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“Cotton Fields” is a song written by blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who made the first recording of the song in 1940.
Recorded by Lead Belly in 1940, “Cotton Fields” was introduced into the canon of folk music via its inclusion on the 1954 album release Odetta & Larry which comprised performances by Odetta at the Tin Angel nightclub in San Francisco with instrumental and vocal accompaniment by Lawrence Mohr: this version was entitled “Old Cotton Fields at Home”. The song’s profile was boosted via its recording by Harry Belafonte first on his 1958 album Belafonte Sings the Blues with a live version appearing on the 1959 concert album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall: Belafonte had learned “Cotton Fields” from Odetta and been singing it in concert as early as 1955. A #13 hit in 1961 for The Highwaymen, “Cotton Fields” served as an album track for a number of C&W and folk-rock acts including Ferlin Husky (The Heart and Soul of Ferlin Husky 1963), Buck Owens (On the Bandstand 1963), the New Christy Minstrels (Chim-Chim-Cheree 1965) and the Seekers (Roving With The Seekers1964): Odetta also made a new studio recording of the song for her 1963 album One Grain of Sand. The Springfields included “Cotton Fields” on a 1962 EP release: this version is featured on the CD On An Island Of Dreams: The Best Of The Springfields. “Cotton Fields” was also recorded by Unit 4+2 for their Concrete and Clay album (1965). A rendering in French: “L’enfant do”, was recorded in 1962 by Hugues Aufray and Petula Clark.
The Beach Boys cover
American rock band the Beach Boys recorded “Cotton Fields” on November 18, 1968: the track with Al Jardine on lead vocals debuted on the group’s 1969 album 20/20.
Dissatisfied with Brian Wilson’s arrangement of the song, Jardine later led the group to record a more country rock style version; this version recorded on August 15, 1969, featured Orville “Red” Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. Entitled “Cottonfields”, the track afforded the Beach Boys their most widespread international success while also consolidating the end of the group’s hit-making career in the US (although they would enjoy periodic comebacks there). “Cottonfields” would be the final Beach Boys’ single released on Capitol Records – the group’s label since May 1962 – and their last single released in mono.
While barely making a dent in the U.S. (number 95 Record World, number 103 Billboard) though promoted with an appearance on the network TV pop show Something Else, the song succeeded across the Atlantic, reaching number two in the UK’s Melody Maker chart and listed as the tenth-biggest seller of the year by the New Musical Express. Worldwide – outside North America – it nearly replicated the success of the group’s “Do It Again” two years before. It was number 1 in Australia, South Africa, Sweden and Norway, number 2 in Denmark, number 3 in Ireland, similarly top 5 in the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain and Rhodesia; number 12 in the Netherlands, number 13 in New Zealand and number 29 in Germany. Because of this popularity, it was placed on the international (ex-US) release of the group’s Sunflower album.
The original Lead Belly lyrics state that the fields are “down in Louisiana, just ten miles from Texarkana”. Later versions (e.g., Creedence Clearwater Revival’s) say the fields are “down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana”. Both are geographically impossible, as Texarkana is about 30 miles north of the Arkansas–Louisiana border. This song line suggests the writer had the widely held but mistaken belief that Texarkana is partially in Louisiana.
The song and its various cover versions became a synonym of bluegrass music, as well far from actual cotton yielding regions. E.g. the German skiffle band Die Rhöner Säuwäntzt describe their style as Musik von den Baumwollfeldern der Rhön, translating into “music played in the Rhön Mountains (imaginary) cotton fields”.
Last updated on October 15, 2016
Unofficial live • Released in 2004
3:19 • Live