“Houn’ Dawg” song originated in Oregon

Today’s post was one of my favorites to write.  It started with finding a Chinook song I hadn’t known before (always a thrill!), and it only got better as I followed the historical threads that connected it with the living pulse of US popular culture, vintage 1912.  You decide after reading: did a runaway smash hit pop song, one that nearly got a fella elected President, start life in Chinuk Wawa?

Here’s the claim…

The Pendleton Daily East Oregonian of March 22, 1912 ran an article on page 2 whose headline, at the bottom of column 3 (with the story continuing in column 4), caught my eye:


Houn Dawg song originated in Oregon 1

Spokane, Wash. — Delvers into the early history of the Northwest claim they have undoubtable evidence that the “Houn’ Dawg” song of the Ozarks was heard by Hernan Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, when he reached the Oregon country on a plundering tour, 40 years after the discovery of the western continent. The song in Chinook, the universal language of the northern Indians, follows:

Quanisum nika chako copa town,
Tenas-man chukin nika comox conaway kah;
Cultus copa nika spose yaka mowitch comox;
Klaska delate kopet chukin nika comox conaway kah.

“There are several Indian versions which show traces of apparent French origin,” said R.B. Milroy, chairman of the republican central committee of Yakima county, Wash., “but I do not think that the song was brought into the Northwest by the early French priests. The versions containing French words simply show the result of the mingling of tongues in the early days.

“The Chinook Indians were once the great trading tribe of the Northwest, and they came into contact with the voyagers the early French settlements of eastern Canada sent out toward the Pacific slope and intermountain country, as well as the factors and men of the Hudson Hay company.”

A. J. Splawn, mayor of North Yakima, who has lived in central Washington since 1861 and has been friend and advisor of the Indians there a half century, says while he greatly admires Champ Clark he thinks it only just that the red men of the Northwest be given credit, as he is satisfied the “Houn’ Dawg” song is of Indian origin.

Houn Dawn song originated in Oregon 2


First off, what’s the Houn’ Dawn song?  Surely not what I know from Elvis, right?  I went a-checkin’, and now I can’t get it out of my head, it’s so darn catchy (be forewarned).  The tune, as rendered by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers in 1928:

Here’s the original sheet music from 1912, when “They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Around” was a huge popular hit, and people bought more written-out than recorded music:

hound dog song sheet music


All good.  But isn’t there something weird about appealing to a political party member for the authoritative backstory on a pop song?

R.B. Milroy, a Washington pioneer, had spent a good deal of time enriching himself and his brother up north, so he could have known a thing or two about the Indians up there.  His reminiscences might be worth taking a look at. He spent time in Alaska during the Klondike rush, but I don’t know that he was renowned for his musicology or ethnography.  Here is a photo of him with Mrs. Geraldine N. Guie (wife of historian/author Heister Dean Guie) and Ethel Swanstrom:

r.b. milroy

And the (English) lyrics of the song are far from what “French priests” would be teaching–

Me and Lim Brick and Old Bill Brown
Takin’ a load of corn to town
My Old Jim Dog, the darned old cuss
He just naturally followed us

As we drove by Sam Johnson’s door
Passed and cursed him out the door
Jim, he’s good behind the box
And all them fellers are throwin’ rocks

Every time I go to town
The boys keep a-kickin’ my dog around
Makes no difference if he is a hound
You got to quit kicking my dog around


They tied a can to Old Jim’s tail
Running him around the count[y] jail
That made us a-dead burned sore
Lim, he cussed and Bill, he swore

Me and Lim Brick and Old Bill Brown
Lost no time a-get them down
We lost them fellers on the ground
For kicking my Old Jim Dog around

Refrain: -Solo-

Jim saw his duty there and then
He tore ‘em to them gentlemen
He sure messed up the courthouse square
With the rags and meat and the hide and hair

The Sheriff came and stopped the fuss
And all them boys shook hands with us
We gathered ‘round that load of corn
And every man had a healthy horn

Refrain: -Solo-

Old Jim Dog is worth much cash
But I can tell you, he ain’t no trash
He wakes me up before the break of day
And he keeps them revenue-boys away

He’s the best old dog, you ever did see
Wherever I go, he follows me
His voice is sweet, his name is Jim
He’d fight for me and I’d for him

Refrain: -Solo-

–so it dawns on us that Milroy was joking about that part!  Could this entire newspaper article be a gentle hoax?

Andrew J. (“AJ”, “Jack”) Splawn is well-known to us Chinookers.  Quoting him lends sure authority to any claims about a Jargon origin for this song.

aj splawn

Splawn was another early settler.  He was born in 1845 in Missouri, so he came out here just as he was stepping into manhood. He spoke Chinuk Wawa in his countless friendships with Native people–but oddly, that’s not appealed to here.  Instead, his testimony about the Houn’ Dawg song centers for some reason on a “Champ Clark”.

Was that the singer or composer of the hit song?

Nope, James Beauchamp Clark was a politician, from the great state of…guess which…Missouri!


Speaker of the US House of Representatives Champ Clark was very big in the news in 1912, the year he nearly secured the Democratic party presidential nomination.  His campaign’s theme song?  “They Gotta Quick Kickin’ My Dog Around“!  (The link there takes you to audio of the original 1912 wax-cylinder recording by Byron G. Harlan with the American Quartet.)

Champ being a Democrat throws some light on the reason for quoting Splawn in tandem with local Republican leader Milroy: here you have a competing narrative from what we might now call Cascadian patriots, staking our region’s claim to the national limelight.

I could go on following numerous threads that would make this a fun book-chapter length historical detective study.  The main question behind the song is the persistent rumor of its old age, with some folks claiming it even goes back to 15th-century German children!  (Compare http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=3787.)

Keeping to the point for us here, was this really an Indian song?  I sure don’t think so.  Those with a knowledge of Chinook Wawa can see for themselves that the Jargon version given by Milroy is a typically clunky translation from English.  It’s overly literal in its slavish adherence to the well-known English lyrics.  “…chukin nika comox conaway kah” (kicking my dog everywhere) is a clunky attempt at expressing “kicking my dog around”.  And who the heck calls a “hound dog” a “mowich comox” (deer dog) in Jargon?

My judgment is that, ladies and gentlemen and all the bateaux on the Columbia, we have herewith discovered a novel addition to the canon of our Pacific Northwest illahee’s own treasured literary oeuvre, doggerel.  Pun intended this time, so you’ll get no apology from me.

(What you might get is audio of me and the band I’m wanting to start, singing this song.  Or maybe one of you readers will beat me to it?  Post the video online!)

So the Pendleton news item is a good-natured political joke.  I wonder if it was picked up by papers in other regions who didn’t spot the humor?