is like Shakespeare.
At most of the weddings I go to, at some point the DJ puts on “Cotton-Eye Joe” and everybody goes out on the dance floor to hop on one foot at a time. Like the (dramatically inferior) cha-cha slide, the song has a magnetic effect, making it almost impossible to stay off the dance floor: pure manic energy composed of very old and very new-sounding musical styles.
No one knows exactly who Cotton-Eyed Joe was, but Americans have been dancing to the song since at least 1875, and the earliest recording was in 1927. (It’s spelled both Cotton-Eye and Cotton-Eyed, but Cotton-Eyed makes more sense to me). It’s clear that Cotton-Eyed Joe stole someone’s lover (or fiancée?), and the narrator deeply regrets this event: “if it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eyed Joe, I been married a long time ago.” Nina Simone has a beautiful rendition of the song from 1959 in which she is, with some regret, letting Cotton-Eyed Joe know that she is now marrying another man: a bit of an upset.
What made Cotton-Eyed Joe such a strong contender for or with the narrator’s love is unclear, and what “cotton-eyed” means is also unclear. It’s been proposed that the song not be played because of its connections to the experience of enslaved people in the South. As the author of this article points out, American folk music has a complex tradition, and the meaning of the song has shifted as it passes down through the decades.
Nowhere did it shift more strangely than in 1995, when Swedish rock band Rednex dropped the version that I always hear played at weddings: a combination of twangy vocals, bouncy techno backtracks, and a fiddle track sampled from The Chieftains’ 1992 rendition. Rednex was not composed of rednecks. It was actually a group of Swedish performers, backed by techno-leaning producers including now-superstar producer Max Martin:
They refused interviews, but released a bio saying they were from the remote village of Brunkeflo, Idaho, and had never had contact with the outside world. They were inbred, but musically gifted, passing that gene on through generations. According to the bio, they were brought to Sweden, where they had a hard time adjusting to civilization - one member ate a dog because he couldn’t find a skunk.
Eventually the group would admit the truth but continue to go on tour, replacing the entire original troupe with new performers and even performing in multiple places at the same time.
Of course, the elephant in the room, one over which much hay would be made in the more politically-correct years that followed 1995, is that the entire musical group is a parody of white Southern culture. “Rednecks” is a term also dating from the 1800s that has been used to denote poor white people or even racists specifically. The group leaned heavily into this identity, as is clear from their names: originally the band included “Mary Joe (Annika Ljungberg), alongside Bobby Sue (Kent Olander), Ken Tacky (Arne Arstrand), Billy Ray (Jonas Nilsson) and Mup (Patrick Edenberg).”
The extremely Scandinavian-named members of the band, though they have expressed some regret over the name’s connotations, see it rather differently than the authors of Huffington Post articles about their faux pax. Pat Reiniz, who is also Mup, who is also Patrick Edenberg, who is also Ranis, describes his perspective in this way: “We are aware that the term is derogatory towards poor, uneducated and simple folk, but we see no reason to be derogatory towards that category of people. We disapprove of that kind of snobbery within human relationships.” This sort of earnest-and-yet-tongue-in-cheek opinion seems to characterize the way the band has chosen to approach the rest of their career:
When we released “Cotton Eye Joe,” we knew very little about the American hillbilly/redneck culture, other than the stereotypes. For us, the redneck image was very compatible with the feeling of the music - raw, energetic, simple, party, etc. It is only afterwards that we have learned more about this culture, however. Learning about it has not really affected the Rednex image, which will remain as a 50/50 tribute/parody of that lifestyle.
Pat/Mup/Patrick/Ranis was perfectly comfortable with this “50/50 tribute/parody” when he gave this interview in 2021—though he might be unaware how metamodern such a take makes his Swedish-parody-American rock band. Rednex’s willingness to parodize a lifestyle while also insisting that they “disapprove of that kind of snobbery within human relationships” that would make their parody derogatory is either extremely cynical or extremely sincere—and I believe it is (mostly) sincere. By enthusiastically participating in Southern-villager-cosplay that launched their goofy remix to the 25th spot on the Billboard Hot 100, they take the wind out of the sails of every ideology: they aren’t quite racist, but they aren’t quite antiracist, but they aren’t quite earnest, but they aren’t quite joking. They are, quite simply, playing a role.
And that, of course, is what we are all doing. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jacques describes human life as a continual playing of roles:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. . . . Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Over the years of an individual life, there will be roles on roles, roles in which we can situate the person we are becoming and the person we are to others. And as much as we might complain about Rednex’s all-too-explicit embracing of this principle, the fact remains that even in doing so we are playing roles of our own: the politically correct or incorrect, the wry but serious commentator, the Substack writer. It is from within those roles that our choices are made and thus our character is assembled.
Shakespeare’s characters are frequently aware of this: of their role as villains, as protagonists, as jilted lovers or melancholy forest philosophers. In his plays Shakespeare toys with breaking the fourth wall by presenting us with characters like Hamlet and Macbeth who know that they are in a story that they cannot escape, with characters like Edmund and Iago who know they are the villains, characters like Imogen and Cordelia who know they are the heroines. And in so doing he reminds us that living our own life like we are a character is a truthful way to live: we too are given roles, exits and entrances, limited choices, specific settings. Rednex lives this to an extreme, but perhaps we can learn from them to play our own characters in our own stories.
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If you didn’t click through: you really should listen to the Chieftains version; it’s a bop.