How do you know "The Cotton-Eyed Joe"?
June 22, 2009 11:49 PM   Subscribe

How do you know "The Cotton-Eyed Joe"?

Excluding sporting events and prior to that annoying 1994 Rednex dance mix, had you ever heard or danced "The Cotton Eyed Joe"?

In the late 70s and 80s, it was requisite at Texas weddings. Once the adults were nice and drunk, the song came on and everyone joined in, even us little kids.

We also learned it in elementary school PhysEd. Needless to say, that experience was not so jolly' *shudders to remember*

Here are links to jog your memory. The first is an instrumental version.

In the remarkable second, a social group in Draguignan, France performs the song and dance!

Now that your memory is properly jogged and sweaty, do you remember it from one of these or another context? If you do remember, where are you from? (Again, please exclude sporting events and that 1994 dance Rednex garbage).

...why yes, this question does have a purpose. Your answers will help me show my college students the extent to which US folkways live on today, and how some traverse borders in surprising ways.

We'll also-- and most importantly-- address the song's largely forgotten lyrics (via Wikipedia).

What I'm saying is this: come hell or high water, I'm going to use "The Cotton Eyed Joe" in a class this fall.

Bullshit! (hey now y'all, that's part of the song)
posted by vincele to Grab Bag (75 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From the video of that Flying Lawn Mower.
posted by ryanrs at 12:04 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I also know it as a folk song, but want to mention Michelle Shocked's 1992 "Prodigal Daughter" as another modern reworking of it.
posted by judith at 12:27 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, god. (embarrassed)
I first learned this dance in middle school around 1999-2001 at Mormon church-sponsored dances. Yes. I danced this dance with the Mormons. (This was in San Jose, CA.) The song I heard was the same version in the Draguigan link.
posted by samthemander at 12:31 AM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

One of our American castmates on my Up with People/WorldSmart tour taught us the song & dance one week in her group's presentation of American culture (every week there was a presentation about a castmate's country). We got a technofied version, and it became something of a running joke the whole time because another castmate had a funny dance to it! We'd play the song once in a while just to get her going, haha.

This was in late 2005.
posted by divabat at 12:33 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

It was fiddle tune my maternal grandfather played at barn dances in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska in his youth, along with other popular tunes of the day, of dubious origin, like Turkey in the Straw. He later taught it to my mother, when she was learning violin in school. She, however, eventually gravitated towards piano, and eventually got a copy of "The Cotton Eyed Joe" sheet music in a book of American folk songs, and played it with her dad, he on fiddle and her on piano. I was probably 6 or 7 the last time I heard them play it together, in the late 1950's, while my grandmother and I skip danced together...
posted by paulsc at 12:37 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, now that I've read the lyrics, they were nothing like the one in the song we heard. The chorus was "Where did you come from, where did you go, where did you come from, Cotton Eye Joe?"

As for traversing borders: the American crew did their presentation in Los Angeles. It was the final US city of a tour that also went to Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Every week we'd do a cultural performance and I think CEJ made it on our preshow mix so it probably got played overseas a few times.

Our crew of about 50 people came from roughly 25 different countries (some people, like me, represented 2 countries). So now the nationals of the following, aside from the US, have heard Cotton-Eye Joe:

Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Kenya, Russia, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Mexico, Ireland.

That should be a good story for your transversing borders thing.
posted by divabat at 12:40 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

(the videos loaded; it was the Polka version you linked to that we heard!)
posted by divabat at 12:42 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learnt it at a cèilidh in Edinburgh, Scotland, along with a range of other folk dances from different cultural traditions.
posted by siskin at 12:43 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also grew up in Texas... We learned it in elementary school, along with square dance steps and other stuff like the Mexican Hat Dance. And the Schottische. Wow, I hadn't thought about that in a hundred years. But the Cotton Eyed Joe was always the favorite because we could mutter "Bullshit!" under our breath along with the song.
posted by Addlepated at 1:03 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to always hear that song at bar/bat mitzvahs when I was around that age. New Jersey. Late 90s. Oh man, that dance. Haven't heard it in a long while though... probably because I don't go to bar mitzvahs anymore.
posted by lullaby at 1:05 AM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ok, upon re-read I didn't read the question very well. I just saw 'Cotton Eyed Joe' and it made me think of being 13 again. And it's 4 in the morning. My bad.

Though I did learn the 'real' song through a class in college ("American Folklife") but that probably doesn't count.
posted by lullaby at 1:11 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Divabat: Yes, the lyrics they taught us in school were much different than the original!

I did a quick google search for paulsc's "turkey in the straw." I'd never heard that one. I came up with plenty of great old youtube videos. Link 1 I totally don't get the meaning of most of the lyrics, but I suppose they are raunchy. Link 2 is a fiddler and a little boy dancer at a "fiddlers convention, 1928-1935." Sadly given the era and the little boy's skill, he likely danced for a living.

I'm looking forward to hearing more about people's first encounters with The Cotton Eyed Joe later in my East Coast day. Cheers.
posted by vincele at 1:16 AM on June 23, 2009

Physical Education class, in about first grade, in the gym, at the same time we learned other dances from other countries too (and we whispered "bullshit" too, and learned the schottische -- Addlepated, did I go to school with you?!). I was in Houston.

Thanks for sharing the link of French people doing this dance... I cannot believe it!
posted by Houstonian at 2:19 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the mid-90's I learned it in Phys. Ed in elementary school.
posted by alon at 2:19 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I danced on this song back in 5th grade.
posted by bbyboi at 2:22 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I first heard it in the 1984 movie "Places In The Heart." The movie was set in the 1930s South.
posted by amyms at 2:22 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

To expand a bit on my previous answer, one of the reasons "The Cotton Eyed Joe" was a popular tune at barn dances in Iowa and Nebraska, before the Great War, when my grandfather was playing it several times a night, some nights, as a crowd request, was that the big wheat and corn harvester crews that worked north from Texas to North Dakota in those years before the Great War (say, 1908 to 1915), liked it. These "thresher" crews were made up of 40 to 60 scythe men, sometimes additional specialized reaper and thresher machine crewmen/mechanics, and 10 to 20 2- or 4-horse teams, plus wagons, who moved north from Texas to North Dakota, doing contract harvesting, first in the winter wheat, then in the corn, and finally, maybe, in the soft wheat, late in the year, in Kansas and Oklahoma, and Panhandle Texas.

Those were hard men, who worked and traveled 7 days a week, for months at a time, doing the toughest kind of agricultural work, in the days before the steam and gasoline engines made possible mechanical reapers, threshers and, later, modern combines. If they got any recreation at all, it was likely to be a couple hours at a Saturday night barn dance, tossing around each other, and maybe a few local girls under the watchful eyes of their farmer fathers, brothers and husbands. Out back, they might sneak a little whiskey, or maybe, if they were lucky, some locally made beer or hard cider, and still get on the road or maybe the railroad, overnight, to their next jobs, starting the following mornings.

They wanted tunes they knew, for dances like the shadish and melodies they learned as kids. All the music some of those thrashers knew were "The Cotton Eyed Joe" and "The Turkey in the Straw" and "Clementine" and maybe "Dixie," "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." So my granddad and his little bands would play these, and the threshers would "whoop it up," and "dance till the (barn) rafters shook, or horses bolted," 40 to 60 big men stomping around in rough time, singing loudly, laughing, shouting, clapping, and "showing off" for a couple hours, until the crew bosses pulled 'em out. Then things would quiet down a lot, and the little bands would drop back to playing quieter polkas, waltzes and two-steps, for the local farmers and their kin, for an hour or two, until the oil lamps ran low, and everyone hitched up the wagons and left for home.
posted by paulsc at 2:30 AM on June 23, 2009 [11 favorites]

The song has a wikipedia page - which quotes a source dating its origins to before the civil war. Also:

A list of the possible meanings of the term "cotton eyed" that have been proposed includes: to be drunk on moonshine, or to have been blinded by drinking wood alcohol, turning the eyes milky white; a black person with very light blue eyes; someone whose eyes were milky white from bacterial infections of Trachoma or syphilis, cataracts or glaucoma; and the contrast of dark skin tone around white eyeballs in black people.
posted by rongorongo at 3:17 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

We used to play a version close to the one played by the Skillet Lickers in that first youtube link. The tune is a standard in the American old time fiddler repertoire, and has lots of regional of versions, and probably comes from the older Black American string band tradition. In the southern Mountains a century ago, "Cotton Eyed Joe" was the lowest grade of home brewed whiskey you could get, and the impurities often caused blindness, hence "Cotton Eyed."

Back in the 1970s we played this at southern old time dances, but there wasn't a specific dance to the tune - it was played as pat of a fluid set of melodies as a medely for dancing to fill out a period of fifteen minutes to a half hour of dancing. We'd switch between tunes within whatever key the banjos were tunes too... Cotton Eyed Joe was a "G" tune.
posted by zaelic at 3:32 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the early to late 1990s, my daughter and her dance company competed in dance competitions through out North Carolina. At every competition, it seemed, one company or soloist would dance to "Cotton Eyed Joe." Often it was in the clogging part of the competition, but not always. I had never heard of the song before then. This is a typical example.
posted by pasici at 4:32 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm from Brooklyn. One day my psycho-ex-best-friend and I wanted to something ridiculously silly, so we went to the public library, went into the "videos" section and saw a video called "learn how to country dance." Sure enough, the first song on there was Cotton-Eyed Joe. We made two guys we were friends with on my block learn the dance with us. Pretty sure they hated us after that.

I remember being 14 years old and from Brooklyn and never really hearing country music before all this, that we thought the Cotton Eyed Joe was the most riduculous thing ever, and made fun of it to no end.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:06 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just another Texan who learned in elementary school during our square dance unit in PE. I also remember learning the Virginia Reel. The Cotton-Eyed Joe was always played at junior high dances and was one that was sure to get many people onto the dance floor.
posted by katemonster at 5:11 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just a hick from rural southern Oregon who taught her sons this dance to John Denver's version last month while vacationing in South Carolina.
posted by njbradburn at 5:38 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Queens, NY and had never heard of Cotton-Eyed Joe until just under a year ago. Apparently the song and dance are alive and well in Long Island, since it's been played by DJs at two parties thrown by my girlfriend's family.. and surprisingly more than a handful of ladies knew all of the moves.
posted by Raze2k at 5:46 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

St. Louisan here. I never heard the song until I started listening to late-night dance remixes on the local Top 40 station in 1996, and it was part of the mix one night.
posted by limeonaire at 5:46 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Same as Samthemander, I first heard this song at a Mormon church dance when I was in high school (mid 90s). Not sure what version it was, though. I grew up in metro Atlanta, GA.
posted by ashirys at 6:14 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

It was hugely popular at my daughter's elementary school in urban Northern Virgina just two or three years ago. I went to their end-of-year dance, and nobody danced to anything until that song came on, then everyone hit the floor, a hundred or more 12-and-unders dancing in unison. It was bizarre. My daughter played it at her birthday party last year (her 13th), but not this year--guess she's aging out of it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:52 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned this dance on New Year's Eve 1986 in Childress, TX. I 15, was the city cousin, visiting from Manhattan. My cousin's friends swept me out on the dance floor and I not only had I never heard of Cotton Eyed Joe, I'd never seen a line dance before.

Not my best moment on a dance floor, and that's saying something.
posted by workerant at 6:59 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned the song in the mid-80s in PE class in the Dallas suburbs. Also, the Texas Rangers have played it during the 7th inning stretch since at least that time.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 7:04 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learned it in Junior High (maybe elem.) in P.E. I lived just outside Houston. Also learned the Texas Two-Step. And, I don't remember either of them.
posted by nimsey lou at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Conversely, I've been aware of the song more or less my entire life (my parents, for some completely unknown reason, had an old 78 record with it), and only know of the dance because of this post.

Really. I had absolutely no idea.
posted by aramaic at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phys Ed, definitely middle school, maybe even elementary school. We always had a section of the year reserved for learning to dance. It was group stuff like square dancing, and I even want to say the Electric Slide but that could definitely be a case of swapped memories. That would have been late 80s, early 90s, in Northern Virginia (DC Metro) public schools.
posted by sa3z at 7:09 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Texas; we learned it in gym class in elementary school.
posted by aka burlap at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another Texan (Houstonian) who learned it and the Virginia Reel and other country and square dances in PE in elementary school in the early to mid 1970s weighing in. I also remember dancing it at camp in Texas and New Mexico in the mid to late 70s and early 80s.
posted by immlass at 7:56 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Kansas City suburbs, around 1983. Our 7th grade science class teacher was also a country musician, and was often the DJ and chaperon for school dances. He got sick of seeing that NONE of us knew how to dance. (He said we did "the Two-tile": we'd stand together in couples, our feet taking up only two tiles of the floor, awkwardly barely touching and rocking back and forth. I can only imagine how pathetic we looked!)

So he came into gym classes one day before a scheduled dance and taught us the Ten Step and the Cotton Eyed Joe. (The latter was much easier to learn and remember, I think I could probably still do it today.) That night at the dance he played both songs and we were sort of expected to dance to them.

It actually worked really well, because even though us kids were more into rock/pop music, it loosened us all up and taught us dancing could be fun. I remember from then on, everybody danced better - we never did the structured dances like Cotton Eyed Joe again, but we never did the "Two Tile" again either. (In my memory it was almost comparable to the final scene of Footloose - suddenly all us stiff repressed non-dancing kids learned how to "cut loose!")
posted by dnash at 8:14 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am 36 years old and I swear I had a 45 (record) of it when I was little. I think that I didn't know why I had this at the time, though. I have vague memories of dancing to it in grammar school (New Orleans) and maybe at a Campfire Girl Hillbilly-themed camping trip.
posted by artychoke at 8:15 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Up here in the Texas of the North, they taught it to us in junior high dance class alongside the tango, the electric slide, and that damned cadillac ranch.
posted by Acari at 8:16 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a very faint memory of learning/singing this song in kindergarten or maybe first grade - this was in about 1978 in the suburbs of NYC.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:54 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did the requisite square dancing etc in junior high (mid 90s) in southern California (and loved the remix around the same time), but I didn't hear anything approaching the original version or learn the dance until several years ago at a country bar/line dancing place in San Diego. They usually play it on Wednesday nights (which, strangely enough, is their busy night) just before they switch over to the rock/hip hop music. It gets everyone on the dance floor -- even the college students who didn't come for the line dancing.
posted by natabat at 9:02 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

They play it at every country bar in Eastern Oklahoma / Western Arkansas. That's where I learned it.
posted by Ugh at 9:07 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

North Texas, Square Dancing in Physical Education, 5th Grade. We whispered or mouthed the "bullshit" line to antagonize the teacher.
posted by ktrey at 9:14 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

My dad was a square dance caller and Cotton Eyed Joe was one of the many records in his collection. It was also part of square dance lessons in PE.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I walked into the Rainbow Club, the NCO club for Cambrai-Fritsch Kaserne, Germany in the fall of 1988 and discovered everyone in the place wearing Western clothes and dancing the Cotton-eyed Joe.

Singer: "What'd you say?"
Crowd: "Bullshit!"
Singer: "You say what?"
Crowd: "BULLSHIT!"
Singer: "The hell you say!"

And on and on.

I love it, myself.
posted by atchafalaya at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up in central Texas and learned it going to the dances at the Knights of Columbus Hall, just like every other good central Texan. It is always followed by the Schottish. It is a staple at the dances at Garner State Park and at every wedding, country bar, and street dance I've ever been to in Texas.
posted by tamitang at 10:31 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't recall a time when I didn't know the song. It was just kind of in the zeitgeist like a nursery rhyme or the tune to Pop Goes the Weasel. However, until just now, I had no idea there was a line dance that went with it.

I grew up in Middle Tennessee in the 80s/90s and did a mandatory square dance unit in PE in maybe third(?) grade. We didn't line dance but did actual Virginia Reel style stuff where you had to touch members of the opposite gender and thus be put at risk for a life threatening case of boy cooties. I don't recall if Cotton-Eyed Joe was involved in that hated activity of not, but then I probably wouldn't, since hearing it wouldn't have struck me as notable in any way.

For a different perspective, my boy here (who grew up in the same area) says he didn't hear it until the terrible dance version came out and, in a backlash, people started playing the real song again.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:54 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The song is still entirely current in the old-time session scene, as are a lot of the related ones mentioned in comments. Among musical circles it's never gone away and didn't have to be taught in academic environments.
posted by Miko at 10:59 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

That version from Link1 on YouTube is a parody. Those aren't folksy old-time players giving a straight performance, they're pop musicians playing the role of hillbillies for comic effect. The incorporation of woodwinds, and the slapstick staging, are dead giveaways. I wish there were more information about where this came from, but it's kind of a mocking rendition of the tune, poking fun at the old-timey craze of the 1930s.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chicago, 1979 or so, learned at recreational folk dancing for adults. Reinforced in the early 1980s by a trip to Texas, where I met a kid on the street who knew the dance. As Miko points out, the tune is still alive and well in the old-time scene.
posted by PatoPata at 11:22 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned it in San Diego, mid-eighties, at junior cotillion. Which now seems very odd.
posted by korej at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm possibly a bit off with the dates, but I heard this at the Hard Rock Cafe in Jakarta around Christmas time 1992 or 1993. I'm almost certain that it wasn't the Rednex version. My friend and I do-se-doed like jackasses until a whole cohort of locals (who had been staring at us in disbelieve) joined in with us.
posted by smcniven at 1:25 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Georgia, late 70s, public school, square dancing in P.E.
posted by candyland at 2:51 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Connecticut, late 90s/early 00s. I learned it at summer camp for young girls, and when I was a counselor later we taught it every year.

At college, I noticed my friends (from Tennessee and Ohio, respectively) each have a different dance than I do. Mine's more similar to the France version.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:09 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh - prior to 1994. I'm an idiot. Carry on.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:14 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's fun reading all these answers, so... favorites for everyone! When I get around to it.

It appears that a lot of us learned the song and dance in PE at the age when cooties transmission peak.

Miko: Thanks for the tipoff about link 1. I just chose it because it was the clearest tune on the first few pages of youtube. Let us know if you find out more about it. (I don't mean that as an imperative by any means.)

paulsc: your memories are fascinating and beautifully written. I have to wonder if my great-grandfather and brothers were among those on that circuit. You also made me think about the youtube wedding dances I saw posted. The majority were from Minnesota or Wisconsin weddings. I wonder if the song retains popularity in the Midwest due to the long-forgotten work circuit you mentioned.

Miko and PatoPata mention the old-time scene. What is that? Fans of this folksy kind of music?

I'm surprised I didn't seen more (than one?) wedding reception references. This dance was the highlight of boring, boring wedding receptions for my little cousins and me in 1980s Houston. It must have been a sight to see hundreds of loud dressed-up drunks doing it in fancy hotels. Could it be an Southern (US) Italian thing? Was I dragged to more weddings than the average kid? Am I delusional?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next batch of responses.
posted by vincele at 6:50 PM on June 23, 2009

Long Island -- I was a CIT (counselor-in-training: too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor) at a camp on Long Island in the late 90s, and another girl taught the dance to me. I'm not sure if I'd already heard the song or not. We then taught it to a bunch of campers. I don't know where she learned it, but it wasn't making the school gym-class circuit at the time (we did do square dancing in 5th grade, but not Cotton-Eyed Joe). It was probably going around at bar mitzvahs and cruises, like "Hands Up" (anybody?) and other foam-finger dances.
posted by thebazilist at 7:30 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Miko and PatoPata mention the old-time scene. What is that?

Oh, yes. Indeed. There is a fairly unbroken line of fiddle-based community musicianship extending from the fiddle-and-string bands of the late 1800s and early 1900s to today. The same folks that played for house dances and weddings a hundred years ago continued to play and teach their music. Some kids moved on and didn't learn it, but some did, and became tradition bearers able to teach it to the next generations. By the 1930s, festivals and singings were already springing up around the self-conscious enjoyment and transmission of vernacular music like this; the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s gave all that another big boost.

Today, as has been true for decades, there is an old-time music scene of people who play and enjoy this kind of music (and related traditions). The venues in which you're likely to find an active tradition are twofold: around sessions, and around festivals. Sessions arise wherever there is a confluence of space, musicians, and (usually) booze - in bars, at music stores, at people's houses. Festivals take place all over the country, and usually combine a concert and/or contest component with informal jam sessions at which musicians teach one another and trade songs. Clifftop is probably the premier one. It's one of those subcultures that becomes easy to find once you're hooked in, but is rather obscure if you're not involved. In some places, the scene is well enough evolved to have a web presence (San Diego, Portland, OR, New York, Minnesota, etc - try Googling place + "old-time." The one nearest me just recruits through Craigslist; the one I most love playing in, in Connecticut, is strictly a word-of-mouth thing.

There's a magazine dedicated to the scene, the Old-Time Herald, and a newly released documentary, Why Old Time? Though old-time and bluegrass are different things, you can often find listings for old-time events wherever your local or regional bluegrass fans hang out. There's an Old Time Music Home Page with links and resources.

Old-time fiddlers have enormous repertoires in whatever styles they play. People tend to specialize in Appalachian, Cape Breton, etc - but many play more than one style. There must be honestly thousands of tunes - and then there are the songs with lyrics, like CEJ. Banjo has some of its own classic repertoire, too.

I'm a Texas native and had a couple relatives who could play; so did my good friend from Alabama, whose father fiddled at least a few tunes nightly and was good for a few hours on the porch with some accompaniment. But I had considered the music one of those vestiges of days past for old people, until I rediscovered the music by stumbling into the scene as an adult, as a musician. It's amazing how vital the whole scene remains, and how open and easy this musical community is.

So this is sort of an important part of the context of your question. The song you're asking about makes for an interesting case study of the ways in which traditional material travels through the culture, changing and being adapted as it goes; but it's one of quite definitely thousands of tunes, some more popular and some less, growing out of an American vernacular music tradition that has never really been dormant since it began to develop - a point which is debatable among scholars, but not all that important. At some point American music stopped being European or African [or whatever] music played in America, and became American music. The process continues, but it's amazing how much within the body of music referred to as "old time" remains consistent. Hence the name, I guess. Anyway, Cotton Eyed Joe's roots and tendrils lie squarely within this old-time tradition, and it's not all that unusual in the ways it crosses and re-crosses the commercial pop vein as well, in an endless musical conversation in which styles and references inform and influence one another.
posted by Miko at 7:38 PM on June 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I learned to play this tune and "boil that cabbage down" and "wildwood flower" on my fiddle around 1976, when I was eight. I've never seen or heard of the dance; it was just one of the old-timey fiddle tunes suitable for aspiring musicians. They were some of the first songs my dad learned to play on his mandolin as well.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:24 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

"... I wonder if the song retains popularity in the Midwest due to the long-forgotten work circuit you mentioned. ..."

In my experience, some kinds of American music "traveled," and some didn't.

My second wife came from a large East Tennessee family, of hill people. Her father was 1/2 Cherokee, and was 79 years old when she was born, and she had 13 brothers and sisters, the oldest sister 38 years older than her, and her youngest brother, two years younger than her. Directly, she had 104 nieces and nephews, the majority older than her, obviously. And I barely learned all their names! Now this family was full of singers and whistlers and latter-day pickers, but few fiddlers, and they had all lived in 2 counties in East Tennessee, and not moved about much, as far back as anyone remembered, and most still live within 10 miles of where they were born. They knew and played dozens, if not hundreds, of traditional songs, including hymns, reels, waltzes and quick step dance tunes, but I don't think they knew The Cotton Eyed Joe - at least, I never heard any of them play or sing it. But they also knew a lot of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Bill Monroe tunes, courtesy of radio sets and the Grand Ol' Opry. Their music came to them, and stayed with them - they weren't unusual in this, and you can find similar examples of families like them all around in that area of the country, and farther north into Appalachia. You also find this kind of "stay put" musicality in the Ozarks, and in Louisiana, where for cultural and economic reasons, people stayed put, and built and passed along particular musical traditions.

But music also traveled in particular ways in America. North and south, it went, mostly, by water, first along the Eastern seaboard, later up and down the Mississippi/Ohio/Missouri river system, finally along the West Coast. That kind of music was often carried by boat, played by professional musicians, on heavy instruments, including pianos, calliope, and organs, or performed by complete orchestras or bands such vessels could support. A lot of it was professionally composed, and became popular because of being heard by many people on riverboats, on showboats, or at events where touring bands or orchestras played.

East and West, music had a harder time traveling. Instruments had to be small and light, to travel by horseback, or in wagons. And it was harder, if not impossible to make a living as a traveling musician, once you got beyond the rivers and the railroads, in the early American West, simply because the population density dropped quickly, and the distances and time between potential gigs grew enormously. So, the music we mostly associate with the Mid-West and the Great Plains is largely fiddle music, driven and influenced by migration for land, and for work, as my grandfather played. But back in the South, in King Cotton's culture, a kind of stay-at-home music that stayed with the sharecropper's and former slaves never did travel much. Around Memphis, where I went to college, there is a strong tradition of spirituals and church music, like you hear most directly, still, around the low country in Georgia and South Carolina, and in East Texas and Arkansas, where the stray cotton fiber still collects thickly along the roadsides during every autumn harvest. There are reasons for that, that I think the old threshing crews my grandfather played for would have told you, straight out:

Threshing was white men's work, and cotton was black people's work. The crews that came out of Texas to harvest grain, and call for The Cotton Eyed Joe at barn dances in Nebraska, weren't singing spirituals among themselves the other 6 days of a week, and the folks who stayed behind in Texas and Arkansas to harvest cotton and tobacco on sharecropper holdings weren't, mostly, playing fiddle tunes like The Arkansas Traveler and Turkey in the Straw.

My grandfather's fiddle, which I still have and play occasionally, is one of thousands brought by German immigrants from the old country, as they headed West, into Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. The early land plats of the State of Missouri, in the 20 years after its admission to the Union in 1821, clearly show whole counties and communities being populated by wave after wave of German speaking settlers, coming for land in the new West. And while they brought violins, and played waltzes, shadishes, and two steps, those violins became fiddles in America, as they met the music being made here, and were called upon to play dance music and to play for celebrations.

So, my explanation for the broad geographical familiarity of The Cotton Eyed Joe is that it is probably the result of several factors. First, it's a catchy fiddle tune (perhaps originally an Irish fiddle tune, or a variant of a Scottish tune called "Gen. Burgoyne’s March"), and a good shadish dance tune, and both those features would call it frequently to the minds of people enjoying themselves at dances. Second, it had some easily remembered, fun lyrics, with at least some regional, naughty hooks ("Bullshit!") to make it a popular singing tune. Third, it traveled with people across a wide area of this country in work migrations, and was introduced to a lot of people that way. And fourth, it was recorded as early as 1927, and certainly got some radio airplay along the way, that kept it in the minds of many through later years.
posted by paulsc at 10:30 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Houstonian - ha, no! I was a San Antonio girl. I'm pretty sure the muttering of cuss words is a universal delight, though.
posted by Addlepated at 10:34 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

With regard to recording -- In fact, there was a popular culture craze for "hillbilly" music that came along as soon as recorded music made it possible to capture these songs in a permanent medium - in marked contrast to the other musics which were popular at the time, hot jazz, music-hall, and minstrel music, it was rootsy and funky and different in the ears of an America that was becoming increasingly urbanized. Businessmen traveled in the South and other musical communities with portable recording rigs, setting up cattle-call sessions at which they recorded a handful of tunes from hundreds of different performers - the Bristol sessions being one famous example of such an event. Radio stations and show promoters were scouring the land for the next old-time country music star, and it in fact might have been the first popular recorded music fad.

If you've seen the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou," it's clear that the scriptwriters were interested in this period and in the phenomenon of record promoters and radio station owners making good money by recording and playing the songs of traditional artists. IN one way you can view the movie as sort of an allegory about the components of American vernacular music: it begins with a prison work song, then includes "Big Rock Candy Mountain," sort of a pop hillbilly gospel. George Clooney's character's kids sing in a gospel ensemble, then they meet a black blues player at the crossroads. When they're sitting around the shack of Clooney's relative, they listen to the radio and hear:
that's the last number for tonight's 'Pass the Biscuits Pappy O'Daniel Flour Hour.' This is Pappy O'Daniel, hopin' you folks been enjoyin' that good old-timey music, and remember, when you're fixin' to fry up some flapjacks or bake a mess a biscuits, use cool clear water and good pure Pappy O'Daniel flour for that 'Pass the Biscuits, Pappy' flavor.
...which is sort of a direct reference to the advertising function of some of the big, border radio superstations that became incredibly powerful in spreading this music to a nationwide pop audience. These stations could be heard throughout the entire American South and Midwest and sometimes beyond, so their reach was impressive, and they used this popular music trend to sell various kinds of snake oil, for instance, goat testicles.

Later in "O Brother," the gang make their way to Pappy O'Daniel's broadcasting studio, where Clooney introduces them:

Well sir, my name is Jordan Rivers
and these here are the Soggy Bottom
Boys outta Cottonelia Mississippi-
Songs of Salvation to Salve the Soul.
We hear you pay good money to sing
into a can.

Well that all depends. You boys do
Negro songs?

Everett grimaces, thinking.

Sir, we are Negroes. All except our
a-cump- uh, company-accompluh- uh,
the fella that plays the gui-tar.

Well, I don't record Negro songs.
I'm lookin' for some ol'-timey
material. Why, people just can't
get enough of it since we started
broadcastin' the 'Pappy O'Daniel
Flour Hour', so thanks for stoppin'
The writers of this modern movie knew a lot about the musical dynamic of the 1930s, and commercial appropriation of the songs people had been singing for decades around their homes and at their parties was a huge part of it. This recording boom, and the popular interest in the music during the 1930s revival, is one of the reasons so many old-time songs have survived to this day. People couldn't get enough of it, so record company executives found and recorded a ton of it, which got more people into knowing and playing it, and when there weren't enough songs, people started writing new songs that sounded like they fit into the tradition. To this day, it becomes a black art trying to figure out whether some old-time songs are "traditional" (have a history of being sung and played by many people, in different places and versions, author unkown) or composed by an individual who receives the credit. At some point it's a quibble, as even traditional songs have authorship somewhere, though we may not know it.

The Carter Family got their start at this time, and in fact as their career progressed they started to run out of songs from their own family and community repertoire - so AP Carter began songwriting, just to produce more songs, and they went out themselves to add to their own repertoires from other local traditions, in order to keep their recordings flowing for RCA.

This radio series is more wide-ranging than looking at just fiddle and string-band tunes, but it's incredibly informative about the origins and travels of this music.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have learned so much in this thread, thank you all for your contributions!

Please add more as things come to mind. The favorites machine is in working order.

Miko, I'm going to find out if there is an old time scene in Philly. That'd give me something to do!

paulsc, I wonder what the Italians who migrated to LA and TX to grow cotton sang and played?

The third of my links takes you to "On the Trail of Old Negro Folk Songs." That site considers "The Cotton Eyed Joe" an "Old Negro Folk Song." I get what you all are saying about the spread of music. I wonder whether The Cotton Eyed Joe was initially a "Negro Folk Song" or morphed into one later.

Fascinating discussion. I wish I had suppressed my crush on Morrissey when I was young and learned from the older folks around me.
posted by vincele at 1:10 PM on June 24, 2009

My Louisiana and Texas cotton-growing/sawmill/truck farming Italians played mandolins and accordions (including my aunt and uncle having accordion lessons in Dallas in the 1940s, 50 years after our immigrants arrived). There was an opera house built for the Italian coal miners in Thurber, TX, but our family sang traditional Sicilian folk songs. My immediate family aren't very musical, but some cousins (who claim relation to Tony Bennett on the other side) are big into singing -- I'll email my cousin Anthony and see if he has anything to add.
posted by katemonster at 6:31 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also first heard it when they forced us to do square dancing in elementary school PE class, in the mid 80s (I lived in Houston at the time). I remember that, and some other crappy song that went "if you're gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band" or something like that. God, that square dancing shit was horrible. We all thought it was ridiculous hillbilly crap, and were forced to do it for a month or so once a year from 1st to 5th grade. I hope they don't still make kids do that.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:44 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a lively contradancing (yet another form of traditional American folk dancing) scene in Philly, which could easily lead you to the old-time music scene. And teach you how to schottische, if you don't know already!

Also I don't think I saw the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) mentioned -- they're a great potential source for this kind of thing.
posted by obliquicity at 10:10 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Vincele, A good place to start inquiring would be the Philadelphia Folk Song Society. They put on the festival but also do a lot of other stuff. I was at one old-time session at a PFS party in the late 90s, so it's likely there's some sort of scene. Just start asking!
posted by Miko at 8:46 PM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I played in Texas dance hall bands from 1990-95. Let me assure you CEJ was still going strong as a required standard in every dance hall and at every wedding, always followed by the Schottische.

It may have faded since then, but it persisted well into the decade. We musicians hated it. If we didn't carry a fiddler, the lead guitarist (that was me) had to play the melody. I could probably still do it stone drunk and half asleep.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:27 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, I may be misremembering this, but I believe its popularity was re-energized by the movie Urban Cowboy.

So much for "folkways."
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:29 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if we thought the crowd wasn't paying attention to the words (usually) we made up plenty of raunchy alternatives to the lyrics, including "brown-eyed ho" and "snortin' some blow."

But we did that a lot with most songs.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:32 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

(Final thought -- if the 80s and 90s resurgence of CEJ was primarily due to Urban Cowboy, how is the Rednex version any different in terms of authenticity? Real folk music, I always say, is played on electric guitars, and has been for 50 years. The other stuff is fakelore.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:34 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was recently reading stuff by an ethnomusicologist who advances the idea of "vernacular music," which is broad-based enough to take in what people think of as "folk" as well as what people think of as rock or country. In his view, music a lot of people know and like and use in their musical 'conversations' is vernacular, even when it's sometimes transmitted through movies or commercial radio.
posted by Miko at 7:37 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

My own preferred term is indeed "vernacular."
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:07 AM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

According to Wikipedia, Urban Cowboy did make "The Cotton-Eyed Joe" popular in the early 1980s.

I excluded the Rednex version because I was curious about whether people knew the song prior to 1994, and how, not because the Rednex version was inauthentic.
posted by vincele at 8:42 AM on June 29, 2009

Also, excluding the Rednex version was a way of finding out whether the song had resonance with a slightly older generation.

I knew about the Urban Cowboy connection and the idea of "invented traditions" when I asked the question. I'm well aware that is a folk song only if one defines "folk song" in a certain way. My main interest in the song was about the link to wedding receptions and PE, and the memories of generations prior to mine, like the beautifully rendered ones of paulsc.

I've been really excited by all the responses. Great thread, for my purposes.
posted by vincele at 8:50 AM on June 29, 2009

Didn't mean to imply the question was naive, just wondered about the exclusion of the Rednex version.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:05 PM on June 29, 2009

Oh I know, I was just explaining what did seem like an arbitrary specification.
posted by vincele at 11:49 PM on June 29, 2009

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