Cotton-Eyed Joe

For more of my random posts on random topics (PSAs, Ads, music, miscellany), click HERE:

Have you ever wondered where this strange song came from? It has always felt vaguely ominous to me. Like… I’d be uncomfortable to find myself somewhere that this song was being played. It’s a dance tune, the meaning of the lyrics are unclear, and it seems to be popular around the world to some extent, though perhaps mostly so in the United States.

The first thing I learned here is that the lyrics are not agreed upon, no one really knows what “Cotton-Eyed” means, and the original author of those lyrics remains unknown.

Cotton-Eyed Joe

by Unknown

(from an 1882 publication by Harper and Brothers)

Cotton-eyed Joe, Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so,
Fur ter take my gal erway fum me,
An’ cyar her plum ter Tennessee?
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

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 hansum 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 fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d been married long ergo.

An’ I loved dat gal wid all my heart,
An’ she swo’ fum me she’d never part;
But den wid Joe she runned away,
An’ lef’ me hyear fur 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 fur you,
I’d er married dat gal fur true.


The consensus is that this song was well-known in the American South prior to the Civil War. From wiki:

The origins of this song are unclear, although it pre-dates the 1861–1865 American Civil War. American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough (1878–1935) noted in her 1925 book On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs that several people remembered hearing the song before the war. Scarborough’s account of the song came from her sister, Mrs. George Scarborough, who learned the song from “the Negroes on a plantation in Texas, and other parts from a man in Louisiana”. The man in Louisiana knew the song from his earliest childhood and heard slaves singing it on plantations. Both the dance and the song had many variants.

A number of possible meanings of the term “cotton-eyed” have been proposed. The phrase may refer to: being drunk on moonshine, or having been blinded by drinking wood alcohol, turning the eyes milky white; a black person with very light blue eyes; miners covered in dirt with the exception of their white eyes; someone whose eyes were milky white from bacterial infections of trachoma or syphilis, cataracts or glaucoma; or the contrast of dark skin tone around white eyeballs in black people.

American publishing house Harper and Brothers published the first printed version of the song in 1882. It was heard by author Louise Clarke Pyrnelle (born 1850) on the Alabama plantation of her father when she was a child. That 1882 version was republished [shown above] in 1910.


Scarborough noted that the song seemed to be well known in the South prior to the Civil War, and parts of it had been sent in by various persons.

Over the years, many different versions of the song have been performed and/or recorded with many different versions of the lyrics (and many without lyrics). “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, on occasion referred to as “The South Texas National Anthem”, was played for minstrel-type jigs, and it has long been popular as a square dance hoedown and a couple dance polka.

A resident of Central Texas who learned the dance in Williamson County in the early 1880s described it as nothing but a heel and toe “poker” with fringes added. These fringes added to the heel and toe polka were clog steps which required skill and extraversion on the part of the dancer.

During the first half of the 20th century, the song was a widely known folk song all over English-speaking North America. One discography lists 134 recorded versions released since 1950. In more recent decades, the song has waned in popularity in most regions except some parts of the American South, where it is still a popular folk song.

Bob Wills and Adolph Hofner and his San Antonians both recorded the song, and according to music historian Bill C. Malone, Hofner’s 1941 version was the one that did the most to popularize the song. A 1967 instrumental version of the song by Al Dean inspired a new round dance polka for couples.

The dance remained popular in Texas in the 1970s. A circle dance called “Cotton-Eyed Joe” can be found in the 1975 edition of Encyclopedia of Social Dance. The men stand on the inside of a circle facing out, and the women stand on the outside facing in; both circles follow a sequence of kick steps and struts.

The spoke line version gained popularity, not only in Texas but also across the United States and overseas in the 1980s. A Western “craze” followed the 1980 release of Urban Cowboy. In Merle Haggard‘s “Texas Fiddle Song” (1981), the final verse makes reference to the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and features the melody of both the Bob Wills and Al Dean versions. “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and its continued popularity in Texas were referred to in the lyrics to Alabama‘s 1984 song “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas“.

What have we learned? This song has been heard continuously in the United States for a couple centuries, with a winding and often racist history. What should be the fate of a song that was almost certainly born from the creativity of slaves on plantations, was subsequently played in minstrel shows, then evolved without a lot of controversy into a country music standard, and over time became picked up internationally? For most of that time, fans have been singing and dancing to it without knowing what “Cotton-Eyed” even means.

The song is strangely enduring. Perhaps all that is relevant to the answer of “why?” is that it has a catchy and dance-friendly tune. Or maybe it’s that but for Joe running away with his girl, the singer would have married her. There is something timeless and universal in a story of thwarted love.

I’ve included some covers of the song below, demonstrating its evolution over time.

Rufus Wainwright feat. Chaka Khan (2023)

From the Swedish band Rednex (1994) – this is the version you’re likely to hear today in popular culture:

From Texas music legend Bob Wills, in 1947:

The earliest known recording of the song is from Fiddlin’ John Carson, in the 1920s:

Knowing a little bit more about this song, I’m still a little weirded out by it. More accurately, I think I’m weirded out by the idea of enjoying it. Setting aside its history, which I acknowledge is a large thing to do, there’s something inauthentic (and to me, off-putting) about Cotton-Eyed Joe. The title is incomprehensible. The dance beat does not match up with the forlorn lyrics. I maintain that if I ever find myself some place where this song is being performed and enjoyed unironically, I’m getting out of there.

Leave a Reply