Preoccupation with celebrities is numbing us

Published 11:17 am Friday, August 19, 2022

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My career brought me in direct contact with more than a few famous people, but one seemed especially genuine.


I won’t name drop. The list includes a couple of presidents, but the one who made me feel he was interested in having a real conversation was B. B. King. Maybe it was the subject matter.

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The music he made had no equal. I had listened to all of it for years, but we didn’t talk about “Lucille” or “The Thrill Is Gone.” Our minds were on picking cotton and playing juke joints in Arkansas and Mississippi.


For nearly an hour in the back of his bus, we talked about how we both grew up poor and how much we hated picking cotton. Both were motivators for us to see if we could find something better to do. Something better than snatching cotton from an open boll so fast that the pointed ends stabbed our fingers until they bled.


For me, it was writing; for him, making an electric guitar wail and moan while he sang the blues. Obviously, he was much better at what he did than I was at what I did.


Few people reading this ever picked cotton or know what a juke joint is.


The pay for picking cotton by hand in the ‘60s ranged from 2 to 4 cents per pound. A cloth bag made, naturally, of cotton came with a strap that the picker looped over his head and let rest on his shoulder. The strap came across your chest the way a seatbelt does today, and that’s how you pulled the bag, which ranged from 6 to 8 feet long, down the dirt middles between the rows of cotton.


Picking as fast as you possibly could, you worked to fill the bag, stopping briefly to pack it down. When not another handful would fit, you dragged it to the end of the row where a worker hoisted the strap up to the scale and lifted the tail end of the bag to the same point. Sliding a counterweight across the scale arm until it balanced, he then told you the weight and recorded it next to your name.


I believe the most I ever picked was 100 pounds at about 3 cents per pound. You can do the math.


More memorable to him were juke joints, little side-of-the-road or across-the-tracks places where on Saturday nights guitars were picked and cotton was forgotten. Blues were played, liquor was consumed and feet danced in little shacks filled with laughter and stories.


When I told B.B. about the little Delta town in Arkansas where I grew up, his eyes twinkled. He said he knew it well, then he sounded off the names of nearly a dozen other towns near it, some not even big enough to have more than a weathered country store and a paintless juke joint with a toilet out back.


He had played all those little country towns, not making a sack full of money but making more than he made picking a sackful of cotton.


When I read or hear about Tom Brady receiving pandemic funds, or professional golfers taking money from Saudi Arabian killers or reality TV shows and TikTok making some rich for no reason other than people will watch and advertisers want those eyeballs, I realize that America’s preoccupation with celebrities has numbed us. It has changed our values and dulled our senses.


We don’t seem to know the merit of dragging a sack to the end of the row and lifting it onto the scale to see what we will get. To see what toiling has gotten us. What we have earned.


Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at