United Artists Records
Release Date: March 27th, 1961
Words by: Laurence Rosier Staines
March 11th, 2012
Twenty-one years after the original was written and recorded by Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, the Highwaymen scored a hit with their own version of 'Cottonfields' and it stands as one of the better songs they ever recorded. Comparing it to their bigger, blander hit 'Michael (Row The Boat Ashore)' is like fire and ice. 'Cottonfields' has equally gorgeous harmonies but is spirited and energetic, with the jump of hillbilly music and a warmth that could only come from an early '60s college folk group.
What it lacks is the impatient rawness of Leadbelly's off-the-cuff version; these guys don't sound like they've ever picked cotton, and by putting even this much effort into the arrangement of a song that someone else basically threw over their shoulder comes off sounding a little trite. If you have to emphasize every syllable of "When them cotton balls get rotten/You can't pick very much cotton", then it's really hard to sound believable. Lyrical fallibilities aside though, it's done with reverence, and the result is a nice bridge between jiving folk and The Beach Boys, with a touch of Paul Simon thrown in for good measure.