In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay since 2015 for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz. The readership for each site seems to have little overlap, and so, I thought if I might repost some of the Spirit essays on my own blog, it might achieve a wider readership. This one, originally from Oct. 1, 2021, is now updated and slightly rewritten.
When I was a wee bairn, back in the wilds of New Jersey, I remember a certain consternation when listening to — and being forced to sing — various Christmas carols. What, I wondered, does “Fa-la-la” mean? Couldn’t the song writer think of any real words? I tended to sing the Walt Kelly version: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo.”
But those nonsense syllables continued to bother me. And fascinate me.
And in school, we sometimes had to sing songs with such nonsense words in them, like “Tra-la-la” and “Hey, nonny-nonny.” When I got a little older, and learned to read and write, I wondered if these had actually been just corruptions of real words, as a kind of mondegreen. Like “round John Virgin in Silent Night.
Then, as a school kid watching Warner Brothers cartoons on television, I learned of certain popular tunes from the 1940s — which to me in the 1950s seemed as far away as the Middle Ages — like “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?” Such songs would show up in Loony Tunes. Another was “Hut set rawlson on a rillerah, and a so-and-so and so forth.” from the 1942 cartoon Horton Hatches an Egg. I was sure I must be mis-hearing the lyrics. Only later did I find out that no, I wasn’t, but “Mairzy doats” was, in fact a mondegreen for “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” Which is still pretty much nonsense.
Oh, but then. Then, I became a teenager in the ’60s. Little Richard (I then thought of myself as “Big Richard”) sang “Wop bop-a-loo-bop a-wop bam boom.” And “Tootie-Frootie, Ah Rooty.” And then in 1958 came: “Ooh-eee Ooh-ah-ah, Ting-Tang Walla-walla Bing Bang.” And the next year with “Shimmy-shimmy ko-ko-bop.” We were off to the nonsense syllable la-la-land. “Rama Lama Ding Dong.”
“Well, be-bop-a-Lula she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-Lula I don’t mean maybe”
Gene Vincent’s phrase “Be-Bop-a-Lula” is similar to “Be-Baba-Leba”, the title of a 1945 Helen Humes song, remade by Lionel Hampton as “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” This phrase, possibly being ultimately derived from the shout of “Arriba! Arriba!” used by Latin American bandleaders to encourage band members. Things work the rounds.
I have since learned that these sounds are officially known as “non-lexical vocables.” There are learned papers written on the subject, some of which can be downloaded in PDF form (“Non-lexical Vocables in Scottish Traditional Music” by Christine Knox Chambers, 1980, 340 pages).
Later, in college, as a music minor, I had to learn solfège, in which the syllables “do,” “re,” and “mi” stood for the notes “C” “D” and “E.” Originally, it was “ut,” “re” and “mi.” If you’ve ever wondered where this all came from, as you are singing “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” blame the Middle Ages. As a mnemonic to remember a tune, each pitch was assigned a syllable (this was before standard musical notation) from the beginning syllable of the prayer: “Ut queant laxis/ resonare fibris/ Mira gestorum/ famuli tuorum/ Solve polluti/ labil reatum, Sancte Iohannes.” (The last note combines the S and I from “Sancte Iohannes”)
Translated: “So that your servants may,/ with loosened voices,/ Resound the wonders/ of your deeds,/ Clean the guilt/ from our stained lips,/ Saint John.”
In the 1600s, because “Ut” was harder to sing, it was changed to “Do.” And “Si” is sometimes changed to “Ti.” Giving us “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti and back to Do,” which, is Homer Simpson’s favorite word.
Ah, but before all this pedantry, I meant to be writing about silly lyrics. “Doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo.” “Poppa Oom Mow Mow.” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” Or the name song: “Katie, Katie, bo-batie,/Bonana-fanna fo-fatie/ Fee fi mo-matie/ Katie!”
There really is a long tradition. I opened up my Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 559 pages) and found “Fiddle-de-dee, fiddle-de-dee, The wasp has married the humble bee,” and “Diddlety, diddlety, dumpty, The cat ran up the plum tree.” “Hickory-Dickery Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.” “Hey Diddle-diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”
This sort of thing is all through the tome:
Open up Child’s Ballads, or English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge University Press, 1904, 723 pages), you find refrains such as
Shakespeare from As You Like It:
Elizabethan songs are often called “Hey Nonny Nonnies.”
As in Ophelias “mad song” from Hamlet:
Opera has its share of nonsense, and some of that is in the libretto. Hector Berlioz wrote a chorus for the demons in The Damnation of Faust that goes on quite a while with stuff like this:
And Wagner liked to invent gibberish almost as much as he loved himself. The famous Ride of the Valkyries actually has words. And what are they? “Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heia ha-haeia!” Over and over.
And his Rhine Maidens, gurgling underwater, sing the praises of the Rhine gold: “Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia! Wallalalalala leiajahei!”
There’s at least a section of gibberish in each of his operas. The sailors in The Flying Dutchman all sing a Wagnerian version of “Yo-ho-ho” — “Ho-ho! Je holla ho!” And when they make merry: “Ho! He! Je! Ha! Klipp’ und Sturm’, He! Sind vorbei, he! Hussahe! Hallohe!” This kind of gibberish is of a different order from the gibberish that passes as Wagner’s philosophy.
But is any of this different from “Fododo-de-yacka saki Want some sea food, Mama.” Or Frank Sinatra’s “Doo-be doo-be doo.”
This stuff is all over the place, from Sly and the Family Stone: “Boom Shaka-laka, boom shaka-laka,” to the hit song from 1918 (yes, it’s that old): “Jada, jada, jada-jada-jing-jing-jing.”
Going back further, there’s Stephen Foster’s “Camptown ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah, doo-dah,” and Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay was a vaudeville and music hall song made famous in 1892 by British performer Lottie Collins. But its provenance goes back further, at least to the 1880s, when it was sung by a black singer, Mama Lou in a well-known St. Louis brothel run by “Babe” Connors.
Then, in 1901, Yale graduate Allan Hirsh wrote the fight song, Boola-Boola. “We do not know what it means,” Hirsh wrote, “except that it was euphonious and easy to sing and to our young ears sounded good.”
As far as “boola,” it was rumored to be a Hawaiian word for “good,” but linguists point out, there is no “B” sound in the Hawaiian language.
“Sometimes, with these college fight songs,” said Kalena Silva, director of the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, “they just made up words.”
After the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which featured a popular Hawaiian pavilion — which sported floor-to-ceiling flowers, pineapple give-aways, a back-lit aquarium and the Royal Hawaiian Quartet playing music, with a steel guitar — a craze for Hawaiian-themed songs took over Tin Pan Alley.
The year 1916 gave us Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula, which begins: “Down Hawaii way, where I chanced to stray/ On an evening I heard a Hula maiden play Yaaka hula hickey dula, Yaaka hula hickey dula.”
It should be stated that “Yaaka hula hickey dula” is not Hawaiian — or any other language. Also from 1916 was They’re Wearing’Em Higher in Hawaii, and Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.
Later came more exoticism: “Bingo Bango Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Leave the Congo.”
Of course, African-American culture gave us scat singing, which features improvised nonsense syllables. There are great examples from Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
But perhaps the most popular for the scat was Cab Calloway, whose Minnie the Moocher gave us “Hey-dee-hi-de-ho.” But also, “Skeedle-a-booka-diki biki skeedly beeka gookity woop!” And, “Scoodley-woo-scoodley-woo scoodley-woodley-woodley-woo Zit-dit-dit-dit-dittle but-dut-duttleoo-skit-dit-skittle-but-dit-zoy.
Calloway made an appearance in the 1932 Fleischer Brothers animated cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, with Betty Boop, whose catch phrase, “Boop-Boop-a-Doop,” was originally a scat phrase.
The phrase was heard by some blue-stockings as a euphemism for something rude and a backlash developed, leading to a 1932 cartoon, Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away,” where Betty sang a little song:
The following year, Jimmy Durante gave us Inka-Dinka-Doo, which sang:
Getting into the 1940s, Disney has given us a share, from “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee Ay, My, oh my, what a wonderful day” to “Sala-gadoola-menchicka-boo-la bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
The tradition continues, as even Lady Gaga has Bad Romance:
I’ve already mentioned the non-lexical vocalisms from Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Now we move on to Iron Butterfly and their notorious 17-minute 1968 extravaganza, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
I mentioned mondegreens earlier. Apparently, the lyrics to the song were supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden,” but when song-writer Doug Ingle played the song for his bandmate, Ron Bushy misheard the words, sung in a drunken slur by Ingle after drinking a gallon of cheap red wine, as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and wrote it down that way. I suppose it could have been corrected the next sober morning, but it wasn’t, and has gone down as legend.
The Beatles had a history of using nonsense words in their songs, from Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da to the “na-na-na” chorus of Hey Jude. Sometimes they used nonsense to fill out a song, usually with a plan to add better words later.
Ryan Miller of the alternative rock band Guster said that many songwriters use sounds a placeholders — the way movies are made with “working titles” before the real one gets put in place.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time you replace them with words but sometimes those sounds fit the spirit of the song or even become the spirit of the song,” said Miller. “And sometimes I don’t want there to be words — there can be a Rorschach version this way where you have your own experience with the music.”
When Paul McCartney was writing Yesterday, he had the tune, but not the words, so in the demo tape, he used placeholders and sang:
“Scrambled eggs” and “yesterday” scan the same. Go ahead, sing it with the old words. It works. But he did the right thing and switched up the words.
Other Beatles songs, though, feel as though the placeholders were just left in. “Well you can syndicate any boat you row,” or “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.”
The all-time champ must be I Am the Walrus.
John Lennon said he was tired of listeners trying to “analyze” Beatles lyrics, and wanted to write something to confuse them — the “Rohrschach effect” that Ryan Miller mentioned.