“Cotton-Eyed Joe” is one of those songs nearly everyone has heard. Not hard to imagine as its origins are reportedly traced back to before the Civil War. To give that some context for you non-history buffs, the Civil War began in 1861. The song has been covered by scores of artists with the most popular, modern day versions being attributed to Isaac Payton Sweat, Ricky Skaggs and the Swedish band Rednex who turned it into the worldwide dance hit in 1994.
Now Bror Gunnar Jansson is taking his swing at the song.
An accomplished Swedish musician with a musical lineage tying him directly to jazz greats like Chet Baker and Dexter Gordon, Jansson’s version is quite different from his Swedish brethren’s. The differences are not by chance either. They were direct and intentional and not just for the sake of being different. Truth is, Jansson was never a fan of Rednex take on the tune.
“Born in ’86, I grew up with the Rednex version (a version that I never enjoyed btw). But of course, back then I didn’t have a clue that it was an old traditional song! Many years later, after I had been digging more into the American folk music history, I came across Bob Wills’ version that I instantly enjoyed. That made me realize that it actually is a good song.
“After this I came across another version every now and then, but often it seemed to me that most people didn’t think very highly of this song. That’s when I started thinking about making my own version of it which made me research a little bit more about the history of the song. Through that, realizing that it was first made by African American slaves during the 1800s made the song grow even more on me.”
Unlike more popular versions, Jansson’s take is desolate and lonely. Just he and what appears to be a dobro, Jansson’s stark, painstakingly passionate vocals wonder aloud much in the way this was originally sung on the pre-Civil War plantations. The video for the song is equally as enchanting as it showcases Jansson without any overabundance of imagery or unnecessary filler.
“I wanted to do something simple yet beautiful, just like the song itself, so we went out to a couple of friends’ farm (one of them being one-person-band colleague Old Kerry McKee) not too far from Gothenburg. They were kind enough to host us and let us film wherever we wanted. We focused mainly on their beautiful barn where they also have arranged some small festivals during summertime. This was mid March so it was still pretty darn cold outside and almost as cold in the barn.
“Just a small crew of Donovan von Martens who filmed it all, Kristin Nordén who directed, Anton Andersson and who made the visuals, and me and I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result! It is simple but beautiful and it plays a bit between light and dark which I think fits well together with my artistic ideas and musical expression.”
Being so different from Jansson’s larger body of work, that’s part of the beauty of Jansson himself as there is no one way to categorize what type of artist he is. Some might classify him as a jazz guy while others would say he’s more traditional/gospel/blues. However you want to classify him, in this instance it’s obvious he not only respects the origins of the song but feels wrong by association in what his fellow countrymen (and women) did.
“When I read that Rednex actually claimed that it was their composition, I figured that my version could be a kind of apology for this.”