In Them Old Cotton Fields

Little did reader Ian Dunbar realize that he struck a nerve when he commented on the Bordersplit article. It had nothing to do with his fine words or sentiment. I was in total agreement. Glaring geographical errors in songs grate on my nerves too. My nemesis happens to be a completely different musical composition but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mr. Dunbar referenced a song by one Huddie William Ledbetter, a.k.a. "Lead Belly," an iconic blues musician of the 1930’s and 1940’s who profoundly influenced generations of musicians even decades after his death and into the present. He wrote "Cotton Fields" which has been covered dozens of times by the likes of the Beach, Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash among many others. The lines that would sound strange to anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. geography:

It was down in Louisiana
Just a mile from Texarkana

Later cover versions changed the second line to "just about a mile from Texarkana", which I think may have had more to do with reworking the melody than any conscious attempt to weasel-word the error away. Geographic accuracy probably isn’t a top consideration for most musicians. Then again, how many geographers can carry a tune?

Louisiana is not a mile from Texarkana, or even "about" a mile from Texarkana, but more like thirty miles.

There are many legends concerning the naming of Texarkana. Most agree that it’s a portmanteau comprised of TEXas, ARKansas and (most germane to this story) LouisiANA. Beyond that, I couldn’t determine the truth from the many variations floating around the Intertubes. Some think the founders believed that the border with Louisiana was closer than it turned out to be in reality. However Texarkana was founded in 1873 so that doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Surveying techniques were certainly refined enough by the latter half of the Nineteenth Century to understand a thirty mile difference. Either way, there seems to be a number of strong historical and cultural ties between the corners of said states in the immediate vicinity.

Lead Belly was born in Mooringsport, LA in 1888. That’s a town located in the far northwestern corner of the state and not all that far from Texarkana itself. He would have known the true location of Texarkana relative to Louisiana so perhaps one can assume he was speaking figuratively. It’s still an error and it still sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to many a geographer’s ear. Maybe we can consider this as a little poetic license for someone who probably understood the difference, though. It seems like a forgivable event.

In the next installment I will discuss an even more egregious example that really gets under my personal skin — my version of Mr. Dunbar’s cotton fields. It involves the Mountain State, so don’t give the answer away in the comments if you know it. Feel free to mention any other songs that are geographically-challenged though.

Many thanks to Ian Dunbar for getting the ball rolling!

16 Replies to “In Them Old Cotton Fields”

  1. The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” goes “Muzak filled the air from Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls.” I’ve been to Cuyahoga Falls, which is in Ohio near lead singer Chrissie Hynde’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. But I’ve never figured out where “Seneca” is. Does it refer to Seneca County in northwestern Ohio? Senacaville, a village in southeastern Ohio? Seneca Falls, NY? Senaca, SC?

  2. The one which gets my goat is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, in which the protagonist is described as “…born and raised in south Detroit”. As any geographically-conscious Michigander can tell you, Detroit has an east side and a west side. If this guy was born in south Detroit, he says things like “oot” and “dough-ler”, as he is a Canadian citizen from Windsor, Ontario.

  3. It doesn’t quite fit I guess, but it’s always kind of bothered me that Colin Newman and co. pronounce the word longitude with a hard-G in the song “Map Ref. 41°n 93°w” (surely the greatest song about map coordinates ever recorded).

  4. Wow. I thought I was the only one bothered by that song. I’ve always (mentally) changed the words to “just a hundred miles from Texarkana” … the rhythm still fits, and it doesn’t set my teeth on edge.

  5. Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” goes “From New York to East California”. East California? There ain’t much in East California. West California’s where everyone’s at. She’s British so I figure she didn’t know. Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t know geography.

  6. Mention should be made of Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” with its rapid-fire listing of (mostly) American place names. It actually was a rewrite of an Australian song, which featured multi-syllable Aboriginal place names.

  7. Another unsolicited example of geographically challenged lyricists:

    Johnny Horton’s North to Alaska:

    Big Sam left Seattle in the year of ’92,
    With George Pratt, his partner, and brother, Billy, too.
    They crossed the Yukon River and found the bonanza gold.
    Below that old white mountain just a little south-east of Nome.

    Upon inspecting a map it is clear there is not much at all a little south of Nome in any direction except Norton Sound…

    1. An especially bad error as the “south” wasn’t necessary for the correct syllable count. “a little ways east of Nome” would have worked just as well without violating any geographical rules.

  8. The one that bothers me is Travis Tritt’s “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.” The songwriter tells us that they “met at a truck stop, Johnson City, Tennessee”, but then says “It’s a long way to Richmond, rollin’ north on 95”. How does one logically get from Johnson City to Richmond using northbound 95? I wouldn’t think you’d want to dally along US 58 if you’re running from the law.

    1. Maybe not. They’d want to stay off I-81 if they think the cops believe they’re heading to Richmond. US-58 would be a longer but less logical (from the cops’ point of view) alternative and therefore might be safer. Of course if they took 58 they’d probably get on I-85 and would only be on 95 for a short distance.

  9. Another song that bothers me geographically is The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” coming down off the mountain, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. However, he and Bessie end up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in southwest Louisiana, many, many miles from the Mississippi River.

  10. Thank you for writing this. It’s articles like this that make Google so damn valuable. I just heard the CCR version and thought, “Is Texarkana really only a MILE from Louisiana?” After a Google map search, nope, about 30. This rubs me the wrong way as well. It’s so easy to get something like this correct, why publish a falsehood? Anyways, without articles like this I’d be going mad trying to understand why he thought Texarkana was a mile from Louisiana… anyone ever heard Lewis Black’s routine, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.” LOL. That’s what it would have turned into 🙂

  11. My parents had an old player piano back when I was growing up in the 50’s. One of us would pump the foot pedals so the piano would play the rolls and we would sing the words as they came by on the punctured paper.

    One of the rolls was “Down in Lousiana” by Lead Belly. That’s not a name you easily forget. As I remember it, the words of this line on that piano roll were “Down in Louisianan, ’bout a mile from the Texarkana.”

    I always assumed that the reference was to the Texas-Arkansas-Lousianna border, not the town.

    It is possible that the “’bout” and the “the” were introduced by the person who edited the piano roll to make the words fit the music. Or quite possibly, in my humble opinion, it is what Lead Belly actually sang… except with a deep southern accent. In that case, “about a mile from the Texakana” would come out “’bout_a mile from_th_Texarkana.”

    My parents sold off the piano and the rolls that went with it when I was in high school, so I have no idea what ever happened to those rolls.

    I always sang “the Texarkana” when I was singing along with the radio and always had problems getting all the words in when you put the “a” in “about.”

    Maybe his geography was correct, but his enunciation was not. Who knows how he might have butchered Caddo Parish.

  12. Kokomo is not a tropical paradise like The Beach Boys sing about it a town in Indiana which is anything but tropical

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