Sunday, December 6, 2009

Author of Hokey Pokey Dies at 104

On November 23rd, 2009, Robert Degan, one of the people officially attributed with authorship of the famed Hokey Pokey Dance, died in Lexington, Kentucky at the age of 104. Mr. Degan, a well known guitar and banjo player in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area for many years was also a member of the Scranton Sirens in the 1920s, a jazz group that at one point counted both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey as members. Working with Joe Brier at a resort near the Delaware Water Gap in the 1940s, Mr. Degan produced his one and only musical copyright "The Hokey Pokey Dance." Larry LaPrise also claimed that he had written a very similar version of the song which resulted in a long term dispute about the song's official authorship, a dispute which was finally settled out of court in the 1950s. The words of the song penned by Mr. Degan and his collaborator Joe Brier are slightly different from the better known version attributed to Mr. LaPrise. Here is how the first part of the Degan and Brier version goes:

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

Despite this success with the Hokey Pokey, Mr. Degan eventually gave up his music making and became a furniture salesman in Lexington, Kentucky for many years until he retired in 1970 at the age of 65.

The preceding comes primarily from a December 3rd obituary in the New York Times, but I have learned from other sources of a legend that Mr. Degan continued to refine the lyrics and the melody for the "Hokey Pokey Dance" using different articles of furniture. One of the many versions that he experimented with is as follows:

Put your arm chair in
Put your sling back out
Put your Eames chair in
Your comfort is what counts
When you're doing the Hokey Pokey
You're finding a seat that's right
You've got the right one now so just
sit there nice and tight.

Mr. Degan is reported to have experimented with over a hundred variations on these lyrics. He is alleged to have said a few weeks before his death that he had just about finished the definitive version of the Hokey Pokey. Unfortunately, none of this work could be found in the papers that he left behind. Nevertheless, the "Hokey Pokey Dance" remains Mr. Degan's legacy. The next time you have an occasion to launch into the Hokey Pokey, please keep in mind the troubadour from Scranton, Pennsylvania - Robert Degan.

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