23 February 2012

#93-101 Roll the Cotton Down (Series)

What a great and, I think, “classic” sounding chanty this is, but I have not observed it to be popular in the revival era. It’s in “the books.” Yet only the Germans seem to sing a version regularly! My wild guess as to why it is not more popular: its evocation of the Antebellum South, which has vague connotations, for some modern Americans, of plantation slavery. Perhaps it sounds a bit too minstrel-y, too much Stephen Fosterish nostalgia. But this was the case with many of the chanties. Chanties, after all, seem to have been born out of work with cotton in the deep South, and sung in a time when these types of lyrics were in the air. They couldn’t all be about jib sheets and spankers and Valparaiso.

In my current tally, this chanty turns up twice for the 1860s, five times for the ‘70s, four times for the ‘80s, once in the 90s, once in the 1900s, and eight times for an unspecified period before the 1920s. This gives a total of 21 over time.

The 1860s instances are based only on my speculation of what is suggested by J.M. Carpenter’s informants from the 1920s. One of his other informants, David Atkinson, who first shipped in 1872, sang the following:

O have you been in New Orleans!
Roll the cotton down!
O-O-O, rolling cotton day by day
O roll the cotton down!

It’s there I worked on the old levee,
Roll the cotton down!
A-screwing cotton by the day,
O roll the cotton down!

Carpenter published this in a 1938 article, with an accompanying note that such chanties originated among Black stevedores. Perhaps it was this that influenced a similar statement in 1944’s Music of the new world: handbook:

With his gift for rhythmic song, the Negro proved to be an excellent shanty singer. Many shanties were originated by the Negro stevedores who loaded cotton on ships in the Gulf ports. A famous shanty which was taken over by sailors from these Negro stevedores is “Roll the Cotton Down”.

Adding to the data that this chanty was probably at least sung by the 1870s are inclusions by Harlow (1962), Williams (1909), and Stanton H. King (1918). Another 1870s sailor, Dick Maitland (Doerflinger 1951), sang two versions:

Down in Alabama I was born,
Roll the cotton down;
Way down in Alabama I was born,
And I rolled the cotton down.

When I was young and in my prime;
I thought I'd go and join the Line

And as a sailor caught a shine;
I shipped on board of the Black Ball Line;

Now the Black Ball Line is the line for me;
That's when you want to go on a spree

In the Black Ball Line you can cut a big shine;
For there you'll wake at any old time,

Now see the Black baller preparing for sea;
You'll split your side laughing, the sights to see,

There's tinkers and tailors, shoemakers and all,
They're all shanghaied on board the Black Ball


Way down South where I was born
Roll the cotton down;
I worked in the cotton and the corn,
[Oh, roll the cotton down.]

When I was young and in my prime,
I thought I'd go and join the Line,

And for a sailor caught a shine,
I joined on a ship of the Swallowtail Line.

This “Black Ball Line” theme, shared of course with other chanties, makes up Stan Hugill’s Version (D) in Shanties from the Seven Seas. And because “Roll the Cotton Down” had the usual “framework” quality of many chanties, other themes were spliced in wholesale. There is one from “Paddy on the Railway” (Version (E)) and from a “Long Time Ago” (Version (F)). I’ve rendered these as follows:

RW Gordon collected it from “an old Irishman,” perhaps first sailing ca.1870s.

Oh, when last I was in Frisco Town

Roll the cotton down,

I never ever will forget

Oh, roll the cotton down.

A 1951 Library of Congress recording of Capt. Leighton Robinson (?) offers a very typical lyrical version:

Oh, away down South where I was born,
Oh, roll the cotton down,
Away down South where I was born,
Oh, roll the cotton down.

A dollar a day is the white man's pay,
Oh, a dollar a day is the white man's pay,

I thought I heard our old man say.

We're homeward bound to Mobile Bay.

Oh, hoist away that yard and sing.

(The recording is exciting, however, because it’s one of few field recordings with a chorus singing along.)

The first published mention I have comes in Patterson’s “Sailors’ Work Songs,” Good Words 41(28) (June 1900).  The author attributes it to capstan and windlass work, by which he may be suggesting the version with a grand chorus. The versions thus far have been halliard ones without such a chorus.

I’ve created the following with the grand chorus, which Hugill gives as an option. His Version (A) has a nostalgic “good old days” (minstrel-y) feel, while Version (B) is more focused on the stevedore’s life. As can been seen in many of the documented versions, these lyrics tend to get blended—which is what I’ve done here:

Masefield was next to publish a version in 1906—a halliard version, with a "Black voice" to it:

Come all you little nigger-boys, 

And roll the cotton down;
O come all you little nigger-boys, 

And roll the cotton down.


Come roll the cotton down, my boys,
     Roll the cotton down;

Come roll the cotton down, my boys,
    O roll the cotton down.

A dollar a day is a white man's pay,

Ten dollars a day is a black man's pay,

The white man's pay is rather high,

The black man's pay is rather low,    

Around Cape Horn we're bound to go,

So stretch it aft and start a song,

As “Cape Horn” has snuck in here, I present Hugill’s Version (C), which has lyrics of the international deepwater generic sailor type! This incidentally, was one of the earlier recordings I made, with my more nasal voice of the time!

It was Bullen (1914), whose version is probably from the 1870s, who was first to supply a musical score.

Oh I’m bound to Alabama
Ter roll the cotton dow-own
I’m bound ter Alabama
Ter roll the cotton down.

The next version, collected by R.R. Terry (1920), actually gives the same verse as Bullen and a note about African-American influence:

Another source of shanties was undoubtedly negroid. The following well-known shanty is a type with which sailors would necessarily become familiar at cotton seaports :—


I'm bound to Alabama
Oh roll the cotton down,
I'm bound to Alabama
Oh roll the cotton down.

Colcord (1924) simply had the same!

As commercial recordings go, Stanley Slade evidently made a recording of this for the BBC ca.1942, which I don’t have. I wonder though, what later versions it may have informed.

One of the early folk revival recordings came before Hugill’s publication. This was Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers’ Foc’sle Songs and Shanties (Folkways, 1959). One gets the feeling they may have not actually heard it anywhere, for they sing both refrains on exactly the same pitch—somewhat odd. See here.

As I’d mentioned, the chanty seems to be more popular with German singers now, who have their own versions. One of these is a composition in Low German called “De Runer von Hamborg,” which we can call traditional so far as Hugill claims to have actually sung it in a German barque. It has the variable chorus, “Kööm un Beer for mi!”

Yet another Low German version goes by the name of its opening lyrics,

No den Süden to, dor foort een Shipp,
Verprovianteert mit schlauem Kniff
(“Away to the South there sailed a ship,
Provisioned by a cunning trick”)

The German renditions I have heard usually included the grand chorus, but Hugill, saying they are halyard versions, says that the chorus would not go with them.

The last bit related here is a fragment of a chanty, which Hugill reprinted from Colcord’s collection. This “Lower the Boat Down” is given in one verse without tune, but I followed Hugill in presuming it would be similar to “Roll the Cotton Down.”

Rolling the cotton with Moses,

Ranzo :{

No comments:

Post a Comment