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“Cotton Belt Blues”: Lizzie Miles’s Blues Song

The “Great Migration” of the second two decades of the 20th century (the teens and twenties) reshaped northern cities—roughly 70,000 southern blacks settled in Chicago alone. Many used the city only as a temporary destination, moving to other cities in the North and West. During these years New York’s black population grew from 91,709 to 152,467; Detroit’s from 5,741 to 40,878; and Philadelphia’s from 84,459 to 134,229. Northern newspapers, word of mouth, and letters sent home by earlier migrants all contributed to the anticipation black southerners felt about opportunities for a new life in the North. Once they had settled in northern cities, however, many newcomers responded more ambivalently to their new surroundings in the face of northern-style racism, cold weather, high prices, crime, and loneliness.Some African-American blues musicians used their songs to describe the migrants’ reactions to their new homes. Lizzie Miles’s “Cotton Belt Blues,” recorded in 1923, expressed yearning for a former southern home.

Look at me. Look at me.

And you see a gal,

With a heart bogged down with woe.

Because I’m all alone,

Far from my Southern home.

Dixie Dan. That’s the man.

Took me from the Land of Cotton

To that cold, cold minded North.

Threw me down. Hit the town.

And I’ve never seen him henceforth.

Just cause I trusted. I’m broke and disgusted,

I got the Cotton Belt Blues.

That man has left me.

He went North from home.

I said he left me in a low down hole.

And the day I catch him,

Mama’s going to ruin his soul.

That trifling man,

Was just a pleasure house.

That trifling man,

Was just a pleasure house.

When they mess with me,

Sweet Mama kicks her dog house down.

That cotton belt,

Am callin' me right now.

That cotton belt,

Am callin' me right now.

I ride the rods,

And get myself back home somehow.

Source: Lizzie Miles, “Cotton Belt Blues,” 1923.