The fiddle-heavy song “Cotton Eyed Joe” and its accompanying dance have roots in American culture and history. The current versions of the song are culminations of the many forms that have circulated over the years. The Cotton Eyed Joe dance experienced a similar evolution over the many decades (and even centuries) of its popularity.
The song “Cotton Eyed Joe” is an American folk song that dates back to before the Civil War, but, like many folk songs, its specific origins are unknown. In the early 1900s, John Avery Lomax wrote down the lyrics for the first (known) time. Lomax only wrote down one version of the song––each region, from Texas to Mississippi, has its own variation. Many artists have recorded different versions of the song over the years. The dance to “Cotton Eyed Joe” also has several incarnations, including a partnered circle dance and a line dance.
In 1980, the movie “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta turned country-western dance into a fad. Thus, the Cotton Eyed Joe dance thrived in popular culture. In 1980, Joe Edwards of the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" wrote, “it was the year to get decked out in fancy western clothes, slide into a shiny pickup truck, zip down to a country-western night-club and swing to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
In 1992, the Rednex, a Swedish Euro-dance band, released a techno version of the American folk song. The song charted at number eight in April 1995, and it reached number one in the United Kingdom. The Rednex popularized the single line dance in popular venues like clubs and school dances. Though there are many versions of the line dance, the most popular involves kicks and stomps. Many DJs added the song to their repertoire to join the likes of other interactive songs like "YMCA" and "The Macarena."
The Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe” plays at many sporting events, particularly during the 7th Inning stretch at Texas Rangers games. Many European sporting events also feature the song, despite the song’s American origins.
In April 2008, the ensemble of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" performed a group country-western dance to“Cotton Eyed Joe.”