Betty Boop and the Hi-De-Ho Man

Settle back, children. I have some more cartoons for you today.

The Cotton Club was a study in contrasts. It opened during the Prohibition era, and it was run by a bootlegger and notorious gangster while he was actually serving time in prison at Sing Sing. It featured the greatest African American entertainers of the era, but generally denied admission to blacks.

Dark-skinned performers in Cotton Club performances were usually depicted as jungle savages or plantation darkies, and Duke Ellington was expected to write “jungle music” for his white audience; chorus girls and strippers, on the other hand, were uniformly light-skinned, tall, young (under 21), and usually fraternized with the audience. Despite this oppressive atmosphere, the club launched or greatly enhanced the careers of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Coleman Hawkins, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the Nicholas Brothers, among others.

When Duke Ellington’s band left the club to tour the country, Cab Calloway’s orchestra became the Cotton Club house band, and his show was the Brown Sugar Revue. (There is some speculation that Mafia pressure was responsible for Cab’s hiring.) In 1931, Cab recorded his most famous song, “Minnie the Moocher.” As a result of the success of “Minnie the Moocher,” he became identified with its chorus, gaining the nickname “the Hi-De-Ho Man.”

The earliest known film footage of Cab Calloway is in the 1932 Betty Boop cartoon of “Minnie the Moocher,” which some reviewers have called “justifiably one of the most famous cartoons ever made.”

It was famous for a number of reasons, but one of the most significant was its pioneering use of rotoscoping, an animation technique where cartoonists trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame, lending a hyperrealistic feel to the animation. In “Minnie the Moocher,” Calloway’s own sinuous dance steps are rotoscoped and he becomes a dancing ghost.

It’s famous as well for its racy content, made all the more daring for its inclusion in a cartoon. Betty is an unmitigated sexpot (she was toned down significantly in later years), and the lyrics are heavily laden with drug references:

She messed around with a bloke named Smoky;
She loved him though he was cokie.
He took her down to Chinatown;
He showed her how to kick the gong around—
Showed her how to kick the gong around!

“Cokie” indicated a user of cocaine (similar to our “cokehead”); “kicking the gong around” was slang for smoking opium, and her dream in a subsequent verse about the king of Sweden was indicative of an opium dream. (Remember, Calloway also wrote a song called “The Reefer Man.”)

Then there’s the matter of Minnie’s occupation — she’s “a red-hot hoochie-coocher,” that is, a stripper. A “hoochie-coochie girl” is one who does the “cooch dance,” “cooch” being an old slang word for vagina. Some say the word derives from the French coucher, “to sleep with,” from the word for bed. But most scholars connect it with the ancient — and nearly universal — monosyllabic sounds “cu” or “koo,” the root for dozens of words having to do with women or fertility, including the, ahem, “c-word.”

Calloway also wrote an extended version, adding verses that describe Minnie and Smoky going to jail; Minnie pays Smoky’s bail, but he abandons her there. Another verse describes her tempting “Deacon Lowdown” when she “wiggled her jelly roll” at him. At the end of the song they take Minnie to “where they put the crazies,” and there she dies. This explains why both the short version and the long version end with the words, “Poor Minnie, poor Min.”

Minnie is mentioned in a number of other Cab Calloway songs, including “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” “Ghost of Smoky Joe,” “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” “Mister Paganini—Swing for Minnie,” “We Go Well Together,” “Zah Zuh Zaz,” and “Minnie’s a Hepcat Now.”

The Betty Boop “Minnie” was followed up by two other Betty Boop cartoons starring Cab Calloway: “Snow White” (featuring a snippet from “St. James Infirmary Blues,” his second-greatest hit) and “The Old Man of the Mountain”:

That bit of the song in “Snow White” was really just a tease. You honestly need to hear him do “St. James Infirmary Blues” in full. Here he is, from 1964, and he’s brilliant:

In 1952, he played the prominent role of Sportin’ Life in a production of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess starring William Warfield and Leontyne Price. And in 1967 Calloway co-starred as Horace Vandergelder in an all-black revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey (unique because the original production starring Carol Channing was still running at the time).

By all accounts, Calloway was powerful as Sportin’ Life, the charming seducer with a decidedly dark side. His big number in the show was “It Ain’t Necessarily So”:

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

Li’l David was small, but oh my!
Li’l David was small, but oh my!
He fought Big Goliath
Who lay down and dieth—
Li’l David was small, but oh my!

Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo,
Hoodle ah da wa da,
Scatty wah!
Oh yeah!

Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale,
Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale,
For he made his home in
That fish’s abdomen.
Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale.

Li’l Moses was found in a stream.
Li’l Moses was found in a stream.
He floated on water
Till Old Pharaoh’s daughter,
She fished him, she said, from that stream.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so
Well, it ain’t necessarily so
They tell all you chillun
The devil’s a villain,
But it ain’t necessarily so!

To get into Heaven,
Don’t snap for a seven!
Live clean! Don’t have no fault!
Oh, I takes that gospel
Whenever it’s pos’ble,
But with a grain of salt.

Methuselah lived nine hundred years,
Methuselah lived nine hundred years,
But who calls that livin’
When no gal will give in
To no man what’s nine hundred years?

I’m preachin’ this sermon to show,
It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
Ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
Ain’t necessarily . . . so!

Since there’s no footage of Calloway in Porgy and Bess, and since nothing succeeds like excess, I thought I’d round off this post with three very different versions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” First, footage from Trevor Nunn’s 2006 London production of Porgy and Bess: The Musical, with O-T Fagbenle as Sportin’ Life:

Then a surprisingly lightweight version by the 80s synth pop group Bronski Beat (though I’ll give you a cookie if you can tell me what that very strange video has to do with the song):

And finally, one played by the composer himself, Mr. George Gershwin:

Yesterday ended with a Muppets performance, and today will be no different. Here is “Cabby” on Sesame Street singing “The Hi-De-Ho Man, That’s Me”:

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~ by Craig R. Smith on 6 September 2007.

3 Responses to “Betty Boop and the Hi-De-Ho Man”

  1. Oh, I wish I had time to check out all the footage, but I have to work. Soon. A few random thoughts: The day after Fayard Nicholas died, I happened to be in NYC, and I met with one of my authors for drinks/dinner—we were working on a two-part article for the journal. This author happened to be the son of Hoagy Carmichael and was named after both his father and Bix Beiderbecke. After dinner, Hoagy and his daughter invited me to an open tap night. I went. It was the night after Fayard Nicholas had died, so it was pretty interesting to be around a bunch of tap dancers at that moment. It was announced that there would be a big memorial at the Hugh Hefner mansion in June.

    That’s a bit of name dropping, I know, but when I hear “Nicholas brothers…”

    Also, both Tim and I had a grandmother named Minnie.

    And I still use the word cooch. I love it.

  2. OK, so it’s early, and there’s a bit of redundancy above.

  3. You travel in some marvelously rarified circles. I once had drinks with members of Thelonious Monk’s band at the One Step Down in DC, and practically had a private concert from Karen Akers at Charlie Byrd’s old place, but that’s about it.

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