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  • Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South
  • James McWilliams
Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South. By James C. Giesen. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. 248. Illustrations, figures, notes, index. ISBN 9780226292854, $40.00 cloth.)

James C. Giesen’s Boll Weevil Blues explores the calculated strategies employed by a range of interest groups—farmers, scientists, corporations, and even musicians—to capitalize on the infamous boll weevil invasion. This insect, which immigrated to Texas from Mexico in 1892 and went on to compromise cotton production throughout the southeastern United States, caused considerable damage to an already struggling southern economy. However, rather than exploring the “staggering figures of crop losses” (8), as historians typically do, Giesen highlights the ways in which embellished projections of agricultural demise created a broad pretext for professional advancement and race-based social control. The result of these efforts—which, it should be noted, required the author to integrate themes as diverse as race, musicology, labor, economics, and agricultural science—is a monograph as engaging as it is ambitious.

A counterintuitive idea is central to the book’s thesis: while the boll weevil’s measurable influence was certainly substantial, it was not, contrary to the pervasive rhetoric of devastation, prohibitively destructive. In Texas and Louisiana, white demonstration agents sought to highlight the acute dangers posed by the weevil while, at the same time, assuring black tenant farmers that so long as agent-inspired solutions were adhered to everyone would prosper in the end. Tenants, however, were never inclined to passively follow the dominant script. They understood that the boll weevil offered a novel justification to improvise resistance. Giesen suggests that landowners encouraged “a certain amount of partying and lawlessness on their land” (35) as part of an effort to assuage “perceived social needs.” What emanated from these extra-legal hootenannies was a musical form known as the blues. It was a genre “fostered by and reflective of tenants’ relationship to the land and their cotton-dependent livelihood.” (36) It was also reflective of the boll weevil myth’s pliability, as bluesmen were able to stoke black dreams and white nightmares with such portentous lyrics as “I am leaving your fields/so I won’t have to pick cotton.” (37) The reality, though, was otherwise. There was [End Page 218] no mass exodus of black tenant farmers from the Deep South. The boll weevil, in contrast to planter warnings and tenant lyrics, “disrupted planter hegemony only briefly.” (100)

This baroque and somewhat anti-climactic pattern of myth manipulation, hunger for power, cultural resistance, and maintenance of the status quo structures the remainder of Giesen’s book. In Mississippi, we find that local business leaders preached boll weevil-induced Armageddon while quietly incorporating the Delta and Pine Land Company, an agribusiness entity that aimed to profit by “pioneering ways to fight the pest.” (74) They did this while suppressing tenant power through a host of racist strictures. Tenants, in turn, tapped their “hidden transcripts of resistance” (37), belting out tunes such as the “Mississippi Bo Weevil Blues,” a song, explains Giesen, “about mobility, cultural space, [and] economic opportunity.” (96)

A modest, if brief, deviation from this scenario occurred in southeastern Alabama and Georgia, where the threat of the boll weevil fostered the push toward agrarian diversification. Nevertheless, as landowners and tenants began to produce peanuts, potatoes, and hogs, and the town of Enterprise, Alabama, built a public monument to the boll weevil to honor its role in diversification, the underlying realities of professional profiteering and agricultural stasis persisted. “Even for the state’s leaders in the modernization and diversification effort,” concludes Giesen, “the pull of periodic spikes in cotton price was too enticing to resist” (153), Cotton, compromised and weevil-ridden, remained king.

Students of agricultural history will find much to appreciate in Giesen’s excellent book. Whether it be rice, tobacco, wheat, sugar, corn, or soy, staple crops have a way of sinking into societies that, with endless ingenuity, exploit these plants and the people whose hands touch them. The boll weevil demonstrates how it is possible in these monocultural worlds for things to radically change while...


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