When Cotton Gets Rotten

One ridiculous aspect about comments made by President Donald Trump regarding his preference for immigrants from Norway over immigrants from Haiti and some other African nations is the debate about his language.  Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator David Perdue of Georgia, who attended the Oval Office meeting, defend the president by using a bit of linguistic legerdemain.

While reliable sources confirm that Trump referred to Haiti and other countries as “shithole countries,” Trump’s allies have raised an interesting defense.  Cotton and Perdue supported Trump by denying the president said the word.  But apparently the basis for their defense is that Trump actually said “shithouse countries.”

Others may debate whether it is more or less racist to have used one term over the other.  But it is clear that politics is at a low level when you have elected Senators even making such an argument to suck up to this president.

The incident, however, probably is not a new low for politics.  Just considering Cotton’s record, one sees a man whose loyalty to ideology often trumps traditional notions of national service.  For example, during his first year in the Senate in 2015, Cotton organized other Senators to undermine President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran through a letter to the government of a foreign country.

Cotton also worked to prevent the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to be the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas because she was friends with President Obama.  The nominee, Cassandra Butts, had a distinguished career when she was nominated for a position that needed to be filled.

After a hearing about Butts’s nomination in May 2014, Cotton put a hold on her confirmation.  He later told her that he was doing it because he knew she had been friends with President Obama since law school.  And he wanted to hurt the president.  Butts spent the last 835 days of her life waiting for the confirmation before she died of acute leukemia.

“Cotton Fields”

For something nicer, when I think of rotten cotton, I go back to the classic song “Cotton Fields.”

Oh, when them cotton bolls get rotten,
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, wrote “Cotton Fields.” He recorded it in 1940.

A number of famous artists have covered the song, including Odetta, Harry Belafonte, the Beach Boys, and Johnny Cash. But my favorite cover version is the one by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The CCR version is the one I grew up listening to.  It appeared on their 1969 album Willy and the Poor Boys.

“Cotton Fields” is a wonderful song that people still enjoy more than seventy-five years after it was first recorded. By contrast, seventy-five years from now, nobody will probably remember how a man named Cotton tried to ingratiate himself to a president based on a distinction between “shithole” and “shithouse.”

Photo of cotton fields via Creative Commons and Kimberly Vardeman. What is your favorite version of “Cotton Fields”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Lead Belly: “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire while it attempted to dock at a naval station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board the ship died, along with one worker on the ground.

    Herbert Morrison’s Report

    Many people would listen to Herbert Morrison‘s recorded reports on the radio.  The horrible crash — along with Morrison’s cry of “Oh, the humanity!” — helped end public confidence in the use of airships as a means of travel.

    This video puts together Morrson’s reporting with some separate color footage from the scene.

    Lead Belly’s “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    In the years before television, songwriter often responded quickly to write songs about a major disaster.  And Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, used his songwriting skills to tell the story of the Hindenburg in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    Lead Belly recorded his song for the Library of Congress on June 22, 1937.  Check out his version of the story in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    “The Hindenburg Disaster” appears on Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • When Cotton Gets Rotten
  • How a Bull Moose, a Bear, and a Beetle Gave Elvis a Hit Song
  • Goodnight Irene
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    How a Bull Moose, a Bear, and a Beetle Gave Elvis a Hit Song

    On February 15 in 1903, the first Teddy bears appeared in a toy store window.  The name for the bears was inspired by the man who was the president of the United States.

    Morris Michtom, who owned a toy store, had written a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt asking permission to use the name “Teddy” for his bears. The president gave his approval. Other toy makers soon followed Michtom’s lead in naming stuffed bears, leading to the popular Teddy bear.

    The Inspiration for the First Teddy Bear

    The stories of the details about the event that inspired Michtom’s letter vary somewhat.  But it is clear that Michtom got the idea from President Roosevelt’s encounter with a bear.  While hunting in Mississippi in 1902, President Roosevelt, who would later found the Bull Moose Party, showed mercy to a bear.

    Some stories today claim the bear was a cub tied to a tree, but it more likely was an old bear. Either way, the incident illustrated another side of Roosevelt. Political cartoonists portrayed the event by illustrating a cub, showing the tough Roosevelt as a softy at heart.

    “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”

    The most famous song about Teddy bears was released more than five decades later in 1957.  That year, a rock icon showed his softer Teddy bear side.

    Elvis Presley sang “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” in the movie Loving You (1957), his second film and his first in color. The song went to number one on the charts that year.

    “Boll Weevil” And Its Connection to “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”

    Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe wrote “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” but part of the inspiration for the song came indirectly from an insect. Wikipedia and other sources report that the song’s roots go back to a traditional blues song, “Boll Weevil.”

    In “Boll Weevil,” a boll weevil talks to a farmer, threatening the cotton crop while looking for a home. The song has been around since at least the 1920s, and it may have its origins in Roosevelt’s time.

    One of the most famous early recordings of “The Boll Weevil” was by Lead Belly in the 1930s.

    Can you hear “Teddy Bear” in Lead Belly’s song? If not, listen to singer-songwriter Brook Benton‘s version of “The Boll Weevil Song,” which became a hit in 1961.

    Now you hear it, don’t you? And now you know, how a bull moose, a bear, and a beetle helped give Elvis Presley a hit song.

    Cartoon by by Clifford Berryman via public domain. What are your favorite songs about bears and bugs? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Goodnight Irene

    As Chimesfreedom prepares for Hurricane Irene in New York, we wish others in the hurricane’s path to be safe in weathering the storm. Hopefully, we soon will be wishing Irene goodnight, as in the great song. Unlike the hurricane, “Goodnight Irene” is timeless, so that nobody knows where the song originated. Huddie Ledbetter, i.e., Lead Belly, made the first recording of the song while he was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His recording is a beautiful, haunting version of the song about the deep sadness of lost love, as the singer tries to warn others to avoid his fate (“Stay home with your wife and family / And stay by the fireside bright”).

    Goodnight Irene, Lead Belly

    Pete Seeger’s The Weavers helped make the song a national hit in 1950, and there have been numerous covers through the years, including interesting upbeat versions by Fats Domino and by Brian Wilson (the latter is on the tribute CD, Folkways: A Vision Shared (1988)). In the version below, Pete Seeger sings with the great Mississippi John Hurt, who tells a story about getting his first guitar. Then, the group, which includes folk-singer Hedy West (“500 Miles“) and banjo player Paul Cadwell, breaks into playing “Goodnight Irene.”

    The above performance appeared on Rainbow Quest, a show Pete Seeger started on a local UHF New York television station in the 1960s. At the time, many television stations feared featuring Seeger, who had been blacklisted because he asserted his First Amendment rights before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately, through YouTube, many more people get the opportunity to see some great performances hidden away at the time. Seeger, who now is a respected sage from a different time, has always been a bit of a hurricane himself.

    What is your favorite version of “Goodnight Irene”? Leave a comment. In times of natural disasters, it is always a good reminder to help others by donating to organizations like the Red Cross.

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