Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Apple #380: The Hokey Pokey

While I was at home for the Easter weekend, I took a bath. I only have a shower here, no bathtub, and because I do enjoy a nice hot bath with lots of bubbles, I take advantage of the bathtub whenever I'm at my parents' house.

I assure you, by the way, that your Apple Lady always bathes in the complete and appropriate bathing attire.

(Photo from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-120028-1902, sourced from Victoriana.com)

So there I was in the bathtub, fully enjoying the relaxing steaminess. I even put my face in the water and that was relaxing too. As I did so, the words from part of the Hokey Pokey came to me: "You put your whole self in, you put your whole self out. . . ." As I leaned back in delicious comfort, I sighed and said, "That's what it's all about."

As I continued to relax and enjoy my steamy soak, the words from the Hokey Pokey played themselves over and over in my brain. Then I suddenly paid attention to what they were saying. And I had an epiphany. The Meaning of the Hokey Pokey was revealed to me.

It's all about how to live, I realized. Or, it's a description of how we live and learn. First we try things out, a toe or a leg or an arm at a time. Then we get the head into it. But it's not until we throw our whole selves into it that we really get it. That's what it's all about.

I am truncating the extent of my realization. Believe me when I say my steam-inspired revelation went into great detail. I interpreted the song line by line. I thought, that's why we do the Hokey Pokey at weddings, because you have to throw your whole self into a marriage if it's going to work. I imagined issuing a call that we should do the Hokey Pokey at all major life events, not just weddings but baptisms, first days of school, first days of a new job, moving into a new house, maybe even the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Now that I am dried off and well away from the bathtub, I recognize the, uh, head-over-heelness with which I embraced that idea.

But I do have some lingering questions. Where did that song come from, anyway? Does it have some other meaning that I'm not aware of?

Guests at a wedding in Ohio, putting their right arms in. And sort of tentatively, at that.
(Photo from Chris Glass' journal)

It turns out, this simple question about what I thought was a simple song has overturned a rock and revealed everything from lawsuits to bigotry to cocaine. And ice cream.

  • The Hokey Pokey was written by a man named Larry LaPrise, originally from Detroit.

(Image from goodworksonearth)

  • He was a musician with a group called the Ram Trio. LaPrise along with his two bandmates made up the song while the Ram Trio were performing for a bunch of skiers at a resort in Idaho.
  • The song was such a hit, they recorded it in 1949.
  • In 1953, another bandleader named Ray Anthony bought the rights to the song and put it on the B side of the Bunny Hop.
  • In the 1960s, Roy Acuff's company bought the rights to the song, and that's when the song really took off.
  • LaPrise went on to work for the US Postal Service.
  • In 1992, LaPrise said of the song, it's "like a square dance, really. You turn around. You shake it all about. Everyone is in a circle, and it gets them all involved."

This bride and groom are doing the Hokey Pokey with feeling.
(Photo from the blog English Rules)

  • Now, over in England, they have a version of the song called the Hokey Cokey. The lyrics are strikingly similar to the Hokey Pokey, and you're supposed to do the same kind of leg in, leg out, etc. dance. It was very popular with the servicemen during World War II.
  • Some people have said that "hokey cokey" is a bastardization of a phrase that is said in Latin at Catholic masses. The phrase is hoc est corpus meum, or "this is my body," which the priest says when elevating the eucharist.
  • People claim that "hocus pocus" is a phrase that Puritans used to make fun of the Catholic mass and the Latin-speak that priests used, and that "hokey cokey" is another such phrase.
  • They say that the Hokey Cokey song and its motions was intended to make fun of priests and the various gestures they used during the eucharistic prayers.
  • Just recently, in fact, people in Scotland and England have been calling for legislation to ban the song and to include punishments for people who sing and dance it in public as committing a hate crime. Apparently some fans of one Scots football team were singing it in a jeering fashion at fans of another Scots football team. Then this business about how it's supposedly an anti-Catholic song got brought into the mix.
  • Well. This sounds like a lot of going overboard to me.

At Gulliver's Theme Park in Milton-Keynes, England, Gully Mouse and his friends are doing the Hokey Cokey. This doesn't look like a hate crime to me.
(Photo from Gulliver's Theme Park)

  • When I delved into it further, I discovered that the grandson of the guy who wrote the Hokey Cokey said it didn't have anything to do with Latin or priests or Catholicism or any of that. It is about ice cream.

Al Tabor, at the left, and his band at the club where they first played the Hokey Cokey.
(Photo from the Hokey Cokey Man, website of the play about Al Tabor's life)

  • This guy, Alan Balfour, said his grandfather, Al Tabor told him that ice cream sellers used to go up and down the street chanting, "Hokey pokey, penny a lump, have a lick, make you jump!" to sell their ice cream. (He lived in London's East End where people used to talk like that. Except if you're cockney you say 'okey pokey.) So he used that phrase to write a song that he thought would cheer people up during a world war.

Hokey Pokey is also a vanilla ice cream with toffee bits that's very popular in New Zealand.
(Photo from Jeremy & Andrea on Flickr)

  • Then a Canadian officer said Tabor should change it from "hokey pokey" to "hokey cokey," because "cokey" means "crazy." So he did.
  • He first performed the song the Hokey Cokey with his band in 1940.
  • In the meantime, we have yet that other songwriter in the mix, Jimmy Kennedy. He was a well-known Irish songwriter in the 1940s, and he wrote a song called the Cokey Cokey in 1942.

Jimmy Kennedy, renowned Irish songwriter and creator of the Cokey Cokey.
(Photo from Culture Northern Ireland)

  • His son says his dad told him he wrote the song based on a Canadian folk tune sung by coal miners, who were proclaiming the wonders of cocaine. So "coke" would have a triple meaning here -- coal/coke, cocaine/coke, and as we learned just a bit ago, crazy/cokey. Except Kennedy, Jr. said his son wrote on the back of the original sheet music that "'cokey' means 'dope-fiend.'"
  • Kennedy, Jr. also says his dad told him how he came up with the song. He said he was watching a bunch of Canadian soldiers, stationed in Britain, singing and dancing at a nightclub in London and having a great time. He said when he got back to his hotel, he wrote a chorus based on the feet and hand movements of the soldiers. Over the next couple of days he wrote some more lyrics and made some adaptations, but in the end he had the Cokey Cokey. A song to cheer people up during wartime, as he'd intended.
  • He originally published the song as the Cokey Cokey, but the name was later changed to The Hokey Cokey.
  • When our old friend the Hokey Pokey was recorded, Kennedy sued LaPrise (but not Tabor -- why, I don't know) for copyright infringement. The two wound up settling out of court.
  • If you try to buy sheet music of the Hokey Cokey, it's got Jimmy Kennedy's name on it.
  • Copyright for the Hokey Pokey is still listed as Acuff-Rose Music from when Roy Acuff bought it.

Guests hokey pokeying at a wedding in 1990. This is what it's all about.
(Photo from paulbavol at Flickr)

"The Hokey Pokey Man Is Dead at 83," The New York Times, April 11, 1996
Stuart MacDonald, "Hokey Cokey: no Catholic dig," The Sunday Times Online, January 11, 2009
Auslan Cramb, "Doing the Hokey Cokey 'could be hate crime,'" Telegraph, Decmeber 21, 2008
Randy Boswell, "Canada's Hokey Pokey cause of England dust up," Canwest News Service, February 6, 2009
Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations, Jimmy Kennedy entry, page 419
The BS Historian, What if the Hokey Cokey IS what it's all about?


  1. You're like Harry Potter in Goblet of Fire solving the riddle to the second challenge in the bath.

  2. I just love your posts! Your research is incredible and always enriching. Are we allowed to submit ideas to you for research and posting? www.satisfiedsole.com

  3. Thanks, Pam! Of course, yes, you can always ask me to find out something for you. Any time.


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