Cotton Eye Joe – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Cotton Eye Joe is a song that has been around for more than 200 years. While most people may not have heard of it, many that have may be unclear on its meaning. If you are curious about cotton eye Joe and what it means, you are in the right place. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The exact meaning of cotton eye Joe is unclear and will be determined by who answers the question. Some say that the phrase refers to a person who is drunk on the effects of moonshine, while others have a different theory. Another common meaning that is attributed to the term is the racist depiction of the contrast between dark black skin and shiny white eyes. An even further far-fetched meaning is that cotton eye Joe is a man who suffered from cataracts, turning his eyes a milky color.

The song has very racist overtones and questionable content. The modern version has been cleaned up but doesn’t detract much from the original message of the antebellum South. The main meaning of the song is that a girl ran off with another man, supposedly a black man.

Example Usage of Cotton Eye Joe

“Cotton Eye Joe may be an old folk song, but it is one that has no place in modern history”.

“Enjoying a song like Cotton Eye Joe is a red flag that lets people know about your morals and standards”.

“A lot of songs have been around since before the Civil War, Cotton Eye Joe happens to be one of them”.

“No one really knows who penned Cotton eye Joe, but their family is sure glad it is lost to history”.

Origin of Cotton Eye Joe

Cotton Eye Joe is believed to have been written sometime in the early 1800s. It was most certainly written before the Civil War. Though its modern version has been redone by the popular country band Rednex, its history is much darker and best left to the annuls of time. The song is a folk song that was written detailing a black man who came into town to sleep with a white woman. As black people were considered cattle, or cotton pickers at the time, the term cotton-eyed Joe was used to refer to the topic of the song. Further, into the song, the slighted husband finds cotton-eye Joe and murders him for his transgressions.

As is with most things from the antebellum South, the folk song was passed along via hymnal traditions. The original author is unknown, but the message is clear. It has been covered and adapted many times since its creation 200 years ago, though most adaptations retain the original sentiment. The tune celebrates racist stereotypes about enslaved people while also glorifying and encouraging their murder.

Phrases Similar to Cotton Eye Joe

  • Nigger
  • Tar Baby
  • Negro
  • Coolie
  • Dago
  • Cotton picker
  • Gook

Phrases Opposite to Cotton Eye Joe

  • Cracker
  • Honkey
  • Gringo
  • Jock
  • Grout

What is the Correct Saying?

  • The proper saying is – Cotton Eye Joe.

Ways People May Incorrectly Say Cotton Eye Joe

Some ways that Cotton Eye Joe is used incorrectly are:

  • If Cotton Eye Joe were around today, things would not be so rowdy.
  • We think that having Cotton Eye Joe in town would really make things lively.
  • I wonder if Cotton Eye Joe is a good song to play for the kindergarten class.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Cotton Eye Joe

Some ways that Cotton Eye Joe is used correctly are:

  • The song Cotton Eye Joe is perhaps one of the best examples of double standards regarding racism.
  • Cotton Eye Joe is a prime example of why critical race theory is so important in schools.
  • The fact that Cotton Eye Joe has been remade time and again without being called out is proof that white privilege is out of control.

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