MMV: Cotton Eye Joe

MMVThe skulls and pumpkins have been put away, so it’s time for the Monday Music Video to get back to playing songs that aren’t quite so spooky… though some of them may be scary for entirely different reasons.

Culture has always been contagious. The Greeks influenced the Romans, and by extension all of Europe. The cross-continental trade route led to pasta going from China to Italy. The English language has a long history of wantonly stealing words from every other language in close proximity, and the United States has gleefully extended this tradition to other cultural traits. It works the other way, too, of course, especially as media has gone global. Other countries watch U.S. television and U.S. movies, and music crosses borders so often that it’s often hard to tell where one culture’s musical influence ends and another’s begins. Sometimes this results in some odd offerings…

The song “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (also spelled “Cotton Eye Joe”, as with the example above), is an old American folk song. Its exact age is unknown, but it dates back to some time before the American Civil War — sometime in the 1850s at the latest. Being such an old song, there are dozens of variations, but all of them have the same topic: A man who comes from out of nowhere, ruins the singer’s love life, and leaves as suddenly as he came. In some versions he’s stealing the singer’s girlfriend specifically; in others, he’s seducing all the womenfolk and either leading them out of town like a womanizing Pied Piper, or leaving them to hide themselves away out of shame. Sometimes Cotton-Eyed Joe is a handsome man, sometimes he’s a homely man who just somehow has some charm over women. In some versions with what would now be considered racially-charged language, Cotton-Eyed Joe is a black man; sometimes the singer and his girlfriend are black as well. In other versions, the races of the characters are unspecified. Regardless of the particulars, the singer laments that if not for Cotton-Eyed Joe, he’d have long since been married.

As a folk song, it has been covered many times, and is often played as accompaniment to dances, from reels to polkas, to dances particular to a version of the song. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that eventually a dance mix of the song would be performed by a modern group… but the particular instance is a little unusual, as you will have discovered playing the above video.

The band Rednex covered the song in 1994; the group originates in Sweden, and blended the song’s original bluegrass style with their own electronic dance style. It’s an unusual mix, to say the least. Being mixed for dance clubs, the lyrics are greatly simplified, consisting primarily of the chorus and a few basic verses.

The public had something of a love-hate relationship with the song. It went to #1 in the U.K., as well as Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Austria; it held the position for two months in all of the latter countries, and for four months in Norway. In the U.S., it peaked at #25, and made it to #93 on Billboard’s year-end chart. But it’s one of those songs that, while catchy, isn’t to everybody’s liking. AOL Radio listed it at #86 on their list of the Worst Songs Ever; Blender magazine put it at #38. And VH1 had it at #42 of their list of the “Most Awesomely Bad” Music Videos — those songs and videos that straddle the line between being cheesy fun and being terrible. Yet none of this changes the fact that the song was quite successful upon its release.

It seems that, much like the original song’s lyrics, there’s a lot of disagreement about Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe”.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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8 Responses to MMV: Cotton Eye Joe

  1. Bubbawheat says:

    I was one of those people who enjoyed the song, I even bought the CD. There were two different versions of this song, as well as two different versions of almost the exact same song, only it was called “Old Pop In An Oak”. I also remember the song I liked the best was called the Mackenzie Brothers which was basically just a spoken old west tale. I also remember it for having what is possibly the longest song title ever, called (and I had to look it up) “The Sad But True Story Of Ray Mingus, The Lumberjack Of Bulk Rock City, And His Never Slacking Stride In Exploiting The So Far Undiscovered Areas Of The Intention To Bodily Intercourse From The Opposite Species Of His Kind, During Intake Of All The Mental Condition That Could Be Derived From Fermentation”

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Gosh this song is terrible. Yet, so iconic its own way. Surprised that the “Swedish, electro pop faze” never caught on.

  3. Rincewind says:

    As a swede I’m quite proud of this awfully catchy song and yes I had the single in my music collection. 😉 bring on the banjos. Lol

  4. I hate this song something fierce. It reminds me of wedding receptions and their awful, awful music… coming up next: the Chicken Dance! Then the Electric Slide! Yes, I’m bitter. 😀

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