Alabama cotton fields & Old Black Joe . . .

01 Aug

SueCottonPaintingOne of my three princesses, the one that lives, loves and works in Virginia, created a painting for her friend Sue as a house-warming gift. Sue had recently relocated from Virginia to Huntsville, Alabama and needed a mantle-piece decoration suitable to that part of our country. My daughter e-mailed me and included a photo of the painting (shown at right with the proud owners). Check here to read her posting on the painting and its journey to its new home.

This is my reply to her e-mail:

I shore do lak ‘at, especially the sky—and as you said, the trees on the horizon eliminate competition between the clouds and the cotton field.

Beautiful, simply beautiful.

At the instant I viewed this image, a phrase from a refrain immediately popped into my remembering apparatus, a song we learned in Miss Mary’s elementary school, probably around the second or third grade—I hear those gentle voices calling—I googled the phrase, and this is the song:

Old Black Joe
by Stephen C. Foster

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low,
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain,
Why do I sigh that my friends come not again,
Grieving for those now departed long ago,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low:
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

Where are the hearts once so happy and so free,
The children so dear that I held upon my knee,
Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go.
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low,
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

A word of caution—you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time on Foster’s poem. If you do, you may find yourself becoming misty-eyed and feeling a certain tightening in your throat, a sure indication of a heavy heart and bitter-sweet memories (of course it could be nothing more than a psuedo allergic reaction to the heat and dust and airborne molds found in cotton fields and wooded areas).

Your painting and the poem brought so many memories crowding in that I didn’t have enough room for them—I had to push some aside so I could concentrate on others.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR SUE: She might want to consider printing the poem on a small placard and placing it near the painting—after reading it viewers (anyone over the age of 16 and assuming a reasonable understanding of the English language), would lapse into a moment of reverie, alone with their memories, oblivious to sights and sounds around them, even though they may have never seen a field of cotton, in Alabama or elsewhere.

And then again, maybe not.

Some thoughts on picking cotton:

While in basic military training at the mid-way point in the past century, I was discussing cotton-picking with a new-found friend from Aspermont, Texas. I mentioned that, at the tender age of 11, I picked cotton in Mississippi for a few days. I was never able to pick one-hundred pounds in order to reach the dollar-a-day wage. Some adult males picked as much as 200 pounds in one day by working from dawn to dusk. Early in the season, when the cotton was heavy on the stalks, pickers earned a penny a pound, but later in the season when the cotton was sparse on the stalks, the rate rose to two-cents a pound (it was sparse when I picked it, but my never-indulgent step-father paid me only a penny a pound).


My friend told me his mother picked as much as 800 pounds a day. I figured this was nothing more than a tall Texas tale, but after further discussion I learned that there was a huge difference between the states in the method of removing the cotton from its stalk. In Mississippi we picked the cotton ball out of its bowl—in Texas they pulled the cotton, bowl and all, from the stalk, and occasionally also placed the stem in the cotton sack (inadvertently, of course).

The latest ginning machinery that separated the ball from the bowl had not yet found its way to the deep South. In rural areas Mississippi also lagged behind the rest of the country in electricity, paved roads, water lines and sewers.

I know—I was there. We cooled ourselves with hand-held fans, usually purloined from church benches, we heated our homes with wood-burning open fireplaces, we cooked our meals on wood-burning cast-iron stoves, we did our school homework by lamp-light, we hand-pumped our water from wells, we made the long trip—out to and back from—outdoor privies in daylight and darkness, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter—and the only way we talked to anyone other than family members was either face-to-face or by sending and receiving letters.

Ah, those were the days, my friends.


Posted by on August 1, 2009 in Family, Humor


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3 responses to “Alabama cotton fields & Old Black Joe . . .

  1. burstmode

    August 12, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Interesting term: Bummer. Bummers were the foragers associated with Sherman’s army as it marched through the old South. In the march through Georgia and South Carolina, they tended to take and occasionally burn. Bummer became a very negative term, indeed. But there is more…

    To bum something, say a cigarette, means that the borrowed item is not expected to be paid back or that the borrowed item will not be returned, like a cigarette. Meaning is a little different from what the Bummers did…

    In the final phase of Sherman’s march through North Carolina, it was apparent the Confederacy was in collapse. Additionally, North Carolina had never been a Confederate hotspot (unlike Sought Carolina) and it had lots of Yankee sympathizers, so Sherman instructed the Bummers to pay for items in chits.

    A farmer that had lost all his chickens to a bummer and received a chit in return had been bummed or, the bummer had bummed the chickens from him because the farmer never expected to see payment.

    Oddly, Sherman paid and the final significant battle of the Civil War was fought outside Bentonville, NC.

    No idea why I told you all this…

    • thekingoftexas

      August 15, 2009 at 11:53 am

      Whatever your reason for telling me, thanks for sharing this Civil War tidbit. I’m familiar with some of that conflict’s many oddities, but I was not aware that Sherman’s foragers were called “bummers” because of their proclivity to take items without repaying.

      Considering Sherman’s scorched-earth policy, the foragers, having appropriated everything useful to the campaign, would have been the logical ones to torch everything that remained, and thus would have—or at least could have—been known as ‘burners.” Perhaps some astute southern wag (there were—and are—a few such), watching his home and crops burn after failing to receive remuneration (other than a chit) from the foragers and given the similarity of the terms, referred to the foragers as burners rather than bummers, and the term stuck.

      It’s even possible that the same wag could have given the same treatment to the word “chit” simply by changing one letter in a rhyming word which, coincidentally, also utilizes only four letters. Clever people, those southerners.

      I freely proffer this alternate explanation for the origin of the term “bummers” to all present and future historians for their use in revising the history of the War Between the States. Its history is constantly being rewritten, and perhaps future revisions will show that “bummers” actually evolved from “burners.”

      And perhaps not.

      One of Civil War historian James Street’s books deals primarily with such oddities—a small tome, but fascinating reading. It includes the story of a child birthed by a virgin southern belle, the result of a pregnancy caused by the errant path of a minnie ball that, fired from a rifle wielded by a Yankee soldier, pierced the lady’s outer and inner clothing (if any) and came (no pun intended) to rest in the specific location of the lady’s interior which could cause a pregnancy. The minnie ball had apparently passed through a soldier’s genitals enroute to its final resting place. We may safely assume that the unlucky target was a soldier of the South—either that or the Southern belle was on the wrong side of the battle lines. Of all the oddities of the War Between the States, this is my all-time favorite. It’s been debunked, of course, but it’s still my favorite.


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