The first time I saw Boll Weevil,
He was sitting on a cotton square.
The next time I saw Boll Weevil,
He had his whole family there.
This song about the boll weevil is one of many popularized by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, and other artists. A version of this most widely known “Boll Weevil” song sung by Buster “Bus” Ezell was recorded by John Wesley Work III in 1941. Perhaps, like me, you learned a version of this song as a child in school or camp. Or perhaps the song you learned was different. But do you know the story behind the songs?
In about 1892 a small beetle native to Central or South America made its way across the Mexican border in the vicinity of Brownsville, Texas and spread rapidly across the cotton growing regions. By the 1920s Anthonomus grandis, the boll weevil, was causing more economic damage than any agricultural pest in U.S. history. The boll weevil feeds on cotton pollen, but does its damage by laying eggs on cotton flower buds, called “squares,” or on the young developing cotton boll (the songs often address boll weevil as a “he” or “Mr.” but clearly the crop damage is done by the female and her young). 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 as the beetle larvae eat it, and so damages the cotton crop.
The destruction of cotton fields by the boll weevil spread from Texas across the South and Southwest so that by the Great Depression, cotton farmers had already suffered from many years of devastatingly poor harvests. Eventually it found its way to California cotton fields as well.
The farmer took the boll weevil
and put him in the hot sand.
The boll weevil said to the farmer,
“You are treating me like a man.”
The farmer took the boll weevil
and put him on the ice.
The boll weevil said to the farmer,
“This is mighty cool but nice.”
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. Some songs seem to cast him as a mock folk hero with “Just looking for a home” as the refrain, while others warn the farmer, “I’m going to take your home,” or, as in Bus Ezell’s version, “You’re going to have no home.” The folksong’s observation of the resilience of the little bug is based on reality. Arsenic was the first pesticide 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 to try to reduce the reproduction of the boll weevil, which had some benefit for individual farmers but did not stop the spread of the insect across the cotton belt. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was the insecticide of choice in the mid twentieth century, but once again pesticide-resistant boll weevils developed. Worse, the heavy application of pesticides killed a wide spectrum of beneficial insects allowing other pests to increase their numbers and damage cotton and other crops. 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. The poor often suffered the most. In an autobiographical song sung by José Suarez with the first line “Yo cuando era niño – mi padre querido” (see the video below), the singer tells of picking cotton with his father when he was a child. The lyrics explain that they could make little money because the boll weevil was destroying crops and the wages paid to pickers were very low (in this video the song is illustrated with photographs from Library of Congress collections and is part of the new online presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America). 
The “Boll Weevil” song as sung by Bus Ezell carries broader threat than most, reflecting the profound impact of the insect on cotton-growing regions. The boll weevil says, “… by the time I get through with this country you’ll be crawling on your knees.” But, like boll weevils, human beings are adaptable. The cultural response to the boll weevil has been remarkable. For example, beginning with an experiment in 1916, farmers in the state of Alabama shifted most of their cotton production to the production of peanuts and other crops. While surrounding states were suffering from the devastating impact of the boll weevil on their cotton crops, Alabama enjoyed an economic revitalization with farmers making more profit than ever before. So, on December 11, 1919, the city of Enterprise, Alabama raised a monument to the boll weevil, celebrating the pest that taught them how to adapt and calling it a “herald of prosperity.” An annual Boll Weevil Fall Festival is held in Enterprise in October.
Today the adaptable nature of humans faced with adversity is making life tough for the boll weevil. An eradication program started in the 1970s is coming close to driving the boll weevil out of the U.S.  By using a variety of strategies throughout the year, such as pheromone traps in the spring, hand picking of infected cotton buds during the growing season, plowing under the cotton stalks after harvest, and low levels of pesticides when the insect is short of food in the fall, boll weevils have been eradicated in all states except Texas. In many areas cotton can now be grown with a very low application of pesticides, or none at all. The southern part of Texas, where the boll weevil first crossed into the U.S., is the last stand of the boll weevil north of the border. The program is now being used in northern Mexico, benefiting both Mexican farmers and farmers in the U.S. by continuing to expand the boll-weevil-free areas.
John and Ruby Lomax collected a blues song also called “Boll Weevil,” sung by Willie “Gar Mouth” Williams at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas. In this song, “Boll Weevil takes a circle way round the moon, and said ‘ I’ll be back to see you Mr. Farmer on the twenty-fifth of June.'” When the recording was made in 1939 the return of the boll weevil every year seemed as inevitable as the song describes. Today the Boll Weevil Eradication Program is one of the greatest success stories of American agriculture and in most states the boll weevil has left and is unlikely to return. Yet the celebration of the boll weevil in Enterprise, Alabama, continues, because there is a great deal we can learn from an invasive bug, even as we show him the door.
- A photograph of Bus Ezell performing at the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival published in a March 1944 edition of the College magazine, The Peachite, is available online. A biography of folklorist John Wesley Work III is also available.
- José Suarez became blind in infancy and so, given the times, picking cotton was one means for him to make a living when he was young. In April 1939, when this recording was made, collectors John and Ruby Lomax reported that he had become a professional musician. Follow this link for the illustrated video record with a list of sources for the media used. Follow this link for the bibliographic record for the sound recording.
- The May 2013 Fact Sheet on the Boll Weevil Eradication Program is available from the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). [PDF, 4 pp., 58.78kb]