The Allmusic blog has an appreciation of sorts for the enduring fiddle-tune cotton-eyed joe. Read it here. The article states: “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.” Wow! Never heard that before, but it’s a darn good story. Somehow more plausible to me is the claim that “…Cotton-Eyed Joe isnâ€™t a person at all but the name of a specific non-partner spoke-line dance and that one doesnâ€™t meet Cotton-Eyed Joe, one does the Cotton-Eyed Joe.” In this case, the lines “Where did you come from / where did you go?” could quite literally refer to a dance partner.
Who do I think Cotton-Eyed Joe might have been/might still be?
- a Joe with unusually white eyes, of course
- a Joe with starry eyes
- a Joe who had picked cotton so long that his hands were cut and his eyes were bleary
- a Joe hardened from a hard-scrabble existence, yet nevertheless has soft, kind eyes
One aspect of the lyrics that I enjoy is the idea that Cotton-Eyed Joe steals your love away. And as in so many old-time tunes, stealing your love could either mean stealing your heart or it could mean stealing the person who you love or, somehow, both. “I’d a been married a long time ago if it hadn’t a been for Cotton-Eyed Joe.”