Lead Belly’s Cotton Pickin’ Purim

http://newvoices.org/2013/02/18/lead-bellys-cotton-pickin-purim/

The day-end sea of black-and-white flooding out of Jerusalem’s yeshivas is a lesson in the pleasure of monochrome. At what seems like the same time every afternoon, thousands of frocked and bearded men turn Strauss Street into a conveyor belt of bobbing Borsalino hats. It’s amazing to watch during any day of the year.

The scene does not change much on Purim, save for the block-long renditions of the traditional Purim song, “Mishenichnas Adar…”

…sung to the tune of an old Negro folk song.

“Mishenichnas Adar” — “[A Person] Who Enters Adar” — is based on a line from the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) that means “A person who enters Adar, their joy is increased.” Adar is the current Hebrew month — and home to the raucous holiday of Purim. It is traditionally known as a month of joy and celebration, the annual counterpoint to the despair of the month of Av, the two months about a half a year away from each other.

If you have never heard this combination of “Mishenichnas Adar” and Lead Belly’s c.1940 rendition of “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” check out this video of yeshiva bochurs singing around the Purim table:

Here is the “original,” covered by Lead Belly in a 1945 recording:

I trawled the Internet for an explanation, but I could not find anything conclusive. One commenter theorized that the Jewish-heavy folk audience in 1930s and 40s New York City accounted for the new Purim tune. That’s possible, but it doesn’t shed any light on hearing the song ring out from the steps of Jerusalem’s most insular yeshivas.

What makes this cultural phenomenon even more peculiar is that “Pick A Bale of Cotton” was targeted as “racist” by the NAACP after a black parent condemned a mostly-white Detroit middle school for performing the song, asserting that it “glorifies slavery.” The main thrust of the song reads:

Jump down, turn around to pick a bale of cotton/
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale a day./
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale of cotton/
Jump down, turn around to pick a bale a day./
Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy,/
Pick a bale a day./
Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy,/
Pick a bale a day./

Offensive or not, the song does draw some interesting parallels to its Purim counterpart. “Pick a Bale of Cotton” is a sort of John Henry-style ode to the arduous task of cotton picking on the slave plantations of the American South–it’s near impossible to pick an entire bale of cotton in one day. To do so would be nothing short of a miracle. Lead Belly’s upbeat music seems to be at odds with the lyrics, but his melody transforms hardship into joy.

In the line the song comes from, the Rabbis are not, in fact, talking of a joyous occasion–at first. They are lamenting the hardship of the month of Av, when the Jews were twice scattered from Israel and taken into slavery. We only have the song because the johnny-come-lately Rav Yehuda piped up with the reminder that when Av is over, we celebrate the joy of Adar.

Anyone who has seen Mea Shearim on Purim knows that the spirit of Lead Belly’s melody lives on in our own song of hardship-turned-joy.

It’s hard to imagine that the Venn diagram overlap of Talmudists and folklorists is very large, but what else explains how these two songs came together over our Purim tables?

Course, maybe it was Lead Belly himself. Maybe he thought to link his heritage to ours. From his 1942 rebuke of Nazi Germany titled, “Mr. Hitler,” it’s clear that Lead Belly had us on the mind.

Whatever the origins of this Purim-slave song mash-up, just remember to save a seat at your Purim table for ole Lead Belly.

CORRECTION, 2/19/13: The article makes it seem as though the month of Adar follows the month of Av. As an astute reader pointed out, Adar does not follow Av, except in the Torah where is appears months later. The Talmud does in fact state “just as one limits joy with the arrival of Av, one increases joy with the arrival of Adar,” but it does not imply that Adar comes directly after Av.

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