Q: A few years ago, I was watching a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon with my kids, when one of the characters serenaded his girlfriend by singing, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” My little girl, Marcia, responded, “Yes, I is.” Where does this expression come from? Is it idiomatic? Regional? Colloquial? Archaic?
A: The immortal question “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” can’t be labeled idiomatic or regional or colloquial or archaic.
It’s a song lyric that might be described as humorous dialect, specifically jazzy black slang exaggerated for comic effect.
The song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” didn’t originate with that Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
It was written in 1944 by Billy Austin and Louis Jordan for the movie Follow the Boys.
In the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon you refer to, it’s sung by Tom (the cat) to one of his many love interests.
The cartoon, entitled “Solid Serenade,” was a “Tom and Jerry” short made for theatrical release in 1946. And it enjoyed a long life on television in later years.
Tom wasn’t the only vocalist to record the song. It’s a standard of classic jazz, and has been performed by dozens of artists, black and white, including B. B. King, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, and Diana Krall.
The lyrics are slightly different depending on which version you listen to, but here’s one verse:
Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?
The way you’re actin’ lately makes me doubt.
Youse is still my baby-baby.
Seems my flame in your heart’s done gone out.
It should be noted that the question “Is you is or is you ain’t?” had been recorded in writing a generation or so before the song appeared.
It occurs more than once in the comic detective fiction of the Southern white writer Octavus Roy Cohen. His stories are populated by black characters—perhaps “caricatures” is a better word—including a private eye named Florian Slappey, from “Bumminham,” Alabama.
In “Chocolate Grudge,” a story published in the collection Assorted Chocolates (1922), an angry creditor says to Florian, “Well then, I asts you: Is you is or is you ain’t?”
And in “Horns Aplenty,” published in Florian Slappey Goes Abroad (1928), one jazz musician says to another, “I asks you: Is you is or is you ain’t?”
We’ve given the dates the stories appeared in books. But both were originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, in 1921 and 1926, respectively.
Cohen’s stories, with their exaggerated black dialect and stereotypical characters, would undoubtedly be considered insensitive today.
Not surprisingly, during the 1940s he briefly wrote for the radio series Amos ’n’ Andy.
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