zzzi | Boll Weevil, The Katy, Bessie Tucker

In this column: Weevil, Boll Weevil, The Katy, The Santa Fe, The Mule, Bessie Tucker


Weevil in Can't get no grinding (Muddy Waters) and Boll Weevil (Lead Belly). See an earlier episode.

The wheat weevil / grain weevil  in "Can't get no grinding" (Muddy Water) is a beetle that causes damage to harvested stored grains and may drastically decrease yields. The females lay many eggs and the larvae eat the inside of the grain kernels.

Lead Belly sang about the Boll Weevil; a beetle that migrated from Mexico in the late 19th century and that destroyed cotton.

Boll weevil
Boll weevil

Well the first time that I seen the boll weevil
He was a-sittin' on the square
Well the next time that I seen him
He had his a-family there
Just a-lookin' for a home

Well the farmer took the boll weevil
And he put him on the red hot sand
Well the weevil said this is a-mighty hot
But I take it like a man

And he put him on a keg of ice
Well the weevil said to the farmer
This is mighty cool and nice

Background on the Boll Weevil

The song is based on reality. In about 1892 a small snout beetle crossed the Mexican border in Texas and spread rapidly across the cotton growing regions. By the 1920s the boll weevil caused enormous economic damage. The boll weevil does its damage by laying eggs on cotton flower buds, called “squares,” or on the young developing cotton boll.
Cotton buds are surrounded by three or sometimes four bracts that provide the beetle with a platform for its “home” in the song. The infected bud or boll stops developing and often falls off.

Farm boy with sack full of boll weevils he has picked off the cotton plants. He is holding infected cotton “squares” (buds) and young bolls in his hand. Macon Georgia. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937

Arsenic and DDT were pesticides used on infested cotton crops, but the boll weevil developed a tolerance for it. Workers, many of them children, were sent to pick off all the infected bolls and buds.
Worse, the heavy application of pesticides killed a wide spectrum of beneficial.
The high level of pesticides formerly used on cotton crops also carried the risks of polluted adjacent food crops, water supplies, and consequent ecological damage.
The economic impact of the damage caused by the boll weevil affected whole regions because much of the wealth of the south depended upon the cotton crops.

Songs about the boll weevil often take the form of an interaction between the insect and the farmer. No matter what the farmer does to try to discourage the boll weevil, the weevil always adapts. As shown her by Brook Benton.
Brook Benton (Benjamin Franklin Peay, popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s). Here with "The Boll Weevil Song" (1961).



Well my baby caught the Katy, I caught the Santa Fe
A line from Lead Belly's song "Shorty George"; see an earlier episode.

The Katy is a train; the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Line train. The M-K-T was often called "The K-T" or "The Katy" for short.
The Santa Fe refers to the Santa Fe Railway. Santa Fe whose own Texas main line ran down through Dallas to Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico.

M-K-T 312, The Katy
M-K-T 312, "A" Katy in the 1930s

In 1929 Bessie Tucker recorded her song "Katy Blues" dealing with all sorts of problems with and around trains. More about trains in a next episode.

"Well, he caught the Katy, I caught that Santa Fe;
Mmmmmmmmm, I caught the Santa Fe.
All you women can say: "Your good man left town with me"."
Spoken: "Lord, these women so evil."

It means, when someone caught The Katy, he or she was going places. Bessie's man caught the Katy, which connected big towns in the North while she picked up the Santa Fe, which did not.

Taj Mahal sang in 1968 "My baby took the katy and left me a mule to ride".
Mule refers to a slower moving local train. A mule is also the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare).

Big Joe Williams sang an other version in this 1966 video.

"My baby done gone and left me a mule to ride
When the train left the station, the mule lay down an died".

Both songs are about women who are sorely missed by their men. Taj's woman is "long, great god she's mighty, she's tall", Joe's woman can cook very well.

Taj Mahal

Big Joe Williams with Willie Dixon on bass


Bessie Tucker (ca. 1906 – January 6, 1933)
Bessie Tucker (ca. 1906 – January 6, 1933)

This is the only known photo of Bessie Tucker. Tucker possessed a powerful voice, a kind of female equivalent to Charlie Patton. She lived near Dallas, Texas, probably  Greenville or Fort Worth. Little is known about Bessie Tucker. I assume she had must a hard life, witness also her song "Penitentiary" (1928). She died young at the age of 27!

Sources: pancocojams.blogspot.nl, americanbluesscene.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, Hudson Motors Compagny, Archive Minneapolis, The Cruel Plains, M.H.Price a.o., truewestmagazine.com, The Austin Chronicle, Cambridge Free English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, TheSaurus.com, dragonjazz.com/grablue/blues_travel, Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Blues by Paul Breman, Blues by David Harrison, Quora.com, urbandictionary.com, Blogs.loc.gov, The Ballad Hunter by Alan Lomax, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920th by Daphne Duval Harrison, jopiepopie.blogspot.nl, redhotjazz.com, The Blues Lyrics Formula by Michael Taft, American Ballads and Folk Songs by Alan Lomax and John Avery Lomax, The Past Is Not Dead: Essays from the  Southern Quarterly by Douglas B. Chambers, EarlyBlues.com, railroad-line.com,