The Long and Interesting History Behind the Song “Cotton-Eyed Joe”

This year, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan are releasing their feature film debut, ‘Swiss Army Man’. This film stars Daniel Radcliffe, who is best known for playing the lead character in the Harry Potter series of films that are based on J.K. Rowling’s books. Scheinert and Kwan wanted unique elements to their film that would be memorable and thought it would be fun to have the whole score of this movie based on the fun country-pop song ‘Cotton Eye Joe’.

This was a hit song in 1995 that was performed by ‘Redknex’, a group of techno musicians from Sweden. The song reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and featured members of the group dressed up in dirty overalls and straw hats. Rather than this being an original song written by Rednex, it was actually a reworked American folk song.

Many of the same lyrics appear in the variation written for  ‘Swiss Army Man’, which is performed by indie rock group ‘Manchester Orchestra’. Although the author of this song’s lyrics is unknown, there is still plenty that historians have discovered about this tune.

The first published interpretation of this song appeared in ‘Diddie, Dumps, and a Tot, or Platinum Child-Life’. This was a novel by Louise Clarke Pyrnelle that was released in 1882. Much of this novel was based on her own childhood experiences. In this version,Joe was an ugly man who steals the girlfriend of the story’s narrator.

This theme led to future versions of this song to adopt a similar plot line which involves a mysterious stranger swooping in, taking someone else’s girl and then leaving town again. The perfect example of this is ina 1925 book titled ‘On The Trail of Negro Folk Songs’ by Dorothy Scarborough. She describes how she was taught this song by an old man from Louisiana who had learned it from plantation slaves.

A different account of this song was written in a 1922 book called ‘Negro Folk Rhymes’. This was written by Thomas W. Talley who is a noted chemistry professor and black cultural historian from Fisk University. His parents were former slaves from Mississippi and he believes that Cotton-Eyed Joe is not just a person, but also a dance. However, he does agree that Joe was probably a slave.

During the late 19th-century, the popularity of this song grew, and it was often played at square dances. There are several publications that were published in the 1880s that specifically reference this song in stories and reviews of events.

The first-known recording of ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ is from 1927 when it was recorded on 78 rpm by ‘The Dykes Magic City’, a popular string band of that time. This trio’s version of this tune was combined with lyrics from another folk song called ‘Old Dan Tucker’.

There are various other versions of who Cotton-Eyed Joe was and what he did in a range of publications. For example, ‘The Negro Traditions’ is Talley’s posthumous book that was published in 1993. In this, Cotton-Eyed Joe is a fiddler who has his instrument crafted from the coffin of his dead son.

Although in most instances Joe is portrayed as some sort of villain, Nina Simone took a different angle on The character in her live version of this song in 1959. The storyline of this variation is from a woman’s perspective and tells a tale of how she loved Joe many years ago but had now moved on and was ready to marry another man. The way it was sung suggested that this woman still had feelings for Joe.

Something that remains a mystery is what is meant by the term ‘cotton-eyed’. This possibly refers to the prominent whites of his eyes, according to ‘The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang’. However, there are also those who believe that it refers to Joe being wasted from drinking wood alcohol or moonshine. Alternatively, there are those who believe that he was suffering from a medical condition, such as glaucoma, cataracts, or trachoma. There is even a theory that he had syphilis and that this song is actually about sexually transmitted infections.

Since 1950, there have been over 130 recorded versions of ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’. As there are so many different versions of this song and such a range of theories regarding its history and meaning, it is anybody’s guess what the next interpretation of this folk song will sound like.

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