Brook Benton took the folksy "The Boll Weevil Song" to number two on the pop charts in 1961, thanks to a silky and laconic vocal tracked over vaguely Caribbean rhythm guitars, stuttering drums, and a hypnotic piano line that echoed relentlessly through the song. Although the tune was credited to Benton and Clyde Otis as writers, the song was actually nearly a century old when Benton cut it, and there are countless versions of "Boll Weevil" in field recording archives, as well as commercial versions issued by the likes of Charley Patton, Joe Calicott, Kokomo Arnold, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and Eddie Cochran. The boll weevil, an inconspicuous brown beetle that devastates cotton crops, first entered Texas in 1872 (after leaving Mexicoâ€™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 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.
The chorus, which featured different variations of the "just looking for a home" line, spoke to anyone with a sense of cultural displacement, suggesting a spiritual search and a chance for a brighter future down the road. The song's subtle humor also gave the weevil a kind of tricksterâ€™s mentality, as he outwits the farmer every time. Bentonâ€™s version of the song catches all of these nuances, and his easy and effortless vocal gives it a remarkable intimacy, as if it were a cautionary bedtime story. Ironically, the boll weevil ended up helping the agricultural situation in the south in the long run, since the devastation it caused forced farmers into crop diversification, and while cotton remained king, other money crops (like peanuts) were introduced, allowing the economic climate to stabilize. Bentonâ€™s version of this durable little folk melody is easily the most polished and accessible, and he returned to the idea a few years later with â€œThe Roach Song,â€ an attempt to replicate his success with â€œThe Boll Weevil Song.â€ Roaches just arenâ€™t as lovable, however.