A Nobel Prize for the Hokey Pokey?

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525916433_d0beb7a4ef.jpg"Put your right hand in, put your right hand out..." 

Okey dokey. Before you "wiggle all about," how about a moment of silence for the Hokey Pokey and one of the songwriters credited with coming up with it? Guitar and banjo player Robert Degen, who died recently on his 104th birthday, did not exactly create a cure for cancer, hunger, or war. But amidst all the world's troubles, it's worth considering how much his Hokey Pokey could contribute to global happiness and world peace.

I'm not just talking about kid's birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. If more people in politics danced the Hokey Pokey, think how much better off we might be. Deadlocked Obama cabinet meetings on Afghanistan could end with a turn about the table, with the President taking the lead. Senators who can't agree on health care reform might agree to a Hokey Pokey break in their august Capitol chamber (after all, this politically correct song gives the left and right hands equal time). And at the Copenhagen climate change summit this week, delegates from developed and developing countries could gather in concentric circles for an extended round of Hokey Pokey when the debate gets particularly rough.

While the Hokey Pokey has not yet brought world peace, there is abundant Internet evidence of its importance as an international good will gesture adopted by volunteers, travelers, and even the U.S. military.

A photo of sailors from the Navy destroyer USS John S. McCain shows them dancing the Hokey Pokey, hands in the air, while Japanese nursery school kids patiently sit cross-legged on the floor watching these crazy Americans perform. Their ship is named for the grandfather and father of the Arizona Senator (who was himself accused in the blogosphere of "doing the political equivalent of the Hokey Pokey" when he veered right and left on immigration and other issues while running for President).

Another photo shows a young blonde volunteer with DoSomething.org teaching the dance to young Kenyan children at an orphanage outside Nairobi.


And if you think the Hokey Pokey is too mainstream America, there are alternative choices that are a little more out there. In a tribute to songwriter Degen, a Philadelphia City Paper music critic recommended a hilarious rock-n-roll version on You Tube by comedian Jim Breuer (mocking the heavy metal group AC/DC). And an "Oddly Enough" Reuters humor blogger suggests that getting naked for the Hokey Pokey could soon be all the rage (that picture is PG-13).

Unfortunately, the Hokey Pokey has its detractors, and controversies. As an entertaining New York Times obituary of Degen pointed out, the Hokey Pokey was embroiled in legal battles in the U.S. over who actually wrote the ditty back in the 40s. Scranton, PA native Degen said he wrote and copyrighted it in 1944 with his musician friend, Joe Brier, while playing a summer gig at a Delaware Water Gap resort. 

 Meanwhile, Larry LaPrise recorded another version of the Hokey Pokey with the Ram Trio in 1949 that he reportedly wrote to entertain skiers at a Sun Valley, ID resort. The LaPrise version went on to become a mid-50s craze after it was recorded and released on the B side of a record by Ray Anthony and his orchestra ("The Bunny Hop" was on the A side, but that's another story). Don't you miss the 50s?

Degan sued LaPrise and music companies and apparently won the right to shared ownership and royalties, said Times writer Bruce Weber. But the intrigue didn't stop there:  both American versions bore similarity to yet another song, known as the Hokey Cokey or Cokey Cokey, that was popular during WW II with American and British soldiers. This was variously attributed to an Irish musician named Jimmy Kennedy, who also wrote the lyrics for "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "Teddy Bear's Picnic," or London bandleader Al Tabor.

Still, Weber couldn't leave well enough alone. He went on to reveal a darker side of the Hokey Pokey, or Hokey Cokey, or whatever you want to call it:

"Some Roman Catholic churchmen, meanwhile, have said that the words "hokey pokey" derive from "hocus pocus" -- the Oxford English Dictionary concurs -- and that the song was written by 18th-century Puritans to mock the language of the Latin Mass. Last year the Catholic Church in Scotland, concerned that some soccer fans were using the song as a taunt, raised the possibility that singing it should be prosecuted as a hate crime."

 We'll leave the Scots to sort that out.  And I won't even mention its supposed drug connections.  I prefer instead to nominate the Hokey Pokey as the song-and-dance for world peace.  Oh, and I like Degen's somewhat quaint version:

Put your right hand in,

Put your right hand out,

Put your right hand in and you wiggle all about.

Everything is okey dokey when you do the Hokey Pokey.

That is what the dance is all about.

Maybe the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about.

(Photo: Flickr/sun dazed)


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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and consultant to the documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. More

Russell is a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor on science and the media. Russell was a national science reporter for The Washington Post and The Washington Star and appeared on PBS' Washington Week in Review. She serves on the boards of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Commonwealth Fund and Mills College and is on the selection committee for the National Academies of Science Communication Awards. She was a 2006 fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Russell is an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and has a biology degree from Mills College.

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