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Poor Kitty Popcorn, or The Soldier’s Pet

Inspiration for writing Smithsonian Libraries blog posts can come from a very winding path. In my work as the Libraries’ Special Collections Cataloger, it seems that almost every book I pick up offers fertile ground for blogging. But time and attention are limited, and it’s just too easy most days to say to myself, “Wow, that’s interesting,” and move on to the next item. But this particular piece has stayed in the back of my mind for a while now—it has an almost irresistible combination of American historical context, insights into nineteenth century attitudes, and noteworthy biographical and bibliographical details. Throw in the cat-blogging aspect (on the heels, or rather paws, of my earlier Libraries blog entries on the Pallas Cat, the Cheshire Cat Challenge, and the feline-powered sewing machine), as well as the wintry setting, and the designation of January 19th as National Popcorn Day, and this entry just seemed to write itself.

Cover of Poor Kitty Popcorn
Cover of Poor Kitty Popcorn

Did you ever hear the story of the loyal cat? Meyow!
Who was faithful to the flag, and ever follow’d that? Meyow!

Poor Kitty Popcorn, one of the many songs written by American composer Henry Clay Work (1832-1884), spins a grand tale of the loyal bond formed between a Union soldier and his pet cat, Popcorn, during the Civil War.

Oh she had a happy home beneath a southern sky,
But she pack’d her goods and left it when our troops came nigh,
And she fell into the column with a low glad cry, Meyow!

Round her neck she wore a ribbon—she was black as jet—Meyow!
And at once a gallant claim’d her for a soldier’s pet—Meyow!
All the perils of the battle and the march she bore,
Climbing on her master’s shoulder when her feet were sore,
Whisp’ring in his ear with wonder at the cannon’s roar, Meyow!

In the song, the stalwart soldier who marched forth with this remarkable cat survived the rigors of the war, returning to his home on the northern prairies. But the story then takes a more pathetic turn.

Now the “cruel war is over” and the troops disband —Meyow!
Kitty follows as a pilgrim in the Northern land—Meyow!
Ah! But sorrow overtakes her, and her master dies,
While she sadly sits a gazing in his dim blue eyes,
Till by strangers driven rudely from the door, she cries, Meyow!

So she wanders on the prairie till she sees his form—Meyow!
Carried forth and buried roughly ‘mid the driving storm—Meyow!
Oh! Her slender frame, it shivers in the northern blast,
As she seeks the sand mound on which the snow falls fast,
And alone amid the darkness there she breathes her last Meyow!

The dismal chorus of the song tugs at the heart strings:

Poor Kitty Popcorn!
Buried in a snow drift now.
Never more shall ring the music of your charming song, Meyow!
Never more shall ring the music of your charming song, Meyow!

The song Poor Kitty Popcorn, in spite of its overly dramatic rendering in song and in the vivid before and after scene engraved on the cover of the sheet music (shown above), might have some true elements to the story. The life of a soldier can be lonely, alternating tedium with terror, and the affection of a pet can offer much solace and amusement, creating a bond that can continue long after deployment is over (for instance, there have been recent stories in the news about some U.S. Marines who have adopted pet cats in Afghanistan, detailing their efforts to bring these beloved animals back home with them). The notion of a pet cat accustomed to riding along perched on a soldier’s knapsack hardly seems so fanciful.

Henry Clay Work was a prolific writer of words and music, whose songs Grandfather’s Clock and Marching Through Georgia (inspired by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 campaign) are still familiar today. An ardent abolitionist who nonetheless wrote a number of songs for blackface minstrel groups, Work used his talents to celebrate American patriotism and the achievements of the Union Army, in songs with titles like Sleeping for the Flag, Who Shall Rule This American Nation? and Washington and Lincoln. Sensitive to the sufferings of widows, orphans, and families blighted by alcoholism, Work also wrote songs supportive of the Temperance Movement, such as Lillie of the Snow-Storm, or, Please, Father, Let Us In!, in which a pitiful child pleads with her drunken father who has locked his family out of their home on a bitterly cold winter’s night.

The Dibner Library copy of Poor Kitty Popcorn was reprinted circa 1920 in a volume of collected songs by Work. The imprint on the original sheet music was S. Brainard’s Sons of Cleveland, with the copyright registered in 1866 to the noted music publishing firm of Root & Cady in Chicago, where Work had been employed as a printer of sheet music. The Dibner Library’s copy was donated by Bertram Work, Jr., a descendant of the songwriter. Additional pages of the sheet music for Poor Kitty Popcorn can be seen on the Libraries’ Flickr site (here, here, here, and here).

Songs of Henry Clay Work: poet and composer, born 1832, died 1884. Compiled by Bertram G. Work, Nephew of the Author. New York: Press of J.J. Little & Ives Co., [1920?].

Call number: qM1620 .W897S6X 1920 SCDIRB
Housed in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, located in the National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

—Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger

5 Comments

  1. I like words and rhymes from this song. Sounds so cool, like an good poem a little bit. I’ll remember it

  2. Kate

    Long ago when I was getting a graduate degree in musicology this song was mentioned in passing by a professor. I immediately rushed to the music library to listen to our recording and copy the lyrics. I have forgotten everything else I learned in the class but still have Poor Kitty Popcorn committed to memory and trot it out at family gatherings.
    I have always wondered if Work intended this song to be humorous or if it was a straightforward tearjerker. I hope it was the latter!
    thanks for sharing the sheet music cover!

  3. Kate, thanks for your memories about hearing this song in your graduate musicology program (that must have been a really great class, and a well-stocked music library too!). I haven’t heard this music played, and I’ve wondered what it sounds like. It is hard to tell how seriously to take the lyrics. I get a mental picture of a late 19th-century girl or boy standing by a piano to sing this song, using a lot of dramatic gestures to act out the story.

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  5. Ben

    I have recordings of many of Works most popular pieces including “Poor Kitty Popcorn.” They were recorded in the 1970’s by William Bolcom and Joan Morris. They’re fantastic, and I can’t stop listening to them, but I haven’t been able to find any other decent copy’s of pieces by Work.

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