What if the Hokey Pokey is What it is all About?

A Sermon Delivered by

The Rev. Thomas Schmidt

at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry

October 14, 2007


A few months ago, I saw a bumper sticker that asked the question, “What if the Hokey Pokey is what it is all about?”  The words to the song, naturally,came quickly to mind. As they rolled through my head, I started to think that perhaps there was something to that question and that it would be prudent to explore the question by doing an exegesis of lyrics.  In college and seminary, exploring stories and texts for deeper meaning was a large part of my education.  I must admit my professors were not always in agreement with my interpretations, though they rarely found fault with my methods. I was sure to never make claims that could not be supported directly by the text or the subtext of the story’s unique history. To exegete a biblical text, for example, requires some knowledge of context, when and where the piece was originally written.  One also needed familiarity with the theories of redaction, which attempted to explain many of the redundancies and contradictions of scripture by looking at how the text had been edited by different groups over time.  But probably the most helpful skill in exegeting scripture was the ability to get inside the head of the writer and ask, “what was that person’s motivation for writing the text and who were they writing it for?  Were they writing it for themselves, or someone else?  Were they writing from a place of authority, or from the fringe of society? Etc. etc.


To exegete the Hokey Pokey, at first glance would seem easy, but quite frankly it is far more complicated than I every imagined.  According to Wikipedia, the online, interactive encyclopedia, there is nothing simple about this song.  In the songs current form, there are numerous claims to authorship, some American and some British.  In Britain it is called the “Hokey- Cokey” or “Okey-Cokey” and is reported to have been very popular during World War II.  The first American copyright did not occur until the 1950’s so it seems most likely it originated in Britain.  But the origins of the words and dance actually go back even further, believe it or not. According to Wikipedia, 

There are many theories and conjectures about the meaning of the words 

"Hokey Pokey", and of their origin.  Some scholars attribute the origin to a 

Shaker song which had similar lyrics and was published in Edward Deming 

Andrews'  book A gift to be simple in 1940: (p.42)" A song rendered ("with appropriate gestures") by two Canterbury sisters while on a visit to 

Bridgewater, N.H. in 1857 starts thus 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. As the song continues, the "left hand" is put in, then the "right foot," then the "left foot," 

then "my whole head."...Newell gave it the title, "Right Elbow In," and said 

that is was danced " deliberately and decorously...with slow rhythmical motion."


The article goes on to say that “Other scholars have found similar dances and lyrics dating back to the 17th century. A very similar dance is cited in Robert Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland from 1826.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary "hokey cokey" comes from "hocus pocus," the traditional magician's incantation which in its turn derives from a distortion of hoc enim est corpus meum - "this is my body" - the words of consecration accompanying the elevation of the host at Eucharist, the point, at which according to traditional Catholic practice, transubstantiation takes place - mocked by Puritans and others as a form of "magic words". An article in the UK paper, the Telegraph it was reported that  “Canon George Nairn-Briggs, Provost of Wakefield Cathedral, West Yorkshire, says that both the name of the dance and its actions were originally designed to satirize the traditional Mass and the clergy. The dance involves participants forming a chain and flinging their limbs about in line with commands. Canon Nairn-Briggs said: "In the days when the priest celebrated the Mass with his back to the people and whispered the Latin words of consecration with many hand movements, the laity mimicked the movements as they saw them and the words as they misheard them." 


I must admit, there was far more history to this song than I ever imagined.  But with that background in mind, we should be able to exegete the heck out of this simple little tune.  So let us assume that the writers of the Wikipedia article and the Telegraph article were accurate, that the song started as a parody of the mass. “You do the hocus pocus, turn yourself around, and that’s what it’s all about.”  Does all that knowledge effect the meaning of the song.  Yes and no, really.   

No, because ultimately the song means to the listener what it means, regardless of the original intent. And this can be true for all stories and scripture, though can often lead to a very shallow understanding of what can be a story of profound depth.  And yes,  because now that you know the history of the song, it is likely that you will no longer be able to listen to that song in the same way ever again.  (Your Welcome).


Now, to answer the question, What if the Hokey Pokey is What it’s all about? Here then is my exegetical understanding of the Hokey Pokey.  Given that Hokey Pokey is a derivative of hocus pocus, a misunderstanding or mocking of the Latin Mass, I conclude that the Hokey Pokey is not what it is all about.  I repeat, the Hokey Pokey is not what it is all about.  If Hokey Pokey, hocus pocus, magical words were what it was all about, then nothing else would matter. Theories of love, gravity, morality, justice, evolution, the speed of light,  all depend on the universe following certain laws.  Allow magic into the mix, and then anything is possible regardless of natural laws, the search for truth and meaning and any effort for improved self-awareness would go right out the door.  


So magic is not what it is all about, at least, not  magic from a literal standpoint.  But if we consider magic, not as something that  goes against the natural order but rather as a marvel to behold; a mystery beyond our understanding but as real as gravity, then perhaps we could find some meaning here.   While the song begins having us put different parts of us into the circle and shaking them all about, at the end we are told to put our whole selves in.   “You put your whole self in, And you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey  And you turn yourself around.  That's what it's all about.”  The key to understanding this song is understanding which “it” is it all about.  Given the history, it would seem that the “it” referenced is the mass.  However, it could be argued that later interpretations of the song, most notably by the “Shakers” with their preference for personal piety over religious ritual, that the “it” referenced was personal religious practice or perhaps even life itself.  And though not necessarily the original meaning of the song, it remains a meaningful way to interpret the song.  Thus, let us assume that the “it” referenced is life, with emphasis on the spiritual side of life.  


“You put your whole self in, And you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey  And you turn yourself around.  That's what it's all about.”  To understand these words,  let us consider these words written by Wolfgang von Goethe, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then . . . a whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.  Begin it now.” Frankly, I think Goethe sums up the larger meaning of the song most eloquently.  You commit your whole self, you shake yourself about, engage yourself fully in life and living, and then the hokey pokey, the magic happens.  The magic isn’t something we do, it is something that happens when we are fully committed.  From a Buddhist perspective, this so called magic is easily and rationally explained.  Given that everything happens because the conditions exist to make it happen, then by committing ourselves to a project, a cause, greater spiritual awareness,  whatever, by committing ourselves and taking action we are creating favorable conditions for, as Goethe wrote, “all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come along.”  


So, in this sense, then, the Hokey Pokey is what it is all about.  Commitment and Action create change. From that change of conditions, new possibilities are created.  And in the process we are turned around, we are changed.And, again from a Buddhist perspective, that is the most any of us can do.  While commitment and action are necessary, it is also necessary to avoid getting attached to a particular outcome resulting from our actions. Everything is dependent on circumstances and the best we can do is change circumstances in the hopes that the change will produced the desired outcome. 


Too often, I think, we consider our actions failed because the effects  are not immediately seen. However, the true sign of success is not the desired outcome, success is knowing we have committed our whole selves and acted in the best interest of everyone involved.  Success is knowing that we have worked to create the most favorable conditions for the most favorable outcome.  “You put your whole self in,  you shake it all about. the  hokey pokey happens, And you turn yourself around,  you change yourself and your change the world.  And that is what it is all about.

HomeAbout MeContact MeRites of PassageWeblogLinksSelected SermonsPacket Materials