I first got hold of Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax while I was hopping freight, appropriately enough. Lomax rescued the history of the beating heart of America from fading into oblivion, and did so with scholarly precision and personal devotion.
He traces the roots of early American folk to the immigrants and slaves that carried the very seeds to this land, and it’s easy to see how American folk, gospel music, blues, jazz, and eventually rock and roll grew from those seeds.
Around about the same time I got my hands on Lomax, I started listening to Diamanda Galas. Her musical and topical fearlessness, vocal range, and general repertoire is staggering, to say the least. Her deadly humor glows brightly in a cover of an old, Lomax-era tune about infidelity called “Dead Cat on the Line.”
(Note: It’s brilliantly cathartic- and has some screeching, lewd moments of profanity. If you want the safe-for-work gist of it, see Tampa Red’s much older version below.)
Now, at the time, neither Lomax nor the internet had a clear answer to the source of the expression. It doesn’t only refer to infidelity as in the recordings here, but to something being off, not-right, and just…fishy. Being an old Southern expression, there are speculations that it refers to rotten catfish. Other guesses are that it’s about drowning kittens in a bag, or abandoned Caterpillar tractors on a gas line. And last night, I came across this bit of an old Reverend J.M. Gates sermon that referenced the expression:
Still, it does not conclusively answer the etymological question, as outlined in this NYT piece. But what a great expression.
Here’s a bluesy, righteous version by Marion Williams, closer to the content of the Reverend’s sermon:
and here’s a Tampa Red version that is closer to the Galas cover:
Thanks to my friend Ben Brandt, who shared this fantastic Charlie Parr version with me. If you want a sweetly mournful come-down from the above versions, this will do it.
So there’s your piece of North Americana for the day. Speaking of America, the election is well on the way. Whatever the outcome, it’s safe to say that there’s a dead cat on the line.
Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Dead Cat on the Line.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 27 Oct. 2016.