Folks have been doing the Hokey Pokey for 60 years

November 12, 2004|LIZ MAPLES

After all these years of turning around and shaking all about, it's hard to trace the origins of the "Hokey Pokey."

Not much remains but lore, and these days, Internet lore. But, for sure, a retired Lexington jazz guitarist and the Shakers have had their whole selves in it.

Thursday was the anniversary of the birthday of Larry LaPrise, the man who is thought to have written the most popular version of the song.

Lexington resident Bob Degen, a retired jazz musician, disputes that. He says he wrote the song six years before LaPrise.

LaPrise claimed he wrote it as a party tune for skiers in Sun Valley, Idaho, who retired to a club after days on the slope.


He recorded it with his band, Ram Trio, in 1949. The tune wasn't popular until the 1950s when it appeared on the B-side of Ray Anthony's hit record, "Bunny Hop," also a wedding reception mainstay.

A popular e-mail forward, and inspiration for the start of this story, has LaPrise's death all turned around.

"With all the sadness and trauma going on in the world today, it is worth reflecting on the death of a very important person, which went unnoticed last week. Larry LaPrise, the man who wrote 'The Hokey Pokey', died peacefully at age 93. The most traumatic part for his family was getting him into the coffin. They put his left leg in, and then the trouble started."

Hilarious, but not true.

LaPrise died in 1996 at the age of 83, according to CNN's Web site.

Degen has the copyright

Degen, who has the copyright to the song, is still alive at 99 and lives with his wife, Vivianne, in Lexington.

His hearing isn't what it used to be, and so she took a moment to answer some questions Thursday.

The "Hokey Pokey" was the only song Degen ever wrote. His life's work was jazz, and he played nightclub gigs. After retiring 30 years ago, the Degens moved to Kentucky from Pennsylvania.

Vivianne Degen didn't know what inspired her husband, but said the "Hokey Pokey" fits his taste. "It's a fun thing," she said.

Hanna Wahl and Brenna Hatter, both of Kings Mountain, think so.

The 8-year-olds were a little breathless after dancing to the song with their church youth group Thursday at Finley's Fun Center in Danville.

They formed a big circle in the skating rink and stuck their elbows, heads and hips in and out with disc jockey, Mitchell Haley, of Mercer County.

The 16-year-old said the dance is wildly popular with the younger kids.

Sometimes he'll play it two, three times before it's played out with the Saturday morning crowd, but, the teens and pre-teens care less about it.

Some disc jockeys at the roller rink despise the song, but Haley said it doesn't bother him. "You have to have a good sense of humor to work here."

Haley plays a swanky 1970s-sounding version, but he has also heard a Christian version that says, "Give yourself to Jesus and you'll turn yourself around."

It wouldn't be the first time the song had been converted to a religious theme.

A connection to the Shakers?

Some people have tried to connect the tune to the Shakers, the religious community whose worship services revolved around music and dancing.

Swept by a great revival period in the 1800s, Kentuckians were converted to the Shakers' beliefs of a utopian, pious society and formed a community on a farm in Mercer County.

Many of the songs used in church services were written by Shakers, including one of the most well-known songs, "'Simple Gifts." It is sung almost daily for visitors to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

Donna Phillips, coordinator for music programs at Shaker Village, said it was not unusual for the Shakers to adapt other tunes, changing the words, for worship service. "Yankee Doodle Dandee," was done that way.

It is more unusual, she said, for the Shakers to have used the lyrics of a popular song.

In Edward Andrew's 1940 book, "The Gift to be Simple," he describes a song two Canterbury, N.H., sisters sang.

"I put my right hand in, I put my right hand out;

I give my right hand a shake, shake, shake and I turn myself about."

He writes that "as the song continues, the 'left hand' is put in, then the 'right foot', then the 'left foot,' then 'my whole head.'"

Andrew never cites a source for the song and that could make it dubious information. Shaker scholars now say that some of Andrew's research is outdated.

It could have come from "Hinkum-booby"

However, he writes that the Canterbury sisters could have been taken from an English children's game called the "Hinkum-booby." That game was first recorded by Lady Alice Gomme, a Victorian-era folklorist who was one of the first to record children's games and songs.

Dr. Barbara Hall, a music professor at Centre College, said that it was not uncommon for musicians to lift lyrics or tunes from other places.

One of the most famous examples is how Francis Scott Key's poem the "Star Spangled Banner" is sung to an old English tavern song.

LaPrise or Degen may have written the words, but it probably, Hall said, was not a brand new invention.

She said that now a musician might be sued for copyright infringement, but from the Renaissance period up until the 19th century, people often borrowed or reused material.

Wherever it came from, no matter how it was rewritten; the "Hokey Pokey" will likely be replayed and replayed for a long time.

John and Hazel Kunaschk, of Lancaster, were on their skates Thursday while the Garrard County cheerleaders danced to the tune in a big circle. The couple said it had been more than a decade since they had last shaken all about.

What's so appealing about the ditty?

"You can make a fool out of yourself," John Kunaschk said.

"You just act silly, and it's all right," Hazel Kunaschk said.

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