First Worsts: How “Cotton Eye Joe” Turned Bar Mitzvahs Into Zombie Hoedowns


This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: Rednex, “Cotton Eye Joe.”
THE YEAR: 1994.
THE REASONS: Mass hysteria, that knee-swapping dance.

Suburban New Jersey, the ’98 Bar/Bat Mitzvah season. Years after the baffling international success of their Eurotrash-meets-bluegrass version of “Cotton Eye Joe,” the Swedish band Rednex—themselves no more than the hideous Frankenstein hybrid of wildly opposed pop genres, sewn together by a soulless producer with no regard for the sanctity of human ears—are a goddamn staple of the scene. There is no avoiding their greased version of “Cotton Eye Joe”; it’s exactly the kind of garbage the mitzvah’d could stipulate that the DJ not spin, only to have the guy smoke a joint on his break and come back thinking “I know what’ll get these kids really hyped.”

Rednex, “Cotton Eye Joe”

Worst part was: he would’ve been right. A barren dance floor filled to moshing levels by the time that clipped, faux-Appalachian, slightly reverbed voice had a beat under it. Maybe every northeastern middle-class thirteen-year-old secretly longs for hoedowns. Maybe the goofy-ass splicing of house rhythms with good-ol’-boy fiddle presaged the terrible gimmick mashups we’d pass around in our college years. Maybe this was the one track that allowed us to bypass completely any pubescent sexual tension, promoting as it did the attempts at knee-swapping, knee-slapping, and mealy-mouthed yells of that one identifiable lyric: “Where did you come from, where did you go?/ Where did you come from, Cotton Eye Joe?”

Who was Cotton Eye Joe? Who the fuck cared? What was this existential horseshit? Why, in a rented ballroom and uncomfortable dress shoes, would a hundred tweens obsessed with the pursuit of cool be willing to sacrifice that hard-won aloofness to waggle their limbs in classist thrall to their half-formed stereotypes of the rural south? God, it was embarrassing, the way professional party planners could turn you on and off like that, to the palpable delight and relief of older relatives and well-wishers: Oh look, they’re finally loosening up and having some fun.

Except we were already dead, lurching through a scripted moment of abandon. Slow ballads and rap songs presented complexity in their choices—whether to approach a girl or try out the breakdancing move you’d perfected on the kitchen linoleum at home—whereas these prepackaged freakouts tapped into the limbic system directly, triggering autonomic responses it would take us a decade to unlearn. If “The Macerena” made us all into marionettes, “Cotton Eye Joe” had us behaving like finger puppets.

Dreadful, tinny and cynically slick, like a Girl Talk outtake. The vocals seem pulled from a Tim & Eric sketch. The brief banjo solo is a thousand times worse than I remember—it deserves to be the stand-alone jingle for a BBQ restaurant whose cornbread gives you diarrhea. Also there’s a small infinity of remixes: abuse yourself with the “Overworked Mix,” “Madcow Instrumental” or “Extended Version,” which, if not quite long enough for your tastes, can be supplemented with Aquagen’s 2003 remix, to clock in at nearly eight minutes. For all that it’s saturated in so-called styles, “Cotton Eye Joe” remains pathetically thin and limp, host to a breathtaking array of minor annoyances that can never coalesce into something worthy of the loathing they inspire. When all is said and done, it’s a song you don’t even have the time to hate.