Friday, February 24, 2012

The Evolution of a Tune

In spirit of the new Jewish month of Adar, I decided to post about the merry tune sung worldwide on the words of Hazal's dictum "mishenikhnas Adar marbin besimhah" - when the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy (BT Taanit 29a). 

This popular folk's tune is actually very old, dating back to the era of slavery. The lyrics of the song speak about having to jump down and pick a cotton bale a day which is a nearly improbable feat for one person, given the huge size of a cotton bale.

A cotton bale in Houston, Texas, Gin, 1939 (Library of Congress)

Here is a Youtube video of iconic American folk musician Lead Belly (1888-1949) performing the song with its original lyrics (hat-tip upon request/permission). 

In 1952 the song was included in an album called Get on Board: Negro Folksongs by the Folkmasters. Here is the information regarding "Pick a Bale of Cotton" as it appears in the record's liner notes.

(A John Henry twist, refers to the folk tale of John Henry, see the Wikipedia entry.)
At some point in history, some Jew adopted the tune to the words of Mishenikhnas and the tune turned into a popular Jewish song. Call it plagiarism if you wish. Surprising as it may sound, I have not found online a rendition of Mishenikhnas with the Pick a Bale of Cotton tune. What I did find was that the tune has now come full circle, and has returned to its African American roots. Enjoy, and happy Adar.


  1. This was great!

    How did you discover this?

  2. I heard about it years ago. Someone (HT upon request) recently sent me a link to the Leadbelly video on Youtube, so I decided to post about it.

  3. Yeah, it's interesting how Purim and Chanukah both have non-Jewish tunes associated with them (Maoz Tzur). Also, I've heard the Kol Nidre tune is non-Jewish in origin. In high school we had some rabbeim who didn't like us singing Mishenichnas Adar in this tune, for this reason. Not that they were right, of course.