Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Return of the Prodigal Song Title - a History and Etymology of "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd Have Baked a Cake!"

If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake! (1950)

Steven D. Price, author of Endangered Phrases, calls this American idiom an, “expression of delighted surprise at finding someone whose appearance was unanticipated.”  

The idiom became popular in the 1950s, in the wake of a #1 hit record by that title, sung by Eileen Barton.  Everyone, it seems, was singing the song in 1950.  If Jesus Christ, himself, had told the parable of the prodigal son in 1950, he might have recorded the song to mark the occasion.  Actual recordings were released by the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger, Eve Young and the Homesteaders, Georgia Gibbs, and Gracie Fields. Years later, Bert tried to appease Cookie Monster by baking him a cake when no cookies were available.    

The sudden popularity of the song and the idiom in 1950 suggest that the expression may have been brand new; when in point of fact, the expression was making its unanticipated return after a nearly thirty-year absence.  It is not clear whether the songwriters intentionally copied an old song title, or were influenced by the subconscious remembrance of a long-forgotten song.  Of the three men credited with writing “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake,” two of them were old enough to have heard songs in the 1920s with nearly identical titles.  Al Hoffman (who also wrote, “Mairzy Doats”) and Clemm Watts (aka Al Trace) were 22 and 24, respectively, in 1924; the same year in which Leslie Jeffries & His Rialto Orchestra released their recording: 

If We’d Known You was Gonna Come, We’d a Surely Baked a Cake (September 1923)  

Larry Schaetzlein and George A. Hill wrote that song in 1923.  Schaetzlein, later known as Larry Shay, became the music director for MGM studios in the early 1930s, where he hired Bing Crosby for his first film role at $50 a day.

(Courtesy of Mike Thomas, you can listen to Leslie Jeffries & His Rialto Orchestra's 1924 recording of "If I Knew You Was Gonna Come, We'd a Surely Baked a Cake".) 

A copyright renewal for Schaetzlein and Hill’s song filed in 1952 suggests that someone may have been trying to capitalize on the new-found popularity of the phrase.  They couldn’t really complain about the borrowed title, however.  Their first song, “Do You, Don’t You, Will You, Won’t You Love Me Too,” written in 1923, was suspiciously similar to the song, “Do You, Don’t You, Will You, Won’t You,” written in 1909.  And, in any case, they first filed for copyright protection for “If We’d a Known You was Gonna Come, We’d a Surely Baked a Cake” in September 1923; two months after William J Ryan wrote: 

Why didn’t you tell us that you were coming, we would have baked a cake (July 1923)

I guess turn-around is fair play.

What’s not clear, however, is whether the expression existed as an idiom before it was a song title.  Did the rival songs of 1923 reflect an idiom already in existence? – or did William J. Ryan coin a new expression?  Did it exist as an idiom before 1950? – or did the popularity of the song, and pithier phrasing of the expression, lead to a revived song title becoming an idiom? 

My sense is that it was not used idiomatically before 1950.  The only evidence I can find of the existence of anything like the idiom before 1950 are the two song titles from the 1920s.  Other than those song titles, I have not been able to find any other examples, or hints, of the idiom before 1950.

If you can find any such evidence – let me know; I might bake you a cake.

UPDATE: May 9, 2016.

Barry Popik, of The Big Apple Online Etymological Dictionary, has alerted me to examples of the expression in use before 1950, but after 1924.  Some of those examples hint at the fact that expression may be even older; and two of the examples credit the popularity of the line to comic actor, Walter Catlett (although they differ in details as to when and in what show).  But whatever the details, and whether or not the expression pre-dates the songs, 1923 seems to have been a watershed year in the popularization of the expression.

In August 1923, an article entitled “Cut Yourself a Slab of Pie and Leave the Cake Alone,” noted that, “[i]n those stirring days they never used to say: ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake,” suggesting that the expression may have been newish.  In April 1927, a Life Magazine theater review remarked that the new play, “Lucky,” was so devoid of entertainment, that, “even Walter Catlett, whose ‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake!’ did so delight me in ‘Lady, Be Good,’ ha[d] no small chance to display his talents.”  An advertisement for Hostess Cakes from 1929 asserted that, “The old-fashioned apology ‘Had I know you were coming, I’d have baked a cake,’ is obsolete in the modern home,” suggesting, perhaps, that the expression was older; although it could just be puffery, pointing out how “modern” pre-made Hostess cakes are (I prefer Ding-Dongs over Ho-Hos). 

The expression was used in Brooklyn in the 1930s:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York), May 5, 1934, page 10.
. . . and Winnipeg in the 1940s.
Winnipeg Tribune (Manitoba), June 8, 1944, page 13.

In 1951, after Eileen Barton’s hit song raised the expression to new levels of familiarity in 1950, a newspaper answer-columnist again credited the comic actor, Walter Catlett, with originating the expression in the musical show, So Long Letty:

The Toledo Blade (Ohio), January 15, 1951, page 25.
The two, unrelated attributions to Walter Catlett, separated by nearly twenty-five years, suggests that Walter Catlett may well have played some role in popularizing the expression; whether by singing the song, or voicing the line, on Broadway, Burlesque or Vaudeville.  His role in popularizing the expression seems likely; given the two separate recollections separated by more than two decades.  Walter Catlett did star in both of the plays that later reminiscences associated with the song (Lady Be Good and So Long Letty), but the precise time, place and mode of popularizing the expression is not certain. 

Lady Be Good, written by George and Ira Gershwin, premiered on Broadway on December 1, 1924; and starred Walter Catlett alongside Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele.  The show featured seventeen Gershwin songs; none of them “Baked a Cake” songs.  The show opened long after the first “Baked a Cake” songs were written in mid-1923, so it is unlikely that the expression, or the songs, were first introduced in the play.  But that’s not to say that Catlett couldn’t have used the expression in the play, or added a non-Gershwin “Baked a Cake” song as a “specialty,” as was common at the time. 

So Long Letty

So Long Letty opened in Los Angeles, California in July 1915 and reached New York City in late-1916, after long runs in San Francisco and Chicago, and several shorter stops along the way.  The play was a musical adaptation of Elmer Harris’ comedy, Your Neighbor’s Wife, with words and music by Earl Carroll, who did not write any of the “Baked a Cake” songs from 1923 and 1924.  That’s not to say that he couldn’t have written a “Baked a Cake” song for the play, or that Walter Catlett didn’t say or sing “Baked a Cake” in the show; but there is no corroborating evidence that he did.

So now we know that the expression was used idiomatically between 1923 and 1950; and we do not know whether the expression existed before 1923, or whether a songwriter, playwright or actor coined the expression sometime around 1923.  But it seems likely that Walter Catlett may have had something to do with it. 


If we'd known you was gonna come
  We'd a surely baked a cake

'Cause my sweetie makes them sweet
  And she surely loves to bake

Now, we've got no jelly roll
  So you've put us in a hole

If we'd known you was gonna come
  We'd a surely baked a cake

We'd bake a great big chocolate cake!

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