Plenty of people wonder about the meaning behind Cotton Eye Joe. While we may no longer know where he came from or where he went, we can be sure that the song named after the guy is rich in history.
The song “Cotton Eye Joe” originated as a folk song that circulated in the 1800s in the Southern parts of America. These days, not only did it become a staple in American culture, but also a favored line or club dancing song, all thanks to Rednex‘s 1995 techno cover. It’s safe to say that song’s story is as crazy as that of the man that inspired it.
As with any other traditional folk song, nobody knows who the song’s original singer or songwriter is. The only thing we know so far is that it pre-dates the Civil War era, implying the possibility of it being written sometime between the 1800s and the 1860s.
Typically played on a fiddle or banjo, the song circulated throughout the southern states. It quickly became a favorite for people who wanted a song they could sing and dance to during gatherings.
As for what the phrase “cotton eye” means, there’s a lot of debate about it. For some, it refers to being drunk on moonshine, while others believe it pertains to the contrast between white eyeballs and dark skin.
Some theories say Cotton Eye Joe was ill with some disease that made his eyes look milky white. Others state that he replaced his eyeball with a cotton ball because of inadequate medical equipment. Of course, none of these theories managed to prove their claims to be valid throughout the years.
So What Happened to the Song?
When the rise of recorded music came in the early part of the 20th century, “Cotton Eye Joe” was already a widespread folk song. Musicians released their respective renditions of the song, and people would make new dance steps for them every time.
Although a folk song’s popularity usually fades to give way to newer music, the opposite happened to this song. On August 12, 1994, the song’s popularity experienced a grand revival thanks to the efforts of Rednex, a group of Swedish producers that decided to cover it.
At first glance, it may sound strange that a traditional American folk song got covered by a Swedish techno group. However, the two styles surprisingly work well with each other. Rednex used fiddles and Banjos to capture the song’s American spirit while bringing its energy up by incorporating their trademark techno-dance sounds.
While the song was already amazing to dance to, Rednex’s version took it to another level. It became an all-around hit, not just music for a line-and-circle dance routine.
The Outrageous Way Rednex Marketed the Song
Even more interesting about Rednex’s version of the song “Cotton Eye Joe” is their outrageous way of marketing it. They called in five actors to portray the group during interviews.
They let the actors dress up as your stereotypical hillbillies. They even gave them fake names like “Ken Tacky” and Bobby Sue. The funny thing is that these actors claimed they got taken to Sweden after getting rescued from an uncivilized village somewhere in Idaho. They then claim that it was during that time that they found their passion for music.
As crazy as their backstory may be, it surprisingly worked. People got enthralled by the tale, and the song hit the charts all over Europe and North America. In February 1995, about six months after the song’s release, the group’s backstory was revealed as a lie.
The song enjoyed massive success in North America, but many Americans were offended by the stereotyping of the group. Pat Reiniz, a Rednex member, handled the backlash. He says that they intended no harm with their portrayal of American culture.
While Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe” held on to its legendary popularity in the United States since its debut, the Swedish group only performed it live in the country in 2017.
So, even if the meaning behind “Cotton Eye Joe” remains a mystery, there is no doubt that it’s a legendary song with a legendary story. It was, still is, and will forever be, a part of American culture.
Curious about how the song sounds? Well, you can listen to it now by clicking here!