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Cotton Eyed Joe

©05 The Media Desk

everybody sing along...
"Where did you come from, where did you go, where did you come from Cotton Eyed Joe?"

      The Desk personally didn't care one way or the other until one of its daughters told it that a Swedish boy-punk band had released a version of 'Cotton Eyed Joe' back in the 90's.

      That's something akin to sacrilege.

      The Cotton Eyed Joe is one of those pieces of Americana that nobody that cashes their paycheck into Euros should ever mess with.

"I remember down in Houston we were puttin’ on a show
When a cowboy in the back stood up and yelled, Cotton-Eyed Joe!..."

'If you’re gonna play in Texas (you gotta have a fiddle in the band)'
by Mitchell and Kellum

      At a local chain steakhouse restaurant they used to bring everything to a halt whenever the canned music system played 'Cotton Eyed Joe', the entire staff of the restaurant and a few customers would join in the dance. At a recent high school dance the kids were avoiding the dance floor early in the evening until the DJ played it, then every girl in the place hit the floor and did the line dance version (there is also a circle dance for couples for the song) with gleeful enthusiasm. It was even used as background music to a video sequence of a flying lawnmower. It is- an institution.
      Face it, after how many years this song is almost universally recognized and accepted as just something that is out there that will never go away. After fifty years or more of being in the public eye, where will the Macarena be? Most likely it'll be a curiosity in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the topic of 'dance craze' with the Disco Duck, and the Robot. The 'Cotton Eyed Joe' deserves its own wing in both the Rock and Roll and the Country Halls of Fame.

      Let's do some research and see who and what this mysterious Joe was.

      Any search for the song comes up with thousands of entries in all sorts of search engines. And it seems to be spelled almost any way you want to: Cotton Eye, Cotton Eye'd, Cotton Eyed, and so on. A turn of the century (Nineteenth to Twentieth Century that is) listing makes it as 'Cotton Eyed Joe' so we'll use that.

      So let's start with this what brought the subject up to begin with.


      Well, that's their name. And it is a Swedish band from Stockholm (although it is not an all-boy band) that admits they began as a fluke in 1992. Now some thirteen years later they seem to still be going strong and have released something on the order of a dozen albums. They've had multiple million selling cuts, and their version of 'Cotton Eyed Joe' seems to be their biggest hit.
      The band itself is a European version of a country-pop band (something on the order of Dixie Chicks) with a bit of Scandinavian punk thrown in for grins. The members come and go on a regular basis and they are currently breaking in a new female lead after the long term member 'Scarlet' left the band last fall, and they continue to tour Europe and the UK and release hits.
      OK. So they butchered the overall lyrics of the song as released in the US for the last hundred years. That's not a crime in and of itself as nobody on this side of 'the pond' can agree on the lyrics anyway. Although turning a straight up country dance number into a techno-bop punk anthem might be. We'll have to get a ruling from the Grand Olde Opry's directors for that.

      There have been innumerable renderings of the words to the song since Mr. Lomax jotted them down in the early 1900's. And John Avery Lomax was simply documenting southern music as it was performed live then. There was an oral tradition of the song going back from there, including a Bluegrass Breakdown version called 'Didja Ever See a Devil Uncle Joe' to essentially the same music.

      How many times has the old tune been recorded? It's not a stretch to say there are at least five hundred recorded versions of the song. Most are fairly standard renditions of the traditional version of 'Cotton Eyed Joe', while others are like what our friends from Sweden did to it with electronic dance beats and synthetic music. There was even one site that promised a bagpipe band version of it, it may be fortunate that the MP3 of that wouldn't play the day the Desk did its research.
      Also, it isn't hard to find a recording with a particular version of the lyrics you like best. At least since the 1940's the song has been laid down with all manner of changes to the more traditional, you really can't say historically recognized, words.
      Exactly how the song should go depends on who, and where, you ask the question. In Texas it's one way, in Mississippi it's another, and you get a completely different answer when looking into sources in the Ozark or Smokey Mountains.
      As to where the tune came from, it seems to have been around a lot longer than the words, and there are some Scottish and German folk songs with remarkable similarities. So it is likely the tune came over with one batch of settlers or another and was adapted for the local musicians as they played various festivals and 'ho-downs'.

      Now. Who was Mr. Cotton Eyed Joe?

      Going back into the late Nineteenth Century in the Deep South, it would appear that Joe was either a slave or bondservant/ hired man. The term 'cotton eyed' would be rendered today as 'bug eyed'. Or rather, having large and prominent whites (conjunctiva) to one's eyes. To those that research this kind of thing such a face would appear to the rest of humanity to be permanently startled or frightened. Something Vaudeville and early motion pictures would play into a stereotype and caricature.
      How a recognized medical condition in a common laborer turned into the old foot stomping song that became a Euro-bop hit a hundred years later is one of those mysteries we'll never solve.

      Where did the dance moves come from?
      Again. They have evolved over the years. The original dance seems to be something that would be called 'clogging' now, high energy and lots of noise. Then there is the carefully choreographed circle dance with the men on the outside of the ring holding their partner's hands a certain way- right behind her to her right hand, left to left in front and between them, then you step just so with your own feet crossing each other. After that you have a couple of versions of the line dance as done at the restaurant and the high school. And there is even a recognized call pattern for a square dance for Old Joe.
      So. No matter how you want to dance to it, go for it.
      Just don't do the Macarena to it.

Three older versions of the song below. The Rednex version is available through their site:
The older versions of the song are believed to be in the public domain. Author(s)- Unknown. Recording artists- Almost Everybody up to and including Burl Ives (the Desk didn't know he could sing that fast- he couldn't).

Somewhat More Traditional Lyrics:

Do you remember Long time ago
There was a man called Cotton eyed Joe
There was a man called Cotton eyed Joe

I could have been married long time ago
If it hadn't 'a been for Cotton Eyed Joe
If it hadn't 'a been for Cotton Eyed Joe

Old bull fiddle and a shoe-string bow
Wouldn't play nothin' but Cotton Eyed Joe
Wouldn't play nothin' but Cotton Eyed Joe

Play it fast or play it slow
Didn't play nothing but Cotton Eyed Joe
Didn't play nothing but Cotton Eyed Joe

Where do you come from where do you go
Where do you come from Cotton Eyed Joe
Where do you come from Cotton Eyed Joe

Blue Grass Lyrics:

I'll make me a fiddle and make me a bow,
And I'll learn to play like Cotton-eyed Joe.
I tuned up my fiddle, I went to a dance,
I tried to make some music, but I couldn't get a chance.

You hold my fiddle and you hold my bow,
Till I whip the Devil out of Cotton-eyed Joe.
I've make lot of fiddles and made lot of bows,
But I never learned to fiddle like Cotton-eyed Joe.

And yet another version:

Way back yonder a long time ago
Daddy had a man called Cotton-Eyed Joe
Blew into town on a travelin' show
Nobody danced like the Cotton-Eyed Joe

Cotton-Eyed Joe, Cotton-Eyed Joe
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eyed Joe?

Mama's at the window, Mama's at the door
She can't see nothin' but the Cotton-Eyed Joe
Daddy held the fiddle, I held the bow
We beat the hell out of Cotton-Eyed Joe


Made himself a fiddle, made himself a bow
Made a little tune called the Cotton-Eyed Joe
Hadn't oughta been for the Cotton-Eyed Joe
I'd a-been married some forty years ago


Whenever there's dance all the women want to go
And they all want to dance with the Cotton-Eyed Joe
Daddy won't say but I think he knows
Whatever happened to the Cotton-Eyed Joe



[NOTE: The Desk has never danced to the 'Cotton Eyed Joe' or even 'Didja Ever See the Devil Uncle Joe'. thank you very much ]

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