Swillburg’s Native Son: Paying Tribute to Cab Calloway, the King of “Hi-De-Ho”

Swillburg’s Native Son: Paying Tribute to Cab Calloway, the King of “Hi-De-Ho”

Text and photography by George Cassidy Payne


March 21st 1935

Democrat and Chronicle, March 21st 1935

Who deserves the title of Rochester’s most influential musician?

March 19th 1935

Democrat and Chronicle, March 19th, 1935

Is it the Delta bluesman Son House, who lived in the Corn Hill neighborhood for twenty years?

Perhaps it is the world renown Soprano opera singer and Churchville-Chili graduate Renee Fleming.

Or maybe it is Lou Gramm, the lead singer of Foreigner and hometown darling.

For my money, this title belongs to the incomparable king of “Hi-De-Ho,” the prince of swing, the greatest bandleader of his generation, and legendary ambassador for the art of Jazz, Cab Calloway.

Rochester is honored to claim Calloway as a native son. He was born on Sycamore Street in the Swillburg neighborhood, once the site of a large pig farm in the 1800s. According to the City website, “the owner Mr. George Goebel, collected “swill” for his swine alongside the Erie Canal. The name, if not the pig production, remained.”

Although Calloway moved to Baltimore during his high school years, got his beginning as a performer at the Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago, and spent the rest of his stardom in the clubs of Harlem and on tour, the Flower City will always be his first home. Born on Christmas Day in 1907, Calloway’s international legacy will forever be tied to this unique community of humble pig farming origins.

“One of the great entertainers of his era, Calloway was a household name by 1932, and never really declined in fame. A talented jazz singer and a superior scatter, his gyrations and showmanship on-stage at the Cotton Club in Harlem sometimes overshadowed the quality of his always excellent bands.” (http://www.allmusic.com/artist/cab-calloway-mn0000532957/biography)

What opera isn’t violent? Two things happen, violence and love. And other than that, name something else. You can’t. Cab Calloway

“In the 1960s, Swillburg was slated to be divided right down the middle by a proposed extension of the Genesee Expressway. An impassioned fight ensued, with Swillburg neighbors determined to prevent the center of their community from being paved over by four lanes of asphalt. In 1975, they finally won their battle, but not before some 40 houses had been demolished.” (https://swillburg.com/gardenspark/otto-henderberg-park/)

“The cleared land between Avon and Sycamore Streets (off of Field Street) was turned into Otto Henderberg Square, in honor of the longtime resident who spearheaded the successful campaign. Surrounded by front porches and quiet residential streets, this green square is now a lovely spot for a picnic with the kids or for one of our community gatherings.” (https://swillburg.com/gardenspark/otto-henderberg-park/)


Everybody that you could name would join in our audiences from, Laguardia on down. Everybody came. Everybody came to the Cotton Club. Cab Calloway


“Calloway worked in the 1929 revue Hot Chocolates, started recording in 1930, and in 1931 hit it big with both “Minnie the Moocher” and his regular engagement at the Cotton Club.  Calloway was soon (along with Bill Robinson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington) the best-known black entertainer of the era…He appeared in quite a few movies (including 1943’s Stormy Weather), and “Minnie the Moocher” was followed by such recordings as “Kicking the Gong Around,” “Reefer Man,” “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” “You Gotta Hi-De-Ho,” “The Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man,” and even “Mister Paganini, Swing for Minnie.” (http://www.allmusic.com/artist/cab-calloway-mn0000532957/biography)


The neighborhood mascot references the humble origins of a community founded on the raising and selling of pigs.

“Calloway was one of the most successful performers of the era. During the 1930s and 1940s, he appeared in such films as The Big Broadcast (1932), The Singing Kid (1936) and Stormy Weather (1943). In addition to music, Calloway influenced the public with books such as 1944’s The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive, which offered definitions for terms like “in the groove” and “zoot suit.” (http://www.biography.com/people/cab-calloway-9235609)

“In 1948, as the public had stopped flocking to big bands, Calloway switched to working with a six-member group. Beginning in 1952, he spent two years in the cast of a revival of the musical Porgy and Bess. In that show, he portrayed Sportin’ Life, a character Calloway himself had reportedly inspired George Gershwin to create. Calloway took other onstage roles over the years, including the male lead in a 1967 production of Hello Dolly!, whose all-black cast also featured Pearl Bailey.” (http://www.biography.com/people/cab-calloway-9235609)


The iconic gazebo in Otto Henderberg Square Park

“In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Calloway with a National Medal of the Arts. Calloway’s later years were spent in White Plains, New York, until he had a stroke in June 1994. He then moved to a nursing home in Hockessin, Delaware, where he died on November 18, 1994, at the age of 86.” (http://www.biography.com/people/cab-calloway-9235609)

My audience was my life. What I did and how I did it, was all for my audience. Cab Calloway


Revisiting Rochester black history

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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