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“Where Did You Come From, Where Did You Go?” The Split Personality of Cotton-Eyed Joe” (Part II)

August 2010 No Comment

by Howard Marshall 

            The version of Cotton Eyed Joe considered the older fiddle tune is sometimes associated with Appalachian and Southern fiddling due to its appearance in 1926 on a recording by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. The celebrated north Georgia string band recorded a series of seven 78 rpm records (fourteen sides) collectively known as “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia.”[1]  The Skillet Lickers recorded from 1925 to 1931 and over a million copies were sold, with the records marketed as “Entertaining Novelty Records.” The recordings were essentially minstrel stage routines, with the band members providing comedic dialog in Southern dialect. The sketches revolve around the lads back in the mountains at their prosperous moonshine whisky operation during the wild days of Prohibition. Various chapters on the records include fiddle tunes and songs between comedy routines, often involving the local constabulary. The band included fiddlers Clayton McMitchen (who did most of the talking on the records), Lowe Stokes and Gid Tanner; Fate Norris (banjo); and Riley Puckett (guitar and vocals). Missouri fiddlers of former times listened to these 78 rpm records, and in the 1950s and 1960s they were a significant inspiration during the Folk Song Revival and rejuvenation of old-time fiddling. On one of the records, fiddler Lowe Stokes leads an abbreviated version of the older melody to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” but, less than half a minute in length and overridden by the spoken comedy routine, this recording may have had relatively little influence in spreading “Cotton-Eyed Joe” across the land. 


However, more relevant to most modern fiddlers (in Missouri at least) was a recording by the powerful and influential Nashville fiddler Tommy Jackson in the 1950s. The 1920s Skillet Lickers version and the 1950s Tommy Jackson version are different, though related, tunes from the “modern” one popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and associated with the Texas dance hall bands and the Urban Cowboy movie.[2]  


The two basic versions of the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” tune have been recorded in countless styles across the spectrum. Recordings still available include some from the heyday of Southern string band music in the 1920s (Fiddlin’ John Carson, The Skillet Lickers), 1930s and 1940s western swing (most notably the Bob Wills recordings), versions by 1950s and 1960s commercial folk singers (Burl Ives, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, Josh White), Nashville commercial fiddlers (Tommy Magness, Tommy Jackson), Appalachian revival string bands, and western swing and country music from the 1970s forward (Mickey Gilley, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus), Celtic music (The Chieftains), and modern jazz (Nina Simone).[3]  

Among my favorite versions are those by Nashville fiddler Tommy Jackson and a version by rock singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked (within a 2004 song called “Prodigal Daughter”).[4]  Jackson’s fast, hard-driving, articulate hoedown version (with electric guitar backup) from the 1950s was the most influential commercial version for Missouri fiddlers of the time. Among Missouri players who recorded the older version of  “Cotton-Eyed Joe” are “Pick” Johnson  from 

New Florence, Lonnie Robertson of Springfield, and Matt Wyatt of Independence.[5] Wyatt’s version is based on his study of classic versions by Texas breakdown fiddlers and contest champions Lewis Franklin and Vernon Solomon, which share much with the Tommy Jackson recording from Nashville. 

            Today, recordings include countless homemade videos. One can flip on a computer with Internet service and watch videos of various kinds of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” being danced by a wide range of people, from bouncy teenagers giggling in their bedrooms and dancing to rock-and-roll style “redneck” music, to western-costumed old folks stepping through the classic steps to a fiddle record. 

* This essay is part of a forthcoming book on the history of fiddling in Missouri. Please contact the author with corrections and ideas for improvement at MarshallH@Missouri.Edu 


{For any lovers of old time fiddling here are two frightening examples: - Editor}


Part Three of this article in the next edition of Fiddle Sessions  

about the author 

Dr. Howard Marshall is professor emeritus of Art History and Archaeology and directed the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Earlier in his career we was a museum director and curator and worked at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, and served as a consultant for the Smithsonian. 

 He records and produces fiddle CDs for Voyager Records and is working on a project about the history of fiddling in Missouri. Marshall has played fiddle music in various venues since 1970s and has judged contests from Washington DC to Weiser, Idaho, and San Francisco CA.    Email:  MarshallH@Missouri.Edu. Visit www.voyagerrecords.com

            [1] Reissued on CD in 1997 by Voyager Records as Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, A Corn Licker Still in Georgia (Voyager VRCD303). 

            [2] Both versions are notated in Craig Duncan, Mel Bay’s Deluxe Fiddling Method (Pacific, Mel Bay Publications, 1981), 92-93.  

            [3] An important field recording of “Cotton Eyed Joe” by North Carolina old-time fiddler Marcus Martin was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941 and was reissued on Alan Jabbour (ed.), American Fiddle Tunes (1971, Library of  Congress, reissue, Rounder Records, 2000). 

            [4] Issued on one of Jackson’s influential square dance records, Instrumentals Country Style (Mercury LP SRW 16261); Michelle Shocked, Arkansas Traveler (Camp Fire Girl CD, 2004); she sings one of the Bob Wills verses from the 1940s.   

            [5] Ray “Pick” Johnson, Tunes I Learned from My Uncle Cleve from Big Springs, Missouri (Warrensburg, Graphic Recording LP GR-1004, c. 1980); Lonnie Robertson, Square Dance Fiddlin’ (Caney Mountain CEP213); Matt Wyatt and Justin Branum, The Good-Bye Waltz (Independence, Fiddlesong Music, 2003). An unusual version is played by “Missouri style” Iowa fiddler Dwight Lamb on Hell Agin the Barn Door (as learned from Nebraska fiddler Bob Walters; a different tune from the version in Christeson’s book); a version recorded in California by Earl Collins on “That’s Earl:” Collins Family Fiddling (Pasadena, Briar Recordings LP 4204, 1975).

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