The Long History Behind the Song "Cotton Eye Joe"

When the time came to pick a theme song for their feature debut, the 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.

The Bittersweet Detail You Might Have Missed in Game of Thrones's Final Episode

Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Helen Sloan, HBO

While the final episode of Game of Thrones was no doubt divisive, many of us can agree that Brienne of Tarth deserved better. One of her last scenes in the episode, "The Iron Throne," showed the newly-appointed knight putting aside any anger she might’ve had toward Jaime Lannister to finish his page in the White Book. The part was bittersweet after watching Jaime leave Brienne to be with his sister, Cersei—making us wish things could’ve turned out differently for our favorite knight.

There is one bittersweet detail in that scene that you might’ve missed, however, which makes it all the more sad. According to NME, one Twitter user voiced that they thought they heard the song “I Am Hers, She is Mine” playing in the background, which Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi considers to be the show’s wedding theme. Fans will remember the melody played when Robb Stark married Talisa back in season 2.

Djawadi has since confirmed it is the song, explaining to INSIDER why he included it:

"It's just a hint of what their relationship—if they had stayed together, if he was still alive—what it could have been. What they could have become. That's why I put that in there. I was amazed some people picked up on it. I was hoping people would go, 'Wait a minute, that's from season two.' And that was exactly my intent. I thought it would be very appropriate."

Though it’s only natural to imagine what could’ve happened if Jaime had stayed at Winterfell, let’s not forget that his honor (and character arc) went out the window when he headed back to King’s Landing.

[h/t NME]

This Poster Showcases Some of Rock 'N' Roll History's Most Iconic Moments

Courtesy of Dorothy
Courtesy of Dorothy

The world of rock 'n' roll has produced larger-than-life personalities and some of the most indelible moments of pop culture. From legendary groups like Queen and the Beatles to solo acts like Prince and Chuck Berry, rock artists have had cultural impact far beyond album releases—and the UK-based design shop Dorothy Studios has attempted to illustrate as many of these moments as possible.

To encapsulate the many on- and offstage moments that have helped shape rock history, Dorothy designers created "Inside Information: Vox AC30," a cutaway-style print that showcases famous people and events within the confines of a Vox AC30 guitar amp—a classic amplifier that soon became an industry standard. If you look closely, you can see everything from the Rolling Stones performing at the outdoor Stones in the Park music festival in July 1969 to Johnny Cash's live album performance at the Folsom State Prison in January 1968.

music poster
Courtesy of Dorothy

The poster print also has a helpful key that explains who, and what, each of the 40 separate illustrations showcase. In a way, the piece also serves as a handy beginner's guide for music fans looking to explore the depth of rock 'n' roll lore.

James Quail, creative director and partner at Dorothy, acted as the designer of the piece (as well as on this alternative music history poster) and explains that inspiration came from his love for diagrams. "The idea for the series came from thinking about memories of scientific cutaways from when I was in high school," Quail tells Mental Floss. "I loved diagrams which showed how machinery worked, or cut the Earth into portions and showing what was happening inside."

Quail also designed all of Dorothy's other pieces in their "Inside Information" collection. After Quail researches the genres being spotlighted and chooses the events he wants to feature, he works with Liverpudlian graphic designer Malik Thomas, who illustrates the print.

music poster
Courtesy of Dorothy

"We had the idea of taking real things apart but introducing levels of fantasy inside, so musical instruments might be filled with the artists and bands who used them, or film cameras filled with all the iconic moments from film that we could think of, and scenes playing out from a different perspective than we were used to seeing them," Quail says.

While the poster is chock-full of references, Quail admits there were still plenty of events they didn't have room for.

"Rock history is so rich with incident and anecdotes that to cover them all we would need a whole wall, but we picked a snapshot, hopefully covering off things that represent most eras, be it era-defining moments like the Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show or the Sex Pistols playing Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall," Quail says. "Or moments that meant something big to us personally—like the first time I saw Nirvana playing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'"

music poster
Courtesy of Dorothy

This print, "Inside Information: Vox AC30," is available from Dorothy Studios for roughly $38. Other pieces in this collection including the movie-inspired "Director’s Cut," the portable music synthesizer "Minimoog," or the "Apple Macintosh," which chronicles the history of, well, Apple.

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