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The Long History Behind the Song "Cotton Eye Joe"

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When the time came to pick a theme song for their feature debut, this year’s much-discussed Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe, filmmakers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan had a novel idea. “Hey, what if the whole movie was just scored by the worst song?” Scheinert told Inverse, recalling the conversation that naturally led them to "Cotton Eye Joe."

For those who don’t remember 1995, "Cotton Eye Joe" was a massive hit for Rednex—a group of Swedish techno musicians playing dress-up in straw hats and dirty overalls. The bizarre, fiddle-fueled novelty was actually a reworking of an old American folk song, and thanks to its undeniable catchiness, it do-si-doed all the way to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Outside of sporting events, the Rednex tune is rarely heard these days, but there’s one line burned into everyone’s brains: "Where did you come from, Cotton Eye Joe?" Those words also appear in the haunting version that indie rockers Manchester Orchestra recorded for Swiss Army Man. With respect to the song itself (often titled "Cotton-Eyed Joe"), "Where did you come from?" is a fascinating question. As with many American folk tunes, the author and origins are unknown, yet there’s a lot historians do know about this enduring ditty.

The first known published version appeared in Alabama writer Louise Clarke Pyrnelle’s 1882 novel Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, or Plantation Child-Life, a nostalgic look at the antebellum South. Drawing heavily on her own childhood experiences on her father’s plantation, the novel gives credence to what most experts now hold as fact: "Cotton-Eyed Joe" originated with black slaves well before the Civil War. Pyrnelle’s version describes the titular character as an ugly man ("His eyes wuz crossed, an' his nose wuz flat / An' his teef wuz out, but wat uv dat?") who swoops into town and steals the narrator’s sweetheart.

"Ef it hadn't ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe," the jilted narrator sings, "I'd er ben married long ergo." That basic plot line—boy loses girl to mysterious charmer—drives most iterations of "Cotton-Eyed Joe," including the one Texas-born "song catcher" Dorothy Scarborough included in her 1925 book On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs. As Scarborough writes, she learned parts of the tune from "an old man in Louisiana," who picked it up from slaves on a plantation.

Three years earlier, in 1922, the noted black cultural historian and longtime Fisk University chemistry professor Thomas W. Talley shared a slightly different rendition in his book Negro Folk Rhymes. The son of former Mississippi slaves, Talley came across a version wherein "Cotton-Eyed Joe" isn’t just a person, but also a dance: "I'd a been dead some seben years ago / If I hadn't a danced dat Cotton Eyed Joe." The song ends by saying Joe has "been sol' down to Guinea Gall," which again implies he was a slave.

Regardless of where, exactly, the song was born, it spread quickly throughout the South, becoming a square-dance favorite. An 1875 issue of The Saturday Evening Post contains a story referencing the song, and in 1884, The Firemen’s Magazine dubbed the tune "an old, familiar air." The first 78 rpm recordings of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" began surfacing in 1927, when the string band Dykes Magic City Trio cut the earliest known version.

While the trio’s lively take contains the standard lover’s lament—"I'd a been married 40 years ago if it hadn't been for old Cotton-Eyed Joe"—it also borrows lines from "Old Dan Tucker," another folk classic with pre-Civil War roots.

Ol' Joe is nothing if not an adaptable character. Among the stories collected in Talley's posthumous 1993 book, The Negro Traditions, is "Cotton-Eyed Joe, or the Origin of the Weeping Willow." Here, Joe is a fiddler whose instrument was made from his dead son’s coffin. Generally, Joe is a villain, but legendary soul-jazz songstress Nina Simone doesn’t sound mad at the guy in her 1959 live version. Simone sings her gorgeous ballad from the perspective of a woman who loved Joe long ago and is now ready to marry another man. "I come for to show you my diamond ring," she sings—maybe out of spite, though her plaintive delivery suggests she still has feelings for the troublemaker.

One of the biggest mysteries of the song is what is meant by "cotton-eyed." As per the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the term describes "prominent whites of the eyes." Others believe old Joe was wasted on moonshine, blind from drinking wood alcohol, or suffering from a medical condition like trachoma, cataracts, glaucoma, or even syphilis. (Urban legend holds that "Cotton-Eyed Joe" is really about STDs in general, though there’s little evidence to support this theory.)

According to one online archive, there have been more than 130 recorded versions since 1950. It’s safe to say none are as cloying or culturally insensitive as the Rednex bastardization, but say this for the knee-slapping Swedes: They got the basic details right. American folk music is a democratic art form. Where "Cotton-Eyed Joe" goes now is completely up to the next person who feels like singing it.

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Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?
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When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Facts About Louis Armstrong
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With his infectious smile and raspy voice, Louis Armstrong (who actually pronounced his own name "Lewis") won over fans worldwide. To untold millions, every note that he let loose made the world feel a bit more wonderful, and his music is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Here are 10 facts about the life of one of the 20th century's most important jazz musicians.

1. ARMSTRONG SPENT HIS ADULT LIFE CELEBRATING THE WRONG BIRTHDAY.

Armstrong used to say that he’d been born on July 4, 1900. Turns out, he was 13 months off. In 1988, music historian Thaddeus “Tad” Jones located a baptismal record at New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to this document, the performer’s actual birth date was August 4, 1901.

No one’s quite sure why Armstrong lied about his age, but the most popular theories maintain he wanted to join a military band or that he figured he'd have a better shot at landing gigs if he was over 18 years old.

2. AS AN ADULT, HE WORE A STAR OF DAVID PENDANT TO HONOR THE JEWISH FAMILY WHO HAD EMPLOYED HIM.

While growing up, Armstrong did assorted jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. “They were always kind to me,” Armstrong once reflected, “[I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.” Apart from monetary compensation, Armstrong was given a hot meal every evening and regular invitations to Karnofsky Shabbat dinners. One day, they even advanced him the $5 he used to buy his very first horn.

3. SOMETIMES, ARMSTRONG WOULD USED A FOOD-BASED SIGN-OFF.

Pops” had a special place in his heart for both Chinese and Italian food. But, as a Bayou State native, Armstrong’s favorite dish was always rice and beans. In fact, before marrying his fourth wife, he made sure that she could cook a satisfactory plateful. To grasp how much the man adored this entrée, one need only check out his letters, which were often signed “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.”

4. DURING A FAMOUS RECORDING, HE ALLEGEDLY DROPPED HIS SHEET MUSIC AND IMPROVISED.

At one point in “Heebie Jeebies”—a 1926 song released by Armstrong and his "Hot Five” band—the singer vocalizes a series of nonsensical, horn-like sounds. Music historians recognize this as the first popular, mass-market scat ever recorded. Ironically, Armstrong later wrote the whole thing off as a big blunder on his part. In a 1951 interview with Esquire, Armstrong claimed to have come prepared with printed lyrics that day. Midway through the recording session, he accidentally dropped them and scatted to fill the ensuing silence. “Sure enough,” he explained, “they … [published] ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the same way it was mistakenly recorded.” However, most biographers believe that Armstrong made up this anecdote and had planned on scatting all along. It's also worth noting that even though he brought it into popularity, Armstrong in no way invented the technique, which dates back to at least 1906.

5. HE USED TO GIVE AWAY LAXATIVES AS GIFTS.

Between 1952 and 1955, Armstrong shed 100 pounds. Losing weight proved difficult at first, but his luck changed once he learned of an herbal laxative called “Swiss Kriss.” The artist promptly went out, bought a box, and became a lifelong spokesman. After trying it, he said that defecation sounded like “Applause.” Enamored, the musician began handing out packets to admirers, loved ones, and band members. Though he was the product's biggest cheerleader, Armstrong neither requested nor received any payment from its manufacturers.

6. SEGREGATION LAWS DROVE HIM TO BOYCOTT HIS OWN HOME STATE.

The year 1956 saw Louisiana prohibit integrated bands. Outraged, Armstrong refused to stage another concert within the state's borders. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Nine years later—after this ban had finally lifted—he again took the stage in New Orleans on October 31, 1965.

7. WHILE PLAYING BEFORE THE ROYAL FAMILY, ARMSTRONG GAVE KING GEORGE V A NEW NICKNAME.

At His Majesty’s command, several of the biggest names in jazz took their talents to Buckingham Palace, and in 1932, Armstrong was requested for a royal performance. Evidently, the show went well. According to Armstrong, that night’s “biggest laugh” came right before his group started playing “You Rascal, You.” Without warning, he looked straight up at the monarch and hollered, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

8. HE WENT ON SEVERAL GOODWILL TOURS DURING THE COLD WAR.

Fresh off the wild success of his “Hello, Dolly!” cover, Armstrong made a trip to communist East Berlin in 1965, where he gave a two-hour concert that earned a standing ovation. While not officially government-sponsored, there are some who believe the concert was arranged by the CIA, which would make this just one of the many taxpayer-funded appearances he’d make abroad during the Cold War in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations overseas. Previously, Armstrong had performed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa—though he famously canceled a planned 1957 Soviet Union tour, citing the recent Little Rock crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” declared Armstrong, “the government can go to hell.”

9. “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED TO TONY BENNETT.

The song for which Pops is most widely remembered, “What a Wonderful World,” was almost never his song at all. After completing the optimistic anthem, songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss thought that Tony Bennett would eat it right up. He subsequently passed, so the duo contacted Armstrong in August 1967.

10. "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" DIDN'T MAKE A SPLASH IN THE U.S. UNTIL WELL AFTER ARMSTRONG'S DEATH.

The first recording of “What a Wonderful World” was produced by ABC Records, which made no attempt to advertise it domestically. Although the ballad topped the 1968 charts in Great Britain, American sales were abysmal. When Pops (who adored Thiele and Weiss’ masterwork) passed away on July 6, 1971, “What a Wonderful World” seemed destined for stateside obscurity.

Then along came a bare-knuckled comedy called Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The joyous tune perfectly and ironically clashed with the wartime horrors depicted in one montage, so director Barry Levinson added it to his film’s soundtrack. “What a Wonderful World” struck a chord with moviegoers and was re-released that year, becoming an oft-requested radio hit.

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