Cotton-Eyed Joe,
Where do you come from,
Where do you go?

Truthfully nobody knows where Cotton-Eyed Joe came from. The song itself, a feisty, irresistible dance tune, dates from before the Civil War, and was firmly established as a fiddle piece by the mid-1800s. It has been recorded countless times in endless variations by everyone from Doc Watson, the Skillet Lickers and the Red Clay Ramblers to Garth Brooks, Michelle Shocked and, in perhaps its strangest incarnation, as an urban dance number with sampled beats merging with fiddles and banjos in a fascinating (and for some, irritating) cultural collision by the Euro-dance combo Rednex. The lyrics vary considerably, aside from the “where do you come from” chorus, in the different versions of the song, no doubt due to years and years of square dance callers pulling in whatever floating verses fit their needs at the time. It is, after all, a dance tune, and has prompted dancers to fill the dance floor for well over two hundred years now, an amazing bit of musical survival.

The Skillet Lickers - Cotton-Eyed Joe

So who is Cotton-Eyed Joe? To be cotton-eyed is to have an abnormal amount of white surrounding the iris of the eye, a medical condition that can be brought about by drinking wood alcohol, which blinds, or the effects of any number of illnesses ranging from syphilis to glaucoma and the viral disease called trachoma. Legend has it that Cotton-Eyed Joe was a pre-Civil War slave musician whose tragic life turned his hair white and was famous for playing a fiddle made from the coffin of his diseased son. In the song, Cotton-Eyed Joe is obviously a rambler, coming into town and leaving under mysterious circumstances. Michelle Shocked suggests that he was actually a roving abortion doctor in her version of the song from Arkansas Traveler, which tips things into some pretty heavy territory. Others have pointed out that Cotton-Eyed Joe isn’t a person at all but the name of a specific non-partner spoke-line dance and that one doesn’t meet Cotton-Eyed Joe, one does the Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Whatever its origins, Cotton-Eyed Joe has had an incredible run as a popular song, and in the Rednex version, which contemporary DJs have been quick to add to their standard set lists, it is played constantly at sporting events and makes an appearance nightly at countless clubs, discos, square dances and wedding receptions. It really is an amazing feat and this simple, bubbling melody is now into its third century of filling up the dance floors.

Cotton-Eyed Joe,
Where do you come from,
Where do you go?

Nobody really knows the answers to that. It has been a long journey and it isn’t close to being over, and even as you read this post, someone somewhere is stepping out on the dance floor to Cotton-Eyed Joe. Not bad for a little fiddle tune.

Rednex - Cotton Eye Joe