Every schoolchild in America knows the Hokey Pokey.
“You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in …” well, you know what it’s all about. What you might not know is who wrote the song.
Larry LaPrise, also known as The Hokey Pokey Man, died last week at age 83 in Boise after a career that brought him no fame, modest fortune and a job with the Postal Service.
That’s right. Someone actually wrote “The Hokey Pokey.”
For many baby boomers and their children, the Hokey Pokey is simply part of the national legacy, right up there with Mother Goose and Twister.
“I just assumed it had been around forever,” said a shocked Leyah Strauss of New York. Even before LaPrise’s death, Strauss, a jeweler, had been planning to stage a mass Hokey Pokey-in at some New York landmark like Grand Central station.
The Hokey Pokey, it turns out, isn’t so old after all.
LaPrise, a Detroit native whose full name was Roland Lawrence LaPrise, concocted the song along with two fellow musicians in the late 1940s for the apres-ski crowd at a nightclub in Sun Valley, Idaho. The group, the Ram Trio, recorded the song in 1949.
“‘The Hokey Pokey’ is like a square dance, really,” LaPrise said in 1992. “You turn around. You shake it all about. Everyone is in a circle, and it gets them all involved.”
In 1953 bandleader Ray Anthony bought the rights and recorded “The Hokey Pokey” on the B side of another novelty record, “The Bunny Hop.”
“Everybody was doing the ‘Bunny Hop’ before long, which meant that everybody was doing ‘The Hokey Pokey,”’ said LaPrise’s daughter, Linda Ruby.
There followed a steady succession of recordings: Jack Johnson and the Hickory Dickory Singers, Warren Covington with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Cliffie Stone, Jerry Marks, Chubby Checker, Annette Funicello, the Champs. … In no time, the Hokey Pokey was everywhere.
Schoolyards. Brownie troop meetings. Bar mitzvahs. Weddings.
By the early 1990s, it had even turned up on a heavy metal album by the band Haunted Garage, alongside such classics as “Party in the Graveyard” and “Torture Dungeon.”
Alas, the Hokey Pokey turned out to be the high-water mark of LaPrise’s musical career - in fact, maybe the only water mark.
“He wrote several other songs, probably none of which you’ve ever heard,” his daughter said. They included “Sitz Mark Samba” - “You know, the sitz mark is the hole left in the snow after you’ve gotten up from falling down skiing.”
Ruby said she wasn’t positive how much Ray Anthony paid for the song in 1953, “but I know my father always said they cut a fat hog - $500.”
After the Ram Trio disbanded in the 1960s, LaPrise, by then a father of six, went to work for the post office in Ketchum, Idaho. At about the same time, country star Roy Acuff’s publishing company bought the rights to the Hokey Pokey.
“Roy Acuff had seen a lot of his material copied, so he was very conscious about songwriters getting the credit,” Ruby said. “It wasn’t until after Dad had his family raised that he started getting royalty checks, which was a nice bonus for him.”
LaPrise later retired with his wife, Donna, to Wendell, Idaho, where their daughter is a schoolteacher. He died April 4 after a long illness.
Everybody has his own explanation for the Hokey Pokey’s infectious popularity.
“The beauty of this one is there is no age barrier,” said Steve Geyer, a disc jockey at parties in the Boston area. “You get them from 3 years to 93 years. Everybody gets involved with this one.”
Jane Shattuc, a professor of mass communication at Emerson College, said it this way: “There are two ways to understand the Hokey Pokey. You can see it as a childish game, typical of Americans’ fascination with being inane, or kind of a refusal of adulthood.
“But you can also see it as a celebration of taking pleasure in childhood irreverence. To paraphrase the song, I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Strauss, the New York jeweler, said she has a vision of hardened New Yorkers being swept up in a mass celebration of the Hokey Pokey. She has been busy planning a huge, public Hokey Pokey dance for sometime this spring.
“Really, what the project is about is bringing fun and laughter into everyday life,” she explained.
Asked to explain the deeper meaning of the Hokey Pokey, she struggled for a minute and finally said: “It’s kind of symbolic of life, in a way. I mean, you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out. … I mean, that’s kind of like life, right?”