Why and how did “Cottonfields” change Bob Dylan’s life?

By Tony Attwood

In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Bob Dylan paid homage to Buddy Holly, and then immediately after that he added, 

And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.

Leadbelly – real name Huddie Ledbetter – was both the singer and composer of the song, and it is most likely that this is the version Bob Dylan heard, recorded in 1940.

It is quite fascinating in the way in speeds up – I am not sure if this was deliberate, perhaps signifying the need to work harder and harder in the cotton fields, or it just happened on that recording.   Here are the lyrics…

When I was a little baby,
My Mama would rock me in the cradle
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
When I was a little baby,
My Mother would rock me in the cradle
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home

Oh when them cotton balls bet rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
“It was down in Louisiana,
Just ten miles from Texarkana
In them there ol’ cotton fields at home.

Now it may sound very funny,
But you didn’t make very much money,
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
Yes it might sound very funny,
But you didn’t make very much money,
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home

Oh when them cotton balls bet rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
It was down in Louisiana,
Just a mile from Texarkana
In them there ol’ cotton fields at home.

I was over in Arkansas,
When the sheriff asked me
“What did you come here for ?”
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
Yes I was over in Arkansas,
When the sheriff asked me
“What did you come here for ?”
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home

Oh when them cotton balls bet rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them there, ol’ cotton fields at home
It was down in Louisiana,
Just a mile from Texarkana
In them there ol’ cotton fields at home.

The lyrics are hardly inspiring in themselves, (they are marginally changed in some later versions), and it is hard to judge the song afresh in order to get a feeling as to what might have excited Bob Dylan so much, unless of course you have never heard it before – my problem is I must have heard it a thousand times.

But the speed increase gives a sense of fun, despite the rather desperate nature of the lyrics.  (And I am not sure Bob would have picked up on the rather pedantic point that Texarkana is 30 miles north of the Arkansas / Louisiana border (or so I am told).  It is reported in some quarters that many people mistakenly believe Texarkana is in Louisiana…)

But there is something about this song that really does grab singers and songwriters to make their own recordings of it.   Here are the Beach Boys…

In fact the Beach Boys decided to make two versions of the song – one arranged by Brian Wilson and later with a different version for their final single release on Capitol.

The song became a major hit for the Beachboys in the UK along with Ireland, Scandinavia and Australia.

And looking through the details we find that hundreds and hundreds of singers, bands and groups have had a go at Cotton Fields, including Elvis Presley in the movie “That’s the way it is.”  Elton John had a bash at the piece too.

It is strange indeed that it should become a hit in countries like the UK where we don’t actually have cotton fields. Indeed, not surprisingly the Cotton Gin which enabled the much faster production of cotton, was invented in the USA.

So maybe the song gives Europeans a non-threatening sense of the early days of slavery without having to think about the horrors.   Yet this won’t explain why Bob Dylan was taken by the song.

However Bob says, listening to the song was “Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated.

Does he mean through the contrast of the horrors of slavery with the mother rocking her baby while picking cotton?

I honestly can’t resolve this one, so I’m asking for help.  Please help me understand

a) Why Bob was so moved by his first hearing of that song

b) Why so many bands have recorded it since

c) Why those recordings became hits.

Is it just because it is a lively tune?  Or because it is a lively tune used to picture the horrors of slavery?  Or something else?

 

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9 Responses to Why and how did “Cottonfields” change Bob Dylan’s life?

  1. Different people are blown away by different songs. To Bob it was the song Cotton Fields. I guess it’s only a feeling, you can’t grab that with intellect.
    Cheers Heiko

  2. hobo4444 says:

    i have not the foggiest idea why this song would inspire anything… Other than its ear worm…which I admit is impossible to exorcise from ones brain….. i dont even care if Leadbelly wrote it or not…. what does it say anyway? his mother rocked him in the cradle? You cant pick much cotton when the bolls get rotten?….. Oh come on now!!!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnEZ1m2k9lo
    Bob has a sentimental streak in him, Norman Rockwell, Steven Foster, Hank Williams, Kriesler ads, I can forgive him all this only because of the veritable avalanche of genius he has spewed out over the decades. But i havent worked my way though Triplicate yet…..

  3. Could it be the authenticity & truthfullness in Leadbelly’s voice, more than the words? The delivery, the performance, the feeling of ‘this is really something else? That’s how I got to Dylan.

  4. Ed McEowen says:

    Well, for a young, northern, white boy, it presented a completely foreign experience, a view into something never previously even imagined (I imagine). And the music grooved.

  5. John Bennet says:

    Belafonte, whom Dylan admired, sang it on “Belafonte Sings the Blues” (1958), three years before Dylan played harp for him on “Midnight Special.”

  6. Mark Turnbull says:

    Yes, I think Johnny and Ed just above me here have it right. The song – or rather the record – served as a sort of spaceship (perhaps time machine is a better analogy) to launch Bob into an entirely different world, a world of “authenticity and truthfulness”; and “a completely foreign experience” – that land, if we’re to judge from ‘Chronicles, Vol. 1’, where he was bound to go.

  7. Robert Ford says:

    I would think most Dylan fans can relate to the feeling Dylan refers to on hearing Leadbelly. I was weaned on Elvis and Buddy Holly, was fortunate enough in my teens to see anyone who was anyone including Led Zeppelin, Beach Boys, Grateful Dead and Roxy Music. Then soon after someone let me borrow ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and it was like a bolt of lighting had struck me. 40 years later the album still retains a magic which is difficult to explain to people who are not affected in the same way.

  8. Maryvonne Uguen says:

    Bob Dylan is in love with american culture (and his country) and MAYBE this was the first time He felt and understood a part of it which had escaped him up to hearing that song : the way an other american baby and then child feels joyfully( despite of the situation) at home in America.

  9. Maryvonne Uguen says:

    sorry : in spite of the situation
    instead of : despite of.

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