Share |

On Six Legs by Tom Turpin - Insect pests

Song lyrics cover topics of all kinds. There are songs about emotions, people, events, inanimate objects, plants and animals. Amongst animals immortalized in song are insects.

It is probably not surprising that references to insects get incorporated into the words of a song. After all, insects are everywhere and songwriters are likely to write about subjects with which they are familiar. Certainly, butterflies and fireflies are showy and attract attention, so it makes sense that these insects might inspire songwriters.

But there are also songs about insects that are pests. Why would people want to write about these misery-causing six-legged creatures? Probably for the same reason that songwriters incorporate other human miseries into their lyrics. I guess that we sometimes just want to sing about the bad things in life.

So what are some pest insects that have managed to swarm their way into the lyrics of a song? Probably one of the most familiar pest insect songs – in North America anyway – is the Latin folksong about a cockroach. "La Cucaracha" was most likely written sometime in the mid-1400s in Spain, and was originally about a cockroach that had lost a leg and walked with an uneven gait on five legs. Over the years, many versions of the song surfaced and during the Mexican Revolution, it often included political commentary. This folk song has been recorded by a number of singing groups including The Mills Brothers, Liberace, Riders in the Sky, and The Wiggles. The Wiggles are an Australian music group that was formed in the 1980s to produce children's music. Two members of the group were in a band known as “The Cockroaches” prior to joining The Wiggles. I guess there was probably little question that The Wiggles would include “La Cucaracha” in their repertoire.

Probably no group of insects causes more human misery than Diptera – the flies and mosquitoes. In the early 1900s, diseases vectored by mosquitoes were rampant in America. Songs were written to help educate the public about the situation. For instance, "The Mosquito Song" by Maurice Levi and Harry B. Smith told of a mosquito's plans to give humans "fever and chills," an obvious reference to malaria. At about the same time, there was a song called "Shoo Skeeter Shoo" by Buddy Bolden dealing with yellow fever that was common in New Orleans at the time.

In recent times, an American rock band "Queens of the Stone Age" recorded "The Mosquito Song." While the song isn't entirely about mosquitos, it does include a line most of us understand: "Mosquitos come suck your blood." There is also a mosquito song that is sung by barbershop quartets.

Flies make the song list in the old folk song "Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me." Such an admonition might have been appropriate for people who are bothered by black flies. These small biting flies are common in northern wooded regions and are lambasted in the song "The Black Fly" by Wade Hemsworth. This is about a survey crew in Ontario, Canada, where black flies made working outside miserable, as described in this stanza:

“And the black flies, the little black flies

Always the black fly, no matter where you go

I'll die with the black fly a-picking my bones

In North On-tar-i-o-i-o, in North On-tar-i-o”

While most of the insect pests in songs are those that bite humans, a few insects that feed on plants are included. One of the most famous of these is the boll weevil. This insect not only has a song written for it, but it also has a statue erected in its honor. The statue in Enterprise, Ala., is there because this insect pest led farmers to diversify their crops, thus preserving agriculture in the area. "Boll Weevil" is a traditional blues song. Many versions of the song have been recorded, but the best known was written by Brook Benton in 1961. The song began this way:

“Let me tell ya a story about a boll weevil

Now, some of you may not know

But a boll weevil is an insect

And he's found mostly where cotton grows

Now, where he comes from, hmm, nobody really knows

But this is the way the story goes.”

That rendition reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It just goes to show that even a cotton-eating insect pest just “lookin' for a home” makes a good story if you tell it right!