Life & Culture

Do the Hokey Cokey? So that’s what it’s all about

Some Catholics think it’s a vile parody of the Latin mass. In fact, it’s a dance tune written by a Jewish band leader who was inspired by ice cream.


‘You put your left foot in, your left foot out; in out, in out, shake it all about.” The words may be familiar, but for many Catholics, the Hokey Cokey is reviled as an anti-Papist song written by Puritans in the 18th century which has been an expression of sectarian hatred ever since.

The song was the subject of a controversy as recently as last month when the Protestant fans of Glasgow Rangers football club were banned from singing it at Celtic Park, the home ground of their bitter Catholic rivals, Celtic.

The Catholic Church and some MPs claimed that the words ridiculed the Latin mass — the title Hokey Cokey parodying the words “hoc est enim corpus meum” (“this is my body”) that are spoken by priests as they distribute the wafers which symbolise the body of Jesus.

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, was quoted as saying: “This song does have quite disturbing origins. It was devised as an attack on, and a parody of, the mass.”

Except that he was entirely wrong. Hokey Cokey has nothing to do with Puritans, Catholics or the sectarian divide, nor was it written in the 18th century.

In fact, the song was composed by a Jewish band leader called Al Tabor in 1940 as a catchy dance tune. And the supposedly inflammatory title was actually inspired by ice cream.

Now, the true origins of the harmless ditty have been revealed in a play written by Tabor’s grandson, to be performed in London later this year.

The author, Alan Balfour, confirms that the song was written during the Second World War as a way of keeping people’s spirits up and has no religious content whatsoever.

“My grandfather wrote it during the Blitz in 1940,” he says. “He was playing at Murray’s Club in Beak Street, Soho. A Canadian officer suggested he wrote a party dance with actions, similar to Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree [a popular song of the day].

“He remembered that when he was a boy, the street ice cream vendors advertised their wares by shouting: ‘Hokey pokey, penny a lump!’ He wanted to use the phrase ‘hokey pokey’ because he associated it with something cheerful. The officer suggested changing ‘pokey’ to ‘cokey’, which meant ‘crazy’ in Canada, because it sounded better. It had nothing to do with the Catholic Church at all. They were looking for something to lift people’s spirits.” A music publisher reneged on an agreement to promote and publish the song, and finally Tabor gave up all rights to his composition. A couple of years later it was published by Campbell, Connolly & Co.

Tabor was a well-known figure on the popular entertainment scene. He became a band leader after the First World War and, in 1925, played a concert for Edward, the Prince of Wales.

Balfour, who lives in north London, was very close to his grandfather and kept all his scrapbooks and letters which provided the source material for the play. “He was a very interesting man,” says the 70-year-old former businessman. “He had a public persona which was jovial and highly charming. But he had a darker side. He had a very secretive life, with lots of love affairs.

“I’m bemused by anyone who thinks Hokey Cokey is to do with the Catholic Church. It’s certainly not what my grandfather had in mind.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive