The Meaning of Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe”

One of the most popular (and goofy) dance songs of all time is Rednex’s 1995 hit “Cotton Eye Joe”. Rednex are a strange case of a Swedish electronic band with a taste for American folk music, who sent the “Cotton Eye Joe” barreling overseas in the Winter of 1995 to blare out at block parties, high school dances, and sports arenas all over the United States for decades to come.

However, while Rednex were responsible for making the “Cotton Eye Joe” popular in the modern era, the song itself dates back to the pre-Civil War days, and is a standard song commonly played by bluegrass and folk musicians.

According to historians, the “Cotton Eye Joe” was often sung by slaves working on plantations in the American South, and thus has been passed on in many unwritten and written forms over the years and today has found itself woven into the American folk tradition.

There are many different variations of lyrics to “Cotton Eye Joe”, with the first officially-published version coming in 1882 by Harper and Brothers. Those same lyrics later appeared in a 1910 book by Louise Clark Pyrnelle, Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, which documents plantation life in the South.

Here are the original lyrics, or at least the first ones written down:

Cotton-eyed Joe, Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so,
Fur ter take my gal erway fum me,
An’ cyar her plum ter Tennessee?
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

His eyes wuz crossed, an’ his nose wuz flat,
An’ his teef wuz out, but wat uv dat?
Fur he wuz tall, an’ he wuz slim,
An’ so my gal she follered him.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

No gal so hansum could be foun’,
Not in all dis country roun’,
Wid her kinky head, an’ her eyes so bright,
Wid her lips so red an’ her teef so white.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d been married long ergo.

An’ I loved dat gal wid all my heart,
An’ she swo’ fum me she’d never part;
But den wid Joe she runned away,
An’ lef’ me hyear fur ter weep all day.

O Cotton-eyed Joe, O Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so?
O Joe, ef it hadn’t er ben fur you,
I’d er married dat gal fur true.

Original lyrics to “Cotton Eye Joe”, as published by Harper and Brothers in 1882.

These original lyrics differ vastly from the Rednex lyrics to the song, but still have a similar premise: a man nicknamed Cotton-Eyed Joe comes along and runs off with the love interest of the song’s narrator, who laments the loss of his woman and curses old Cotton-Eyed Joe.

The Rednex lyrics to the song take the meaning a step further, and rather than stealing just one man’s woman, this Cotton Eye Joe comes to town and swoons every single lady around, only to break their heart and run them out of town. When he’s done, there are no women left, and so he leaves too, and there are only men remaining in town who have no women to marry.

The most recent version of “Cotton Eye Joe” to receive attention was recorded by the rock band Manchester Orchestra as part of the soundtrack for the 2016 film Swiss Army Man. Manchester Orchestra turns the song into a surrealist, dreamlike tune that became the theme for the film.

So, What Does “Cotton-Eyed” Mean?

Just like there are many different versions of “Cotton Eye Joe”, there are also many different interpretations of what “Cotton-Eyed” is supposed to mean. It has been a slang term in the United States for so long that it has been included in the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, which defines it as “prominent whites of the eyes”.

Now, that definition isn’t exactly clear, leading to the mystery behind the descriptor used in the folk tune.

One popular interpretation is that “Cotton Eyed Joe” is referring to a man that is infected with syphilis, and thus is going around town infecting all the women with the disease. Urban Dictionary says that it comes from a man having his urethra swabbed with a cotton ball in order to test for STDs.

However, while this definition seems to jive with the Rednex version of the song, it doesn’t make sense as there certainly weren’t STI tests happening in the South when the song was initially sung.

Another, more likely to be true interpretation of the meaning of “Cotton-Eyed” has to do with ole Joe being drunk on moonshine, or grain alcohol. This fits better with the original lyrics, as they describe Joe as a bum-like figure with crossed-eyes and missing teeth, who is simply just tall and slim and makes all the women fall in love with him.

Some also say that the song is inherently racist, at least when Rednex recorded it. This is because Rednex are a white band, recording an old slave song for white people who have no idea nor a care that the song has roots in plantation times.

Rednex released the song with a music video that features the band dressed as hillbillies performing the tune while a hoe-down ensues around them. It takes the stereotype of the redneck, as it may have been imagined by Europeans in the 90s, and serves it up in a package that appealed to white Americans everywhere.

Watch the music video for “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex below.

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