The Ambiguous Origins of the Hokey Pokey

"You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey,
And you turn it all around,
That's what it's all about..."

No other song seems to symbolize a good time for people and bring smiles to their faces to quite the same extent as "The Hokey Pokey." But where did this quirky song come from? It's complicated.

London Origins

In 1942, Irish songwriter and publisher Jimmy Kennedy, best known for "The Teddy Bear's Picnic," created a dance, and an instructional song to go with it, called "The Hokey Cokey."

Written to entertain Canadian troops stationed in London, the song was similar to the "Hokey Pokey" we all know today.

Composer Al Tabor was also entertaining Canadian troops in wartime London, and in 1942 he wrote a participation dance song called "The Hokey Pokey." He claims the name came from the London ice cream vendors of his youth, called "Hokey Pokey Men." The accompanying dance was very similar to Kennedy's.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond...

In 1946, totally unaware of the British "Hokey Cokey" and "Hokey Pokey," two Scranton, PA, musicians—Robert Degan and Joe Brier—recorded "The Hokey-Pokey Dance" to entertain summer vacationers at Poconos Mountains Resorts. The song was a regional favorite at dances and resorts for the rest of the '40s, but that still isn't the song we know today.

And another one...

To confuse matters even more, British bandleader Gerry Hoey also claimed to have authored a similar tune, "The Hoey Oka," in 1940.

But the one we know today...

The general belief is that Charles Mack, Taft Baker, and Larry Laprise wrote the American version of the song "The Hokey Pokey" in 1949 to entertain skiers at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. The song was a hit at the resorts, so Laprise recorded it.

The recording flopped, but Degan and Brier found out about it and sued Laprise for ripping off their "Hokey-Pokey Dance." Despite the fact that his version came out after theirs, Laprise won the rights to anything having to do with "The Hokey Pokey."

In 1953, Ray Anthony's orchestra recorded it—a double A-side single with "The Bunny Hop"—and it made it to #13 on the charts. This is the version we know today.

Magical History?

The origins of the song, though, go back even further.

Some argue that "The Hokey Pokey" (or "Cokey") is a corruption of "hocus pocus," the familiar term used by magicians.

"Hocus pocus" derives, in turn, from a Latin line in the Catholic Mass, "Hoc corpus meum" ("This is my body"), indicating the transformation of the communion "bread" into the body of Jesus Christ.

Origins of the Dance

The dance that goes along with the song—in which the participants all dance in a ring, putting the relevant arm or foot in or out, and then shaking it around—goes back a fair way, too.

Similar dances and songs were recorded in Robert Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826); other versions have been traced to 17th-century minstrels.

The real origin?

But the earliest accurate record, so far, of the song we all know and love is from an account, dated 1857, of two sisters from Canterbury, England, on a trip to Bridgewater, New Hampshire. During their visit, they taught the locals a song that went something like this:
"I put my right hand in,
I put my right hand out,
I give my hand a shake, shake, shake,
And I turn myself about."

Apparently, the performance of the song—called "Right Elbow In" and several verses long—was accompanied by "appropriate gestures" and was danced with a slow, rhythmic motion.

Whether or not an earlier reference will ever be found, it seems the origins of "The Hokey Pokey" do not lie in America, as currently claimed. The song was merely imported there. The song's great popularity definitely makes it a part of Americana, however.

Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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