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    The Semantic Index of North American, British and Irish
 traditional instrumental music with annotations, formerly known as
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Sourwood tonic and the sassafras tea.jpg
Cotton Eyed Joe

Played by : Pete Denahy
Source : Soundcloud
Image : Mattie Cole Stanfield's book: Sourwood Tonic and Sassafras Tea (1963)

Cotton Eyed Joe

There have been several thoughts about what the title might refer to. Some think 'cotton-eyed' means to be drunk on moonshine, and a related suggestion is that it refers to an individual who has been blinded by drinking wood alcohol (as happened during the Prohibition, for example), turning the eyes milky white.

Marion Thede believes 'cotton-eyed' may refer to a (black) person with very light blue eyes. Alan Lomax suggests it was used to describe a man whose eyes were milky white from Trachoma (a bacterial infection), while others have suggested cataracts, syphilis or glaucoma.

Some recall the term referring to the contrast of dark skin tone around white eyeballs in African-Americans, and indeed, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang references the 'prominent whites of the eyes' meaning to 1905. Charles Wolfe (1991) writes that African-American collector Thomas Talley, in his manuscript of stories, Negro Traditions, related a story entitled "Cotton-Eyed Joe, or the Origin of the Weeping Willow." The story includes a stanza from the song, "but more importantly details a bizarre tale of a well-known pre-Civil War plantation musician, Cotton Eyed Joe, who plays a fiddle made from the coffin of his dead son." "Cotton Eyed Joe" was the name of a heel-and-toe dance in Texas in the 1880's.

The tune was a favorite of John Dykes (Magic City Trio {Eastern Tenn.}), was recorded in the 1920's by Carter Brothers and Son and the Skillet Lickers, and it was in the repertoire of Arizona fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner (in the key of G Major) who said a fellow fiddler named Youngblood brought it to the territory from Mississippi around 1890.

It was one of the tunes played at the turn of the century by Etowah County, Alabama, fiddler George Cole, according to Mattie Cole Stanfield in her book Sourwood Tonic and Sassafras Tea (1963), and was mentioned in accounts of the DelKalb County Annual (Fiddlers) Convention, 1926–31. It was recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whom Alan Jabbour suspects learned the tune from Fiddlin' John Carson's recording.

The title appears in a list of traditional Ozark Mountain fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published in 1954. Some versions are similar to North Georgia fiddler Lowe Stokes popular "Citaco," notably that played by John Dykes of the Dykes Magic City Trio and the rendition in Marion Thede's Fiddle Book (both in GDad). Alan Jabbour believes it may have ties to the Mississippi version of "Dusty Miller" (supported by Fiddlin' John Carson's 1927 recording of "Cotton Eyed Joe"), and "Cornbread Molasses Sassafras Tea" has also be pointed to as a related melody.

Ken Perlman (1996), who collected the tune on Prince Edward Island, believes Canadian versions probably derived from the playing of radio and TV Maritime fiddler Don Messer (the 'B' part is played with a strong Acadian flavor). See also Bayard's (1981) note to a related tune "Horse Called Rover (The)" (No. 10, pp. 20–21).

...more at: Cotton Eyed Joe - full Score(s) and Annotations


X:1 T:Cotton-Eyed Joe [1] M:4/4 L:1/8 S:Steve Hawkins, Rowan County, Ky. 1911 B:Thomas & Leeder - "Singin' Gathering" (1939) K:C G|c2 AA A<(G G)A|c2 AA A3A|c AA G2E2|G<F D2 C3C| C2 EE G<(G G)G|A2 AA G3G|AAAA GGEE|G<ED>C C3||

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Who Builds the TTA

Who Builds the TTA

Although we are not trained musicologists and make no pretense to the profession, we have tried to apply such professional rigors to this Semantic Abc Web as we have internalized through our own formal and informal education.
This demands the gathering of as much information as possible about folk pieces to attempt to trace tune families, determine origins, influences and patterns of aural/oral transmittal, and to study individual and regional styles of performance.
Many musicians, like ourselves, are simply curious about titles, origins, sources and anecdotes regarding the music they play. Who, for example, can resist the urge to know where the title Blowzabella came from or what it means, or speculating on the motivations for naming a perfectly respectable tune Bloody Oul' Hag, is it Tay Ye Want?
Knowing the history of the melody we play, or at least to have a sense of its historical and social context, makes the tune 'present' in the here and now, and enhances our rendering of it.
Andrew Kuntz & Valerio Pelliccioni

Please register as a user to make the most of the many functions of the TTA, and enjoy the many ways that information about traditional tunes can be elicited and combined, from simple to complex situations. Users may make contributions, which, when reviewed by an editor, become part of this community project. Serious user/contributors may become editors through the TTA's autopromotion process, in which quantity and quality of entries allows increased levels of permission to edit and review the entire index.
Above all, the developers wish you joy in the use of the TTA.

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Navigation: Registered users can navigate the Traditional Tune Archive for information in a number of ways.

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  • Query the Archive. The “Query the Archive” function under “The Archive” in the sidebar can be used to draw down reports from the TTA in either in single items or in a number of combinations. One might, for example, use a single item query to run a report in the TTA for a particular composer/core source. Clicking on the arrow at the right of the bar draws down a list of composer/core sources, or one may be typed in. For example, clicking on “Bill Pigg” and then the “Run Query” tab at the bottom left will result in a list of all compositions listed in the TTA that the Northumbrian piper either composed or is the core source for. Reports may also be run in combinations, as, for example, by selecting “William Marshall” as a composer/core source, “Three Flats” for the number of accidentals, and “Major” for the Key/Mode. This will result in a report of all Eb Major compositions of Scottish fiddler/composer William Marshall that are indexed in the TTA.
  • Tune Books/Magazines in the TTA can be accessed under “Publications” in the left side bar. These are reproductions of publications for which access has been granted to the TTA by the copyright holder, under the Creative Commons license.