Cotton-Eyed Joe is a traditional American folk song that remains popular to this day. The track, which predates the American Civil War, is still covered by modern bluegrass bands and has even inspired a contemporary dance craze. But although almost everyone knows the words, few people know what they really mean. So, what is this perennially popular folk song really about?
History of Cotton-Eyed Joe
We don’t know exactly when or where Cotton-Eyed Joe was composed. It probably came about in the early 19th century.
The first mention of the song comes from the 1882 book Diddie, Dumps, And Tot, Or, Plantation Child-Life by Louise Clarke Pyrnelle. The author, who was born in 1850, said she had heard slaves singing the tune on her father’s plantation during her childhood.
In the 1920s, there were several accounts from people saying they remembered hearing the song before the American Civil War. Most of them mention slaves singing a different version of Cotton-Eyed Joe. Many historians believe that it arose in one form or another as an African-American folk song during the early 19th century.
Different versions have also appeared in print, some with more detailed verses. The main chorus, however, seems to consist of the same lines (or similar ones), which still appear in versions to this day:
If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eyed Joe,
I’d been married long time ago
Where did you come from? Where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eyed Joe?
By the 1880s, the song already served as a dance tune. The steps usually involved polka steps with heel and toe clogging. Other versions involved line dancing or circle dancing.
A 1922 version includes a final line about Joe being sold “down to Guinea Gall,” implying that the mysterious Joe was an enslaved person.
The song has been covered extensively up to modern times, but one of the most remarkable covers was the 1994 version by Rednex. The Swedish Europop and Eurodance group somehow combined their own signature dance style with the styles of American bluegrass. They did this by using banjos and fiddles to cover the track in their own distinctive musical genre.
Eight years later in 2002, the group re-released the song as a dance version. This second cover was wildly popular throughout Europe, topping the charts for up to 15 weeks in some countries. This strange combination of techno, Eurodance, and American folk music was an inexplicable cultural phenomenon, and yet, it somehow worked.
The ultra-catchy track retained the traditional lyrics—with the single change of the title from “Cotton-Eyed” to “Cotton Eye”—and repopularized a type of modern line dancing. Critics attributed its popularity to its uniqueness as well as its high energy and irresistibly catchy tune.
Rednex is undoubtedly responsible for repopularizing and bringing it into the modern era; without their cover, Cotton-Eyed Joe would still be a simple traditional folk song rather than a contemporary dance craze.
The band did come under criticism for what was perceived as a mockery of American country culture, with some even saying that their depictions were racist. The members of Rednex, who are Swedish, admitted that they did not fully understand rural American culture and that their depictions of it during their live concerts—in which they often appeared dressed in dirt and stereotypical “hillbilly” clothing—were based largely on stereotypes and caricatures.
So What is The Song Really About?
Ask the average person, and they will be familiar with the tune, but they probably can’t explain what “cotton-eyed” means. As it turns out, there are a number of interpretations of the lyrics.
The basic story of the song follows the same pattern across the versions: the singer laments that a mysterious man called Cotton-Eyed Joe came into town and stole his sweetheart, and then, just as quickly, disappeared. In some versions, the singer says “I’d a-been married forty years ago,” implying that he is reflecting back on his life of decades ago.
As for the intriguing phrase “cotton-eyed,” there have been many theories presented over the years. American slang of the 19th century, when the song was first composed, used it to mean a person who has noticeable or remarkable whites of the eyes.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that “cotton-eyed” might mean that a person is drunk. In other words, they are so wasted that their eyes might as well be made of cotton. If this is the case, it would certainly set the story in an unusual direction; Joe comes into town and gets hammered before taking away the singer’s lover.
Some historians suggest that “cotton-eyed” may refer to blindness caused by drinking unsafe wood or grain alcohol, as may have been more common in the 19th century.
Other theories say that the phrase may have been used to describe a black person with light blue eyes or a person suffering from glaucoma or even syphilis.
More sobering points of view have pointed out the connection between cotton and the history of American slavery, suggesting that the phrase may have something to do with enslaved persons being forced to pick cotton or even flee from abusive owners.
Was Cotton-Eyed Joe Even a Man?
In 1922, Professor Thomas Washington Talley suggested a slightly different history in his book, Negro Folk Rhymes. He was the son of two formerly enslaved persons and a chemistry professor, but his work in gathering these histories has proved incalculable.
In his version, Cotton-Eyed Joe does not refer to a person but to a dance. The lyrics here read:
I’d a been dead some seben years ago
If I hadn’ a danced dat Cotton Eyed Joe
It was also this version that references Joe being sold at Guinea Gall. There is some conflict here, as this would imply that there was indeed a person called Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Nevertheless, Talley’s book suggests that the song’s lyrics have their roots in black slavery; some historians believe the words suggest slaves avoiding death on a plantation after performing a dance called the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Nina Simone’s Version
In 1959, the famous songstress Nina Simone recorded a unique interpretation of the track. Her slower, more balladlike version is full of yearning. It is told from the perspective, not of a man whose lover left him for Cotton-Eyed Joe but of a woman who was jilted by Joe himself.
Her version describes a man who rides into town looking for some romantic fun with the local girls. He makes promises to the women to make them believe that his attention is authentic, then breaks their hearts and leaves them.
The cover includes the lyrics:
He brought disaster wherever he went
The hearts of the girls was to hell broken sent
They all ran away so nobody would know
And left only men ‘cause of Cotton-Eyed Joe
Her version implies that the singer’s past with Cotton-Eyed Joe has made it so that she can never marry or perhaps that she had hoped to be married to Joe himself. However, he has abandoned her, leading her to wonder where he has gone. It is a powerful and fascinating transformation of a once-playful folk tune into a heartbroken ballad.
The Legacy of Cotton-Eyed Joe
Ultimately, there is no way to know for certain what the original folk song was intended to mean. “Cotton-eyed” may refer to a drunk or blind man, a man with a distinct appearance, or even a man infected with STDs. What does seem clear, however, is that the high-energy line dance has its roots in a dark period of America’s past, leading some people to say we should discourage it from being played in the future.
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