Boll Weevil Song

Traditional, 1934

What is the boll weevil? What was its impact on farming in the early twentieth century?

What is sharecropping? How was the meaning of the boll weevil different to sharecroppers than for farm owners?

Throughout the song, the boll weevil resists the farmers attempts to kill it. Why was this a powerful symbol for African Americans in the South?

How might African Americans have related to the lines about the boll weevil "lookin' for a home"?

"Boll Weevil Song" performed by Leadbelly on In New Orleans, Dance Plant Records, © 2012. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.



This recording was made in 1945, after Leadbelly became famous and was touring throughout the United States and Europe.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://genius.com/Lead-belly-the-boll-weevil-1939-lyrics

US Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. (01/15/1918 - 01/1919)

The boll weevil is a pest that came to the United States from Mexico in the 1890s and devastated the cotton crop throughout the South. Despite the significant damage it caused for several decades, the boll weevil ultimately had a positive impact on farming. A monument to the beetle stands in the center of Enterprise, Alabama, to mark the increased diversification of agriculture that followed the failure of cotton crops in the 1910s.

Although farmers now celebrate the boll weevil for its influence on agricultural techniques, African American sharecroppers and field hands developed a different appreciation for the insect. Because it was able to survive every attempt that farmers made to eliminate it, the beetle served as a metaphor for the resilience of the workers in the face of exploitation and racism. This metaphor was commonly employed in songs such as "Boll Weevil Song."

Perhaps the most significant recording of "Boll Weevil Song" was made by Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a songwriter, blues singer, and guitarist. Known for his uncontrollable temper, he spent a considerable amount of time in jail for various crimes, including murder. During his incarceration at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Leadbelly was discovered by the famous folksong collector John Lomax, who recorded him for the Library of Congress in 1933 and subsequently helped to secure his parole. Leadbelly returned with Lomax to New York, where they recorded for the Library of Congress from 1935 to 1940. "Boll Weevil Song" was one of the first Leadbelly songs that Lomax recorded.

Compare this song to:

"Sixteen Tons" (Unit 8)

"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" (Unit 6)