Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat

Bob Miller, Emma Dermer, c. 1930

What emotions does this song express? Why is the farmer frustrated? Drought, crop failures and surpluses, high birth rate. Who seems to be doing most of the labor on this farm? Farmer himself —"back nearly broken and fingers all sore."

"Too much cotton and not enough to eat": how could too much cotton be a problem for a cotton farmer? Lowers prices. Why would it be hard to tell farmers to produce less to raise prices? Growing more is the only way they have of increasing income.

What economic problem does the line "seven cent cotton, forty cent meat" refer to? Depressed crop prices and inflated product prices. What ironic situation does verse four point out? Buying back finished goods made from the raw materials (cotton, pork) they produced at much higher prices.

What led to an agricultural depression in the 1920s? When high war agricultural prices fell, farmers compensated by increasing production, which drove down prices. What natural disasters compounded the problems of cotton farmers in the 1920s and 1930s? Boll weevil, Dust Bowl.

What did Hoover do to try to improve the lot of farmers? Tariffs, price controls. How well did they work?

What New Deal programs would try to alleviate the pressure on farmers? Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (subsidies and price controls), Farm Credit Act of 1933, Rural Electrification Act of 1935. How well did they work?

What advice would you give to this farmer? What steps might he take to make things better?

"Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat" performed by Peter Seeger on American Industrial Ballads, Washington, DC: Smithsonian/ Folkways [CDSF40058], © 1997. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Originally recorded in 1956, this performance by Pete Seeger (1919–2014) appeared on one of his earliest albums, entitled American Industrial Ballads, which features songs dealing with the industrialization of the United States over the last 140 years.

Seeger, a noted folk singer, got his start in the 1930s travelling the country with Woody Guthrie. Together they wrote and sang songs to help labor unions recruit new members. Meanwhile they also learned many work songs from the people they sang for and passed them on to others. This is one of the songs they learned from a farmer.

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

https://genius.com/Pete-seeger-seven-cent-cotton-forty-cent-meat-lyrics

Cover for Bob Miller's "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere."

Bob Miller (1895–1955) is noted for being one of the first full-time professional songwriters in country music. He grew up immersed in music, primarily southern music. Although he led a dance band for several years on a steamer on the Mississippi River, he eventually settled down and established the Beale Street Music Shop in Memphis, where he wrote jazz and blues tunes. In 1922 Miller moved to New York to work as an arranger for the Irving Berlin Publishing Company. In the late 1920s he left to manage the hillbilly and race divisions of Columbia and Okeh record companies, but soon began writing country songs leading to the formation of his own music publishing firm in 1933. He also arranged and wrote the melody for Elton Britt's country hit, "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere."

This song is a commentary on the struggles of Southern cotton growers, who, with other farmers, had suffered an early depression beginning in 1919. The appearance of the boll weevil (see "Boll Weevil Song") and subsequent devastation of the cotton crops brought about the downfall of cotton as an economic staple throughout the south.

This song appears in several versions, reflecting the steady decline of cotton prices. It began as "Eleven Cent Cotton Forty Cent Meat," then this version "Seven Cent Cotton Forty Cent Meat." In 1932 Miller responded to the worsening depression with "Five Cent Cotton" that began, "'leven cent cotton used to wrinkle my brow, But, oh good Lord, look what it's at now!"

Compare this song to:

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

"Do, Re, Mi" (this unit)