The Meaning Behind “Cotton Eye Joe”

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

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The story behind the song may be just as wild as the story of Cotton Eye Joe himself.

Where Did It Come From?

Like many traditional folk songs, the first person to write and play “Cotton Eye Joe” is a mystery. The song pre-dates the Civil War and was likely written between 1800 and 1860. 

“Cotton Eye Joe” circulated through the southern states, especially amongst slaves, as a song to sing and dance along to. It was typically played on banjo or fiddle, and several variations of dances were created as it spread more widely.

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

If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married long time ago
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?

Where Did It Go?

“Cotton Eye Joe” was a widely known folk song 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 go with them. Line and circle dances with stepping, strutting and kicking matched the fast-paced nature of the song. Al Dean’s 1967 instrumental recording of “Cotton Eye Joe” even inspired a polka dance.

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

It may seem strange that a Swedish techno group covered a traditional American folk song, but the two styles work shockingly 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 up even higher. 

“Cotton Eye Joe” was already a great song to dance to, but their rendition took it to the next level. It was no longer just for line and circle dances— it was an all-around hit. 

What Did Rednex Do With Cotton Eye Joe?

Perhaps even more interesting than the song itself is the strategy the group used to market “Cotton Eye Joe.” The producers called their group Rednex, and found five performers to portray the band in interviews. The actors dressed up like stereotypical hillbillies and gave fake names like Bobby Sue, Billy Ray, and Ken Tacky. They claimed that they were 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 story, the marketing tactic actually worked. People were bewildered by the tale, and “Cotton Eye Joe” hit charts across North America and Europe. It wasn’t until February 1995— six months after the song’s release— that a Swedish newspaper revealed that their story was a lie. 

While the song was successful, many Americans found the group’s use of stereotypes deeply offensive. Rednex member Pat Reiniz addressed the backlash, saying that their portrayal of American culture was not intended to be harmful.

“When we released ‘Cotton Eye Joe,’ we knew very little about the American hillbilly and redneck culture, other than the stereotypes. For us, the redneck image was very compatible with the feeling of the music—raw, energetic, simple, party,” he said. “It is only afterward that we have learned more about this culture, however.”

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, but it was not until after our visit that we understood better what impact it has on so many levels, like sports events, weddings, school phys ed, line dance,” said Reiniz. “To learn about this has been awesome and somewhat shocking and makes us so proud.”

Listen to “Cotton Eye Joe” below.

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