Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bessie Brown - "Song From A Cotton Field" (with lyrics & comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases the 1929 Bessie Brown recording "Song From A Cotton Field". This post also includes information about thee song's composer Porter Grainger as well as information about the vocalist Bessie Brown.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to composer Porter Grainger and singer for their musical legacy. Thanks also to the band that recording this song and much respect to all those this song honors. Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post, and thanks to the publisher of this video on YouTube.

Click for information about African American pianist, composer, playwright, and music publisher Porter Grainger ((October 22, 1891 − c. 1955?)

Click for information about African American Blues, Jazz, and Cabaret singer Bessie Brown (1890 – 1955).

Comment from

Great Pianists, Jan 25, 2014
"I am dumbfounded and amazed by the remarkable discussion on this video's page.

I cannot add anything to it except to say that although Ms. Brown's does give a great performance of this song, she did not compose it nor write (most) of the lyrics.

It was written and composed by Mr. Porter Grainger, a (once) well-known African-American songwriter originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, who later moved to New York where he made over a hundred recordings, mostly as a (very good) piano accompanist to many "classic blues" and pop singers, and also copyrighted something like 400 songs (I THINK; I'll have to do an inventory in the US Catalog of Copyright entries to confirm this number which I read in a book years ago).

A good many of Mr. Grainger's songs were published as sheet music (most of them?) and recorded and made on piano rolls as well. Some of his most popular songs include: "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do" (co-written with Oklahoma/Chicago/Milwaukee pianist and composer Mr. Everett Robbins) and also "Triflin' Blues (Daddy, Don't You Trifle) co-written with pianist and composer Mr. Bob Ricketts. What Mr. Grainger did in his later years (after a stint writing Broadway shows in the 1930s and 1940s) is unknown, as is any information on his actual death (to date), however it is rumored (and so far, unconfirmed) that he moved back to Bowling Green and retired.

Although many of Mr. Grainger's songs belong near the "pop" side of the multifaceted blues spectrum (for example, the typical early pop blues tunes about somebody cheating on someone else), I feel that he really meant a lot more by this song in particular, since it seems to have a very deep and heartfelt theme in both the music and the lyrics.

Mr. Grainger recorded this song himself, singing and playing the piano, on a very rare Okeh record (# 8516) which to my knowledge, has never been reissued on CD, despite it being one of the only solo recordings he ever made. This record can currently be downloaded from a very good blog on the internet (found via Google), and I think Mr. Grainger sings a quiet, personal and compelling version of the tune.

("version" is not a good word to use here, since he is the composer, so I would imagine he sings it the way he wanted it sung... maybe "authoritative"?)

I personally prefer it to Ms. Brown's version, but she did do some other wonderful recordings which I think are classics (for example, "Someone Else May Be There When I'm Gone")."
With regard to this commenter's initial sentence, this video's discussion thread includes wide ranging comments about race and racism in the United States and elsewhere. Only a few of those comments are about the song or this recording of that song. Several commenters noted the catchy tune, and two of those commenters indicated that this was the Fletcher Henderson band.

I don't know which blog the commenter referred to.

WARNING: Some comments include what is now known as the n word, profanity, sexually explicit language, and racist arguments.

SHOWCASE VIDEO (Soundfile with vintage photographs)

Song from a Cotton Field - Bessie Brown

corderoi, Uploaded on May 13, 2007

This is a splendid 1920s recording by the "Original" Bessie Brown (1895 - 1955).
Some classic vintage images.
Please spread the message of artistic defiance

(Porter Grainger)

Written by Porter Grainger
As recorded by Bessie Brown on Brunswick 4409, 1929.*

[Part A] Hey, hee, hi, ho, pickin' cotton all day.
Hey, hee, hi, ho, just a-pickin' away.
White folks knows I'm workin'.
They knows gon' be no shirkin'.
Hee, hi, ho, I knows I'll get my pay.

[Part B] Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
Till all my children is grown,
Then I'll shuffle and skip and scuffle
To have a field of my own.
All my life, I've been makin' it.
All my life, white folks takin' it.
This old heart, they's just breakin' it.
Ain't got a thing to show for what I done done.
But things get brighter; loads get lighter.
I'll keep a-pluggin' [or "pluckin'"?] away.
Sing my song like I'm happy and gay,
All day.
Just tell the world for me: My soul's done set me free.
That's the song I'll sing till they put me under the clay.

[Part C] Oh, chil'en, stop your grumblin'.
Oh, that's a block for stumblin'.
Just keep on workin' and praisin'.
You'll see that you'll conquer someday.

[Instrumental break]

[Repeat part B.]

- - -
* This recording appears on 3 albums:
"Music of the Lost Generation 1910's – 1930's"
"(Original) Bessie Brown (1925-1929) & Liza Brown (1929)" Document Records DOCD-5456.
"Old Country Songs from Down on the Farm, Vol. 1"
The video begins with the words [writing only] “Bessie Brown sings of the woes and hopes of the cotton pickers."

Thanks to Jim Dixon for this transcription of that recording and that information

The video contains on screen lyrics which I copied prior to finding that Mudcat thread (Jim Dixon's comment is the only one on that thread to date.) I agree with Jim Dixon's corrections of the transcription given on-screen in the video. I added the word "Part" to Dixon's designation of "A", "B", and "C" sections of this song.

I think that the lyrics "I'll keep pluggin away" is probably the correct transcription and not "keep pluckin away [meaning keep picking cotton] "Keep pluggin"[away] is a folk saying which means "work doggedly or persistently"

"Sing my song like I'm happy and gay all day = acting as if (pretending to be happy and gay"; as described in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear The Mask" [Click for a pancocojams post about that poem.]

"Gay" here means "joyful and carefree"

"Just tell the world for me: My soul's done set me free" =
Her belief in Jesus sets her soul free. (This is a common Christian saying.)

"Just keep on workin' and praisin'" = Keep praising God.

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