Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts - The History of the Hokey Cokey

June 23, 2016

Ah, the EU referendum gives rise to a rare Thursday edition of Ooh, Interesting! fascinating facts. Are you in or are you out? This left us with one nagging thought… What if we wanted to shake it all about? After all, once you do the hokey cokey and you turn around, that is what it’s all about.

The hokey cokey is actually known as the hokey tokey in New Zealand and the hokey pokey in many other countries (US, Canada, Ireland, Australia, the Caribbean, Mexico). It originated as a British folk dance in 1826 and peaked in popularity in 1940s Britain as a novelty dance. Amazingly, it even hit the charts twice in the 1980s with versions from The Snowmen and Black Lace (who else?) proving popular with those without musical taste. I mean, who really needs to own a copy of the Hokey Cokey? Who’s walking around with that in their ears? Hmm.

Despite the ‘official’ version appearing in the 1820s, many scholars believe that the dance and lyrics originated sometime in the 17th century. Rather than ‘hokey cokey’, a previous rhyme used the nonsense word ‘hinkumbooby’. For some reason, we’re imagining Blackadder had fun with that particular one.

By 1857, most of the lyrics were there with two Canterbury sisters visiting New Hampshire writing down the various body movements you have to do throughout (‘right hand in, right hand out…’) whilst a Scottish take on the song appears in 1891, urging dancers to ‘turn them a little’). By 1892, rather than ‘shaking’ your various appendages, Sheffield-based members of the public were urged to ‘wag it and wag it and wag it then turn and turn about.’

Various claims about the current iteration of the song abound with one such account stating that the ‘finished’ song came about during the Blitz in 1940 after a Canadian Officer suggested to British composer Al Tabor that he write a song with actions similar to ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’. The resulting name – the Hokey Pokey – allegedly came from Tabor, who was inspired by an ice cream vendor from his youth. Unfortunately for him, Jimmy Kennedy, the writer of ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ created a dance in 1942 with a very similar structure and called it the Hokey Cokey.

By 1946, two Americans – Robert Degan and Joe Brier – apparently unaware of the Hokey Cokey and Hokey Pokey – came up with the Hokey-Pokey dance. We’re somewhat suspicious that all these songs would exist with very similar names considering they’re nonsense words at the heart of it all. Even so, British bandleader Gerry Hoey also claimed to have authored a similar tune, ‘The Hoey Oka’ in 1940.

With all that being said, none of the above are the versions we know today, with that honour going to Black Lace’s—Nah, just kidding. The version of the Hokey Cokey we all tend to be aware of today is generally credited to Charles Mack, Taft Baker and Larry Laprise, who wrote and recorded ‘The Hokey Pokey’ in 1949 to entertain skiers in Idaho. A hit with the clientele, Laprise recorded it and it flopped massively upon release. A disgruntled Degan and Brier heard the song and sued Laprise… And somehow Laprise won, despite the fact his version was written 3 years after Degan and Brier and being the oldest of all known 1940s versions. In fact, Laprise somehow won any and all rights to do with the song in the US and in 1953, Ray Anthony’s orchestra recorded it, where it rose to number 13 in the US chart. It is this recorded version ‘written by Laprise’ that we are all familiar with today. Phew!

If you're wondering about the UK, Kennedy won the rights for 'the Hokey Cokey' from Tabor though how that happened when he too wrote his version after the lesser known one is anyone's guess. 


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By Henry Fosdike