The Hokey Pokey: What’s It All About?

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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…”

Everybody knows the song. Everybody’s done the dance. But do you have even the slightest clue as to, well, what it’s all about? If you were so bold as to ask random people on the street just what the Hokey Pokey is all about, it’s likely your question would be met with blank stares and odd looks. Granted, this could be explained by the fact that you’re asking complete strangers about the Hokey Pokey. But it’s also a safe bet that the majority, aside from thinking you’re a wee bit nuts, would also have no idea about the origins of the Hokey Pokey.

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Photo by Country Marketplaces

There’s no one answer to where the Hokey Pokey came from. Its supposed beginnings span oceans, and even centuries. The following are several of the better known theories about the history of the Hokey Pokey.

Like many seemingly innocuous songs and dances, the Hokey Pokey is believed by some to have somewhat sinister beginnings. Some insist the song originated in the UK with Scottish Puritans as an anti-Catholic taunt. The words “hokey cokey,” which is how the song is sung in the UK, is supposedly derived from the magician incantation “hocus pocus.” This was supposed to be a jab at the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. As recently as 2008, a few Catholic Church officials considered the “Hokey Pokey” an example of “faith hate,” but it doesn’t seem most took these allegations all that seriously.

Another account claims that during the London Blitz in 1940, a Canadian officer suggested writing an action party song to English bandleader Al Tabor. The song’s title, “The Hokey Pokey,” was in homage to an ice cream vendor from Tabor’s childhood. (Before the advent of ice cream cones, it was common for ice cream to be sold wrapped in wax paper. This treat was called a hokey pokey.) He changed the name to “The Hokey Cokey” at the urging of the same Canadian officer, who informed him “cokey” was Canadian slang for “crazy.” Tabor eventually signed over all rights to the song to Irish songwriter and publisher Jimmy Kennedy.

To muddy the waters even further, almost a hundred years prior to this in 1857, two sisters from Canterbury, England who were visiting Bridgewater, NH, sang a little ditty with accompanying gestures that went a little something like this:

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I put my right hand in,

I put my right hand out,

In out, in out.

shake it all about.

Whatever the Hokey Pokey is all about, it sure gets around.

In 1946, blissfully unaware of the “Hokey Pokey” or the “Hokey Cokey” or anything else Hokey going on over in the UK, two musicians from Scranton PA named Robert Degan and Joe Brier made a record of a song called — wait for it — “The Hokey Pokey Dance.” This song was recorded exclusively to entertain summer crowds at Poconos resorts. The tune proved to be a regional favorite throughout the 1940s, but it’s still not the version that we shake it all about for today.

It’s generally accepted that the version written in 1949 by Charles Mack, Taft Baker, and Larry Laprise is the one we all know and love today. Written for the amusement of skiers at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, it proved to be a big hit, so Laprise decided to record it.

The record tanked, but Degan and Brier got wind of it and sued Laprise for trying to rip off their “Hokey Pokey Dance.” Laprise’s lawyers must have been top-notch because even though his version of the song was released after Degan and Brier’s, Laprise walked away with the rights to anything “Hokey Pokey” related. And we’ve all been putting body parts in, out, and shaking them all about ever since.

So, as you can see, the story of the “Hokey Pokey” is more convoluted than a 1980s “General Hospital” storyline. And the next time you’re doing the “Hokey Pokey” with your favorite bunch of preschoolers, or, heaven forbid, at a family wedding, you can take pride in the fact that you’re most likely the only person in the room who knows the origin of what you’re doing.

Photo by Boing Boing

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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