Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nina Simone - "Cotton-Eyed Joe" & Several Text Examples Of "Cotton Eyed Joe"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents song lyrics and two sound file examples of "Cotton Eyed Joe" as sung by Nina Simone. This post also includes information & comments about the song "Cotton Eyed Joe" as well as theories about the meaning of "cotton-eyed". In addition, this post includes text examples of four other versions of "Cotton-Eyed Joe".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unknown composers of "Cotton Eyed Joe". Thanks also to the collectors of this song and thanks to Nina Simone for her renditions of this song. Thanks to the publishers of these sound files on YouTube and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

"Cotton-Eyed Joe" is a popular American country song known at various times throughout the United States and Canada, although today it is most commonly associated with the American South. In the Roud index of folksongs it is number 942...

The origins of this song are unclear, although it pre-dates the 1861–1865 American Civil War.[1] American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough (1878–1935) noted in her 1925 book On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs, that several people remember hearing the song before the war and her sister, Mrs. George Scarborough, learned the song from a man who had known the song during his earliest childhood from slaves singing it on plantations in Louisiana.[2] Both the dance and the song had as many variants as the old old folk song that it is.[3] American publishing house Harper and Brothers published a version in 1882, heard by author Louise Clarke Pyrnelle (born 1850) on the Alabama plantation of her father when she was a child,[4] that was later republished in 1910:[5]

...A list of the possible meanings of the term "cotton-eyed" that have been proposed includes: to be drunk on moonshine, or to have been blinded by drinking wood alcohol, turning the eyes milky white; a black person with very light blue eyes; someone whose eyes were milky white from bacterial infections of Trachoma or syphilis, cataracts or glaucoma; and the contrast of dark skin tone around white eyeballs in black people.
This Wikipedia page includes information about Country music versions of "Cotton Eyed Joe" song and "Cotton Eyed Joe" country music line dance. That page also includes information about the award winning 1994 version of the song recorded by the Swedish band Rednex as "Cotton Eye Joe".

These examples are presented in chronological order based on their posting date on YouTube, with the oldest example given first.

Example #1: Nina Simone - "Cotton Eyed Joe"

pmtiny Uploaded on Dec 23, 2007

Short, Sweet, and soulful. How can you not feel her emotions through her voice.

Example #2: Nina Simone Cotton Eyed Joe

Nathan Sanders, Uploaded on Jan 22, 2011
This tune is slightly different from the one used in the recording given as Example #1 in this post.

(as sung by Nina Simone)

Where do you come from?
Where do you go?
Where do you come from,
My cotton-eyed Joe?

Well, I come for to see you.
And I come for to sing.
And I come for to show you
My diamond ring.

Where do you come from?
And where do you go?
Where do you come from
My cotton eyed Joe?

If it hadn't been for
If It hadn’t been for
Ole cotton eye Joe
Well I'da been married
A long time ago
This is my transcription of the embedded sound files given as Example #1 of this post. The lyrics for Example #2 are very similar. The recording given as Example #1 is the same as the recording that is featured on this YouTube video "Nina Simone -- At Town Hall (1959)". Click that link for information about that performance.
The recording presented in entitled "N. Simone - Cotton Eyed Joe" appears to be the same as the Nina Simone At Town Hall recording. However, in his or her summary statement the publisher of that YouTube sound file, AVIDAlimf, provides these very different lyrics for the song "Cotton Eyed Joe":
If it hadn't been for cotton-eye joe
I'd been married long time ago
Where did you come from. Where did you go?
Where did you come from cotton-eye joe?


He came to town like a midwinter storm
He rode through the fields so
Handsome and strong
His eyes was his tools and his smile was his gun
But all he had come for was having some fun

(repeat intro)

He brought disaster wherever he went
The hearts of the girls was to hell broken sent
They all ran away so nobody would know
And left only men cause of cotton-eye joe

(repeat intro)
It should be noted that AVIDAlimf didn't indicate that those were the lyrics that Nina Simone was singing in that recording. Since those are clearly not the words that Nina Simone sang, it's probable that AVIDAlimf's intention was to share another version of the "Cotton Eyed Joe".

The lyrics that are found in that summary - which I'll henceforth refer to as "the Avida version of "Cotton Eyed Joe" after the partial name of that YouTube publisher - are also found on and, and possibly more websites. It seems very likely that these Avida lyrics for "Cotton Eyed Joe" were copied from one site and then reposted on subsequent sites. I'm not sure if that YouTube sound file was the first online site to publish those lyric and I've no idea where those lyrics are from.

AVIDAlimf described the lyrics that he or she posted as "traditional". I'm not sure if that version is really traditional. A number of versions of "Cotton Eyed Joe" were published in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Some of those early examples of the song "Cotton-Eyed Joe" contain what is now commonly known as the fully spelled out "n word" and other "black-face minstrelsy" content. Click "Cotton-eyed Joe-true story/composite?" for several of those examples of "Cotton Eyed Joe".

Although those versions of "Cotton Eyed Joe" which are included in the above cited Mudcat folk music discussion thread have different lyrics, they all have the same structure - a series of two lined rhyming verses (couplets) whose content is usually unrelated to each other (The verses aren't necessarily in consecutive order and don't tell a continual story). That description is in contrast to the description of European ballads. It seems to me that the Avida version of "Cotton Eyed Joe" was composed like a European ballad while the Nina Simone's version of "Cotton Eyed Joe" is an adaptation of some of the (non-minstrelsy) 19th century/early 20th century African American versions of that song.

Three text examples of "Cotton Eyed Joe" are found below with comments from the bloggers who shared them on that Mudcat forum. Warning: What is called the "n word" is fully spelled out in some of the examples of "Cotton Eyed Joe" that appear on that Mudcat forum thread. Although one version of that song that is included in this post contains the n word, because of the offensive nature of that word, I haven't fully spelled it out.

From "Cotton-eyed Joe-true story/composite?"
These examples are posted with excerpts of the blogger's comments in the order that they were posted on that Mudcat forum. This placement order isn't meant to imply anything about which version is older than the other.

Example #1: From: balladeer, Date: 07 Sep 99 - 12:25 PM
"...My lyric is quite common. I learned it from Doug Bush, a man of colour, circa 1960. Quite possibly he learned it from Josh White or Nina Simone. I may have embellished such embellishments as Doug had already made....


Where do you come from
And where do you go?
Where do you come from
My cotton-eyed Joe?

I come for to see you
And I come for to sing
I come for to show you
My diamond ring.

Got a hole in my pocket
Got a nail in my shoe.
I've been oh so lonesome
Since you told me we're through.

If it hadn't of been for
Cotton-eyed Joe
I'd a-been married
A long time ago.

Regards, Balladeer"

Example #2: Arkie, Date: 06 Sep 99 - 11:31 PM
"Though I have known a version of this song forever, and have seen it in practically every paperback song collection, I really fell in love with a version sung by a version sung by Stone County Arkansas native Albert Sands. Albert was a practical nurse at the local hospital and often worked the night shift. During my single days, my house was on the hill above Albert's and he would stop in on his way home for a visit and a sip of Jack Daniels. I asked him to sing the song every chance I had. He did it in a slow, plaintive style that I never mastered but did try to emulate when I sang the piece.

Here are some of the verses, he sang.

Want to go to meeting, but I couldn't go,
Had to stay home with Cotton Eyed Joe.

Had not a been for Cotton Eyed Joe,
I'd a been married along time ago.

Honey, will your dog bite? No, chile, no.
Wolf bit his biter off a long time ago.

Honey, will your hen peck? No, chile, no.
Done pulled the pecker off a long time ago.

Cornstalk fiddle and a peavine bow,
Play a little tune called Cotton Eyed Joe."

Example #3: raredance, Date: 08 Sep 99 - 09:06 PM
"The Penguin Book of American Folk songs edited by Alan Lomax has a 2-verse version of Cotton-eyed Joe in the "lullaby" section. It has the "Where did you come from..." verse and the "Come for to see you, come for to sing, come for to show you my diamond ring." In a very brief explanatory note, Lomax adds: "In Southern parlance a man is 'cotton-eyed' if his irises are milky-coloured. Cotton-Eye Joe, the obscure hero of a number of Negro dancing tunes and fiddler's airs, here turns up in one of the loveliest of Southern mountain lullabies, found by Margaret Valliant in the hills of Tennessee."

In a different vein American Ballads and Folksongs by John and Alan Lomax contains a "Cotton-Eyed Joe" that they describe as a square dance song or breakdown. The lyrics are:

If it had not-a been for Cotton-eyed Joe,
I'd 'a' been married forty years ago.

Cornstalk fiddle and cornstalk bow,
I'm gwine to beat hell out-a Cotton-eyed Joe.

Gwine to go shootin' my forty-fo',
Won't be a ni&&&r* in a mile or mo'.

Hain't seen ol' Joe since way last fall,
Say he's been sold down to Guines Hall.

Great long line and little short pole,
I'm on my way to the crawfish hole.

Oh, it makes dem ladies love me so,
W'en I come roun' a-pickin' Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Hol' my fiddle an' hol' my bow,
Whilst I knock ol' Cotton-Eyed Joe.

Oh, law, ladies, pity my case,
For I's got a jawbone in my face.

O Lawd, O Lawd, come pity my case,
For I'm gettin' old an' wrinkled in de face."

rich r
*”the n word” was fully spelled out in these lyrics.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Hello Azizi, thank you so much for posting these two beautiful renditions of Cotton Eyed Joe by Nina Simone. They are both exquisite. It's made my day.

    1. Thanks Lynsey for your comment.

      It's good to know that these posts are being read.

      And thanks so much for introducing me to the word "Arohanui". I looked it up and found out its meaning from this page
      "Arohanui is a Maori word and, as with many Polynesian words, there is no direct meaning or translation into English. The literal meaning is "BIG LOVE"

      It appears to me that this "Arohanui" (or big love) can be beyond a person, beyond a family and even a community or race. It could be all encompassing of the earth; it's people, animals, plants, our oceans and our universe plus everything within and beyond. Possibly interrelationships between all that is.... so that gets awe inspiring."...
      That's great and a fitting tribute on a Nina Simone post!!

    2. Hello again Azizi, yes, it is a beautiful word, and though I am not a speaker of the Maori language, when I use the word 'arohanui' that is how it seems to me - a word that ripples out beyond all our imagined boundaries.

      I'm involved with a choir and musical community based in Wellington, N.Z. that has a strong focus on music with African origins with singing, dancing, drums, marimba & mbira and other instruments. (

      It was researching the work song 'Long Gone' that led me to your blog. Thank you again Azizi for your care and dedication in making available this remarkable resource, which I have shared with others. It's a treasure-house.

      More arohanui,

    3. You're welcome, Lynsey.

      I really appreciate your comments. Sometimes I'm unsure if anyone reads these posts so it means a lot to me to "hear" from readers.

      Here's the link to that exciting African program in Wellington, NZ :


    4. Well, I'm reading and listening here in California in 2018, so you know your words last over time!

    5. Thanks for your comment, Gypsy.

      It's true that the words to many great songs last a long long time, but what some of those words (like "cotton eyed") mean are often open to question.