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Boll Weevil Blues, 1890 - 1930

"In 1880, an entomologist on a collecting trip for the Department of Agriculture in Mexico encountered a 'small, dark-colored weevil' about 120 miles southwest of Laredo, Texas.  The tiny insect, he noted, was devastating the cotton crop, and by 1892 it had crossed the Rio Grande River into Texas.  In 1894, the acting Secretary of Agriculture warned 'there is immediate danger that it may spread into other portions of the Cotton Belt.'  Spread it did, over the next thirty years, into every southern state from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean.  By the end of the twentieth century the beetle had destroyed tens of billions of pounds of cotton, valued at nearly one trillion dollars.  Books appeared with such titles as The Insect Menace, and writers declared that the boll weevil had 'marched through Georgia like Sherman to the sea, and creating far more havoc.'  (Richard Polenberg, Hear My Sad Story: Folk Music and the American Past, Cornell University Press, 2015, by permission)

This scenario shows the spread of the weevil and a few of the songs that singers such as Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others created in the wake of its devastation.  

To make a copy of this scenario, click here.  

Explore the scenario for yourself!  

  1. Click on the "Play" button to the left of the slider to start playing the timeline.  Click that same button (showing the "Pause" symbol) to pause it.
  2. Alternatively, use the right and left arrow keys on your computer keyboard to advance to the next event, or go back to the previous event.
  3. Click on any event to see its details.  Click the links to listen to the music.