Cotton Eye Joe: The History Of The Rednex Classic Based On A Pre-Civil War Folk Song

Civil War | March 20, 2021

The Rednex are a Swedish band obsessed with American folk tunes. (Photo by Reiche/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Everyone hits the dance floor when the D.J. plays "Cotton Eye Joe," the 1995 hit from the confusingly Swedish techno punk band Rednex, but the catchy melody actually goes back much further than the days of Toy Story. In fact, historians have traced the original folk song back to pre–Civil War days.

Where Did He Come From?

"Cotton Eye Joe," sometimes known as "Cotton Eyed Joe" or "Cotton-Eyed Joe," was a mainstay among slaves on Southern plantations. The lyrics varied from place to place and year to year, but the root of the story remained the same: A handsome fellow named Joe caught the eye of the narrator's girlfriend and swept her away, leaving the narrator tragically single. (This differs significantly from the Rednex incarnation, in which Joe leaves an entire town womanless after charming all the women and forcing them to flee in shame.) In 1882, Harper and Brothers published the first official lyrics for the tune, which read:

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.

Rednex "Cotton Eye Joe" CD single cover. (Battery Records/Wikimedia Commons)

Where Did He Go?

Although it seems like a fairly simple song, much of the meaning of "Cotton Eye Joe" is a mystery lost to time. For one thing, the identity of the narrator is unclear, and different interpretations change the song drastically.

These days, there's no reason to assume a woman who is clearly described as black was dating a man of the same race, but back then, any other situation would have been very unusual indeed. However, varying interpretations of the word "sarve" (old-timey for "serve") in the line "What did make you sarve me so?" could mean Joe was a slave working for the narrator, which would make his relationship with a black woman a lot more dicey and probably nonconsensual. It doesn't help that, in one version of the song, the line reads "He was de [expletive] dat sarved me so," identifying Joe as a black man with a diminutive form of a racial slur that's considered outrageously offensive today. 

It was, sadly, not uncommon for plantation owners to sexually abuse their slaves, but it was considerably less common to marry them, as the narrator apparently intended to do. As such, it's more plausible that he meant "served" as in "treated," i.e. "Why'd you do me like that?"

"Cotton Eye Joe" music video. (Battery Records)

Where Did You Come From, Cotton Eye Joe?

But why is he called Cotton Eye Joe, anyway? According to historical sources, it was actually a common slang term at the time for someone who had "prominently white eyes," which could mean any number of things. Maybe the whites of his eyes were simply very noticeable. Maybe he was a drunk, his eyes turned milky white from a powerful moonshine habit. A number of medical conditions can also cause the eyes to cloud, including cataracts, glaucoma, or—most intriguingly—syphilis.

There's a fairly good argument to be made that at least the modern dance song is about a dude spreading sexually transmitted disease, which is why all the women "ran away so nobody would know." In some versions of the folk song, too, the narrator's girlfriend isn't "carried off" to Tennessee but "runs off." According to urban legend, "cotton" is a reference to the swabs used to test for such infections, but it couldn't have been the original writer's intention, as such swabs didn't exist back then. It's entirely possible that it's a double entendre applied by the Rednex, though.

Tags: 1990s | civil war | music

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