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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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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands
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Take a Sneak Peek at the Brooklyn Museum's Upcoming David Bowie Exhibition
Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands
Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands

David Bowie was born in London, and spent his final years in New York. Which makes it fitting that an acclaimed traveling retrospective of the rocker’s career will end at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, five years after it first kicked off at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Following a whirlwind global tour, “David Bowie is” will debut at the Brooklyn Museum on March 2, 2018, and run until July 15, 2018. Curated by the V&A, it features around 400 objects from the singer’s archives, including stage costumes, handwritten lyrics, photographs, set designs, and Bowie’s very own instruments.

Together, these items trace Bowie’s evolution as a performer, and provide new insights into “the creative process of an artist whose sustained reinventions, innovative collaborations, and bold characterizations revolutionized the way we see music, inspiring people to shape their own identities while challenging social traditions,” according to the Brooklyn Museum.

“David Bowie is” has received nearly 2 million visitors since it left the V&A in 2013. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the show is a timed ticketed exhibition, with priority access reserved for Brooklyn Museum members and certain ticket holders.

Tickets are on sale now, but you can take a sneak peek at some artifacts from "David Bowie is" below.

Photograph from the David Bowie album cover shoot for "Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph from the album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph by Brian Duffy. Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

Striped body suit worn by David Bowie during his "Aladdin Sane" tour in 1973

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto 

Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita © Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from David Bowie's album Heroes, 1977

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from Heroes, 1977

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

A 1974 Terry O'Neill photograph of musician David Bowie with William Burroughs.
David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974. Photograph by Terry O'Neill with color by David Bowie.
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original photography for David Bowie's 1997 "Earthling" album cover

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997

Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3. © Frank W Ockenfels 3

Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

One of David Bowie's acoustic guitars from the “Space Oddity” era, 1969

Acoustic guitar from the Space Oddity era, 1969

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

An asymmetric knitted bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for musician David Bowie's 1973 "Aladdin Sane" tour.

Asymmetric knitted bodysuit, 1973. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour.

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

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