We all know the song. It played at every middle school dance we ever attended, and honestly it still plays at most weddings. “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is a foot stomping, jump-up-and-down, goofy song that makes us all get out of our chairs and onto the dance floor.
Turns out, the character the classic 90s song is about actually originated a long time ago. He even predates the American Civil War! Cotton-eyed Joe has had many versions over the last century, but one thing is always the same: “If it hadn’t been for Cotton-eyed Joe, I’d been married long time ago.”
The verses had changed over the years, but the general story seemed to always stay the same. Joe is always a villain-type character who steals the girlfriend of the singer. He steals them away and brings them to Tennessee in a lot of the versions, leaving the singer alone and unmarried.
There are a lot of theories about what “Cotton-Eyed” really means, and while it’s impossible to know for sure it’s interesting to see what people think…
The theories surrounding “Cotton-Eyed Joe” are pretty intense. Some are more plausible than others, but here are the reigning theories about they mean by “Cotton-Eyed”.
Drunk On Moonshine
One theory is that Joe was a heavy drinker. Moonshine has the potential to blind people, so people suspect that his eyes were turned a milky white after being blinded by alcohol.
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Prominent Whites Of The Eyes
According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the term just described someone who has very prominently white eyes. So it’s possible that the original Joe just had either really lightly colored eyes or a smaller iris.
It is possible that whoever Cotton-eyed Joe was actually had a medical condition that caused his eyes to turn white. Glaucoma or cataracts will cause this symptom, as does one other condition that leads into another theory, syphilis.
Sexually Transmitted Infection
Urban legends say that “Cotton-Eyed Joe” is actually about a man with an STI who steals his girlfriend. They claim the cotton is supposed to represent a cotton swab testing for infection, but honestly, given that this song originated so long ago this seems unlikely.