ending credits to the film, Navin R. Johnson's entire adopting family sing and dance on the house porch singing a rendition of "Pick a Bale of Cotton". while Navin played by Steve Martin dances along, now having gained "perfect rhythm" after he had utter lack of rhythm when adopted by a black family that loved to sing spirited blues music.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Pick a Bale of Cotton". HistoryWired. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 7 June 2013.  'Includes lyrics of song
  2. ^ Music video - Derek Ryan - "Pick a bale of Cotton" (Nov 29, 2014)