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May 13

REDNEX – “Cotton Eye Joe”

Popular59 comments • 6,313 views

#715, 14th January 1995

A few years ago I returned from a trip to Spain with a somewhat disreputable CD – Rice And Curry, by Dr Bombay, AKA Swedish Eurodance chameleon Jonny Jakobsen. Browned-up for this project, and singing songs like “SOS (The Tiger Took My Family)”, Dr Bombay is the most eyebrow-raising example of how older traditions of ethnic and cultural comedy took root in Eurodance – Jakobsen has gone on to perform as Scottish stereotype Dr.Macdoo (LP title: Under The Kilt) and ‘comedy’ Mexican Carlito. And Rednex are in very much the same game.

It’s a feature of eurodance that comes out of European disco – just as anything could be discofied, from film themes to classical music to rock, so anything is fair game for novelty Eurodance treatment, and if it made people laugh too, so much the better. The genre existed in the same amoral, self-serving zone stand-up comedy sometimes claims for itself: the effect on the audience (partying, laughter) is all that matters, and anything goes to get there.

I’m not saying this because I’m personally offended by Rednex’ appropriation of hillbilly culture, it’s just a fascinating and overlooked part of Eurodance aesthetics. I doubt any rock band in 1995 could have got away with the rat-eating, drooling hick-play of the “Cotton Eye Joe” video, but if nobody’s taking the music seriously anyhow, it’s never going to get that level of scrutiny. Or to put it less kindly, there were plenty of other reasons to hate Rednex in 1995.

But does “Cotton Eye Joe” work on that basic, energetic, ass-moving level? Yeah, pretty much. It’s repetitive, but it’s based on something very repetitive – the traditional “Cotton Eyed Joe” line dance, itself rooted in old ballads. (The male vocals on Rednex sound like they might simply be sampled from an older record, in fact.) The hollering diva interludes actually change things up a little, though that decades-old hook is solid enough to stand on its own. Like most European novelties across any age of pop, you can easily imagine why it got so big. And like many, a little of it goes a very long way.

(You might reasonably ask why I like Doop and get annoyed by Rednex? Any answer would be post-rationalisation, but I think it’s the vocals – dumb instrumental hooks seem happy to work on me while they’re playing and not swirl unbidden round my head. And Rednex’ vocals are particularly shrill and penetrating – the folksy charm of the twangy country voice is quite lost when looped and backed by pounding Eurobosh beats.)

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  1. 1
    Jonathan Bogart on 7 May 2013 #

    If I stick to my usual strategy of voting for songs I’ve heard, this will get at least one vote in the Popular ’95 roundup! Unlikely as it may seem, it was one of a confluence of moments in the late 90s that made me interested in checking out old-time Appalachian music, a fairly bottomless well (and if my family has any particular musical roots, they’re there) which I haven’t learned to get sick of yet.

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 7 May 2013 #

    This was the KILLER SONG at Lower School Disco. The arm-linky-dance was even easier to memorise than Whigfield and usually ended up with someone flat on their arse. Unfortunately it was about this time when I had to start going to swimming training on Friday nights (as well as every other bloody night, gah) so I only had a couple of opportunities to get my hoedown on.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 7 May 2013 #

    it’s the fiddle that sells this for me – the slightly off key swipes of sound provide a refreshing contrast to the more repetitive vocal refrain, and there’s enough variety going on in other areas (diva, banjo, male backing singers) to make me enjoy listening to it. Repeated listening would probably lead to insanity though.

    For some reason I remember this featuring on an episode of Top of the Pops at a time when I rarely watched the programme.

  4. 4
    Auntie Beryl on 7 May 2013 #

    You could draw a line from The Grid’s Swamp Thing and Texas Cowboys, through this, and on to The Woolpackers. And early Steps.

    Not a fantastic start to the year – from the shop, I remember it being bought by a lot of twelve year olds – the pre cool set. Not always a bad thing but this time around they picked a clunker.

    Wikipedia records the parent album as reaching number 146 in the UK.

  5. 5
    fivelongdays on 7 May 2013 #

    As Auntie Beryl implies, this was responsible for the only Steps song I have any time for, ‘5-6-7-8’, however, I think this is much, much better.

    It sounds less like full-on Eurodance, more like an actual appalachian track given a remix (possibly because – and I’ve only recently learned this – it is a folk song given a Eurodance makeover). I particularly like the fiddle/banjo combination on top of the synthesisers. Plus, it doesn’t go on for too long.

    I’m pretty sure 12 year old me enjoyed it without ever actually buying a copy, but I think I’ll give it seven.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 7 May 2013 #

    My initial reaction to listening to this song was how similar to “John Wayne Is Big Leggy” it sounded. But where Haysi Fantayzee used certain signifiers to embellish their playful thrift-shop dance-pop, REDNEX used dance-pop to embellish their signifiers. Eurodance is as Tom says, chock-full of examples of novelties and I find myself admiring the shamelessness of enterprises like “Cotton Eye Joe”. But then I stop and think for a minute about those folk who dress up to go to Country & Western* nights down the local working men’s club kitted out with bales of hay and Confederate banners (oh yes, I’ve been to one and felt decidedly uncomfortable the whole evening), and a chill runs down my spine. Of course, I’m not blaming REDNEX for any of this, except I am for them reminding me of an embarrassing evening down the club one time.

    *Naturally, I don’t tar all Country & Western as hillbilly music for good ol’ boys. That’s ignorant and racist. I do have a problem with the pointless appropriation of a defunct flag, without considering what it stands for. And no, I have never bought “Sweet Home Alabama” in any of its guises.

  7. 7
    Tom on 7 May 2013 #

    Eurochart Fact Watch: Rednex have enjoyed the most weeks at No.1 in Germany of any act over the last 30 years.

    And in Norway this was No.1 for 15 weeks. What ended its reign at the top? Erm, “Old Pop In An Oak” by Rednex, the famously identical follow-up, which was No.1 for another 6.

  8. 8
    Chelovek na lune on 7 May 2013 #

    This is, really, pretty crap, for all the reasons outlined by Tom above – and to be honest I have little substantive to add either to that or the points about the linkage between this, Steps “5-6-7-8” and the nascent line-dancing craze that appeared (from my then vantage point in rural Fife) to sweep over the UK (or at least rural Fife) a bit later on. (The Haysi Fantaysee reference is a good one too….)

    However….there must surely be more to the act than this (the Wikipedia entry suggests the band became a kind of franchise or branding arrangement….which sounds rather a questionable arrangement, to say the least. (On a like note…how amusing it was to see posters for a Showaddywaddy gig at the local nightclub in the small country town in which I now reside, a few months ago state “NOT A TRIBUTE BAND”…)

    Now, I have heard precisely three songs by Rednex:

    This one, which is moderately dreadful;

    the follow-up “Old Pop In An Oak”, which is exactly the same, only worse;

    and the follow-up to that, “Wish You Were Here”….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YrKkuDr1Rw

    Now the thing is, that one is a fairly poignant, gimmick-free – and dare I say it, rather lovely, sentimental without being too syrupy, ballad (the video suggests a World War I theme), with *just* a country-ish tinge, which was inescapable in Ukraine, where I was working during the later part of ’95, and which was a major hit in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. To say that it’s not obvious that it’s the work of the same band responsible for the near atrocity that has brought about this thread would be an understatement. Yeah, the instrumentation isn’t fantastic, but all in all the track is a win, something warming and good.

    And Richie Blackmore, for what it’s worth, clearly felt something of worth in it that his own, post-Rainbow band, Blackmore’s Night, covered it a couple of years later….but frankly Rednex’s version seems more proficient and effecting.

    It did nothing in the UK at all. I very much which we were discussing that one, not this one. It frankly would have been a more worthy (and more memorable) no 1 than many from around this time….

  9. 9
    JLucas on 7 May 2013 #

    An interesting note about this record that isn’t really picked up on (understandably perhaps) is that country music is genuinely very, very popular in Scandinavia. So this rather bizarre attempt to meld country with then-modern pop sounds makes a strange kind of sense. It wasn’t just an isolated “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” moment that spawned a worldwide novelty hit.

    Rednex have enjoyed a long career which has combined outright novelty records like this and their inevitable Eurovision effort ‘Mama Take Me Home’, with more straightforward and sincere (if still a bit shonky) country songs.

    I have a soft spot for their 2000 German megahit Spirit of the Hawk I must say.

    http://youtu.be/j0EWM_6w0vA

    They last had a Swedish number one as recently as 2008 with ‘Football Is Our Religion’. It’s not one of their best.

    http://youtu.be/m9vbPXm2Wj8

  10. 10
    Billy Hicks on 8 May 2013 #

    This is the last time I’ll be mentioning the infamous month of January 2004, the month fifteen year old me turned on VH1’s Number 1s Weekend and was blown away by a host of late 80s/early 90s #1s I was (consciously) hearing for the first time. Theme from S’Express, Ride on Time, 3am Eternal, Rhythm is a Dancer, Mr Vain and Doop were the biggest standouts and I spent the majority of the next year or so finding them on mp3 and playing them to death. This was the last ‘new discovery’ of the weekend that truly wowed me, jamming itself in my head and getting as much repeated airplay as the others. We’re still two years away from youtube here, so actually tracking down the mp3 was a mission in itself, downloading a couple of bland remixes before finding the proper radio edit. See, there’s no fun anymore in music searching :p From here onwards I start to actually remember a lot more of the #1s, so there was less to knowingly hear for the first time. Unusually, given that it’s the most recently made of the New Discoveries, it’s probably dated the most in my head since, and while I’ll still happily listen to something like Ride on Time today, this has lost a bit of the entertainment value it had when I was 15. Still a fun listen but no longer an incredible one.

    Three weeks at #1, and – unlike the next, milestone chart topper, was available on CD single, cassette, 7″ and 12″ vinyl. Get used to that black plastic while you can…

  11. 11
    swanstep on 8 May 2013 #

    As Tom’s final paragraph indicates, it’s pretty hard to draw a principled line between this and all the other naive dance stuff that’s been well-reviewed around here (Whigfield, Doop, and on and on). A pox (3 or 4 or 5 out of 10) on the lot of ’em I say. Feb 1995 was when I bought my first Alison Krauss record, the Now That I Found You compilation on release because I happened to hear this 1992 track from it on the radio. Bluegrass pop FTW, Rednex not so much (or at least not without serious amounts of alcohol).

  12. 12
    Auntie Beryl on 8 May 2013 #

    #8 There’s another Scandinavian pop act who went with a ballad for single three – the bunny is watching me as I type this. We’ll encounter them soon enough.

  13. 13
    anto on 8 May 2013 #

    The only positive thing I can find to say about this is that it’s only marginally worse than the cosmetic C&W that the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain became very wealthy on during the nineties, but then that don’t impress me much.

  14. 14
    James BC on 8 May 2013 #

    When they played this on Top of the Pops I had an argument with my mum about whether it was actually possible to play a fiddle holding it at your waist rather than under your chin.

    Me: But look – they’re doing it right there!

    To this day I don’t actually have a definitive answer to the question.

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 8 May 2013 #

    I thought the line-dancing craze started off with Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992?

  16. 16
    Chelovek na lune on 8 May 2013 #

    #15 I had done my utmost to erase that from my memory, but, well, yes, you’re right…and then came the rise of “new country”, Mary Chaplin Carpenter, kd lang, and so on….and then this…

  17. 17

    it’s possible to play a violin held at your waist, yes — I think moving yr hand position (where on violin neck fingers are) wd be much more cramped , so you probably couldn’t play Paganini very tidily — but folk fiddle reels can be effectively deft without ever shifting position

  18. 18
    Mark G on 8 May 2013 #

    And good ol’ Jim Lea, of course.

  19. 19
    mapman132 on 8 May 2013 #

    Delurking from America here. I actually like this, although I can understand why others don’t. Reached #25 in the US, which doesn’t sound impressive, but then most of the number ones of the previous year didn’t chart over here at all. The video actually made it into regular rotation on the country TV channel for a while although I don’t it got played much (or at all) on actual country radio.
    I’m curious what Tom’s son thinks of this – a close friend of mine recently downloaded this on a whim, and as a result it’s improbably become one of my 4 year old godson’s favorite songs.

  20. 20
    Tom on 8 May 2013 #

    #19 Both my sons thought it was absolutely banging and loved it, though could not be induced to say anything quotable about it.

  21. 21
    punctum on 8 May 2013 #

    Few musical revolutionaries give real heed to the unheeded consequences of their actions. Most prefer a continuous state of revolution with new outrages and innovations, not necessarily in that order, occurring ideally every nanosecond; but in practice what happens is that the sound and style of the revolutionary music are gradually assimilated into the mainstream, in time becoming entirely divorced from the spark of rebellion which initially set it off. Thus when McLaren invented the Sex Pistols he didn’t think that he’d be responsible for the Subs, Rejects or Upstarts half a decade later; and likewise when he harnessed together hip hop and barn dances in “Buffalo Gals” he must have known that at least one road would lead to things like “Cotton Eye Joe.” Another “Doop”-type Eurodance novelty, but this time from Sweden and setting the ancient hillbilly tune against the kind of setting we’ve now come to expect, with trusty fiddle and crowd whoops alike trampled by the unilateral, inescapable beat and the equally obligatory cod-soul female vocal interlude with built-in linguistic Euroslip (“But all he had come for was having some fun”), this is the type of number one which could easily lead to my feeling prematurely old; while I fully understand the atmosphere it would lend to a drunken post-New Year get-together, there is again nothing for me to cling onto, no real sense of change or genuine newness or even nowness. So Rednex may have proved that after all you do need the attitude, the manifesto, for pop – even “mindless” pop of this nature – to work; but otherwise they mark an inauspicious start to a year which, in terms of number ones, might be one of the most confounding to tackle.

  22. 22
    Mark G on 8 May 2013 #

    It was always a “dumb dance tune”, but the likes of Andy Kershaw seemed to treat the original with reverence (or something )

  23. 23
    swanstep on 9 May 2013 #

    Speakin’ of country, I can recommend Caitlin Rose’s new record, The Stand-In. One of its best songs, I Was Cruel, is a good gateway to the Stone Poneys/Ronstadt vibe of a lot of the album (if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then this won’t be) and can be freely downloaded here (spin.com even had it as a freebie in cd quality). Rose does momentarily hit the U2/Coldplay button near the end of the record, but her voice is so charming and the bass is so in-the-pocket that even *that* ends up being a blast.

  24. 24
    punctum on 9 May 2013 #

    #22 – yes, well, Andy Kershaw, enough said.

    Same Trailer, Different Park by Kasey Musgraves is btw an album of the year contender. Just saying like.

  25. 25
    James BC on 9 May 2013 #

    I like “unilateral beat”.

    We’re technoing up this country song, with or without the UN’s permission!

  26. 26
    DietMondrian on 9 May 2013 #

    #8 #12

    Did Frankie goes to Hollywood set the template for banging first two singles followed by a ballad? Is it a common practice? I can think of a couple of bunnied examples.

  27. 27
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2013 #

    @26 Frankie certainly got rich on it, but surely weren’t the first. (As Vanilla Ice did so later, they certainly weren’t the worst, either). It seems (at least now) like such an obvious formula: give the kids something they like, then give them some more, then show they aren’t a one trick pony.

    Someone with more instant recall of 70s or 60s pop music could give a quicker response, but from pre-Frankie 80s – and at entirely the opposite end of the quality, charisma and creativity spectrum from Rednex, let alone Vanilla Ice, in the realm of pop genius in fact, I nominate the Associates. Not that “18 Carat Love Affair” is exactly a conventional ballad (although their take on “Love Hangover” on the AA side could more or less qualify – as well as raising the “cover version as 3rd single” convention), but it certainly considerably less banging than the two breathlessly brilliant singles that preceded it.

  28. 28
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 May 2013 #

    Just now reading a mid-90s interview with Cliff Richard, and this kids-kids-multipony move was pretty much what he did, too, with his first releases — Living Doll being his fifth rather than his third…

  29. 29
    Chelovek na lune on 9 May 2013 #

    …although of course they were only the Associates’ first hit singles, not their debut releases…

  30. 30
    swanstep on 10 May 2013 #

    @26, DietMondrian. The ‘couple of bangers followed by a slowie’ release formula was used for many of Michael and Janet Jackson’s big albums with Off The Wall being an especially pure (and possibly the foundational) example:

    Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Rock With You, Off The Wall
    followed by
    She’s Out Of My Life

    I certainly remember picking up Janet’s Control and Rhythm Nation records pretty early and really digging ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ and ‘Come Back To Me’ respectively, and explicitly thinking, ‘that’s the clean-up, 3rd or 4th or 5th single’ (which exactly would depend upon exactly how big the album got). A year or more later when those slowie songs were released as near-chart-topping singles it felt like watching a very well-planned invasion (each following OTW’s family/corporate playbook).

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