After reading Hal Smith’s insightful piece on just how Sid Catlett plays on the 1943 record of O KATHARINA, I found myself wondering about this song that Eddie Condon had remembered as a special favorite of Bix Beiderbecke’s.
Or, to put it another way, who was KATHARINA and why did she make someone go OH? Or “O”?
Online I found the song’s lyrics (courtesy of the Duke University Libraries). Music by Richard Fall, lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert. Gilbert is known for WAITING FOR THE ROBERT E. LEE and RAMONA.
Readers of tender sensibilities will find that the cheerful anti-feminist and “weightist” stereotypes of the time offensive, but right now I am trying to sing along . . . with only limited success. I believe, incidentally, that the song has three parts — a “patter” section before the verse and chorus.
Again we have the Chauve Souris
They come to us from ‘cross the sea
With something new they always do
For me and you
A new contagious melody
The rage of London and Paree
They brought along
And now this song is going strong
For Balieff instructs them all
He makes you sing it with him
Before you go you’re bound to know
The melody and rhythm
And then next day while on your way
You hum and sing and long to play
Oh Heinie sailed from Rotterdam
He stopped off first at Amsterdam
To meet his bride then side by side
They took the ride across the sea
To Yankee land
He furnished up a flat so grand
And there she sat
So big and fat
Down at their flat
One night he took his wiffie out
They went to see the Follies
He thought that she was such a queen
Until he saw those Dollies
When they got home
He shook his head
Then to his wife he turned and said
O Katharina, O Katharina
O Katharina, O Katharina, to keep my love you must be leaner
There’s so much of you and
Two could love you
Learn to swim, join a gym, eat farina
O Katharina, unless you’re leaner I’ll have to build a big arena
You’re such a crowd, my Katharine
I got a lot when I got you.
(In the second chorus, a summary tells me, Katharina loses weight and gets so appealing that all Heinie can say, admiringly, is “O KATHARINA!” In the spirit of fairness, we never find out how much he weighs. The patriarchy set to music and all that, of course.)
Delving deeper into these matters, I asked Lorna Sass — jazz photographer by night, Grain Goddess and Queen of Pressure Cooking by day — for her opinion of farina. She told me that perhaps Gilbert needed an easy rhyme for the heroine’s name. “Farina isn’t a diet food,” she said, “but maybe it was healthier than what Katharina usually ate. But farina isn’t a whole grain — too much is removed in the processing to make it shelf-stable forever.” (That’s Lorna’s award-winning WHOLE GRAINS EVERY DAY, EVERY WAY.)
I’m surprised and amused that “join a gym” was a common phrase as far back as 1924.
The sheet music advertises O KATHARINA as an all-purpose song: “Walk-Around One-Step Song or Shimmy Fox-Trot,” which covers all the possibilities. And since it was part of the CHAUVE-SOURIS (“The Bat”) touring revue supervised by Balieff, this song is an early example of a piece of art referring to itself, very modernistic for the time.
I can hear Bix and the Wolverines taking this one on, and perhaps Joe Oliver had his own version — Jess Stacy remembered Papa Joe playing UKULELE LADY, so he was not averse to pop songs of the day. Hal Smith thinks of Doc Cook and Freddie Keppard: the bands must have had a good time with this one. (There’s a Sam Wooding recording of the tune made in Berlin in 1925, available on the Red Hot Jazz website.)
P.S. Hooray for “finding-out-new-things,” a gratifying activity that doesn’t stop when you graduate . . . !