Monday, November 18, 2013

The REAL History Of The Song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is provides a time line with citations and comments about the song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" (PABOC) up to 1950. Lyrics for some examples of that song are also given in this post. A number of comments are given in Addendum #1 to this post below. Addendum #2 features three additonal videos of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, cultural, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"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.

Additions & corrections and family friendly* comments are very welcome.

*By "family friendly" I mean no profanity, no fully spelled out "n-word", no racist comments or political comments/arguments, and no sexually explicit language. All of those types of comments are routinely found in YouTube comment threads and in most online sites that focus on "Pick A Bale Of Cotton". Although none of that content is included on this page-I'm including a WARNING that such content may be found on online sources whose hyperlinks are provided in this post.

As per the policy of this blog, no profanity is found in this post, and what is commonly referred to as "the n word" is represented by "n___r" with an asterisk which indicates that the completely spelled out word is found in the source text.

No documentation of the song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" has been found prior to the 1930s.

December 1933 - "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" recorded by James 'Iron Head] Baker, a prisoner at

1934 - Verses of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" are included in American Ballads and Folk Songs, edited by John Avery Lomax
From [Google Books], pp. 231-233
My comment:
In that book John Lomax wrote that "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" was "a Negro work song that was sung in prison by “Clear Rock" [Moses Platt], who Lomax described as "a 70 year old 'water boy'” at Central State Farm, near Sugarland, Texas” [state farm = prison]. Lomax wrote that the song survived the Civil War and slavery as per its references to “massa”. [Read the comments in the Addendum below about Lomax's speculation that "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" was a Black American slavery work song.]

In that book, John Lomax includes two verses for PABOC:
"Dat n___r* from Shiloh kin pick a bale of cotton" etc.


"O massa told de n___rs*
Pick a bale of cotton
O massa told de n___rs*
Pick a bale a day"

1936 - John and Alan Lomax write about "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" in their book "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly," Macmillan Company, 1936, page 92:
"In other versions of this song (see same title in "American Ballads and Folksongs") such lines as "Ol' massa tol' de n___rs*, 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 well known, especially among older prisoners, throughout the Texas penitentiary system."
This is an excerpt of a comment that was posted by Guest, Autoharper [Adam Miller] on
"Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton" [hereafter given as Mudcat: Origins PABOC; 18 Apr 13 - 08:31 AM
*This word is fully spelled out in this book.

1939 - John & Alan Lomax record James 'Ironhead' Baker (and Moses 'Clear Rocks' Platt?) singing "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" [Rounder Records]
"James "Iron Head" Baker and Moses "Clear Rock" Platt were African American traditional folk singers imprisoned in the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. They are notable for a number of field recordings of work songs and other material made by John Lomax for the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Music in the 1930s."
The first entry in the Addendum below includes an excerpt from a book Prison Writing in 20th-century America edited by Howard Bruce Franklin that comments about picking cotton in Texas prison farms and also includes a brief version of a pre-Leadbelly version of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" that is sung as a lament by Texas inmates.

From Mudcat: Origins PABOC, posted by Q 14 Nov 05 - 08:16 PM
"...Just listened to the Rev. Mose Platt sing this perky little work song on the Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (American Memory, Library of Congress). He used the phrase "jump down turn around, pick a bale a day.

The version is quite different from the one ascribed to 'Clear Rock' (Platt) in Lomax, ABFS 1934 [recorded in December 1933?], which has the Shiloh verse, but not the 'jump around' phrase. I can't find a recording listed for Platt before 1939. Platt could have changed his lyrics, or those in Lomax could be a 'combined' version put together by Lomax- which has happened before. His recording of the song in his "Deep River of Song" collection lists an "unknown axe-cutting group" as singing the song."
My assumption is that Rev. Mose Platt & Moses 'Clear Rocks' Platt are the same person.

Between 1941 and 1947 - Lead Belly recorded "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" for Folkways Records [now Smithsonian Folkways Recordings]. SFW40044_102

One of the recordings was "Lead Belly Sings for Children"
Lead Belly SFW45047"
"Originally recorded in children's concerts and studios for Moses Asch and Folkways Records in the 1940s".

1945 - Lead Belly - Pick A Bale Of Cotton

mokmok8080 Published on Feb 26, 2013
Another video that was originally published with this post but is no longer available showed Lead Belly humming the song "In The Pines" in the beginning of a film clip.

Lead Belly also gave these comments in the beginning of that film clip. (also shown at

"And this is another work song. When we pick cotton, you got to jump down to pick a bale of cotton a day. You can't fool around. And we sing:

Great God almighty
Gonna pick a bale of cotton
Great God almighty
Gonna pick a bale a day.

Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale of cotton.
Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale a day.
Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale of cotton.
Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale a day.
Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale of cotton.
Ah Lawd, I can pick a bale a day.

Oh, me and my wife, can pick a bale of cotton etc.


Gotta jump down, turn around and pick a bale of cotton etc.


Me and my buddy can pick a bale of cotton etc.


Me and my papa can pick a bale of cotton etc.


Me and my sister can pick a bale of cotton etc.

I can pick a bale, pick a bale of cotton etc.


I'm gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton etc.
Read various comments -including mine - about Lead Belly's performance of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" in the Addendum below.

From Prison Writing in 20th-century America edited by Howard Bruce Franklin, Penguin, 1998 [Google Book], p. 29-30
"Chapter: Songs Of The Prison Plantation
"The work songs of African American convicts constitute the most poignant evidence of the continuity from Pre-Civil War chattel slavery to the twentieth century prison. The songs have served much the same function for modern prison slaves as the work songs of their slave ancestors. They pace collective labor such as picking cotton under the boiling sun on prison plantations, precisely time dangerous joint activities like chopping down trees, and provide an assertion of people’s creativity and a defense of their humanity. The songs thus made it possible to survive under the most brutal and degrading condition, conditions designed to reduce them to work animals.

Some of the old slave songs actually persisted well into the second half of the 20th century. For example, these lines were sung by modern convicts picking cotton on a Texas prison plantation:

Well old marster told old mistress I could pick a bale of cotton
Well old marster told old mistress I could pick a bale a day.
You big enough and black enough to pick a bale of cotton.
You big enough and black enough to pick a bale a day.

But never will I pick a bale of cotton
How in the world will I pick a bale a day."
"How much does a bale of cotton weigh?

A bale of cotton weighs about 500 pounds."

From : for information about, including the fact that "In 1930 Ledbetter [Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949)] was in Louisiana's Angola Prison Farm after a summary trial for attempted homicide, charged with knifing a white man in a fight. It was there he was "discovered" three years later during a visit by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan Lomax.[12] Deeply impressed by Ledbetter's vibrant tenor and extensive repertoire, the Lomaxes recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned with new and better equipment in July of the following year (1934), recording hundreds of his songs all in all. On August 1, Ledbetter was released after having again served almost all of his minimum sentence following a petition the Lomaxes had taken to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen at his urgent request. It was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, "Goodnight Irene."
I'm including this information although there's no documentation that "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" was among the "hundreds of songs" that the Lomaxes recorded of Lead Belly in 1934 while he was in Louisiana's Angola State Farm. [as per]

Notice that in "Negro Folk Songs As Sung By Leadbelly" [which is quoted above], the Lomaxes write that "Pick a Bale o' Cotton" is a slave song, another of the old Negro tunes the Texas prison system has kept alive"...
Italics added by me to highlight that portion of the sentence.

It seems likely that Lead Belly picked up "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" from "Iron Head" Baker & "Clear Rocks" Platt and transformed that song into the uptempo, dance song [sookie jump/play party tempo] that is almost always heard for that song today. In that sense, Lead Belly is the arranger and not the composer/writer of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton".

Furthermore, it's also likely that at least many of Lead Belly's Black audiences who heard his comments prefacing his performances of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" and his version of that song were aware that he was "lying" [telling tall tales, boasting, funnin'] when he said that he [and others] "picked a bale of cotton [in] a day. Those Black audiences, and others familiar with picking cotton knew that it wasn't humanly possible to pick a bale of cotton in one day.

Part of the problem was "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" nowadays is that many people don't understand the "lyin" tradition that Lead Belly is reflecting. African American writer/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote about that same lying tradition in her book Mules To Men. The fact that "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" that was standarized and popularized by Lead Belly is a bragging song escapes most people since the 20th century because we're not familiar with those bragging/"lying" customs.

Excerpt of the video summary statement published by raymondcrooke
"Pick a Bale of Cotton (Traditional American)", Uploaded on Mar 12, 2011
"First collected by Alan Lomax from prison farms in Texas, this is a boastful song about picking an impossibly large quantity of cotton (a bale is about a quarter of a ton). One version (1934) sung by Moses Clear Rock Platt, an African-American singer (and prisoner) has led to some controversy as it used the word "n____r"*. In fact, many people now consider it politically incorrect to sing this song at all because of its associations with slavery. There is a fascinating thread on the Mudcat site about a school that was pressured into withdrawing the song from a choral concert after complaints from parents. **

Pete Seeger has argued that it would have been sung fairly slowly as a work song if it was actually sung by the slaves on the cotton fields, so it is quite likely that it does not actually go back to those times. The version that we know today comes mainly from the singing of Lead Belly, who called it a "play-party" song, and has been carried on by singers such as Harry Belafonte, Odetta and the great blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee."

"Where is thy sting?-'Pick a Bale of Cotton' Ban" [hereafter given as "Mudcat: Sting PABOC" for this Mudcat discussion. Full disclosure, I participated in that discussion as well as the Mudcat discussion on the origin of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton".

Mudcat: Sting PABOC", posted by Q, 14 Nov 05 - 02:05 PM
"First collected from prison farms in Texas, a boastful song about picking an impossibly large quantity of cotton (it has never been done). The version with the lines about the "n___r* from Shiloh" was sung by Moses Clear Rock Platt, African-American singer, story teller and sometime prisoner on prison farms in Texas. His material was first recorded by Lomax (printed in Lomax and Lomax, 1934, "American Ballads and Folk Songs," pp. 231-233).

Pete Seeger picked it up, and along with the printed version in Silber, "Folksinger's Wordbook," p. 123 (with chords), it became a standard among folk singers."...
*This word is fully spelled out.

From "Mudcat: Sting PABOC", posted by Q, 14 Nov 05 - 09:33 PM
..."It ["Pick A Bale Of Cotton"] may never have been used by cotton-pickers. "Pick a Bale" has not been found in any collection before the 1930s, it may well have been just a handy line, much as 'pick a peck of pickles' in the kid's tongue-twister. The rhythm is wrong for picking cotton."

Editor's comment:
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 were actually referring to their prison overseers when they used the word "massa" or "master and "mistress".
[I used italic font to highlight this sentence.]

From Song Review by Barry Weber
..."Ledbetter took old folk ballads and reworked them into songs that would prove to pave the way for not only folk and blues, but for rock and roll as well. One of the greatest examples of this is "Pick a Bale of Cotton," an old work song that will forever be known as a Leadbelly tune. Though the original is most remembered as a working man's lament, Ledbetter transformed "Pick a Bale of Cotton" into a fast-paced, out-and-out dance number obviously influenced by his youthful "sookie jump" days. And while the early anonymous recordings of this song sadly reflect, "Never will I/pick a bale-a-day," Leadbelly's lyrics boast "I jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton/I jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day." Never mind that picking a bale of cotton in one day is unthinkable--the fact is Leadbelly took a song of hopeless anguish and turned it into a song of fantasy, of proving the impossible possible. This was a message that proved to resonate with the working class--particularly the southern blacks--and "Pick a Bale of Cotton" is a testament to Leadbelly's talent for completely transforming an old song in both performance and message. It is easy to listen to the unrestrained ecstasy in Ledbetter's performance and realize just why so many people refer to this song, despite it's [sic] traditional roots, as a Leadbelly original."
Italics added to highlight these sentences.

ADDENDUM #2: Three Additional Videos of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton"

WARNING: Comments in some of these videos' viewer comment threads contain profanity, the n word fully spelled out, racist language, and other inappropriate content.

Example #1: Lonnie Donegan - Pick a Bale of Cotton (video by 41)

NormanSweetcream, Uploaded on Sep 23, 2008

I made a music video for a great song. I hope you enjoy it.

Example #2: The Jerk 'end credits'

Dan Rychlec, Uploaded on Aug 12, 2011

The closing credits for "The Jerk". Always loved this version of "Pick a Bale of Cotton" by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee but couldn't it find anywhere... but here. Its low quality cause I don't know what I'm doin'. Feel free to improve it.
I think that this movie scene greatly contributed to the toxicity of the song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" in that this scene seemed to seemed to make fun of poor Black people. Furthermore, the use of that song seemed to confirm the opinion many Black people have held since at least the late 20th century that the uptempo, joyous nature of the "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" disrespects and trivalizes the memory of Black enslaved people who worked in cotton fields under horrendous conditions.

The fact that "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" was probably not a real 19th century work song - as no documentation of that song can be found until the 1930s - and the fact that Lead Belly transformed the earlier lament to its uptempo danceable form is important to note, but doesn't really change the negative perceptions that many people, particularly many Black people, have about this song. Of course, one of the reasons for this is that few people are aware of the real history of the song "Pick A Bale Of Cotton".

Example #3: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee-Pick a Bale of Cotton

TravelerIntoTheBlue,·Published on Sep 15, 2013
Notice that the beginning spoken words to this version of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" mention "working in the chain gang". Refereences to prison chain gangs are repeated throughout this song. This is pertinent since the earliest examples of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" are from two African Americans inmates from a Texas prison - "Iron Head" Baker and "Clean Rocks" Platt. However, the version of that song that is performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee isn't the lament/veiled protest of those prisoners, but the "sookie jump" influenced uptempo, bragging song that Lead Belly has made the standard form for "Pick A Bale Of Cotton".

In addition to the links given above, click this link for a discussion about the controversy about "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" being sung by children in American schools

Thanks to all those singers and collectors of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" who are mentioned in this post. Thanks also to all those who I have quoted in this post and thanks to the vocalists featured in videos embedded in this post, as well as the producers of those videos.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. 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.

  2. It was a propaganda slave song just like "Shuck that Corn." It was designed to enhance the pocket of the slavemaster. Today, rap music is the propaganda.

  3. And then there's the very random 1975 ABBA ��

    1. Oh, Lordy.... I mean, thanks [?!] for alerting me to that ABBA video ;o)

      Here's the hyperlink:

      One love!