There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Schweitzer, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” If you have to ask what Schweitzer means, to lift a phrase from Louis Armstrong, you’ll never know. At the conclusion of his Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of the human experience of nature, referring to “the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and spiritual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one sometimes exchanges with a cat.” If only one could approach the vicissitudes of life with the calmness and serenity of a cat.
While it is not precisely clear when the word “cat” began to used to refer to another person, most certainly it emerged from American jazz culture. Bob Yurochko observes:
Another phenomenon that rose from bebop [in the 1940s] was a new language or slang used by musicians called “bop talk.” Musicians communicated with each other with words like “hip,” “cool,” “man,” “cat,” or “dig” to form their own lexicon, which became part of the jazz musician’s heritage. Boppers became so aloof that many of their social and musical antics were largely exaggerated, finding much disfavor elsewhere in musical circles. (A Short History of Jazz 103)
To be fair, many of these words were probably invented or perhaps popularized by Louis Armstrong, as Gary Giddens observes in his book Satchmo. To call someone a “cool cat” became a statement of approbation. (Incidentally, a “hepcat,” in Forties bebop culture, was any person who admired, or perhaps played, jazz and swing.) Robert S. Gold calls the word “cool” the “most protean of jazz slang terms” and meant, among other things, “convenient . . . off dope . . . on dope, comfortable, respectable, perceptive, shrewd—virtually anything favorably regarded by the speaker” (A Jazz Lexicon, 65). Since the word “cat” was so strongly associated with jazz culture, as well as the expression “cool cats,” there developed, in comics and cartoons, the practice of using anthropomorphized cats as symbols of jazz musicians. Bob Clampett’s cartoon “Tin Pan Alley Cats” (1943), for instance, features a caricature of jazz musician Fats Waller as a cat – see a discussion of the cartoon here.
Hence it follows that not every song about a cat (or kitten, or pussycat) is really about a cat of the feline sort.
Bent Fabric [Bent Fabricius-Bjerre] and His Piano – Alley Cat
David Bowie – Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Harry Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle
Petula Clark – The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky)
The Coasters – Three Cool Cats
Elton John – Honky Cat
The Grateful Dead – China Cat Sunflower
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Phenomenal Cat
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Nashville Cats
Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
The Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat
The Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut
Norma Tanega – Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog