The meaning of “Cotton Eye Joe”


Where did he come from? Where did he go? We may never know what happened to Cotton Eye Joe, but the song that bears his name has a rich history. “Cotton Eye Joe” began as a folk song that circulated in the American South in the 1800s. Today, it’s a staple of American culture and everyone’s favorite line-dancing song ( or club dance song), thanks to Rednex’s 1995 techno cover.

The story behind the song is perhaps as crazy as the story of Cotton Eye Joe himself.

Where is he from?

Like many traditional folk songs, the first person to write and perform “Cotton Eye Joe” is a mystery. The song predates the Civil War and was probably written between 1800 and 1860.

“Cotton Eye Joe” circulated in the southern states, especially among slaves, as a song to sing and dance to. It was usually played on banjo or fiddle, and several dance variations were created as it spread more widely.

There is much debate as to what “cotton eye” actually refers to. Some think it means being moonlight drunk. Others think it refers to the contrast between dark skin and white eyeballs. Another theory is that Cotton Eye Joe had an illness that turned his eyes milky white or replaced his eyeball with a cotton ball due to lack of medical equipment. No real definition has ever been confirmed.

If there hadn’t been Cotton-Eye Joe
I was married a long time
Where are you from, where have you been?
Where are you from, Cotton-Eye Joe?

Where did he go?

“Cotton Eye Joe” was a folk song widely known by the rise of recorded music in the early 20th century. Several musicians released their own renditions of the song, and people created new dances to accompany them. Line and circle dances with steps, strutting and kicking matched the fast nature of the song. Al Dean’s 1967 instrumental recording of “Cotton Eye Joe” even inspired a polka dance.

While many folk songs eventually lose popularity to make way for new music, the reverse happened with “Cotton Eye Joe.” The song got a massive boost in popularity when a group of Swedish producers called Rednex released their cover on August 12, 1994.

It might seem odd that a Swedish techno band would cover a traditional American folk song, but the two styles work incredibly well together. Rednex used banjos and fiddles to capture the American spirit of the song, but incorporated their techno-dance sound to bring the energy even higher.

“Cotton Eye Joe” was already a great song to dance to, but their rendition took it to the next level. It wasn’t just for line and circle dances anymore – it was a complete hit.

What did Rednex do with Cotton Eye Joe?

Perhaps even more interesting than the song itself is the strategy the band used to market “Cotton Eye Joe”. The producers called their band Rednex and found five performers to represent the band in interviews. The actors dressed up as stereotypical hicks and gave false names like Bobby Sue, Billy Ray and Ken Tacky. They claimed to have been rescued from an uncivilized village in Idaho and taken to Sweden where they discovered their passion for music.

Despite the outrageousness of the group’s fabricated history, the marketing tactic actually worked. People were baffled by the story, and “Cotton Eye Joe” hit the charts in North America and Europe. It wasn’t until February 1995, six months after the song’s release, that a Swedish newspaper revealed their story to be a lie.

While the song was a hit, many Americans found the band’s use of stereotypes deeply offensive. Rednex member Pat Reiniz addressed the backlash, saying their depiction of American culture was not intended to be harmful.

“When we released ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, we knew very little about American hillbilly and redneck culture, other than the stereotypes. For us, the redneck image was very consistent with the feeling of the music – raw, energetic, simple, festive,” he said. “It wasn’t until after, however, that we learned more about this culture.

Although the song has maintained its iconic status in the United States since its release, Rednex did not perform the song live in America until 2017.

“We had some notions about it because of social media and people telling us about it, but it wasn’t until after our visit that we better understood its impact on so many levels, like sporting events, weddings , school physical education, line dancing,” Reiniz said. “Learning about this has been great and somewhat shocking and makes us so proud.”

Listen to “Cotton Eye Joe” below.


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