How a Singing Convict Gave the Beach Boys a Hit

[caption id="attachment_42283" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo: Getty Images"]Beach Boys, Elton John, John Lennon, Harry Belafonte, Huddie Ledbetter, Lead belly[/caption]

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together. 

The Beach Boys' 50th-anniversary album, That's Why God Made the Radio, came out yesterday, June 5. It actually missed the anniversary mark by a bit -- their first single, "Surfin'," came out in late 1961 -- but it is the first album they've completed in more than 15 years (although their singing voices sound suspiciously unlike some of their modern-day speaking voices). Here's the title track:

Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys has compared the new record to their 1970 album Sunflower, which is an unexpected sort of sales pitch: That's not one of the more famous albums in their catalog, at least in America. The European version of Sunflower, though, opens with a song that doesn't appear on the U.S. version: "Cottonfields," a gigantic pan-European hit that became one of their career-defining songs on the other side of the Atlantic, but didn't even make the Hot 100 in Billboard.

The hit Sunflower version of "Cottonfields" was actually a re-recording of "Cotton Fields" -- two words -- which had appeared on their peculiar 1969 album 20/20. (And by "peculiar" I mean that it's got a song written by Dennis Wilson's sometime pal Charles Manson on it.) Al Jardine, who sang lead on both versions (and apparently brought the song to the group's attention), suggested that they take another stab at it, since he'd apparently been dissatisfied by Brian Wilson's slightly-too-busy arrangement for the 20/20 recording.

For the sake of perspective, "Cotton Fields" was, when the Beach Boys recorded it, about as old a song as the Beach Boys' "Getcha Back" is now. "Cotton Fields" was written (and first recorded, in 1941) by the brilliant folk singer Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly or, sometimes, Leadbelly. It wasn't immediately understood as one of his great compositions --"Goodnight, Irene" and "Boll Weevil," for instance, were much bigger parts of his repertoire at the time. But, eventually, it filtered into the repertoire of folk music and beyond.

In 1953 or 1954, the not-yet-famous folk revivalist Odetta and her performing partner Lawrence "Larry" Mohr recorded "Cotton Fields" (as "Old Cotton Fields at Home") for an album that made the rounds of the folk scene, Odetta & Larry, sometimes called The Tin Angel.

It's a good bet that Harry Belafonte picked it up from Odetta & Larry's version. He sang a jazzy version of "Cotton Fields" on his 1959 album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, at the height of his fame; the album went gold and rose to #3 on the pop charts, and a lot of people heard the song there.

From then on, it was a standard of the folk scene. The Highwaymen, a group of sweater-vested Wesleyan students fronted by ethnomusicologist Dave Fisher, had a hit in 1961 with their version -- here's a slightly abridged performance they did on TV.

Starting around that time, "Cotton Fields" became a song that seemingly any artist could pull out on demand. It spent a few years as a country chestnut, notably in this 1963 version by Buck Owens' band the Buckaroos, fronted by guitarist Don Rich.

Even outside the U.S., "Cotton Fields" was enough of a familiar chestnut that, in the middle of a June 1968 radio interview, John Lennon sang a brief parody of it.

Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy and the Poor Boys album, recorded in the fall of 1969 (right around the time the Beach Boys' 20/20 came out) included their own take on "Cotton Fields," modeled to some extent on the Buckaroos' version; re-released as a single a decade later, it made the lower reaches of the country charts.

Even a not-yet-famous Elton John recorded his own version in early 1970 for one of the bargain-priced albums that were popular in that era, with hit songs recorded in soundalike versions by studio nobodies. (You'll notice he's sticking as close to the Beach Boys' arrangement as he can.)

And then, after the early '70s, "Cotton Fields" all but disappeared from pop. (It may be that musicians who hadn't actually ever picked a single bale of cotton realized that it might be a little unseemly to play the role of someone who had.) Even so, the Beach Boys' version spent years as an anthem of Americana in Europe, a vantage point from which the fields of Texarkana and the surfing havens of California sometimes seem equally mythological, and can't be more than a couple of miles apart.