Kevin Pearce, who grew up in Wilmette, vividly remembers learning a song about the Great Chicago Fire when he was 4 or 5 years old. The words go something like this:
One dark night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary left a lantern in the shed.
And when the cow kicked it over,
She winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
But years later, while watching a football game, he noticed something weird.
“University of Kansas was playing,” he recalls. “And I noticed their marching band played that tune when they scored.”
Wondering why a team from Kansas would identify with a song about Chicago, Kevin looked up the song on Wikipedia and learned that “A Hot Time in the Old Town” was a big hit back in the 1890s. And the original lyrics were about a festive party and hot romance. They had nothing to do with Mrs. O’Leary.
Kevin wanted Curious City to dig deeper. So he asked:.
What’s the history of “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and who wrote the lyrics about Mrs. O’Leary and the Great Chicago Fire?
Researching that question, we found a story about the way jokes and songs can spread by word of mouth, like an intergenerational game of telephone.
We also learned that the original “Hot Time” song has a curious history of its own — beginning with a controversy about who wrote it.
From day one, the authorship of the original "Hot Time in the Old Town" was a matter of heated controversy. German immigrant Theodore Metz copyrighted the song in July 1896, but vaudeville actor Joe Hayden claimed he'd written it. Meanwhile, another musician, Texas banjo player Cad L. Mays, had published a different version of the song five months before Metz’s song came out.
The first verse of Metz’s song describes people gathering for a religious revival where a “hot time” is expected. A preacher delivers a sermon that makes everyone want to shout. The second verse describes a man wooing a woman dressed in red. The phrase “hot time” takes on a sexual connotation when she tells him: “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight, my baby”.
Like many songs from that era, May’s version is filled with racist descriptions of African Americans. There are no overt racial epithets in Metz’s version of “A Hot Time in the Old Town,” though it’s clearly written in a stereotypical black dialect.
Metz’s version of the song became famous after the sheet music was reissued — with Hayden’s name added to the credits as the lyricist. But that revision didn’t end the debate over the tune’s origins.
Other stories continued to claim that the song didn’t start with Metz, Hayden or Mays, who were all white, but rather with black musicians. One such newspaper report claimed that the music came out of Chicago’s Levee prostitution district. Another said Hayden heard the song first being played in Chicago by “an old Negro banjoist.” Yet another report claimed that Metz appropriated the tune from musicians playing it in Louisville, Kentucky, saloons.
Other stories traced the song to a black woman named Amanda Green who’d hollered it in the streets of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Decades later, other people connected “Hot Time” with a black singer called Mama Lou, who performed in the 1890s at the Castle, a brothel in St. Louis.
Some of these reports about the origins of “Hot Time” suggested that the tune was passed from one person to another before it was ever written down. Like other folk songs, it changed a little bit each time when singers and musicians repeated what they remembered hearing from someone else. As one newspaper put it, this song “was originally composed by the people.”
The song becomes a smash hit
Whoever wrote it, “A Hot Time in the Old Town” was one of the decade’s biggest hits. At a time when songs became popular through live performances and sheet music sales, “Hot Time” sold 750,000 copies within four years. Recording technology was still in its infancy, but several artists made wax cylinder phonograph recordings of the song, including singer Len Spencer and banjoist Vess Ossman( Listen to the full recording here.
And even in the era before commercial radio, the song was pervasive. In February 1898, the Sioux City Journal in Iowa reported that: “Thousands and thousands of persons in all walks of life have whistled and hummed and sung the ‘hot time’ melody in paroxysms of joy and delight.”
When the United States went to war with Spain in April 1898, “Hot Time” became the unofficial anthem for American soldiers in Cuba and the Philippines.
“They sang it on all possible occasions,” a journalist reported. “It was rattled out by the drums, shrieked by the fifes and blared by the bands ashore and afloat.”
And the spoofs and spinoffs began almost immediately. In 1897, musicians campaigning for Carter Harrison Jr. in Chicago played “a slightly warped rendition” of the tune on a wagon going up and down Clark Street. Harrison was elected mayor that April.
That same year, University of Wisconsin student Phillip L. Allen wrote a new set of words to sing at Badgers football games:
Cheer, boys, cheer, Wisconsin’s got the ball!
U rah, u rah, oh won’t they take an awful fall,
For when we hit their line they’ll have no line at all!
There’ll be a hot time in Wisconsin tonight.
The Wisconsin marching band still plays the tune, as do other college bands.
Mrs. O’Leary’s cow enters the song
A search of digitized newspapers reveals that the Mrs. O’Leary parody appeared in print on March 21, 1898, when “Hot Time” was near the peak of its popularity. The Independent Record in Helena, Montana, reported that a vaudeville singer-comedian known as Flossie Nash wrote these lyrics:
No doubt you’re all acquainted with the story, I’ll allow
That’s told of Mrs. O’Leary, and the doings of her cow.
This cow was tired of city life and wanted country air —
To be locked up in Chicago was more than she could bear.
So one dark night when the folks were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary left a lighted lamp out in the old cow shed;
The cow kicked it over and winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in Chicago tonight.”
That first verse has been forgotten over the years. But the main verse is recognizable as the ditty people still sing today, even though some of the words have changed.
According to the Independent Record, Flossie Nash sang her parody in Chicago, where it “tickled” local vaudeville fans. But no evidence has been found to verify that Nash performed in Chicago.
But who was she? “Miss Nash … refuses to disclose her true identity, but is said to be a society woman whose family has met with reverses,” the newspaper reported, adding: “Miss Nash is said to be a young woman, with a beautiful face and magnificent figure.”
Nash is mentioned in various theatrical articles and advertisements between 1891 and 1914, often billed as a “soubrette,” a term for a pretty and flirtatious young woman. Between 1892 and 1898, she performed with her husband, Bob Schuyler. Then she started doing shows with comedian acrobats Jim E. Gibson and William Allen. By 1901, she was married to Gibson. A decade later, they were entertaining California audiences as “That Komedy Couple,” and she was calling herself Flo Nash. Beyond that, the details of her life are a mystery.
From vaudeville parody to summer camp song
“A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” remained an iconic American song for decades. Blues legend Bessie Smith recorded it in 1927. And the tune served the opening theme for the earliest Looney Tunes cartoons, from 1930 to 1932. It’s also heard in the classic 1941 movie Citizen Kane.
But there don’t appear to be any records of the Mrs. O’Leary version. Nor was there any sheet music with those lyrics. So, how did the Mrs. O’Leary song spread? As far as we can tell, it spread only by word of mouth.
“None of the children’s repertoire is sheet music,” says Eve Harwood, an associate professor emerita in music education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who has researched playground songs and chants. “It’s learned in oral tradition, and it’s passed from child to child. It’s passed from older children to younger children.”
Tracking how a song was transmitted by oral tradition is difficult, but social media can help provide some clues. We posted a question on Twitter and Facebook, asking people when and where they learned the Mrs. O’Leary ditty. Dozens of people replied, saying they first heard it at schools and in summer camps, and not just in the Chicago area — everywhere from South Dakota to Texas to Connecticut.
David Galitz said his mother recalled hearing the song when she was growing up in rural Champaign County, Illinois, in the 1940s. “My mom says her dad sang it while carrying a lantern to their cow barn and also played it on his fiddle,” he shared.
The responses we received demonstrate how the song varies from place to place. Is the first line “Late one night” or “One dark night”? Is the woman “Mrs. O’Leary” or “Old Lady Leary”? It all depends on where and when you learned the song. In a New Jersey version, Mrs. O’Leary became “Old Lazy Larry.”
Harwood says such variations are typical when songs are learned through oral tradition. “They morph over time as more people add words or change things,” she says.
Jane Hanna, who teaches guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music, says folk songs like the Mrs. O’Leary ditty are more likely to endure if they’re simple and catchy. “They have melodies you can quickly grasp,” she says. “It’s really easy to make them your own and pass them on that way.”
Dave Crain, owner of Dave’s Records, used “Hot Time” when he was a counselor in the 1970s at Blackhawk Camp in Oregon, Illinois. He doesn’t remember ever seeing the camp’s songs printed on paper. “You just learned them around the campfire,” he says. “It had to be something simple.”
It’s common for kids to shout “Fire! Fire! Fire!” at the end of this song, sometimes followed by even more exclamations. WGN-TV Skycam 9 reporter Sarah Jindra recalled those shouts from her days as a Girl Scout. “The different grade levels would sing the different end parts — pour on water, pour on water; save my children, save my children; jump, lady, jump!”
Evanston playwright Mickle Maher learned the song at a camp in Michigan in the 1970s, where the refrain was followed by a “backward” version, with the words in jumbled order — concluding with a shout of “Erif, Erif, Erif!” (Of course, that’s “fire” spelled in reverse.)
“You come back from camp, and you know this song,” Maher says. “Maybe the other kids who didn’t go to camp don’t know this song, and you sort of have this extra secret handshake thing.”
Evanston journalist Anne Ford, who learned the song at a Girl Scout camp in Colorado in the 1980s, says: “I remember that I asked my mom why the narrator of the song says it’ll be a ‘hot time in the old town tonight’ and [the cow] winked, because that didn’t seem like an appropriate response to a city burning down.”
Soon after the Chicago Fire soccer team was founded in 1997, fans started chanting this song about Mrs. O’Leary to rally the team.
“While you might not know the rest of the lyrics right away, shouting, ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ is pretty easy, and something everybody can get into,” says Marty Tomszak, a song leader for Section 8 Chicago, an organization of Fire fans.
The lyrics on Section 8’s website are just a bit different from most versions — saying that the cow “tipped” over the lantern, instead of kicking it over.
Although the song spread by word of mouth for generations, today it has made its way onto the Internet.
ScoutSongs.com has two sets of lyrics: a fairly standard “Mrs. O’Leary” version, as well as “Old Lady Leary,” including a “backward” verse. The Ultimate Camp Resource website offers instructions for replacing some of the song’s words with silent gestures. For example, instead of singing “bed,” you’re supposed to hold your hands to one side of your head as if you’re sleeping.
The Mrs. O’Leary song was also set down in print, on the pages of the 1974 children’s book There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight by Robert Quackenbush. And some kids learn the song when they hear Chicagoans Amy Lowe and Megan Wells sing it in their show Fire in Boomtown: The Story of the Great Chicago Fire, which they released as a CD in 1997. (They’re performing the show April 3 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.)
Fact-checking that ditty
Lowe and Wells use their show to debunk the story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Not surprisingly, the song isn’t an accurate history of the Great Chicago Fire. The massive conflagration began on Oct. 8, 1871, in a barn on the Near West Side owned by the O’Learys, a family of Irish immigrants. But Catherine O’Leary testified that she was in bed when her barn caught fire.
“Mrs. O’Leary and her cows had nothing to do with it,” says Richard F. Bales, author of the 2002 book The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. “They were just blamed from the very beginning, and they continued to be blamed throughout history.”
Reporters probably heard children on the streets telling a story about the cow — and printed it as fact, Bales says. “I think that’s probably how it started — just by kids making up a story.”
Bales believes the Mrs. O’Leary song helped perpetuate this myth about the fire’s origins. “The song is iconic,” says Bales, who remembers it from his childhood in the 1950s in suburban Aurora. “We all knew the song. It was always there. It was in the air.”
Bales helped exonerate Catherine O’Leary with his meticulously researched book, but he doesn’t expect the myth — or that song — will fade away anytime soon. “Since 1871, she’s been blamed,” he says. “And for another hundred years, she’ll still be blamed for it.”
Thanks to the Chicago History Museum’s Ellen Keith, Richard Martin of Archeophone Records, Library of Congress music reference specialist Robert Lipartito and Steve Sullivan (author of Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings) for their assistance with research.
More about our questioner
Kevin Pearce has been wondering about the history of "A Hot Time in the Old Town" for many years.
Kevin's third grade class sang the Mrs. O'Leary version of "Hot Time" during a show at McKenzie Elementary School in Wilmette — with several extra verses. At the tune's climax, two kids inside a cow costume exclaimed, "Shame, oh shame!"
As it turns out, that extended version of the song came from Robert Quackenbush's 1974 book There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, which ends with the cow feeling ashamed for starting the fire that destroyed so much of Chicago.
Curious City helped Kevin get in touch with Quackenbush, who continues to write and illustrate children's books. "I haven't seen your book for at least 25 years, although I remember it well," Kevin told the author in an email.
Kevin, 37, now lives in the Dallas area, where he conducts the Lone Star Youth Orchestra in Irving, Texas, and teaches orchestra at the school district in Rockwall, Texas. "I am a music educator, and I've always been involved in education," he says.
But Kevin hasn't ever conducted or taught "A Hot Time in the Old Town" — not yet, anyway. Marveling at the tune's enduring popularity, Kevin remarks: "The story of the cow has sort of kept that song alive."
Robert Loerzel is a freelance journalist. Follow him at @robertloerzel.