The Cat Came Back

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"The Cat Came Back"
Cover, sheet music, 1893
Songwriter(s)Harry S. Miller

"The Cat Came Back" is a comic song written by Harry S. Miller[1] in 1893. It 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 "ole Mister Johnson" who had an "ole yaller cat" that he did not want, and which kept coming back when he tried to get rid of it:

But the cat came back, he couldn't stay no long-er,
Yes the cat came back de very next day,
the cat came back—thought she were a goner,
But the 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 an' kinder raised her head
When he played Ta-rah-dah-boom-da-rah, an' de cat dropped dead.

Even then the cat's ghost came back.

The first commercial recording of the song was ca. 1894 for the Columbia Phonograph Company, Washington D.C., performed by Charles Marsh.[2] "The Cat Came Back" was later recorded by Fiddlin' John Carson (OKeh catalog #40119) in April 1924. Other early recordings include one by Dock Philipine "Fiddlin' Doc" Roberts ("And The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day", Gennett 3235), on November 13, 1925.

The original sheet music described the song as "A Comic Negro Absurdity" on the back page and provided an additional eight verses as well as a final chorus.[3] A 1900 London edition of the sheet music described it as "A Nigger Absurdity" on the cover sheet.[4]

Timing of the song[edit]

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

Like many children's songs, the song has a strong well-defined beat pattern. It consists of one weak beat, one strong beat, so it is often sung in 2
. 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[edit]

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.

alternative 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 is used 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 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").

A later version of the song emerged during the Cold War, in which the final verse made references to the "atom bomb" and "H-bomb", and the subsequent destruction of the human race.[5]

Zero padding or improv/instrumental of the chorus[edit]

As with many simple children's songs, it is often desirable to have the number of beats be a power of two, so that the first verse and chorus take up, for example, 64 beats instead of 56. The end of the chorus can be "padded" with eight beats of instrumental or improvised music to do this; alternatively an 8-beat rest ("zero padding") may be inserted.


Many versions are in a major key, but there are some versions in a minor key. The chord progression for many of the minor-key versions is Em, D, C, B.

Variations in the melody of the additional verses[edit]

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[edit]

Also, the second line of the chorus "thought he was a goner" is often sung either off-key (deliberately), or just spoken (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[edit]

Harmonic minor variations[edit]

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#. This is practically the lament bass used in many chaconnes, e.g. Pachelbel's Chaconne in F minor.

Melodic minor variations[edit]

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 effective in teaching children the concept of a melodic minor scale, since melodic minor otherwise occurs so seldom in simple children's songs.

Cordell Barker's animated film[edit]

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.

Popular culture[edit]

  • 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".
  • The song was adapted in Afrikaans as "Die kat kom weer". The Afrikaans version had several references to the Boer War and British Imperialism.
  • Randy Sparks reworked the song as "The Cat", for The New Christy Minstrels' 1963 album Tell Tall Tales!.
  • The characters Randy Benton (Randy Boone) and Betsy Garth (Roberta Shore) sang "The Cat Came Back" on The Virginian in Season 3, Episode 10 "Return A Stranger" (November 18, 1964).
  • Alex Hood, the Australian folk singer, recorded a version on his album The Wallaby Track (1974), with Australian references.
  • Children's folk group Trout Fishing in America recorded "The Cat Came Back" on their 1991 album Big Trouble.
  • The song features in the film Adaptation (2002).
  • The song is mentioned in Pet Sematary by Stephen King.
  • Children's entertainers Sharon, Lois & Bram recorded "The Cat Came Back" on their 1980 Juno Award-winning album Singing 'n' Swinging. They also featured the song on their hit Nickelodeon TV series The Elephant Show in Season 2, Episode 26 "Treasure Hunt".
  • The song was used as the basis for the 1988 Oscar-nominated short animated film The Cat Came Back by Cordell Barker.[6]
  • The Cordell Barker film was the basis for a commercial for KP Snacks' Hula Hoops.
  • An alternate adaptation of the song was performed by Rowlf the Dog with a banjo in The Muppet Show, episode 523, only having "the cat came back" as a common line in the chorus. The arrangement does not use the common contemporary descending musical structure, and substitutes "little Benny" for "old Mr. Johnson".
  • An instrumental version of the song was released by the Canadian band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet on their 1991 album Music For Pets.
  • In the 1970s, Steve Waring, an American songwriter and folk singer, adapted the song into French and simply called it "Le matou" (The tomcat). The story is based on the same line as the original: every day, Tompson, an old farmer, tries to kill his cat, unsuccessfully, of course, while "le matou revient le jour suivant" (the cat comes back the next day).
  • In a 1972 episode of the PBS program ZOOM, the children's cast (called ZOOMers) sang and danced to the song, although they didn't sing all the verses because of its considerable length.
  • "The Cat Came Back (BDD Remix)" by Luca Lento appears on the album The Electro Swing Revolution (2011).
  • A variation of the song, "Bitch Came Back", was written and performed by Canadian rock band Theory of a Deadman on their album The Truth Is....
  • In 2011, a version from Fred Penner was featured in the film 388 Arletta Avenue.
  • The song's lyrics are quoted in the Corner Gas episode "Cat River Daze".
  • Macabre Minstrels (a side project of the death metal/grindcore band Macabre) recorded a version on their 2002 EP Morbid Campfire Songs.
  • A character named Lolly briefly sang part of the song in a season 3 episode of Orange is the New Black.
  • Bill Harrell & the Virginians released an album called "The Cat Came Back" (Rebel Records, 1998).


  1. ^ Rise Up Singing page 70
  2. ^ copy in private hands in Los Angeles, CA
  3. ^
  4. ^ Sheet music, W. Paxton, London, copyright 1900
  5. ^ Ira Glass (2006-08-18). "316: The Cat Came Back Transcript". WBEZ.
  6. ^ National Film Board: The Cat Came Back Accessed 2011-11-03

External links[edit]