Insects, Stories and Songs on the Move: The Boll Weevil Phenomenon

A szöveg magyar nyelvű verziója itt található / For a version in Hungarian of this piece, see here.

In this post, I like to write about the connection between border-crossing animals, stories and popular culture, focusing on the story and folklore of the boll weevil, which conquered the cotton plantations of the American South. It is itself illuminating, where and how I, a Hungarian geographer-environmental historian, first met the story of the boll weevil. In the summer I attended a concert in Békéscsaba, on the banks of the Élővíz-canal, which was constructed by recently arrived Slovak settlers at the same time as the formation of the United States in the late eighteenth century. The performer was a Hungarian blues singer, Gábor Szűcs, who had lived in the American South for a while and took the moniker Little G. Weevil there. As I learned from my blues-loving environment, the name certainly refers to the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis), since this migratory insect pest, arriving in the U.S. cotton belt from Mexico in the late nineteenth century, was a common character in the songs of traditional blues singers. For example, Charley Patton, the legendary bluesman from the Mississippi Delta region also had a song called “Mississippi Boweavil Blues.”[1]

“Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” performed by Charley Patton (1929).

This Charley Patton song on the boll weevil, which I of course checked out right after the concert, is a true environmental history delicacy. In this song, the characterization of the boll weevil is completely different from the usual hostile depiction of invasive alien pests. For example, the American-origin Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata), which appeared after World War II in Hungary, was labelled a public enemy in Hungary and other Eastern Bloc states in the spirit of cold war rhetoric. However, in Charley Patton’s song, the boll weevil is a traveler looking for a home, just like many people from the American South did at the same time. But compared to the Black people of the South, who freed from slavery but economically still vulnerable, the boll weevil enjoyed certain advantages, like not having to buy a train ticket: ‘Bo weevil told the farmer that “I ’tain’t got ticket fare”’.

Charley Patton’s song has an important role in James C. Giessen’s book Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton Myth, and Power in the American South, in which he tells the story of the entanglements of the boll weevil and people from the points of view of many different actors.[2] It is remarkably instructive how the local issue of the boll weevil, which first appeared only in Texas, in 1894 became a national issue and crisis to be solved. In recognition of the insect’s harm, entomologists and agricultural experts played an important role by describing the connected-to-cotton lifestyle of the boll weevil and searching for pest control solutions. However, in the fight against the boll weevil and for financing the relevant agricultural research and modernization, it was necessary to persuade politicians and business figures as well—and in the process of persuading them, the picture of the boll weevil fundamentally subverting society and the economy was a defining element.

Giessen in his book, however, challenges the myth of the all-destroying pest. On the one hand, he shows how the myth creation and the various stories about the pest aligned with the purposes of different actors, how the boll weevil shaped the agreements of landowners, tenants and labourers, and how the political representation of the American South worked at the time (where the production was based very much on the control of the mostly Black labourers, both before and after the arrival of the boll weevil). On the other hand, despite the often severe damage caused by the insect, cotton production didn’t disappear from the region—on the contrary, in the longer run it expanded. The book highlights the territorial differences between the southern states very interestingly. For example, the regional variances of soil types could influence the strategies for controlling the boll weevil. One of the most fascinating territorial differences resulted from the relatively slow spread of the boll weevil: it took decades for it to get from the western to the eastern part of the cotton belt. Consequently, in the eastern states, the story of the boll weevil arrived much earlier, through the media, agricultural advice or the blues singers themselves rather than the pest itself. This also highlights that discussion of popular culture is by no means a marginal path to understand human-nature relationships. The first generation of blues singers, like Charley Patton, who himself worked with cotton before making a living from music, played an important role in expressing the hopes, resistance, political voice and identity of Black southern workers. The blues and, in particular, the songs about the boll weevil, with the great migrations within the country, eventually reached the northern cities of the US, where they became the representation of the memory of the South; but the blues, this quintessentially American idiom of music, didn’t even stop there: as with all good music, it does not respect borders, and now has a worldwide audience.

The representation of human-animal relations in popular culture is one of the most popular and emerging areas of environmental history. However, in Hungarian there has been no environmental history monograph yet devoted to this topic.[3] So it wasn’t just my curiosity about the blues and the boll weevil which drove me to read Giessen’s book, but also questions like, how the approaches from this book from a different continent could be translated to interpret the environmental history of pest invasions in Hungary. Analysing the history of the aforementioned potato beetle’s invasion and the spread of grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae), which transformed Hungarian viticulture in the 19th century could be very exciting from a cultural and historical geography perspective.[4] For example, the fight against the potato beetle has been presented on slide strips for the education of farmers and children, and, probably because of the popularity of wine, phylloxera created a serious echo in contemporary media and appeared, for example, in traditional toasting speeches.[5]

Slide from a filmstrip for children from the 1950s. The fight against the potato beetle, like the case of the boll weevil, contributed to the propagation of pesticides in general as well. The text below says, “My commander, I recommend that you should stop the dance, what you see is not a cloud but a dusting machine there.”
“Ütközet a krumpliföldön” [Battle on the potato field], written by Miklós Gergely and György Kovács (1955), Special collections, Hungarian propaganda filmstrips, Open Society Archives at Central European University.)
[Image description: In a cartoon style picture two potato beetles are standing beside the potato field and watching the spraying tractor there. One of the beetles is dressed as a leader, wearing a hat and holding a stick, the other one is pointing to the tractor with its leg. We can also see some punched leaves of potato plants in the foreground.]

Was the phylloxera a recognizable factor in the mobilization of inhabitants; did the appearance of the pest redraw job opportunities and employment relationships? (The spread of phylloxera actually coincided with a with a large wave of emigration from Hungary to America.)[6] What role could phylloxera or the potato beetle play in advancing agricultural modernization efforts? How could regional differences have manifested in pest control, and how did the practice and culture of control spread? It is already known that in the case of phylloxera territorial differences of soils could be an important factor, since the insect does not prefer calcareous sandy soils. Therefore, at the expense of other wine-producing regions, this insect also contributed to the flourishing of grape production in the sandy regions of the Great Plains—but how were these differences articulated in the contemporary sources? How was the expertise and technology of pest control produced and how did it move within the country and along transnational relations shaped by international politics? Examination of the sources of popular culture and everyday history connected to pest insects could raise even more similar questions—the answers await the next generation of Hungarian environmental historians.

[1] Robert K. D. Peterson, “Charley Patton and His Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” American Entomologist 53, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 142-144.

[2] James C. Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South (Chiacog, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] While in the case of the phylloxera we can find numerous literature from the field of ethnography, agricultural history and landscape history, the Hungarian literature on the potato beetle are very scarce. For more on animals in popular culture, see e.g. Helen Macdonald, “Environmental history in HPS.”

[4] A Hungarian book on the agricultural history of the phylloxera: Beck Tibor, A filoxéravész Magyarországon (Mezőgazdaságtörténeti tanulmányok 10. Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum, 2005).

[5] “Ütközet a krumpliföldön” [Battle on the potato field], written by Miklós Gergely and György Kovács (1955), HU OSA LibSpColl_Dia_7389, Library, Special collections, Hungarian propaganda filmstrips, Open Society Archives at Central European University. For an example of a ceremonial toasting speech performed by the folk music ensemble in Kalamajka, see here.

[6] Égető Melinda, “filoxéra (lat. Phylloxera vastatrix)” in Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon II., ed. Ortutay Gyula et al. (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1979).

*Cover image: Boll weevil on a cotton plant. Clemson University, USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, CC-BY-3.0-US.

[*Cover image description: A small, brown boll weevil beetle with long snout is sitting on a green, relatively big-cotton ball, which has brown dots on it.]