What is Cotton-Eyed Joe About?

Bernice

Bernice

Published: 30 Mar 2022

Sunset over a blooming cotton field

Have you ever wondered what “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is about? No, we’re not talking about the Cotton Eyed Joe Knoxville club in East Tennessee. We’re actually talking about the old song you have probably heard while growing up in America. The song has been covered by famous singers, repeatedly played over various radios, and even used in movies. However, no one really knows what the lyrics of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” mean.

Historically speaking, the traditional folk song died out only to be reborn in the 1980s. This is largely thanks to the movie Urban Cowboy, which caused a renewed interest in the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” dance. The song has also reached commercial success with the Moody Brothers’ variation, earning itself a Grammy Award nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Because of its popularity, you can even play the instrumental version of the song (usually on a banjo or a fiddle bluegrass standard) and someone will recognize it right away.

Unfortunately, its rich history and popularity do not explain the meaning of the song. We were curious about the origins surrounding the song too. This is why we decided to conduct a bit of research about where it was originally composed and what it actually means. So, why don’t we get started and learn more about this controversially popular American song?

What is Cotton-Eyed Joe?

So what does “Cotton-Eyed Joe” mean? “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, or “Cotton Eye Joe“, is a traditional folk song from America. Despite the advancement in technology, the song’s origins remain unclear. However, historians agree that the song itself predates the American Civil War. This is because of first-hand witnesses who recorded its existence before the war even began.

American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough published a novel named On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs. Her novel records accounts of her sister, George Scarborough, learning about the song from Texas plantation slaves and a man in Louisiana. The man from Louisiana even tells George that he had grown up listening to the song.

Author Louise Clark Pyrnelle also describes hearing the song during her younger years growing up at an Alabama plantation. All of her childhood experiences and relationships with her father’s slaves can be found in her book Diddle, Dumps, and Tot. It is important to note that Pyrnelle has stated that she does not defend slavery. However, her novel does give a firsthand experience of master-slave relationships.

The song remained popular during the early 20th century in North America. So much so that by the 1950s, the discography listed 134 recorded versions of the song. However, its popularity has dwindled following the second half up to the 21st century. The song remains incredibly popular only in the Southern States. As a result, it is sometimes called “The South Texas National Anthem.”

The song itself describes a lovelorn narrator who sings about almost being married if Cotton-Eyed Joe had not taken his lover to Tennessee. However, there are many variations to the song with some artists choosing to take the lyrics out themselves.

Cotton-Eyed Joe Lyrics

There are many versions of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” with different lyrics. However, the original lyrics speak of the same thing: that “Cotton-Eyed Joe” whisked away from the singer’s lover. Listed below are two of the earliest known lyrics to the song.

Harper & Brothers in 1882 (First Published Lyrics)

Cotton-Eyed Joe, Cotton-Eyed Joe
What did make you sarve me so?
Fur tek take my gal erway fum me,
An’ cyar her plum ter Tennessee?
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-Eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo

His eyes wuz crossed, an’ his nose wuz flat,
An’ his teef wuz out, but wat uv dat?
Fur he wuz tall, an’ he wuz slim,
An’ so my gal shes follered him.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-Eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo

No gal so hansum could be foun’
Not in all dis country roun’
Wid her kinky head, an’ her eyes so bright,
Wid her lips so red an’ her teef so white.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-Eyed Joe,
I’d er ben married long ergo.
An’ I loved dat gal wid all my heart
An’ she swo’ fum me she’d never part;
But den wid Joe she runned away
An’ lef me hyear fur ter weep all day

O, Cotton-Eyed Joe, O Cotton-Eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so?
O, Joe, ef it hadn’t ben fur you
I’d er married dat gal fur true.

Dorothy Scarborough’s Version in 1884 (Published in her novel)

Don’t you remember, don’t you know
Don’t you remember Cotton-Eyed Joe?
Cotton-Eyed Joe, Cotton-Eyed Joe,
What did make you treat me so?
I’d ‘a’ been married forty year ago
Ef it hadn’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe!

Cotton-Eyed Joe, Cotton-Eyed Joe,
He was de nig dat sarved me so,
Tuck my gal away fum me,
Carried her off to Tennessee.
I’d ‘a’ been married forty years ago
If it had n’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Hi’s teeth was out an’ his nose was flat,
His eyes was crossed, but she did n’t mind dat.
Kase he was tall, and berry slim,
An’ so my gal she follered him.
I’d ‘a’ been married forty year ago
Ef it hadn’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe.

She was de prettiest gal to be found
Anywhar in de country round;
Her lips was red an’ her eyes was bright,
Her skin was black but her teeth was white.
I’d ‘a’ been married forty year ago
Ef it had n’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Dat gal, she sho’ had all my love,
An swore fum ne she’d never move,
But Joe hoodooed her, don’t you see,
An’ she run off wid him to Tennessee,
I’d ‘a’ been married forty years ago,
Ef it hadn’t a-been for Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Different Renditions of the Cotton-Eyed Joe Song

Many new versions of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” have come out ever since the 19th century. As of 2022, there are over 134 recorded versions that have been released to the public. If you’re looking to learn about some of these versions, check out the ones below.

Moody Brothers

The Moody Brothers’ version of the song is fairly popular. This is because it was the first time the song was ever nominated for a Grammy Award. The Moody Brothers performed a fiddle-based instrumental version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in 1985 which sparked a rise in their fame.

The Chieftains and Ricky Skaggs

The Chieftains, in collaboration with Ricky Skaggs, also received a Grammy nomination for their version of the song. Unlike the Moody Brothers’ version, the Chieftains and Ricky Skaggs included a few lyrics in the song. However, the lyrics only ask where “Cotton-Eyed Joe” came from or where he went compared to the original lyrics. The Chieftains are an Irish band that was formed in Dublin around 1962. Meanwhile, Ricky Skaggs is a well-known neotraditional country singer.

Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, also created his version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Just like other versions of the song, Monroe instilled his lyrics by modifying the original version. In Monroe’s version, he sings about having his heart broken because of a man named Cotton-Eyed Joe, who was loved by all the women in the area. Just like The Chieftains and Ricky Skaggs, he also questions where Joe came from and where he has gone.

Fiddlin’ John Carson

No one can beat Fiddlin’ John Carson when it comes to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Original records of Carson singing the song have been confirmed by historians to be the first recording of it to exist. Fiddlin’ John Carson was an old-time singer with a talent for the fiddler. Aside from being the first to record the folk song, he was also the first to record country music featuring lyrics and vocals.

Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man

Daniel Radcliffe, the famous movie star who played Harry Potter, also has his version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” He sings the song in his movie Swiss Army Man, which is also the movie’s main theme song. This is because the song was the open liner that sparked discussion about creating the movie itself. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were discussing the worst earworms possible. As a result, the Rednex’ version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” which was infamous during the 1990s, came to mind.

Daniel’s version is somber compared to most versions of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” In fact, the song resembled recycling bad experiences or situations and coming out a better version of oneself. This ended up becoming the underlying theme of the movie.

Rednex’ Cotton-Eyed Joe

Scheinert and Kwan weren’t kidding when they said Rednex’ rendition of the song was a song played way too much during the 1990s. In fact, you might even be familiar with the song yourself if you listen to it. What’s even more confusing to new listeners is Rednex’ “Cotton-Eyed Joe” lyrics, which feature the same lines in The Chieftains, Ricky Skaggs, and Bill Monroe repeat in their versions.

Rednex was first formed in 1994, produced by Janne Ericsson, Orjan Oberg, and Patrick Edenberg. The trio began with the idea of mixing the American folk and country genre with pop and dance music.

The music video for Rednex’ version of the song, which was Stefan Berg directed, received commercial success. It received a prize for Best Swedish Dance Video at the 1995 Swedish Dance Music Awards. The music video depicts the Rednex performing at a barn with people splashing in wild west-styled baths, dancing, roughhousing, and riding a mechanical bull. The music video was published on YouTube in August 2013, garnering 172 million views as of March 2022.

Theories to the Cotton-Eyed Joe

Although Rednex’s rendition was an earworm too many, its lyrics remain one of the world’s greatest mysteries. There have been different interpretations of the song and the meaning of its lyrics, such as the following.

It is about African American Slavery before the war.

There are many reasons why this theory is the most popular. However, the two most well-known theories are the best ones to prove its credibility. The first one discusses the similarities between Cotton-Eyed Joe and Old Black Joe. Meanwhile, the second one refers to what “cotton-eyed” means.

Auction Slavery
Source: Flickr

The similarities between Cotton-Eyed Joe and Old Black Joe.

You know how some children’s songs discuss tragic events in history or forewarnings about the dangers in life? According to theorists, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is about the African American slaves before the Civil War. This theory is not far-fetched, especially if you take the “Old Black Joe” song into account. Both songs come from the 19th century. While “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is still being disputed, the song “Old Black Joe” is completely racist. The worst part? They have many similarities.

Both songs tell a story of an African American slave running away from the singer. While “Cotton-Eyed Joe” doesn’t necessarily speak of the cotton fields, the title and character of the song explain a lot. Both songs also describe African American slaves as running away with other African Americans, whether or not to escape torture is, however, not discussed.

The term “cotton-eyed” references cotton plantations and miners.

This theory about African American slavery interpreted in the song gets heavier. This is because of the many meanings the term “cotton-eyed” has. The first one refers to intoxication. When someone is “cotton-eyed”, it may refer to them being drunk because of moonshine, an unaged corn whiskey largely made at home. It could also be because of drinking wood alcohol. This is because when you consume wood alcohol, your eyes will turn milky white. However, it returns to the racist undertones as well. “Cotton-eyed” can refer to a black person with very light blue eyes, resembling miners who return from the mines covered in dirt aside from their eyes.

Cotton-Eyed Joe is not a person, but a dance.

The following theory also discusses African American slavery. However, it adds another intriguing fact. Professor Thomas Washington Talley was the son of two former Mississippi slaves Charles Washington and Lucinda Talley. Professor Thomas was a well-educated man with a doctorate from Walden University and post-graduate programs at Harvard University. While he was mostly known for his work in chemistry, Talley’s collection of rural black folk songs also contributed to the history behind African American slaves.

Thomas W. Talley
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Fisk University chemistry professor had a different understanding of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” In his novel, Negro Folk Rhymes, he adds the following lyrics: “I’d a been dead some seben years ago if I hadn’t danced dat Cotton-Eyed Joe” and includes what became of Joe, who was sold at Guinea Gall.

While the theory does relate to African American slavery, it is interesting to point out that it may have first been a dance. The lyrics suggest that many slaves survived after performing the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” dance. Whether the dance being performed today is the same version Talley’s account describes is unclear.

Cotton-Eyed Joe is about looking back at a past romance.

This theory also mentions a singer named Nina Simone and her interpretation of the song. Unlike most of the versions we’ve previously discussed, this “Cotton-Eyed Joe” version is sung by a female. Simone also revised the lyrics and gave a soothing feeling with her voice and its instrumentals.

Nina Simone’s interpretation describes the other half of what “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was about: that the singer’s heart is broken over the actions of Cotton-Eyed Joe. In Simone’s version, the song is sung by a woman who did not have her lover taken away by Joe, but rather her heart broken by the man himself.

Nina Simone Cotton-Eyed Joe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She describes Joe as a handsome and strong man with tools and a gun. It describes many girls being fooled by Joe, thinking he would marry them or that they would be together. However, Joe’s only objective with the women was to have a bit of fun before leaving them. Simone hints that the singer is also a victim, explaining that she would have been married if it weren’t for the actions of Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was an American civil rights activist and songstress. She had a wide range of musical styles spanning from classical and R&B to gospel and pop. She was also awarded an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia after being rejected for admission despite her outstanding performance.

The wild theory is that Cotton-Eyed Joe is about STDs.

Did you backread just now? We couldn’t believe it either. Nothing could beat this crazy theory on “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” STD, which stands for sexually transmitted disease, is what some theories believe the song is about. This theory is supported by the term “cotton-eye” as well, which applies to those who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.

The lyrics also back the theory. Cotton-Eyed Joe was described as relentless, causing trouble everywhere he went. This could imply that he passed STD to the women who fell for his charms. It was also written that the singer would have been married if it weren’t for Cotton-Eyed Joe, implying a lifelong change in their lives caused by his actions.

It could also refer to bacterial infections that cause blindness such as trachoma. This is because the term “cotton-eyed” is also used in referencing blindness because of the infection. Trachoma is a hygiene-related disease that can be passed on by sharing towels, flies that have come in contact with an infected person, or sexual intercourse. Trachoma can also cause chlamydia, another type of STD.

What is the Cotton-Eyed Joe Line Dance?

So now we know the song lyrics and its background. But what about the dance? Despite its sad lyrics, the song is performed as a couple dance polka and a hoedown. Hoedowns, also known as square dances or American folk dances, are parties held where folk dancing in duple meters takes place. A duple meter is music with two beats in a bar in terms of music theory.

Cotton-Eyed Joe’s line dance performance is primarily a couple dance polka as well. Although a traditional American folk dance, the way “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is performed comes from a basic pattern of hop-step-close-step with Bohemian origins.

The steps to the dance are as follows.

  • Step 1: Tap your right heel forward twice. Both hands are on your hips or inside your pockets.
  • Step 2: Proceed to tap your right foot behind you twice.
  • Step 3: Place your foot back to its side then bring it in front of your left leg. Tap on your right heel.
  • Step 4: Place your foot back on its side and then bring it behind your left lep. Tap on your right heel.
  • Step 5: Proceed with a grapevine movement in four counts to the right.
  • Step 6: Four side steps to the left while spinning for the final four beats. Don’t forget to swing your right arm over your head as if holding a lasso.
  • Step 7: Repeat all the steps using your left foot.

Conclusion

We hope you learned a thing or two behind the meaning of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” While there are no actual confirmations, each interpretation discussed is valid. The same goes with how you or anyone else may feel about the song regardless if you feel angry or nonchalant about it.

Learning that your childhood line dance song might be about heartbreak and failed relationships isn’t that uncommon. After all, many of us have been singing similar songs before we even had our first crush. What’s more soul-crushing is the other theories of what the song could mean. We can’t imagine it would feel pleasant to learn that the song you danced to could be about STDs, slavery, or being excessively drunk.

Still, “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as “The South Texas National Anthem” isn’t so bad. While most parts of the United States have lost interest in “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, the Southerners still favor the song. This is because the tune is catchy, lively, and reminds people of a harrowing but significant history.