Big Lead Sports Bar


AJ: The Ballad of Cotton Eyed Joe

by A.J.
from 105.9 The X

October 15, 2000 – The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing host to the division rival Cincinnati Bengals in what would be the last meeting between these two teams at Three Rivers Stadium. While blocking on a running play in the 4th quarter, Steelers fullback Jon Witman breaks his leg. As he lies riving in pain on the hard Three Rivers turf, a decision had to be made in a room high above the playing field.

In the sound booth of most NFL stadiums, the home team employs what is called an in-game entertainment team. In its simplest form, this team usually consists of an A.V guy who presses the buttons and plays the music and one or more spotters to help the A.V. guy with situational elements. For instance, say the Steelers defense has the opposing team in a 3rd and 19 situation. The sound crew might crank up the “DEE-FENSE” chant to alert Tyrone Carter that it is now the opportune time to miss a tackle and allow a first down.

I’d like to imagine that when Jon Witman went down on that fall day back in 2000, the conversation between the spotter and the A.V. guy went something like this:

Spotter: “Uh oh… looks like our white guy got hurt.”
A.V Guy: “Mark Bruener is injured?”
Spotter: “No… the other one. Better get ready to kill some time.”

Personally, I couldn’t imagine a worse situation to be in if I were Jon Witman. Here he was coming off of the 1999 season where the critics placed much of the blame of an anemic Pittsburgh rushing attack squarely on his shoulders. Waiting in the wings to take his roster spot was a young rookie named Dan Kreider. Now, here he was lying flat on his back with a season ending injury. How could things possibly get worse?

Cue: “Cotton Eyed Joe”

Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. Apparently, the best that our friends running the sound system could come up with to lift the spirits of the crowd while they brought in the stretcher, was the musical gem called “Cotton Eyed Joe”. Nothing says “get well soon” like a techno dance remix that’s heavy on the fiddle.

The Steelers aren’t the only local team guilty of going to the Cotton-Eyed well. The loud speakers at both PNC Park and Mellon Arena are known to crank up this hillbilly hymn and nothing ruins my game-going experience faster. My disdain for this turd-burger of a song probably stems from a former college roommate who had horrible taste in music and a penchant for playing the worst songs from his collection of Jock Jams CDs on repeat. Not only was “Cotton Eye Joe” a dorm room favorite of his, but it’s been a favorite of stadium and arena sound systems nationwide for over a decade. I could never figure out the appeal as “Cotton Eye Joe” is simply painful to my ears, but I suppose there is no accounting for what drives the average sports fan to get up and dance (although here’s a hint, it costs approximately 8 bucks a cup).

The dance version of “Cotton Eye Joe” was recorded in 1994 by a Swedish group called Rednex. These Swedes thought it would be funny to mix house music with country music, but unfortunately the rest of the world didn’t get the joke. Instead, the song became an international hit. While I’ve never been much of a country music fan, I have a general rule that fiddle music should always be performed by guys named Toby, Charlie, Hank, or Billy Ray… not Sven or Janne. At the end of the day white trash always wins over eurotrash in my iPod, but this song somehow managed to strike a nerve and become a timeless arena anthem. Leading to random acts of douche-baggery such as this:

Hey… Stan Terlecki called… he wants his socks back.

Most people are unaware that the song “Cotton Eye Joe” is actually a traditional American folk song that is hundreds of years old. Let’s take a look at the lyrics in the Rednex version. Essentially, it is a chorus that is repeated over and over again:

If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I'd been married long time ago
Where did you come from?
Where did you go?
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe?

From these lyrics we can gather that Cotton-Eye Joe is responsible for breaking up a marriage, and then apparently disappearing. Probably a smart move on Joe’s part, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Who is Joe? Where is he from? What happened with the wedding? And most importantly, where did he go? The song seems pretty confusing.

Since these lyrics date back about 200 years and the song has roots in the South, we can assume that the slave trade business was alive and well when the song was written. Cotton-eyed was a term from that era used to describe a blue-eyed black man. Slaves were sometimes referred to as Joes. So, one could assume that Cotton-Eye Joe was a blue-eyed slave. Given this information, the Rednex song starts to become questionable, but still remains relatively harmless. Realistically, cotton-eyed has also been used to describe a person with cataracts and maybe the guy’s name really was Joe. However, it is the lyrics that the Rednex decided to leave out of their version that make things genuinely creepy. Keeping in mind that the dance version simply repeats the chorus over and over, let’s take a look at some of the lyrics in the verses that have seemingly been forgotten about.

The truth about old folk songs is that many were never well documented. Instead, they were performed over the years and handed down through generations of singers. Each new performer would add lyrics and change up the verses sort of like a musical version of the telephone game. However, this particular version of “Cotton Eye Joe” shows up frequently in old recordings and song books. Here is the first verse of the song:

Way back yonder a long time ago
Daddy had a man called Cotton-eyed Joe
Blew into town on a travelin' show
Nobody danced like the Cotton-eyed Joe.

Well, that helps to clear things up a little. Looks like Daddy owned Cotton Eye Joe, and he acquired him as an entertainer when a traveling show came to town. Joe could really cut a rug. Guess this answers the question about where Joe came from.

Whenever there's a dance
All the women want to go
And they all want to dance with Cotton-Eyed Joe

Mama's at the window
Mama's at the door
She can't see nothin' but the Cotton-Eyed Joe

It looks like Joe was quite the ladies man, and mama appeared to be smitten with him. Perhaps this helps to explain why our singer is no longer married? The lyrics aren’t clear, but it appears she may have even tried to run off with Joe. But what happened to him?

Daddy held the fiddle,
He held the bow
He beat the hell out of Cotton-eyed Joe

Daddy won't say
But I think he know
Whatever happened to Cotton-eyed Joe !

Hmmm. Not exactly a happy ending for our beloved Joe.

In review; Joe, our blue eyed dancer, is described using a racial epithet for the majority of the song. He is then sold to a slave owner who makes him dance to keep the women entertained. One woman apparently likes Joe a little too much and this ticks Daddy off. Thus, he allegedly beats Joe to death with his fiddle bow.

Yep, this is the perfect song to fire up the crowd. I’m somewhat surprised that you don’t hear this played more often at NASCAR races. Perhaps that angry group of citizens from the Hill District will use this as ammunition against the new arena, but then a resident of the Hill District would actually have to attend a hockey game to hear the offending ditty.

History of the lyrics aside, we’ll probably never see “Cotton Eye Joe” go away. It’s safe to assume that the Swedish ravers who resurrected this song weren’t hip to its origins. Maybe it’s just best that the next time you’ve swilled a few too many Irons at the game and get the urge to boot scoot when they fire up that techno-fiddle, think for a minute about our friend Joe and the sacrifice that he made. Or, just think about who you might be upsetting…


1/22/2008: Pittsburgh's Rocky Past: A look back at four of his all time favorite now-defunct places to suffer permanent hearing loss in Pittsburgh


GMoney said...

Fantastic...I hate that f'n song.

Unknown said...

Awesome post, you're a very talented writer and a credit to Mondesi's House!

Unknown said...

The Yankees employee Cotton-eyed Joey in the "control" room. This combined with YMCA makes for the gayest theme songs of any MLB team. Come Hank, make some changes.

Anonymous said...

Good idea, but the post was way too long. Yes, the song sucks. Move on. out there???

Keith Mitchell said...

I hate when anyone is left to "rive" in pain.

The word is "writhe", or "writhing" in this case. If you're going to drag on far too long about an idiotic song no one cares about, at least learn to spell.