Opinion: It’s time to say goodbye to Cotton Eye Joe

‘Ignoring or not knowing about the origins of a song shouldn’t mean we continue to embrace it after we are educated as to those origins and connections’

Spyke has jigged his last jig to the thumping, squealing, infectious ear candy that is Cotton Eye Joe.

Love it or hate it, the song will no longer be a third period fixture at Guelph Storm hockey games that saw the Storm mascot jig in the rafters during a stop in play while kids danced along in the aisles.

It has been axed because even if that particular version of the song isn’t overtly racist, the song’s origins and connections to enslaved people in pre-Civil War south can’t be ignored. 

“Someone complained about its roots to enslavement. There’s evidence on both sides related to the lyrics. We spoke with community partners and it was decided that it was time to take a closer look and consider our options,” said Storm business manager Matt Newby of the tune played at Storm games for over 20 years.

The Storm game version is a 2002 dance remix of a 1995 version by the Swedish group Rednex.

It doesn’t contain any overtly racist lyrics, but earlier versions of the song do.

And while the exact origin of the song is unknown, what is known is that its roots are in the pre-Civil War south and that it was sung by enslaved people as they worked in the fields.

That song most are familiar with is a modern version of the American southern folk song Cotton-Eyed Joe, a passed-down-through-the-years tune that has been recorded many times by many genres of artists. The lyrics have also changed over the years.

Kween, the executive director and social justice initiatives with the Guelph Black Heritage Society, says that while the history of the song is “murky,” its origins are “a racist tune that utilizes awful, racist stereotypes about Black people, who were enslaved in America when it was initially written.

“… while this song seems catchy and fun in nature, its dark history leaves a burden on the Black communities to have racism acknowledged in all forms,” says Kween.

As Texan folklorist Dorothy Scarborough wrote in her 1925 book On The Trail of Negro Folk-songs, Cotton-Eyed Joe (as it is alternatively known) “was born out of American slavery.”

This isn’t about guilt by association. The song’s essence is associated with enslaved people.

Ignoring or not knowing about the origins of a song shouldn’t mean we continue to embrace it after we are educated as to those origins and connections.

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