Calling the Cotton Press

By Donald W. Hatley


"You press more, you press fifty bales more an hour when you calling the press. . . . "

—Clifford Blake, Sr.

For decades cotton producers and buyers throughout the South have brought their large bales of loosely packed cotton lint to the cotton compresses where they were transformed into small concrete-like bales ready for shipment to textile mills throughout the world. In Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, this work is done at the Natchitoches Warehouse & Compress.

Two sounds dominate the compress. High above the tin roof steam explodes when the press crashes down to do its work; the clashing of metal parts complements the explosion of sound.

Cornbread For Your Husband and Biscuits For Your Man: Clifford Blake, Sr. Calls the Cotton Press. 1980. CD available from the Louisiana Folklife Center.

Today, the cotton compress at the Natchitoches Warehouse & Compress requires sixteen to twenty workers to efficiently operate the machinery. Two truckers bring the bales from the front of the warehouse; two others, the dankeymen, load the bales on dollies and haul them to the press. Band snatchers unhook the bands strapped on the bale at the cotton gin, and two other workers place the bales in the mouth of the press. The leverman stands opposite the boilerman. (Mr. Blake worked as the boilerman and also called the press.) Six tyers, three on either side, knot the heavy steel bands which hold the bales together. Two workers haul the bales away when the press kicks them out.

To actually compress cotton, the bale must rest between large iron teeth: the leverman pulls the switch and another set of teeth comes down and compresses the cotton. At this point, steel bands are run through the teeth and knotted. When this process is finished, the teeth release, and the bale is kicked out on a metal tongue and hauled away.

Clifford Blake called the cotton press for Natchitoches Warehouse and Compress, 1985. Photo: Courtesy of Louisiana Folklife Program.

Mr. Blake's experience with the press began in 1927, two years after his father's death. He and his mother were forced to care for the Blake family which included several girls. Mr. Blake wanted to help his mother rear the family and keep his sisters from "rocking white folks' babies." Mr. Mack Hyams offered him a job "totin' dinners" for the workers at the press. While working at his job, Mr. Blake composed his most frequently used line, "Cornbread for Your Husband and Biscuits for Your Man."

Mr. Blake's career ended on February 14, 1967. On that day he lost his footing while riding the press, and the machine crushed his leg. With that accident the art of calling the cotton press was dealt a serious, perhaps even fatal blow. Although Mr. Blake visits the press occasionally, and the manager welcomes him and has expressed the hope that Mr. Blake will teach someone else to call the press, chances are this will not happen, and the folk art will die. As Mr. Blake observed, "...these boys don't know how to bass . . . it's gone."

Audio Player
Audio: Clifford Blake

Watching him call the compress, an observer can easily recognize how completely Mr. Blake dominates the workers and the machinery. For example, on band two Mr. Blake used five of the eight lines to give specific orders. He begins by ordering the leverman, "Let her fall, let her fall." Then, after singing a line, and then with "He's alright" he tells the leverman to bring the compressed bale up and kick it out of the machine. Next, the caller tells the men to hurry, he waits a few seconds, and again orders the leverman to kick out the pressed bale. Even the last line, "Sun is almost down, sun is almost down, Captain," can easily be construed as another, more subtle, order to hurry.

Long-time press caller John Warner of Rayville, Louisana, shows a cotton press that compacted loose cotton into large bales until the 1980s. The complex operation of the machinery and large crew was coordinated by a press caller to pace the work and try to prevent injuries. Photo: Gene Cloinger.

Many reasons exist for Mr. Blake's extraordinary control over the compress work. One is his geniune belief that God gave him the power to call the press. As he directly states on band one, "God gave me a gift . . . to make it." Soon after receiving the gift, Mr. Blake was given "privy to call the press."

The first four bands on side one and other conversations with him, reveal other sources of his power. Workers around the compress face constant danger; Mr. Blake frequently demonstrated his lack of fear of the machinery. Not only did he "call the press up and down," but he also rode it to the top of the building and down beneath the floor.

When the press comes down, the platform opens and the actual pressing of the bale occurs well beneath the compress floor. In his prime Mr. Blake rode the press down the "hole". When the press reached its lowest point, only Mr. Blake's head showed above the floor. Mr. Blake proudly observes, "Nobody does that anymore. I did it for forty years; when I got too slow, the press got me (Private conversation, March 1980)."

Mr. Blake also derived a large measure of power from the white owner. He explains this near the end of band four: "I say, 'Boys, if you knock this cotton out by 6:30, we going to have about 200-300 bales of cotton." Well, the man done told me what he wanted me to do." As suggested here and explicitly stated later, Mr. Blake set the quitting time.

Clifford Blake during recording session. Photo Nicholas R. Spitzer

But his power was more extensive than being authorized to end the day's work: he maintained almost complete control over who worked on the compress. If he thought someone was about to hurt himself or someone else, he could send them to another place in the warehouse, or, if the situation demanded, he could fire the worker. On a segment of the master tape not included on the record, Mr. Blake says, "Go on home. I didn't send for you" (Unpublished tape, The Louisiana Folklife Center, October 24, 1979).

In tribute to Mr. Blake's power, even though he has not worked regularly at the compress since 1967, the manager stayed completely away from the work area while we were recording, a standard practice when someone of Mr. Blake's stature directed activities around the press.

The reasons mentioned above partially explain Mr. Blake's power; however, bands two, three, and four reveal that a large portion of it lay in his ability to meet the workers' emotional needs. As Mr. Blake says, "When I'd go to singing, regardless of how bad you feel, singing pulls your bad feelings away." Sometimes it took him over two hours just to get the press and the workers "warmed up" to give them "a mind to work." Mr. Blake also helped express frustrations many of the men felt about their hard, dangerous work.

When the workers were especially low, Mr. Blake would sing: "Oh, wouldn't do you what they did poor Shine, did poor Shine."

Mr. Blake's headman, Jeff, would answer: "Oh, I wish to God, I'm a thousand miles from here." Jeff would answer: "If I could read, just could read."

Before closing a few comments are in order about bands two and three. Band two represents the first attempt to record the calling of the press; it was disappointing. The workers were either completely unaware of the calling tradition or intimidated by the recording equipment. Mr. Blake tried but nobody answered; he agreed to return for another session but not before talking with several of the men. This time, some of the men responded, but still, the results were not completely satisfactory.

At the end of band four, Mr. Blake explains the precise nature of the problem. In the old days, the caller gave a line, and the workers either repeated the line in its entirety or answered with one of their own (Note the section immediately above.). Even during our second recording session, then men simply repeated a fragment of Mr. Blake's lines or added short phrases of their own.

In talking about his ability to make the men feel good, Mr. Blake says, "Whatever I say, it works, the whole gang. Some crying, some hollering, some moving" (Band four). In another conversation he said, "Sometimes it was just like church down there at the press" (October 24, 1979).

As Mr. Blake recalls his work with the cotton compress, he sometimes says, "You know if I had had an education, I could have made something of my self" (October 24, 1979). The sympathetic listener to "Cornbread for Your Husband and Biscuits for Your Man" will immediately realize that Mr. Clifford Blake, Sr. has always been and will always be "somebody."

Dr. Don Hatley was director of the Louisiana Folklife Center from 1976 to 1997 aand was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana until his retirement. This article was originally published in Louisiana Folklife, Vol. V, No. 1, March 1980.