Home » Featured, Fiddle History

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

October 2010 No Comment

by Howard Marshall

Continued from the previous issue of Fiddle Sessions   

The printed music {of Cotton Eyed Joe} appears in numerous fiddle tune books. Christeson has an unusual version in his Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory, with several phrases reminiscent to the 1940s western swing song.[vi]  Ira Ford included a version in his classic 1940 book substantially about Missouri, Traditional Music of America,  Sam Bayard includes a Pennsylvania version similar to Ford’s in his Dance to the Fiddle. Ford’s and Bayard’s collected versions are similar to the 1940s Bob Wills song.[vii]  Marion Thede gives two versions in her 1967 book, one as singers sing it and the second as she wrote the notes down from Arkansas fiddler John Hendricks (who played it in chorded G tuning). Thede observes that there are “hundreds of improvisations and variations on each tune” called “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”[viii]  Both versions – the “square dance version” and the Texas-focused “two-step version” appear in modern tune books, by Craig Duncan and Gene Merritts.[ix] Stacy Phillips gives four versions (Bob Wills, Tommy Magness, Alvin Crow and Mark O’Connor, Jehile Kirkuff) in his first volume of The Phillips Collection of Traditional American Fiddle Tunes.[x]

The Couple Dance

As a couple dance, the cotton eyed Joe shares much with the Varsouvienne, the sixteen-step polka, and other dances in which couples move around the hall while working through and repeating special formations and steps. To most people the cotton-eyed Joe appears to be little different from other similar dances, but those who dance it must concentrate to get the moves right. Willie and Frances Harlan, who dance at the monthly Hallsville dances, say that the dance, which they learned some years ago from Doyce and Barbara Rand, is difficult because every fiddler who plays the music for it plays the tune differently. Dancers must pay close attention to the music and the beat. Indeed, for the Harlans and others, some fiddlers who are good square dance players are at a loss when asked to fiddle a cotton-eyed Joe. So, some dancers prefer to do the dance to “Boil the Cabbage Down,” which any fiddler can manage to saw off.[xi]

The Line Dance

While “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is a couple dance, it is also a “line dance.” Line dancing is a particular form of group dancing with steps that in many instances are not unlike the schottische. This specific line dance is strongly associated with Texas dance halls, and found everywhere else as well. Betty Casey gives instructions for the cotton-eyed Joe line dance in her book about the history of social dance in Texas, Dance Across Texas.”[xii]  Adding yet another layer to the discussion is the fact that the Texas based version of the tune is also used for the “Texas two-step” couple dance (a variation on the standard two-step or foxtrot).

The concept of line dancing has ancient and worldwide origins and comparisons can be made between American “country” line dancing and traditions in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, as well as among American Indians. “Country” line dancing is usually considered a modern evolutionary stem from colonial period contra dances, Virginia reels, and other dances and has become part of practically every “clogging” group’s repertoire. Line dancing is taught in school physical education classes, and many varieties have been choreographed and disseminated through dance organizations, books, instructional DVDs, Internet web sites, and festivals.

Couple dances such as the “Texas two step” and group line dancing became a fad in 1980 because of the attractive cast and Homeric drama of the Hollywood movie, Urban Cowboy.[xiii]  Urban Cowboy represented a pseudo-western sprout from the disco dancing craze that had been growing for several years (popularized by a movie called Saturday Night Fever in 1977, also starring John Travolta). Nashville recording artists and rock-and-roll bands jumped on the wagon, with catchy music and fashions, and helped confuse and nullify the differences in mass culture and media between popular / rock music and traditional and authentic country music. People far and wide, most particularly stylish young people with scant connection to country music or country life, began ordering Tony Lama cowboy boots from Shepler’s catalogs and dressing up in Western outfits and sauntering onto the nightclub dance floor. The “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon was a boon to the country music industry, helping prove that just about anyone can be a “cowboy.”  In dance halls and nightclubs, where young single people got their hopes up (just as in the movie), line dancing was rejuvenated. The magic ingredient with these dances is that they were concocted so that single dancers without a beau or girlfriend could dance together, in a line and facing the same direction.

Many observers were scornful of the line dance craze and considered it a sign that old-time acoustic fiddling and country music were doomed to extinction. But it can be said that the enormously popular dances and their attached music of the past fifty years – the Hokey Pokey, the Mexican Hat Dance, the Hustle, the Macarena, and the Chicken Dance, Boot Scootin’ Boogie, and Achy Breaky Heart — can be seen as signs of the times just as when, in the wild 1920s, conservative rural people took to the Charleston, Lindy Hop, and the Black Bottom and old-time fiddlers happily began playing rags and foxtrots alongside their accustomed hoedowns, hornpipes, waltzes, and jigs.

* 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

Printable Version

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.

 [vi] Christeson (1973), #27, page 20.

[vii] Ford, Traditional Music of America (op. cit.), 60; Bayard, Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife (op. cit.), with the titles “The Horse Called Rover” and “Rooster in the Strawpile,” 20-21.

[viii] Thede, The Fiddle Book (26; op. cit., 26-27). Numerous other printed versions are published in Brody, Fiddler’s Fakebook (op. cit.), 74; Craig Duncan, You Can Teach Yourself Fiddling (Pacific, Mel Bay Publications, 1990), 58; Beisswenger and McCann, Ozarks Fiddle Music (op. cit.), 175. Sheet music for violinists is available for this “classic country song” with “solid scoring and ending an accelerando [that] really propel this chart” from Alfred Music (arranged by Doug Adams).

[ix] Both basic versions are notated in Craig Duncan, Mel Bay’s Deluxe Fiddling Method (Pacific, Mel Bay Publications, 1981), 92-93, and in Gene Merritts, The Bob Wills Songbook (Ojai CA, Creative Concepts, 1992), 38-39.

[x] Phillips (Pacific MO, Mel Bay, 1994), 56-57.

[xi] John White, the featured fiddler and host at the Hallsville dances, reports that it was the Doyce and Barbara Rand who first requested that he play the tune at the monthly dances. “The version I played at the dance is a variation on the original tune. I don’t know where I heard it first but I think it is a version used by the country music line dancing crowd. The original ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ is played as a hoedown type tune. It does have words but I don’t remember what they are. Cotton eyed Joe was a negro person, I think.

I don’t know Bob Wills’ version of this tune but would expect it to be somewhat like the line dance version. Doyce and Barbra Rand requested this tune and got me started playing it for a dance they liked to do.” John White, personal communication, February 15, 2010. White considers his version “the modern version” and it differs significantly from the version published in Christeson, although it contains several familiar phrases.

[xii] Betty Casey, Dance Across Texas (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985), 72-77; an example of handbooks from popular media is Christy Lane, Christy Lane’s Complete Book of Line Dancing (Champaign IL, Human Kinetics, 1995).

[xiii] Stacy Phillips, personal communication, February 25, 2010:

The tune used in the film Urban Cowboy was based on a version by Western swing and jazz fiddler J.R. Chatwell; Chatwell’s version is transcribed as “Cotton Eyed Joe 3″ (as played by Alvin Crowe and Mark O’Conner) in Stacy Phillips, The Phillips Collection of Traditional American Fiddle Tunes (Vol. 1, Pacific MO, Mel Bay, 1994), 57.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading ... Loading ...

Comments are closed.