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Let's Fill the Concert Halls With Dogs and Music

Dogs have not only been the inspiration for pieces of music but also performers.

Key points

  • Dogs have been the subject of many popular and rock music recordings. Songs about dogs, often tearjerkers, are a country music staple.
  • Many classical music composers, including Chopin, have written compositions inspired by dogs.
  • Dogs are not only the inspiration of much music but have occasionally been called upon to actually perform in pieces.
 Philip Reinagle (1748–1833)/Public Domain
Source: Philip Reinagle (1748–1833)/Public Domain

In 1936, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited the Golden Gloves boxing champion Arthur “Stubby” Stubbs and his Bull Terrier, Bud, to the White House. He later reported that while Stubby played the banjo, Bud “sang” a medley of Stephen Foster songs. Unfortunately, we do not have any recordings of this performance, but Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, did comment on the performance, saying, “I don’t know if it was music, but it was interesting.”

Country music hounds

We usually don’t think about a connection between dogs and music; however, songs about dogs are a country music staple. For example, country superstar Dolly Parton has recorded two songs about dogs. “Cracker Jack” is a lovely tribute to “a playmate, a companion.” The other, “Gypsy, Joe and Me,” is like many of the genre and is a real heartbreaker about a woman who loses both her dog and her man.

Hank Williams’ song “Move It on Over” was his first major hit—thanks to a dog. Initially, this song seems to be talking about dogs metaphorically when a man comes home late and gets in trouble with his girl and then finds himself in the dog house. However, it becomes clear that Williams means the actual doghouse in the backyard, and the song reveals itself as a tale of two roommates, one canine and one human.

Although Elvis Presley’s best-known dog song is “Hound Dog,” in his first public performance, a young Elvis garnered a lot of compliments when he sang “Old Shep,” a tearjerker about a dog that meets a tragic end.

Dogs to sing about

The list of pop songs about dogs seems virtually endless. Some examples are:

  • “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” — Lobo
  • “I Love My Dog” — Cat Stevens
  • “Old King” — Neil Young
  • “The Puppy Song” — Harry Nilsson
  • “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog” — The Monkees
  • “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” — Patti Page
  • “The Dog Song” — Nellie McKay
  • “Little Boys Grow Up and Dogs Get Old” — Luke Bryan
  • “Who Let the Dogs Out?” — Baja Men

Of course, the Beatles had one too. Paul McCartney wrote the charming song “Martha My Dear,” but only real fans knew that Martha was the name of his sheepdog.

Classical canines

Writing music inspired by dogs is not a new phenomenon; classical composers also contributed to the repertoire. For example, Frédéric Chopin was very fond of a dog named Marquis, who was owned by the novelist George Sand. The story goes that Marquis was chasing his tail, and Sand challenged Chopin to write a piece of music to describe it. Thus, “The Little Dog Waltz” was born, although most people know it by the name “Minute Waltz” (Op. 64 No. 1). It was given that nickname because it was short, and therefore “minute” (meye’ noot), not because it can, or should, be played in a minute—however that hasn’t stopped people from trying! You can listen to it here and see if you can picture a little dog happily chasing its tail.

Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral in London, owned a Bulldog named Dan. Sinclair was a friend of Sir Edward William Elgar, best known for writing “Pomp and Circumstance” and “Land of Hope and Glory,” and Elgar became fond of Dan because he felt that the dog had a good sense of musical quality. Dan would frequently attend choir practices with his master and would growl at choristers who sang out of tune. This musical appreciation greatly endeared him to the composer.

Eventually, Elgar ended up writing a musical tribute to the dog. Dan, like many Bulldogs, disliked being immersed in water. One day, on a walk along the banks of the River Wye, Dan fell in. As quickly as he could, he scrambled out and vigorously shook himself, soaking both Sinclair and Elgar. Greatly amused by this incident, Sinclair challenged Elgar to put this to music. Elgar took up the challenge and immediately began his musical interpretation. It later became one of the Enigma Variations (No. 11), musically immortalizing a dog who knew when people were singing out of tune.

Canine performers

Of course, all of these pieces of music were about dogs, not actually composed or performed by dogs. However, dogs have entered the concert hall as performers. For example, 1980 saw the debut performance of “Howl” at Carnegie Hall. It was a musical work for 20 humans and three canines. The piece was composed and conducted by Kirk Nurock, a pianist and arranger who had worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Judy Collins, Bette Midler, and Leonard Bernstein. Trained at the Juilliard School of Music, Nurock would go on to compose and perform “Sonata for Piano and Dog” (1983) and “Expedition” (1984), an arrangement for jazz trio and Siberian Husky. In each of these pieces, dogs howled to accompany the music, with occasional barks and yips as punctuation.

More recently, the popular rock band Pink Floyd composed a song called “Seamus the Dog,” named after a Border Collie. The band only performed the song live once, as part of their acclaimed concert film Pink Floyd: Live in Pompeii. The featured “vocalist” for that presentation was a female Borzoi named Nobs. You can see and hear that performance if you click here.

There is always a critic

Musical performances by dogs, however, are not universally applauded or appreciated. In Budapest, Hungary, in 1929, Ludwig Finian was training his dog to “sing” in the hopes that he could use him in a theatrical act. Count Francis Esterhazy was so offended by the sound that he shot the dog dead. When the courts demanded a stiff fine for murdering the canine musician, the Count’s response was, “It is a quiet dog that is truly music to my ears!”

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