In this popular children's tune, Old Mr. Johnson desperately tries to get rid of his pesky cat, but the resourceful feline keeps returning. Written by Tin Pan Alley composer Harry S. Miller as a minstrel number in 1893, the comical song was first recorded the following year by Charles Marsh and was picked up in the early 1920s by country singer Fiddlin' John Carson. The song, like the cat, kept coming back.
In 1978, Canadian musician Fred Penner was flipping through an encyclopedia of folk songs and came across an entry for the tune. "It was like the crackles of life suddenly happened," he recalled. "It was a beautiful chord progression: E minor, D, C, B7, circular pattern. It was so easy to jam to. It was instantly my favorite song."
Penner didn't waste any time recording it. He enlisted a group of local kids from Winnipeg, credited as "My Special Montrose School Friends," to provide backing vocals and meows, and laid down the track at the city's Wayne Finucan Studios. His debut album, built around the title tune, helped launch his career as a popular children's entertainer. Prior to recording the song, Penner had been working in the psychology field, using music as a therapy tool for special needs children.
Penner adapted the lyrics from the original, which was written in a stereotypical dialect typical of blackface shows, and added some of his own verses for live performances. Lyrics differ from version to version but most share the same a dark twist: Anyone who tries to get rid of the cat ends up dead. A neighbor aims to kill him with a shotgun full of nails and dynamite but explodes into 97 pieces while the cat escapes unscathed. Another man takes the cat in a hot air balloon headed for the moon – the cat comes back, the man does not. A traveler takes him onboard a train headed out West, only for the train to derail, killing everyone but the tenacious kitty. A little boy tries to drown the cat only to end up drowned himself. Even the cat's own feline family is doomed. When a tornado tries to take him out, it's the kittens that suffer: "The air was filled with kittens, but not one was ever found."
At the end of Miller's version, the cat finally dies when an organ grinder comes to town and plays him a tune... only to come back as a ghost.
Penner imagined the song as a cartoon, likening the cat to Wile E. Coyote, who was always surviving lethal scenarios like careening off cliffs and being crushed by falling anvils. He worked with animator Cordell Barker on the early stages of a cartoon based on the song, but their first version was scrapped by the National Film Board of Canada. Penner left the project to go on tour and Barker helmed the 1988 Oscar-nominated animated short The Cat Came Back. A truncated version of the tune with different lyrics was used in the film, performed by Barker and producer Richard Condie with arranger John McCulloch and Ed Ledson.
Stephen King referenced this in his 1983 novel Pet Sematary, which is about pets and other loved ones who return from the grave.
This was covered by Sharon, Lois & Bram of the popular Nickelodeon series The Elephant Show for their 1980 album, Singing 'n Swinging. Penner appeared on the show in 1984 and sang the tune.
The Canadian band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, known for performing the theme song to the sketch-comedy series The Kids In The Hall, recorded an instrumental version for their 1991 EP Music For Pets.
This was featured in the 2002 movie Adaptation. and the 2011 horror film 388 Arletta Avenue. It was also sung on The Muppet Show by Rowlf the Dog and included in the 2004 Gilmore Girls episode "The Nanny and the Professor."