It’s a fool’s game trying to predict which songs will truly endure. The biggest pop hits of 1994 were Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” All-4-One’s cover of John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” Those songs were long ago shuffled off to recurrent status on Adult Contemporary stations; if they turn up at all in the larger popular culture, it’s either as nostalgia porn or an ironic signifier.
Then there’s Rednex, the Swedish techno-country outfit who dropped “Cotton Eye Joe,” the lead single from their album Sex & Violins, onto unsuspecting listeners on August 12, 1994. And, somehow, that single still manages to have a footprint that other hits of its era do not.
As anyone who has attended a wedding reception in the South or any sporting event from a minor-league baseball double-header to an NCAA basketball game can attest, “Cotton Eye Joe” is anything but a cultural relic: To this day, drunks still dance to it and sports fans still stomp and cheer to it.
But do people actually like “Cotton Eye Joe?”
Outside of the United States, the answer to that question seems to be yes. The single has been certified at a “gold” level or better in eight different European countries, with sales of over 1M copies in Germany alone. Moreover, Rednex is still an active touring outfit in Europe. Though they’ve transformed from a single band into a rotating performing collective with upwards of twenty different members– all of whom dress in the same problematic rural poverty drag that the 1994 version of Rednex wore– they continue to release new music and to draw audiences to their live gigs.
For Americans, it’s less clear. “Cotton Eye Joe” was barely a hit in the U.S., peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and at #5 on Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart. The single’s music video aired in moderate to heavy rotation on MTV for a short period, but, despite its ties to country music, there’s no indication that it was ever added at either CMT or TNN at the time. Eurodisco music had a brief moment in the mid-90s, with singles like Real McCoy’s “Another Night,” La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” and “Sweet Dreams,” and Nikki French’s cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” all turning into sizable hits at pop radio, but “Cotton Eye Joe” was viewed as a novelty one-off. The single routinely crops up on internet listicles and YouTube countdowns of the “worst songs ever,” and it even inspired an Urban Dictionary entry, positing that the song is really about a urethral swab for an STI screening.
Yet, a quarter century later, American audiences still seem to know it and embrace it, at least within the contexts in which it’s most likely to turn up. Even compared to another novelty dance single that was a far bigger hit– Los Del Rio’s “Macarena”– “Cotton Eye Joe” has endured.
That “Cotton Eye Joe” is a cover of an American folk song (most commonly titled “Cotton Eyed Joe”) could account for some of its staying power: The song itself is widely known in a variety of other forms, with versions by The Moody Brothers and The Chieftans (featuring Ricky Skaggs) even earning Grammy nominations as recently as 1992.
It’s also worth considering whether “Cotton Eye Joe” has had an impact on the shifting aesthetics of the country genre over time. As friend-of-the-blog Grady Smith clearly outlined, contemporary country production relies heavily on recycled drum loops that are not at all far removed from the four-on-the-floor beat created on Rednex’s mixing board. In terms of foregrounding a beat, there’s a clear path from Rednex to Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy).” The fiddle and banjo figures that crop up in the single’s production have also been electronically manipulated, but do they sound any different than the banjo on the last four years’ worth of Keith Urban singles? The single’s wordless bridge even foreshadows the “millennial whoop” by a good twenty years.
That isn’t to say that “Cotton Eye Joe” has been a purposeful influence on contemporary country music, but that the malleable approach to genre that Rednex passed off as a novelty in 1994 doesn’t necessarily sound different from what country radio has been playing throughout much of the last decade. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that “Cotton Eye Joe” has far more meaningful country signifiers– again, the fiddle and banjo are quite prominent in its mix– than do recent hits by Thomas Rhett or Kelsea Ballerini, in addition to having much clearer ties to the American folk tradition.
Much of the discussion about country music in 2019 has centered around gatekeeping and to what extent, if any, a single like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” or Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” perhaps the most obvious analog to “Cotton Eye Joe” to date, belong on the country charts. Had the internet been around in 1994, it’s easy to envision a similar discussion would have emerged about “Cotton Eye Joe,” and perhaps that discussion would have allowed for less divisive rhetoric about “Old Town Road” today.
The most common argument in favor of contemporary country is that the genre must evolve to stay relevant. Ultimately, it’s worthwhile to consider the course of that evolution: Does something like “Cotton Eye Joe,” which has clear and significant ties to country music’s peculiar idioms in ways that, say, Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her” does not, actually point the way forward? It’s a single that is purposefully tied to traditional country music but is no less purposefully tied to the dance music of its era. While Rednex did not treat that idea with respect– what with the fake teeth and the tattered gingham and the mechanical bulls and all of the rest of their shtick– other artists have made efforts to incorporate influences from other contemporary genres into country music, and vice versa.
Moreso than an overserved relative at a wedding or an interstitial in the third inning as the away team takes the field, the legacy of “Cotton Eye Joe” is that cross-genre hybridization doesn’t have to result in country music that jettisons country signifiers altogether.