In 1994, “Cotton Eye Joe” became a massive international hit, topping the charts in nine countries and reaching #25 in the U.S. An otherwise unknown Swedish combo called Rednex mashed technotronic beats, Eurodance-on-meth vocals, and a banjo breakdown to produce one of the most reliable dance floor fillers of the ‘90s.
The feat is impressive not simply because the Rednex recording is so absurdly funny and effective, but also because the song itself was well over a century old by the time.
Where Did You Come From, Cotton Eyed Joe?
There’s pretty good evidence that the legend of Cotton Eyed Joe predates the American Civil War by a good measure. An American folklorist named Dorothy Scarborough wrote a book in 1925 called On the Trail of the Negro Folk-songs in which she recounted that her sister first reported hearing “Cotton Eyed Joe” as sung by “the Negroes on a plantation in Texas, and other parts from a man in Louisiana”.
From this earliest point of origin, both the song’s lyrics and its accompanying dance were known to have practically infinite variations.
Also numerous are the suggested meanings of the phrase “cotton-eyed.” Some historians suggest the phrase pointed to a blindness caused by drinking moonshine, bootleg liquor, or wood alcohol. Others have said it could refer to the striking white eyes of miners who are otherwise covered in soot.
But I think the interpretation that always stuck with me is the one which suggested Cotton Eyed Joe’s unique ocular condition was caused by syphilis.
So that’s the version we’re gonna keep in our minds as we look at the general history of this tune.
Dykes Magic City Trio (1927)
At the turn of the 20th century, industrialization brought an economic boom to the Appalachian region. The rapidly growing town of Kingsport, Tennessee took on the ambitious nickname Magic City. It was here that virtuosic fiddler John Dykes formed his trio.
Though much admired in local lore, the Magic City Trio is an otherwise fairly obscure bluegrass footnote.
However, they did record what is among the first known recordings of “Cotton Eye Joe.” In their version, says an article in Mental Floss, Joe is kind of a louse. The song tells of stranger who comes to town, dances with a married woman, and steals her away from her husband. Of course, that kind of behavior could explain the syphilis.
Adolph Hofner (1941)
The next noteworthy version was recorded by Adloph Hofner, a musician of Czech-German descent who was born deep in the heart of Texas. Deeply influenced by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Hofner modeled his career closely after the King of Western swing.
Hofner formed a series of his own Western swing combos with closely derivative names like the Oklahoma Playboys and the Texans. Hofner’s star was on the rise just the U.S. entered World War II. His first name having become a bit of a liability, his band cut “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in 1941 under the name Dolph Hofner and His San Antonians.
Hofner was known to infuse his take on Western swing with a touch of the polka music that surrounded him as a child. This is in evidence on the 1941 shellac release, which proved ready-made for county fairs and barn dances, and honky tonks. The old tune once again made the rounds, this time establishing itself as a lasting country standard.
In fact, while the history of the song traces back to the pre-war South, Cotton Eyed Joe gained significant ground in the latter part of the 20th Century. Mental Floss says more than 130 versions of the tune have been recorded in that 70+ year span.
Indeed, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded their own version in 1946. Wills is, of course, an absolute giant in the annals of country music, but his version of “Cotton Eyed Joe” was not a charting hit.
Other noteworthy versions include Nina Simone’s 1959 cut, which casts Joe in a somewhat more sympathetic light; and Al Dean’s 1967 instrumental swinger.
This was the version that became a popular square and polka dance, and the arrangement that became culturally ingrained on Southern dance floors, especially in Texas.
The song’s next surge in popularity came more than a decade later, and would take Cotton Eyed Joe out of the honky tonks and into the mainstream.
Travolta and the Western Craze
“After helping to catapult disco to the top of the charts, John Travolta turned his attention to C&W. Starring in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, he stood by as the Bayou City Beats shredded an entirely instrumental version of Cotton Eyed Joe.”After helping to catapult disco to the top of the charts, John Travolta turned his attention to C&W. Starring in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, he stood by as the Bayou City Beats shredded an entirely instrumental version of “Cotton Eyed Joe”.
It was, arguably, the beginning of a full-throttle revival for this syphilis-inspired tune, and the spark of a new Western Craze.
Grammy Eyed Joe (1985-1992)
In 1985, the Moody Brothers recorded a close approximation of the Urban Cowboy instrumental and received a Grammy nod for their work.
In 1992, bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs joined with Celtic folk icons The Chieftains to record a full vocal hoedown. This too was nominated for a Grammy.
What most distinguishes this version of the oft-recorded song? Well…it’s actually good.
More importantly, it seems this version was likely the closest musical inspiration for the absurd version that would stomp the charts two years later.
Joe Goes Global (1994)
Dressed in poor rural garb and proclaiming to be from the nonexistent town of Brunkeflo, Idaho, the Swedish techno-novelty combo called Rednex gave Joe his biggest audience yet. More than a century old, Joe ascended the charts in numerous countries.
Both the Rednex original recording and the dance remix became dominant global forces in 1994, reaching the top spot in the U.K., Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. It reached #25 in the U.S. but that peak position really doesn’t fully capture how culturally omnipresent and irritating it was at the time.
In reflection, some have cast the Rednex version as both racist and ignorant. Part of the reason for the criticism is that some early lyrical versions suggest Joe is a former slave. From this perspective, the cartoonish caricatures and techno syncopations would seem to be in poor taste.
However, I’m nearly 100% confident that these guys had no idea what the song was about or where it came from, especially when you consider how many versions were recorded just between the time it was conceived and the time that John Travolta got involved.
That said, the Rednex version saw an interesting afterlife as the theme song to the absurdist film Swiss Army Man starring a Danielle Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse capable of extraordinary feats. The same film also offers a surprisingly meaningful vignette of “Cotton Eye Joe” from the Manchester Orchestra.