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The Cat Came Back

"The Cat Came Back" is a comic song written by Harry S. Miller in 1893. The song was, perhaps, written for the minstrel trade since the last page of the sheet music describes it as "A comic Negro absurdity." "The Cat Came Back" has since entered the folk tradition and been recorded under variations of the title—"But The Cat Came Back", "And The Cat Came Back", etc. It is also a popular children's song.

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:

But de cat came back, couldn't stay no longer,
Yes de cat came back de very next day:
De cat came back—thought she were a goner,
But de cat came back for it wouldn't stay away.

In Miller's original, the cat finally died when an organ grinder came around one day and:

De cat look'd around awhile and' kinder raised her head
When he played Ta-rah-dah-boom-da-rah, an' the cat dropped dead.

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.

The song was used as the basis for the 1988 short animated film The Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker.

Timing of the song

The song is often used to teach children the concepts of rhythm and tempo. It is an excellent example in this regard, because of the strong and consistent beat pattern, combined with amusing and humorous lyrics. Additionally, especially the minor key versions of the song, have a compelling effect with regards to perception of tempo.

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.

Versions of the song

There are many versions of the song. In one, the cat is yellow. One version goes something like:first verse:
Now old Mr. Johnson had some troubles of his own,
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,
The cat came back, we thought he was a goner,
The cat came back, he just wouldn't stay away.
alternate chorus:
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).


The song helped launch the career of children's entertainer Fred Penner. He has used the song as part of a medley that includes the tune heard in Hit the Road Jack with lyrics changed to "Hit the Road Cat".

Zero padding or improv/instrumental of the chorus

As with many simple children's songs, it is often desired to have the number of beats be a power of two, so the first verse plus the chorus takes up, for example, 64 beats, so it is often nice to put some kind of instrumental or improvised section at the end of the chorus to make it fit nicely into 64 rather than 56 beats for one verse plus one run of the chorus. Alternatively an 8-beat rest (zero padding) may be inserted and the end of the chorus.

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.

Variations in the melody of the additional verses

The additional verses often have a notable variation in melody but with the same chords. For example the second verse often shoots up an octave to emphasize the words "dynamite" and "found" (each sung an octave above the first note of the song, which is "E" if the song is sung in the key of A-minor), even though the first verse does not shoot up that way.

The third verse often contains a descending scale that does not appear in the first or second verses.

Microtonal and chirp-based versions of the chorus

Also, the second line of the chorus "thought he was a goner" is often sung either off-key (deliberately), or just said (not sung), or includes chirps or quarter tones (notes that fall between semitones). In some versions the chirps can be approximated by a chromatic glissando.

Bass line

Harmonic minor variations

The chord progression lends itself exceptionally well to a bass line that's natural minor descending, and harmonic minor ascending, i.e. in the key of A-minor, the 8 beats (in 8/ time) would play out as A, A, G, G, F, F, E, G#

Melodic minor variations

Additionally, the bass line may be played as melodic minor (i.e. including both an F# and a G# on the way up). This second variation is very effective in teaching children the concept of a melodic minor scale, since melodic minor otherwise occurs so seldom in simple children's songs.

Complete lyrics

Further additional lyrics are listed on various websites devoted to children's songs, such as:

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.

Chorus x2

Cordell Barker's Animation

Although the Barker animation does not involve many spoken lyrics, relying more on its animation to show the action, both spoken verses, as shown here, are different than other versions:

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.

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