Various Artists

Boll Weevil Here, Boll Weevil Everywhere: Field Recordings, Vol. 16 (1934-1940)

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The folk song "Boll Weevil" is at least a century old, and there are countless versions in field recording archives, as well as commercial versions issued by the likes of Charley Patton, Joe Calicott, Kokomo Arnold, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, and even Eddie Cochran and Brook Benton (who took it to number two on the pop charts in 1961). The boll weevil, an inconspicuous brown beetle that devastates cotton crops, first entered Texas in 1872 (after leaving Mexico's cotton fields in ruin), and reached Louisiana by the early 1900s, quickly spreading into Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, leaving physical and economic devastation in its wake. Southern blacks, many of whom made their hardscrabble living as cotton sharecroppers, developed a begrudging respect for the tenacious pest and its abilities to survive all attempts at its eradication, making the boll weevil somewhat of a metaphor for the social, political, and economic situation of the sharecroppers themselves. This collection of field recordings from Document Records includes seven versions of the boll weevil ballad (the most moving arguably being Vera Hall's stately a cappella rendering), but also includes other non-weevil tracks, several of which are also quite striking. All five of the selections here by Wilson Jones (guitar and vocals), Octave Amos (fiddle), and Charles Gobert (banjo) have a wonderfully ragged wildness, especially the epic murder ballad "Batson," which clocks in at over 11 minutes in length, split into two parts. A group recorded in 1934 and identified only as Seven Boys With Home-Made Instruments delivers two delightful junkyard masterpieces, "(Don't) The Moon Look Pretty" and a version of Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues," that prefigure Tom Waits' bang-the-fender approach to music arrangement by some 40 years. The variety on display here, from murder ballads to blues, Cajun two-steps, and jug bands to archival spoken word pieces, is impressive. Document has been putting out volumes of American field recordings for some time now (this is listed as volume number 16), and all of them are worth investigating, but this installment is a particular treasure.

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