"Cotton Eye Joe" and the Rednex Story

by Carl Wiser

How a team of Swedish producers took the guise of American hillbillies and turned the old folk song "Cotton Eye Joe" into a sensation.

Ranis (Pat Reiniz) and Bones of Rednex

In America, we were ambushed by "Cotton Eye Joe." It got very little airplay, but infiltrated just about every sporting event, soundtracking between-innings dance-offs in baseball stadiums, hoedowns at hockey games, and "show us your moves" jumbotron interstitials in basketball arenas. Suddenly, it was everywhere. But where did it come from, this "Cotton Eye Joe"?

The song has been around for well over 100 years and has taken on many forms, mostly in the bluegrass and country milieus. It's great for line dancing, as seen in Urban Cowboy, the John Travolta movie that revived the tune in 1980.

In 1992 the Irish group The Chieftains teamed with the American country singer Ricky Skaggs to record the version that got the attention of a team of Swedish producers who transmogrified it into a wild techno number. They went full Hee Haw, branding the group Rednex (as in rednecks, a term for rural southerners in America) and rounding up five performers to portray them as if they came fresh off the tractor. 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.

This was 1994, just a few years before the internet made such a ruse impossible (a time when Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes could mess with the press by saying they were brother and sister, not husband and wife). "Cotton Eye Joe" became a huge hit throughout Europe, and while the producers (including an up-and-comer named Max Martin) recorded a full album, the "group" was sent to perform the song, always in character, responding to questions with grunts and gestures. By the time a Swedish newspaper revealed their true identities in 1995, they already had their second hit, "Old Pop In An Oak."

The music video for "Cotton Eye Joe" was styled on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
"Cotton Eye Joe" was a tougher sell in America, where is was too haywire for most radio stations and the band backstory wasn't circulated. But baseball games were getting longer and attention spans shorter, and there was no better between-innings party starter. In the summer of 1995, it became the jock jam du jour, instant fun with the kind of kinetics that get the crowd fired up. The song never got higher than #25 on the Hot 100, but it remains entrenched on those sporting playlists, even post-Covid (we did field research and can confirm that it still soundtracks the Hartford Yard Goats' between-innings dance competition).

Following their debut, Rednex didn't release a new album until 2000; the lead single, "The Way I Mate," is about the mating habits of the Brunkeflo villagers. A year later, the entire band was fired and replaced at the same time their surprisingly sincere song "The Spirit Of The Hawk" was holding down the #1 spot in Germany.

These days, Rednex is an international troupe with different sets of performers in different places, kind of like the Blue Man Group except with names like Abby Hick and Boneduster Crock. They've done concerts in two different places at the same time.

They've shifted producers as well, but one who was there from the start and seems to be the leader of this crazy collective, Pat Reiniz (who also goes by Ranis, Mup, or Patrick Edenberg), was graciously willing to break character and answer some of our questions, including why they went with the country bumpkin theme.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): "Cotton Eye Joe" is an old American folk song. After hearing the Chieftains version, why did you decide to re-work it?

Pat Reiniz (Ranis): It was a quick, very spontaneous and playful decision. The first demo was made in four hours as a screw-around. Much was helped by the fact that the vocals and violins were without background music, so more easy to sample in those days.

Traditional versions of "Cotton Eye Joe" have long instrumental breaks with lyrics that mainly repeat the chorus ("If it hadn't been for Cotton Eye Joe, I'd been married long time ago..."). The Rednex version adds verses that tell the tale of this cowpoke Casanova.
Songfacts: Are the verse lyrics on your version ("He came to town like a midwinter storm...") original? Those don't appear in the Chieftains version.

Ranis: The verse lyrics are original and written by me.

Songfacts: Where did you come across the term "redneck"? That's a very American saying.

Ranis: I was an exchange student in the US in the '80s. I probably came across the term then. 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.

Songfacts: Related: How did you learn about American hillbilly culture?

Ranis: 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.

That said, we think with love on the American redneck culture even though we don't feel as educated about it as we want to be. However, it is not a necessity to perform Rednex.

Some of the Rednex members in 2018: Ace Ratclaw, Pervis the Palergator, Spades, Misty Mae

Songfacts: Please tell us about "Old Pop In An Oak," including what the title means.

Ranis: When writing it, I was determined to use the same phonetics as in "Cotton Eye Joe" (which I came to regret later) as an exercise to better understand what made the song sound "folky." So first the words were chosen (out of a long list of options with the same phonetics), then afterwards a "meaning" was attached to them and later a whole lyric was written.

The story is that Old Pop is being chased up the oak by an angry grandma for doing some mischief by the BBQ.

Songfacts: Rednex didn't play America until 2017. Did you have any idea what kind of impact "Cotton Eye Joe" had over here? It's still played at many of our sporting events.

Ranis: We had some notions about it because of social media and people telling us, but it was not until after our visit that we understood better what impact it has on so many levels (sport events, weddings, school phys ed, line dance, etc). To learn about this has been awesome and somewhat shocking and makes us so proud.

Songfacts: Did the singers in Rednex speak English fluently?

Ranis: Yes, the original band was Swedish and people in Sweden speak good English.

Songfacts: What is the "Rednex philosophy"?

Ranis: Keywords: freedom, acceptance, party, energy, unpretentiousness. Allowance, individual expression.

Songfacts: What was Max Martin's role in Rednex?

Ranis: Denniz Pop and Max Martin produced "Wish You Were Here," which was the third single from the first album. It was a huge hit in Northern Europe, was #1 in six countries, including Germany, and sold more than one million (a lot in those days).

It was Max Martin's first Gold disc and #1 hit. He did the "musical" parts of the production, the strings, etc. Denniz did the beats. This was in the later stages of the album production so he was not involved in any other songs. [Wanna hear Ritchie Blackmore doing a Renaissance version of the song? You're in luck.]

Songfacts: What's the Rednex song you're most proud of?

Ranis: It probably varies from day to day, but I love the video of "Manly Man," which was (finally) a video that we could make ourselves without the censoring influences of record labels. Together with the song, it portrays much of the true soul of Rednex. Though I understand that it is a mouthful for the average viewer and won't be nearly as popular as "Cotton."

July 15, 2021
Rednex Songfacts entries
List of songs commonly played at sporting events

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  • Kim Dickey from Middletown OhioYou guys are awsome
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