The song is humorous in nature, telling a silly tale about "old Mister Johnson" who had a "yaller cat" that he did not want, and when he tried to get rid of the cat, the cat kept coming back:
In Miller's original, the cat finally died when an organ grinder came around one day and:
Even then the cat's ghost came back.
The first commercial recording of "The Cat Came Back" was by Fiddlin' John Carson (OKeh 40119) in April 1924. Other early recordings include one by Philipine "Fiddlin' Doc" Roberts ("And The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day", Gennett 3235), on November 13, 1925.
Like many children's songs, the song has a very strong well-defined beat pattern. It consists of one weak beat, one strong beat, so it is often sung in 2/4 time.
Thus it can be (and often is) sung while walking, with, for example, strong beats when the left foot hits the ground and weak beats when the right foot hits the ground.
Now old Mr. Johnson had some troubles of his own,chorus:
He had a scarlet cat that just wouldn't leave his home,
He tried and he tried to give the cat away,
He gave it to a man going far far away.
But the cat came back the very next day,alternate chorus:
The cat came back, we thought he was a goner,
The cat came back, he just wouldn't stay away.
But the cat came back he wouldn't stay away,
He was sitting on the porch the very next day.
Every second beat is emphasized (emphasized beats are shown underlined in bold).
Each line of text in the above has eight beats, and usually the chords fall (piano) or begin (organ) on the capitalized words.
The chord progression repeats every 8 beats, so one might think of the song as being in either 2/ time or 8/ time (whichever denominator you use for reference time, i.e. 2/4 or 8/4 time if the beat is a quarter note, etc.). The pattern of 2/ and 8/ is very similar to the beat pattern in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but phase-shifted by 180 degrees (since the song starts on a weak beat rather than the strong beat beginning of Twinkle Twinkle).
Many versions are in a major key, but there are some versions that are also in a minor key. The chord progression for many of the minor-key versions is Am, G, F, E.
The third verse often contains a descending scale that does not appear in the first or second verses.
The cat was a possessor of a family of its own, With seven little kittens till there came a cyclone; Blew the houses all apart and tossed the cat around, The air was full of kittens, and not a one was ever found. Chorus He gave it to a man going way out West, Told him for to take it to the one he loved the best; First the train hit the curve, then it jumped the rail, Not a soul was left behind to tell the gruesome tale.
Away across the ocean they did send the cat at last, Vessel only out a day and making water fast; People all began to pray, the boat began to toss, A great big gust of wind came by and every soul was lost.
He gave it to a little boy who lived upon a boat; It was out upon the river, it was out and on the float. He tied a weight around its neck, it must've weighed ten pounds; Next day they dragged the river for the little boy who drowned.
The atom bomb fell just the other day, The H-Bomb fell in the very same way; Russia went, England went, and then the U.S.A. The human race was finished without a chance to pray.
Now Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own,
He had a yellow cat that wouldn't leave his home!
A special plan with deception as the key,
One little cat; how hard could it be?
Well Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own,
Still the yellow cat wouldn't leave his home!
Steps were needed to remove the little curse,
The old man knew it couldn't get any worse.