(I introduced the great American scholar, Leslie Fiedler, in Part I of these essays on children’s music.  My comments are informed by concepts introduced in a graduate course Leslie taught on children’s literature.)

“The Cat Came Back.”  A perfect song for children.  Absurd, comical, mysterious, and melodious.  Those of us living in The Modern World first heard “The Cat Came Back” because of Fred Penner.  He is a warm beguiling mirthful performer.

How surprised I was to learn that this song is more than a hundred years old, written in 1893 by Harry S. Miller, and that it was originally entitled “The Cat Came Back: A Nigger Absurdity.”  It was probably performed in minstrel and vaudeville shows by white performers wearing blackface – a mopey faced clown bemoaning the cat who would not go away.  A product of America’s racist foundations, this song has been reclaimed and reformed by Fred Penner, and blissfully bestowed upon the children of our putatively more enlightened times.

The story concerns a cat.  A very bad cat.  We don’t know what the cat did, but it is clear nobody wants him around.

Old Mister Johnson had troubles of his own
He had a yellow cat which wouldn’t leave its home;
He tried and he tried to give the cat away,
He gave it to a man goin’ far, far away.

But all attempts to expel the cat fail.  A group of children sing the chorus with Penner:

Penner & Kids:     But the cat came back the very next day,
                                 The cat came back, we thought he was a goner
                                 But the cat came back; it just couldn’t stay away.
FP:                           Give me a meow.
Kids:                        Meow.

In fact, this cat is so bad, everybody wants him dead.  One person “loaded up his shotgun with nails and dynamite” and tries to shoot the cat; the cat is sent off in a balloon; and then it is sent off on a train.  When a cyclone blows through, even the forces of nature are insufficient against the cat’s pertinacity.  And almost everyone who tries to purge the cat suffers mortal consequences.  Exploding guns, deadly balloon accidents, crashing trains.  Kids love this stuff.

Leslie Fiedler argued that children’s literature is full of Thanatos, the destructive impulse that can only be resolved by death.  He said that Thanatos is the most elemental manifestation of, and precursor to, Eros, the drive to propagate and create.  Young children find violence and destruction exciting in a primordial instinctive sensual way.  In their play and in their literature there are cars smashing, talking bunnies being eaten, bombs blowing things to smithereens, wizards blasting lightning bolts, canons firing from the decks of ships, and people falling off of cliffs.  “The Cat Came Back” is replete with Thanatos.  But it is hilarious.

Harry S. Miller.  “The Cat Came Back.”  1893.  Leo Feist Inc.  From Fred Penner.  The Cat Came Back: A First Album by Fred Penner for Children Ages 3-10.  1979.  Shoreline Records.  SL-009.   Album design – Not credited.