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The Ambiguous Origins of the Hokey Pokey

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"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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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