Dorothy Dandridge and “Cow Cow Boogie”

I’ve been interested in the African American West for around a decade now, and I find that I’m still continually surprised by new things—or, rather, by old things that I’m just now discovering, particularly in the realm of popular culture. I recently came across a clip of actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge, decked out in a cowgirl outfit (well, okay, a showgirl version of a cowgirl outfit—can’t imagine a skirt that short would be very comfortable for a long day in the saddle), singing and performing the song “Cow Cow Boogie” in this short film from 1942. And keep and eye out for actor and comedian Dudley Dickerson, who expresses his enthusiasm for Dandridge’s performance with his guns. And, is it just me, or is Dandridge’s imitation of the cowboy riding his horse (as she sings “Comma ti yi yi yeah”) somewhat suggestive?

Dandridge rose to fame as the lead in the 1954 film Carmen Jones (adapted from the opera Carmen), although she had been performing as a singer and dancer since the 1930s. Her story was brought back into public consciousness by Halle Barry’s portrayal of her in the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).

The song “Cow Cow Boogie” was written (with two co-writers) by African American saxophonist and jazz musician Bennie Carter. Musically, the combination of boogie woogie style with western pop provides a good example of the way African American writers and performers have adapted and altered mainstream western motifs, not just imitating those motifs but transforming them into something new. Although the lyrics do not initially state that the “peculiar cowboy song” overheard is being sung by a black cowboy,  the slang “get hip” and the information that the cowboy learned this ditty “in the city” at least suggest that such is the case.

Out on the plains down near Santa Fe
I met a cowboy ridin’ the range one day
And as he jogged along I heard him singin’
The most peculiar cowboy song
It was a ditty, he learned in the city
Comma ti yi yi yeah
Comma ti yippity yi yeah

Now get along, get hip little doggies
Get along, better be on your way
Get along, get hip little doggies
He trucked ’em on down that old fairway
Singin’ his Cow Cow Boogie in the strangest way
Comma ti yi yi yeah
Comma ti yippity yi yeah

Some versions of the song include the lyrics “he’s got a knocked out western accent with a dixie touch” in a later stanza, but, in most versions, that line reads, “he’s got a knocked out western accent with a Harlem touch,” thus making the race of the hip cowboy from the city fairly clear.

Although the song first became a hit when performed (in 1942) by the white singer Ella Mae Morse, it has proved extremely popular with African American performers. In addition to Dandridge’s version, Ella Fitzgerald (with The Ink Spots) as well as Herb Jeffries (the original “Two-Gun Man From Harlem”) have performed and recorded the song. The song was originally written for an Abbott and Costello comedy western, Ride ’em Cowboy (1942), and Ella Fitzgerald seems to have performed the song in the movie (but I’m still investigating to be sure).

For posts on similar topics see:

Noble Sissle and His (Cowboy) Band

Revising the Wild West 100 Greatest Westerns

Weekly Roundup (Western Music), which includes a clip of Herb Jeffries singing “The Payday Blues,” from the film The Bronze Buckaroo.

4 thoughts on “Dorothy Dandridge and “Cow Cow Boogie””

  1. i’m writing my 2nd book on yodeling and am especially interested – in book one but even more so in book 2 – in black yodelers [cowboy, jazz, blues, african etc] and keep running into more. i’m already fairly sure black yodeling has been severely under-estimated but its been fun / educational. would like to hear back from you…

    bart plantenga

  2. 114 of my yodeling songs were inducted into the Recorded Sound Reference Center’s permanent music collection in the Library of Congress in April 2007. My friend McDonald Craig [a Korean War Veteran in Linden, Tn.] is the only Black Yodeler to win First Place at a Annual [1976] Jimmie Rodgers Yodeling Contest in Meridan, Mississippi.

  3. I saw a version of this, I believe that it was sung by this darling cutie. The movie itself was a compilation of black jazz artist acts with no plot, just awesome performances in b & w. I caught it in the 80s on MAX or maybe HBO. Does anybody know the name of that “movie?” I want to find it and buy that wonderful flick. I believe it had Fats Domino (?), and a bunch of black singers. I THINK Ms Dandridge was standing near a piano when singing this song, or whoever it was. Anybody? Thanks. im.fmouie (at) gmail (dot)com

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