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Tracks Unwrapped

I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My
Sister Kate



Shimmie Prohibited notice


I went to a dance with my sister Kate;
Everybody there thought she danced so great;
I realized a thing or two,
When I got wise to something new:
When I looked at Kate, she was in a trance,
And then I knew it was in her dance;
All the boys are going wild
Over sister Katie's style.

Oh, I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate;
She shimmies like a jelly on a plate.
My mama wanted to know last night,
What makes the boys think Kate's so nice.


The song was written in 1919 by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron and is usually associated with a shimmy dance move, but was there actually a 'Sister Kate'?

Let’s unwrap ‘The Shimmy’ first. It roared outrageously into the 1920s along with the Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Varsity Drag when a new dance seemed to come out every week.

How do you dance the Shimmy? The body is held still, except for the shoulders, which are quickly alternated back and forth - when the right shoulder goes back, the left one comes forward. It may help to hold the arms out slightly bent at the elbow, and when the shoulders are moved, keep the hands in the same position. A description in words is not much use. You have to see it danced ... here’s a video to help:



The dance was often considered to be obscene and was frequently banned from dance halls during the 1920s, more moderately it was described as ‘naughty’ and in the video you will see that one newspaper described it as ‘The ‘Shimmy Dance’ – Outlawed as a Dance but Highly Valuable as a Personal Boudoir Exercise to Beautify Shoulders and Neck’!


The Shimmy dance exercise


The claims to the origins of the Shimmy, which was also named the ‘Shimmy She’ or descriptively the ‘Shimmy Sha Wobble’, are varied. There is a claim that the dance goes back to Haitian Voodoo movements. We read in Wikipedia: ‘Gilda Gray (the actress and dancer who popularised the Shimmy) attributed the origin of the 'Shimmy' to the American Indians in an interview published July 8 1919 in Variety saying "You may not believe it but the original shimmy dance has never been properly introduced in New York. I know, for I have studied the dancing characteristics of the Indians for a long time and they are really responsible for the shimmy which they labelled the 'Shima Shiwa'. There have been continual efforts on the part of this dancer and that one, with each declaring that his or her version is the 'original.' There is no doubt but that the shimmy dance as it was constructed by the American Indian... would have a greater popularity if done right."

However much they tried to ban the Shimmy, it opened the door to a number of other dances where people could ‘let themselves go’ completely uninhibited. Take a look at this clip of some of the dances of the 1920s:



The video seems to suggest that it was mainly women who were the focus of the dances and there has to be truth in that. In the book Seeing The American Woman 1880-1920 (Katherine H. Adams, Michael L. Keene, Jennifer C. Koella), it is noted that: ‘...Mae West first saw the dance as she wrote in her autobiography, in two African American jazz clubs in Chicago: “They got up from the tables, got out on the dance floor, and stood in one spot, with hardly any movement of the feet, and just shook their shoulders, torsos, breasts and pelvises. We thought it was funny and were terribly amused by it. But there was a naked, sexual agony about it too”. ... Critics’ reaction to this new dance, and especially to Mae West doing it, resembled the strongly negative but evocative response to hooch coochers and to Salomés. Sime Silverman in Variety reviewed her shimmy as an unfortunate return to the bawdiness of cooching, but admitted that she ‘bowled them over’ and ‘stopped the show with it’.

Elvis Presley






It would be some years before Elvis Presley caused the same male sensation and by the time Michael Jackson did the 'crotch grab', people hardly batted an eyelid.











We won’t spend too long looking at the Hoochie Coochie dance, there are many interpretations, but here is a very brief clip of ‘Fatima’ dancing it in 1896:



You can see how the Shimmy can be linked to the Belly Dance and that has a long history where, in the Ottoman Empire belly dance was performed by both boys and women in the Sultan's palace.

Now all the boys in the neighbourhood,
They know that she can shimmy and it's understood;
I know that I'm late, but I'll be up-to-date
When I shimmy like my sister Kate.
I mean, when I shimmy like my sister Kate.



Before ‘Sister Kate’ was published in 1919 by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron, Spencer Williams, had already written the tune Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble in 1917. There are a number of versions available but click here for it played in New York in 1928 by Miff Mole and his Little Molers - Red Nichols, Leo McConville (trumpet); Dudley Fosdick (mellophone);  Miff Mole (trombone); Frank Teschemacher (clarinet); Joe Sullivan (piano); Eddie Condon (banjo); Gene Krupa (drums).





Clarence Williams




Although Clarence Williams published the song, it appears confusing as to whether he actually wrote it. As we have seen, it is 'variously believed to be based on a bawdy tune by Louis Armstrong (about Kate Townsend, a murdered brothel madam) or transcribed from a version performed by Anna Jones and Fats Waller.

As far as we know, Clarence did not have a sister called 'Kate'. He was born in Louisiana and ran away from home when he was twelve to join Billy Kersand's Traveling Minstrel Show. When he moved to New Orleans he worked shining shoes and doing odd jobs, but soon became known as a singer and master of ceremonies. By the early 1910s, he was a well-regarded local entertainer also playing piano, and was composing new tunes by 1913'. He did have a neice, Katherine Henderson, but it is perhaps more likely that the lyrics just 'scanned'. Another of his compositions was 'Shout, Sister, Shout'.


Clarence Williams




So was there actually a ‘Sister Kate’ who could shimmy?

If the song was based on a bawdy tune by Louis Armstrong, it was apparently about Kate Townsend - the murdered brothel Madam. There is a comprehensive account of Kate Townsend on the Storyville New Orleans website (click here), but in brief, she was thought to have been born Katherine Cunningham in Liverpool in 1839. At fifteen she was a barmaid at a dance-house on Paradise Street and became pregnant by a sailor, Peter Kearnaghan. He left, she gave birth to twins and abandoning them, sailed for New York, changed her name to Townsend and travelled south arriving in New Orleans in 1857. Initially, she worked in brothels but by the age of 24 she had made some influential friends and set up her own premises at 40 Basin Street.

'The fireplaces and mantles were of white marble, the furniture of highly polished solid black walnut was upholstered in damask, floors were covered with velvet carpets'. The sleeping chamber of the bordello mistress was extravagant, as described in the Storyville website. 'The cost was said to have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars ...'

A certain Treville Sykes became her 'fancy man' but later she became attracted to another man named McLern. Kate, Sykes, McLern and his partner, Molly, got into fights over the relationships and on November 3rd, 1883, a 'commotion was heard in Kate's room. The following morning, the Picayune paper carried the news: 'Carved to death! Terrible fate of Kate Townsend at the hands of Treville Sykes with the instrumentality of a bowie knife. Her breast and shoulders literally covered with stabs'.


The kate Townsend Tragedy



Whether or not that was the ‘Sister Kate’ and whether she could shimmy, we shall probably never know.

If the song was transcribed from a version by Anna Jones and Fats Waller, that again is uncertain. We can listen to that recording from 1923, but the date seems too late to match the Clarence Armstrong composition:



Fats and Anna's version does give us all the lyrics, however, and to be more ‘up to date’ they also are here in this videod 2014 live studio recording by current vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant:



The tune has been recorded countless times and one could spend all day on YouTube listening to different versions. The Beatles sang it in Hamburg in 1962; Judith Durham recorded a lively version after she left The Seekers, and here we have a video of the song by David Bowie - although the dancer in the video could benefit from some Shimmy lessons:





So - how to end this article - Ottilie Patterson? Bunk Johnson? Muggsy Spanier? I have chosen this video with music by the Original Memphis Five from 1922 because someone has added posters and pictures showing how The Shimmy became an international sensation. The Original Memphis Five was an early jazz quintet founded in 1917 by trumpeter Phil Napoleon and pianist Frank Signorelli. Jimmy Lytell, a member from 1922 to 1925, and Miff Mole were musicians in the group. Jimmy Durante played piano (with Ladd's Black Aces) while both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were also members of the Original Memphis Five.



I realized a thing or two,
When I got wise to something new:
When I looked at Kate, she was in a trance,
And then I knew it was in her dance;
All the boys are going wild
Over sister Katie's style.



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