By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Cotton Eye Joe’ is a song whose title has a long history, taking us back to the Deep South in the nineteenth century. However, it was in the 1990s that the song became a worldwide smash hit, and its chorus remains instantly recognisable.
But what’s the story behind ‘Cotton Eye Joe’? Who was Cotton Eye Joe, and what is the meaning of this toe-tapping classic? And is there any truth to the theory that the song is all about STDs?
‘Cotton Eye Joe’: song meaning
The song’s lyrics evolved over time, with the earliest recorded versions of the song (see below for more about this) being printed in the nineteenth century. We’ll focus on the 1994 Rednex version here, since that has become the most universally known rendition of the track.
The singer tells us that if it wasn’t for the man known as ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, they would have got married a long time ago. But who is this man known as ‘Cotton Eye Joe’? Where did he come from – and also, where did he go? The picture summoned is of someone who passed through town, with the (male) singer’s sweetheart becoming attached to him before he walked (or rode) out of her life again, leaving the relationship between the singer and his girl in ruins.
Indeed, later in the song, we are told that Joe did indeed ride into town, like a ‘midwinter storm’: someone who couldn’t be ignored, but someone who also caused disasters wherever he went, like a storm? He was, we are told, both handsome and strong: his eyes were the ‘tools’ he used to win people over, and his ‘smile’ was as powerful as a gun.
In short, then, Cotton Eye Joe was a charmer – and the singer clearly fell under his spell. But all Joe was after was a bit of fun, and he left town once he’d had it. The singer, it’s implied, was after something more long-lasting from this wanderer.
We later learn that Joe broke the local girls’ hearts, and they all fled because of their heartache, wanting to hide it from him (and perhaps from others). In what strikes us as an unlikely and possibly hyperbolic scenario, only men were left in town, because Cotton Eye Joe had caused all of the women to run away in despair!
But what does ‘cotton-eyed’ actually mean? Well, here we encounter a problem, because nobody seems to know.
However, several theories have been put forward. Many of them involve drunkenness or an over-indulgence in alcohol: one prominent interpretation has it that ‘cotton-eyed’ refers to being drunk on moonshine, or illegally distilled liquor.
Another theory is that ‘cotton-eyed’ means literally blind – specifically, as a result of drinking wood alcohol or methanol, turning the eyes a milky white colour. Given the song’s likely origins on the slave plantations (see below), it’s also possible that ‘cotton-eyed Joe’ originally referred to a black man, especially one with unusually light-coloured eyes.
However, there is zero evidence that the song is about a sexually transmitted disease, or that ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ is a slang term for an STD. This is not to say that this interpretation of the song is impossible; but it’s based on nothing more than flimsy internal evidence (which relies on ambiguous lyrics: something bringing disaster, breaking the hearts of the girls and making them run away, and preventing a marriage) and nothing more.
After all, ‘Joe’ could just as easily be a man bringing disaster by making all the women fall in love with him. A charismatic and attractive man, but not a disease. After all, can an STD really be described as handsome and strong?
‘Cotton Eye Joe’: analysis and origins
The song made famous by Rednex has a long and complex history. ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ started out as ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’, a lullaby in Tennessee; Margaret Valliant, a collector of folk songs, discovered it there.
The American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough (1878–1935), in a 1925 book on folk songs, recorded that several people remembered hearing the song sung before the American Civil War; it was associated with the songs slaves would sing on the plantations.
Then in the 1930s, a European musician named Adolph Hofner recorded the track in Texas, bringing it to a new generation of listeners.
As 1000 UK Number One Hits notes, ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ has been recorded by an impressive number of musicians: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Uncle Dave Macon, Red River Dave, the Moody Brothers, Nina Simone, and – perhaps attracted by the song’s central fiddle solo – the classical violinist, Vanessa-Mae.
Indeed, the Rednex version of the song wasn’t even the first one to attract considerable attention in the 1990s: in 1992, the Irish folk band The Chieftains received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration for their version of the song, recorded with Ricky Skaggs.
Rednex came to record ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ when, also in 1992, a group of performers, writers, and producers (among other things) based in Stockholm decided to create entertainment around the Wild West, as the authors of 1000 UK Number One Hits tell us.
Although Rednex are largely seen as one-hit wonders in many countries, and it’s true that no other single matched the success they found with this hillbilly classic, they did go on to release other singles which enjoyed modest success, including ‘Old Pop in an Oak’, which peaked at number 12 in the UK charts. Their album, Sex and Violins – now there’s a title – also did well.