Meaning behind cotton eyed joe

The Rednex are a Swedish band obsessed through American folk tunes. (Photograph by Reiche/ullstein bild using 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 ago much additionally than the days of Toy Story. In fact, historians have actually traced the original folk song back to pre–Civil War days.

Where Did He Come From?

"Cotton Eye Joe," occasionally 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 also year to year, yet the root of the story continued to be the same: A handsome fellow named Joe caught the eye of the narrator"s girlfrifinish and brushed up her away, leaving the narrator tragically single. (This differs substantially from the Rednex incarcountry, in which Joe leaves a whole tvery own womanmuch less after charming all the women and also forcing them to flee in shame.) In 1882, Harper and Brothers publiburned the initially 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 ermeans fum me,

An" cyar her plum ter Tennessee?

Ef it hadn"t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,

I"d er been married lengthy ergo.

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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 hanamount 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 hair Cotton-eyed Joe,

I"d been married lengthy ergo.

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An" I loved dat gal wid all my heart,

An" she swo" fum me she"d never before part;

But den wid Joe she runned amethod,

An" lef" me hyear hair 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 hair you,

I"d er married dat gal hair true.


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

Wbelow Did He Go?

Although it seems prefer a fairly straightforward song, a lot of the interpretation of "Cotton Eye Joe" is a secret shed to time. For one thing, the identity of the narrator is unclear, and also different interpretations change the song dramatically.

These days, there"s no reason to assume a woguy that is plainly defined as babsence was dating a guy of the very same race, but ago then, any other case would certainly have been extremely inexplicable indeed. However, varying interpretations of the word "sarve" (old-timey for "serve") in the line "What did make you sarve me so?" might suppose Joe was a servant working for the narrator, which would certainly make his partnership with a babsence woman a lot more dicey and also probably nonconsensual. It doesn"t help that, in one variation of the song, the line reads "He was de dat sarved me so," identifying Joe as a babsence man through a diminutive develop of a racial slur that"s considered outrageously offensive today. 

It was, sadly, not unprevalent for plantation owners to sexually abuse their slaves, but it was significantly less widespread to marry them, as the narrator supposedly intfinished to execute. Because of this, it"s even more plausible that he meant "served" as in "treated," i.e. "Why"d you perform me like that?"


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

Wbelow Did You Come From, Cotton Eye Joe?

But why is he referred to as Cotton Eye Joe, anyway? According to historical sources, it was actually a prevalent slang term at the time for someone that had actually "prominently white eyes," which could expect any number of things. Maybe the whites of his eyes were ssuggest exceptionally noticeable. Maybe he was a drunk, his eyes turned milky white from a powerful moonshine halittle. A number of medical conditions can also reason the eyes to cloud, including cataracts, glaucoma, or—many intriguingly—syphilis.

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There"s a fairly excellent debate to be made that at leastern the modern-day dance song is around a dude spreading sexually transmitted disease, which is why all the woguys "ran amethod so nobody would know." In some versions of the people song, also, the narrator"s girlfrifinish isn"t "lugged off" to Tennescheck out but "runs off." According to urban legend, "cotton" is a reference to the swabs offered to test for such infections, however it couldn"t have been the original writer"s intention, as such swabs didn"t exist back then. It"s totally possible that it"s a dual entendre applied by the Rednex, though.

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