Today we drove up from Lafayette past acres of Louisiana cotton fields. We stopped to pick a lil’ of that old cotton-pickin’ cotton. In my head the old song kept spinning and weaving . .
When I was a little bitty baby,
My mama used to rock me in my cradle
In those old cotton fields back home
It was back in Louisiana
Just about a mile from Texarkana
In them old cotton fields back home.
Well my mama never did that for real. I was born and bred in Oldham, the world's centre for cotton spinning in the mid to late nineteenth century, just when the cotton plantations were at their peak in Louisiana. Slave labour was exploited on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in the US, the rich built elaborate and obscenely large antebellum homes from the proceeds of their greed.
In Lancashire, the mill owners did something much the same. Some of my ancestors were labourers in those mills, working for a pittance in dreadful and dangerous conditions – picking cotton from beneath and behind the clattering looms. Today, it's child labour in the east sewing cotton garments, funding fat directors' fat bonuses in the west. The world doesn't change so much.
We finally left Louisiana, crossing the Mississippi into its eponymous state, and into the town of Natchez. In the mid 1800s there were more millionaires per capita here than anywhere in the world – because the plantation owners didn't pay their staff. The houses are now tourist attractions, although one or two could do with some repairs and redecoration. They built their treasures on earth and had to leave them behind. Oldham was hit hard by the cotton famine of the 1860s when supplies of raw cotton from the US were cut off.
Riches never last and, of course, we can't take them with us. But somethings are more certain: the old river Mississippi, she just keeps on a-rolling, meandering slowly, serenely and surely into the sea. I can see her now out of my hotel window, and another song (no 1 in 1976 !) flows into my head . .
Mississippi, I'll remember you
Whenever I should go away
Mississippi, you'll be on my mind
Everytime I hear this song
Mississippi roll along
Until the end of time.