I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

I picked up “Sister Kate” from Dave Van Ronk’s album with the Red Onion Jazz Band, and started playing it regularly on the street with Rob Forbes, because his mother, Grace, came by pretty much every week and would sing lead on it. She was from a fine old New England family, with what was known as a “swamp Yankee” accent, and had apparently contemplated running off to be a chanteuse in her youth — I have no idea what she sounded like then, but by 1977 she had many years of cigarettes behind her, and her voice had a soulful rasp that worked perfectly with this one.

The song’s composer of record was Armand Piron, a New Orleans bandleader and violinist who had a publishing partnership with Clarence Williams, though his authorship has frequently been disputed, in particular by Louis Armstrong. Piron, who apparently copyrighted it in 1919 (though it wasn’t published till 1922), told Al Rose that Louis was kind of partly right, but…

…that’s not Louis’ tune or mine or Pete [Bocage]’s either. That tune is older than all of us. People always put different words to it. Some of them were too dirty to say in polite company…. The way Louis did it didn’t have anything to do with his sister Kate:

Gotta have ’em before it’s too late,
They shake like jelly on a plate.
Big ‘n’ juicy, soft an’ round
Sweetes’ ones I ever found.

That’s the way Louis sang it, his words… There’s just so many places you could do a number like that. Not in my band, you know.

Though Piron and his band cleaned up the lyric, they kept the sense intact, since the generally accepted derivation of “shimmy” fits Armstrong’s verse pretty well. The etymology isn’t solid, but most authorities derive it from chemise — “shimmy” seems to have been American slang for a lightweight women’s blouse as early as the 1840s — and the dance move was to “shake your shimmy” by vibrating the relevant area as rapidly as possible.

Once again, I’m reminded of the extent to which the history of American vernacular song has been forever obscured by the prudery of publishers, folklorists, and literate amateurs who for various reasons chose not to write down what people actually sang, back in the days when a lot of people were singing in situations that did not require drawing room prose. Armstrong apparently sang the song in honor of a local prostitute, and I find an internet source reporting his original title as “Up in Maddie’s Bunk.” I don’t know the evidence for that (if you do, please let me know), but it doesn’t seem unlikely and would have been very much in the mainstream of what was sung around “the District” in the formative years of jazz. Jelly Roll Morton provided some choice examples in his Library of Congress recordings, but the overwhelming majority of these lyrics survive only in expurgated versions, if at all, leaving us with only a few tantalizing hints and rumors of the originals. Which is, of course, better than nothing…