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'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties

Gibb Sahib 06 Feb 13 - 04:50 PM
Steve Gardham 06 Feb 13 - 05:25 PM
Phil Edwards 06 Feb 13 - 05:55 PM
GUEST,Lighter 06 Feb 13 - 07:08 PM
Gibb Sahib 06 Feb 13 - 08:08 PM
Gibb Sahib 06 Feb 13 - 08:12 PM
GUEST,Lighter 06 Feb 13 - 08:38 PM
Gibb Sahib 06 Feb 13 - 11:42 PM
Gibb Sahib 07 Feb 13 - 12:11 AM
Mysha 07 Feb 13 - 07:52 AM
GUEST,Lighter 07 Feb 13 - 08:02 AM
Dead Horse 07 Feb 13 - 08:48 AM
GUEST,Grishka 07 Feb 13 - 09:26 AM
Snuffy 07 Feb 13 - 09:37 AM
GUEST,Don Wise 07 Feb 13 - 10:06 AM
Snuffy 07 Feb 13 - 10:35 AM
Steve Gardham 07 Feb 13 - 11:05 AM
Snuffy 07 Feb 13 - 03:08 PM
Steve Gardham 07 Feb 13 - 05:14 PM
GUEST,Ebor_Fiddler 07 Feb 13 - 06:08 PM
GUEST 07 Feb 13 - 06:45 PM
Gibb Sahib 07 Feb 13 - 07:39 PM
Gibb Sahib 07 Feb 13 - 07:48 PM
Gibb Sahib 08 Feb 13 - 03:45 PM
Joe_F 08 Feb 13 - 08:34 PM
mg 08 Feb 13 - 09:58 PM
Phil Edwards 09 Feb 13 - 06:00 AM
Lighter 09 Feb 13 - 08:56 AM
Mr Red 09 Feb 13 - 09:21 AM
Gibb Sahib 09 Feb 13 - 04:49 PM
GUEST,Beachcomber 09 Feb 13 - 05:02 PM
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Subject: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 04:50 PM

I am starting this thread with a particular query in mind: the origins/relationship of a chanty called "John's a Rookey Ookey."

My thought, however, was that a thread devoted solely to the origins to that song would come to a rather abrupt halt after sentiments of "We'll never know" and "There is not enough info to speculate" (both of which may be true). So I thought I would make it a little more broad, to give potential to include (perhaps at a much later date) other discussion of such fragments of unexplained, [seeming] nonsense phrases. I also thought that the focus on only one song would lead mainly to attempts to seek out meanings of the phrase "rookey ookey"—something that I am all for, but which I feel is a rather narrow approach.

By "unexplained nonsense" I mean phrases that seem like they, possibly, are supposed to mean something, but which, for various meanings, are inscrutable. I am basically trying to exclude "obvious" intentional nonsense and vocables like "rig-a-jig jig" or "too ra loo", etc., and to also avoid the platitude that, "Not everything necessarily means something. It might just sound good. It's just rhythms to get work done since chanties are about work first and foremost. Etc." Also true. But my assertion is that at least some of these phrases meant something, and that the meaning or origin of phrase is either "lost" or the originally meaningful phrase was changed by uncomprehending singers through the oral process.

The "Ruler King" or "Ruling King" or "Rolling King" of "South Australia," which also turns up as "You're a lankey" in one documented version, is one such example. We have a thread focused on that. The idea of *this* thread is to put such examples in a comparative, rather than an isolated context. It might not go anywhere!; just trying it out. We may likely still conclude "We may never know," but widening the topic will at least give more room for productive speculation!

On to the example on my mind. But first a comment. I am not at all convinced that "John Kanakanaka" is meant in reference to a "Kanaka." And I remain skeptical that "John Cherokee" was necessarily about a "Cherokee." I think "Hooker John" is probably not about anything called a "hooker," but more likely related to "hoojun John," where "hoojun" may be related to "hoosier." And I think that several of these songs with "unexplained nonsense" may related to each other, or at least share common features.

"John's a Rookey Ookey" is an item that was sung for the collector J.M. Carpenter in 1928 by sailor Joseph Bound of Pill, England. No recording exists in the Carpenter Collection, but Carpenter did make a musical transcription. Bob Walser shared the transcription in his excellent article about the Carpenter Collection chanties (Folk Music Journal 7:4, 1998). I think I'm OK within copyright rules to reproduce the lyrics here:

Heave away me boys it's John's a rookey ookey.
Heave away my laddie boys, John's a rookey ookey.
Heave ho! Heave ho! John's a rookey ookey!
Heave ho! Heave ho, me boys! John's a rookey ookey!

I'll give more of my initial thoughts later, when I have more time.

For now, does anyone have thoughts?

I would reiterate that I am not trying to limit the discussion in any way. My comments about relate to keeping the discussion broad, rather than excluding approaches. Thanks.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 05:25 PM

In military terms a 'rookey' being a novice and the following common tag of a bit of nonsense that rhymes, would suggest that the chanteyman was having a dig at a lubber among the crew.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Phil Edwards
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 05:55 PM

Whereas I'd put money on "John's a rookey ookey" being a phonetic rendering of something that made sense in... um... a different language. No idea what, though.

I wonder if "John Kanakanaka" and "John Cherokee" were even references to a person. If there were a word meaning "haul" or "hold" or "let's get going" that sounded a bit like "john"... Wildly speculative, I'm afraid.

Interesting question!


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 07:08 PM

"John's a rookie" doesn't appeal to me simply because "rookie," even its most literal military sense, was not really a part of the general English vocabulary till the First World War. (It appears once or twice in Kipling, I believe.)

So I unless the shanty is a very late one, I wouldn't expect it to include the army term "rookie."

Though, of course, "anything is possible."

(Except a relationship to "karaoke.")


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 08:08 PM

Is anyone one else struck by the (possible) structural similarity between

"john's a rookey-ookey" (john sa-ruki-uki)

and

"john ka-naka-naka" ?

I don't mean to imply that they necessarily mean the same, I just mean the redoubling of syllables.

Kanaka-naka does sound vaguely Hawaiian/Polynesian (speaking as someone who doesn't know those languages), not simply because "kanaka" is a word, but because (IMO) of the doubling. Could the same be said for rooki-ooki?

This is stretching it, I know, but how about the similarity between "cherokee" and "s-rookey" (both following John)?


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 08:12 PM

Phil, the "different language" bit makes sense to me. Perhaps Pidgin?


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 08:38 PM

The presence of "John" + "-kee" in all three cases is striking ("Kanaka" was undoubtedly often pronounced like "kanaki" (as in the novel "From Here to Eternity," where it rhymes with "sake").

On the basis of phonology alone I wouldn't be too surprised in hindsight to learn of a pidgin origin or connection, at least between two of the three. But what that origin or connection might be, if there is one, is beyond me.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 06 Feb 13 - 11:42 PM

How might "rookey" have been most likely pronounced? I am thinking about the "oo" vowel.

Similarity to the word we know for "greenhorn"/"newbie"/etc., that Steve mentions, makes me want to say it that way (i.e. sounds like "book", "hook".)

But if this was nonsense or Pidgin or something like that, I imagine it is supposed to represent a long "u" vowel as in "kangaroo".




I do realize this is not the most productive speculation in the world, but I find some interest in it, like a crossword puzzle.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 12:11 AM

Lighter--

Has "rook" ever been used, as far as you know, as an ethnic term? (E.g., from "black as a rook")

I see that Leland's slang dictionary (1890) lists "Rookey" as a military recruit (derived from black coats they wore), along with the meaning "rascally." I agree though that 1880s might seem a late period for the song.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Mysha
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 07:52 AM

Hi,

As it's not spelt "rooky", I'd pronounce this "rookey" with vowels close to "rock-day". But then, mine is not a native pronunciation. (Whether that's a helpor a hinder in this case, I don't know.)

On the general topic, I'm of the counter-opinion that almost all lyrics make sense, in their context. The difficult lies in determining the right context from the lyrics.

Bye,
                                                                Mysha


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Lighter
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 08:02 AM

"Crow" was so used in the US (cf. "Jim Crow"), but I know of no similar use of "rook."

The OED shows that "rook" has also meant a clergyman (black clothes), a scruffy or disreputable person, and a swindler.

None of these senses impress me as relevant, partly because of the added "-ooky," partly because they look to me to be too literary for a shanty.

Your guess is as good as mine concerning the quality of the "oo" in "rooky-ooky."

What little I know of phonetics suggests the following, which someone else may be eager to correct:

If "rooky-ooky" has the vowel in "good" rather than in "food," a foreign source could have had either of those or "uh" (as in "luck") or "aw" (as in "haul" or "oo" as in "food" itself. What with various English dialect pronunciations, any of these could turn almost effortlessly into the vowel in "good." There are other possibilities (like the umlauted vowels in German).

Other source vowels (like "ee" for example) probably wouldn't change that radically unless somebodydid it deliberately - which seems unlikely to me. (But it's the annoying random factor of "anything's possible.")


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Dead Horse
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 08:48 AM

I tried searching for the word 'aroo' which sounds as though it ought to mean something but came up with nothing specific.
The term 'switch-a-roo' leading me to a shortening of 'around' but as I say, not much help.
Seeing as a-rooki-ooky isnt found anywhere else (as far as I know) would lead me to believe that it is a pure made-up nonsense.
Spelling can not be an issue, as the majority of folk in those days did not spel to gud :-)
Maybe the term was a corruption of a foreign phrase picked up in some far flung exotic port like Necastle ......
Okie dokey?


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 09:26 AM

Gibb, you may be thinking of German "Ruck" or Dutch "ruk", both meaning "jerk" and used in various shouts equivalent to "Heave ho!".


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Snuffy
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 09:37 AM

"Ruck Hau" is how I remember the German expression from the 60's (pulling out the stumps of felled trees). An English speaker would probably hear this as something like "rook how"


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Don Wise
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 10:06 AM

Could it be that we're dealing here with in-jokes at the expense of the ships officers? Jibes which the officers wouldn't understand whilst the crew knew exactly who and what was meant?


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Snuffy
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 10:35 AM

It's a possibility, but for many officers in the merchant service their first berth was in the foc'sle, so they'd have a pretty good idea of what the shantyman was alluding to.

Don't forget that many source singers like John Short, Dick Maitland, Mark Page and many others had all attained the rank of Captain.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 11:05 AM

Okay to come back on some of the counters to my suggestion.

Are there any other versions?

Do we have any background info on the singer?

If the only known variant was from 1928 surely 'rookie' is in use well before that. Had the singer served on any British services vessel?

It is a colloquial quirk of many versions of the English language, for various reasons to add onto a word rhyming syllables, mainly childish, but not exclusively so.

I'm slightly suspicious of 'heave ho' it being a feature of imitation and literary sea songs.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Snuffy
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 03:08 PM

Joseph Bound of Myrtle Hill, Pill, near Bristol was aged 82 at the time Carpenter collected from him in 1928. He was at sea from 13 years of age, (from roughly 1860 onwards).


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 05:14 PM

Dict. of Historical Slang also gives 'rook' as a swindler from 16th century but still in use in the 19th. Seamen often complained (usually rightfully) of being swindled by pursers, cooks, ship owners, officers etc.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Ebor_Fiddler
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 06:08 PM

Ah - as in "being rooked", these birds have reputation for picking up ill-considered trifles, as do Magpies.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 06:45 PM

John Kanakanaka was eplained to me as coming from French:

Jean qui n'a qu'un, n'a que tous raillaient--

Jean who has only one, only has everybody jeering.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 07:39 PM

More info from Walser's article — which I believe he got from Carpenter's PhD thesis:

"Carpenter called this a fragment of a capstan shanty, an idea corroborated by the repeated use of the word 'Heave'. He also noted that the song 'must be of Negro origin'."

It doesn't say, nor did Carpenter likely indicate, why he believed the last bit—or why he would necessarily stress that point at all.

People who have seen some of my other posts will know that I believe "John Kanakanaka," "John Cherokee," and "South Australia," despite the very strong references their keywords would seem to make to elsewhere, are based in Black song style of the Americas/Caribbean. They certainly may have been shaped through several other cultural sensibilities, but I believe the "core" paradigm (if you believe in such things) comes from there. This belief comes, not from very specific details of particular songs, but rather from looking at lots of songs and these songs within that pool, as a class. "John's a Rookey Ookey" *can* fit into that class, for me, but I have no reason to feel so positively as Carpenter that it "must"; I am trying to stay open.

It may be that Carpenter had other cues, like singing style. Or maybe he was just "closer", temporally speaking, to stuff he could compare it to and which was more obviously "Negro" than it might be to us today.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 07 Feb 13 - 07:48 PM

I also couldn't say whether Carpenter assumed it was a capstan chanty, or if J. Bound told him so. It could be a windlass chanty, too.

In any case, it has what I call the "classic" chanty form—something which is really just an extension or adaptation of halyard chanties. It does not have the whiff of a "random" shore song adapted to work. Rather, it was probably developed with the pattern of a typical chanty.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 08 Feb 13 - 03:45 PM

The meter of Carpenter's transcription of "Rookey Ookey" has some irregularities. Carpenter probably wrote down the rhythm exactly as he heard it—which was sung by Bound without strict care that every note be given its full value. So, assuming this was sung, at least most of the time, with an even number of bars (4) for each line, one will have to make some guesses about where to put the melody notes (and whether it may be missing some).

The form of the song narrows it down into a particular type of chanty.

1) The refrain is the same words every time
2) Although there is some variation in the melody of the refrains in the transcription, I believe they may have been sung to the same tune each time (i.e. in an ideal rendition).
3) Although it is a 4-line (~heaving) form rather than 2-line (~halyard), these 4 lines are like a grouping of two, 2-line sets. In other words, the 3rd and 4th lines are not a truly distinctive "grand chorus," but rather more like a variation of what happens in the 1st and 2nd.
4) Given #3 above, the solo part in lines 3 and 4 are not very "wordy". It's like other chanties of this type that fill the same structural place with nonsense or basic "heave/haul" words.

Most of these traits are shared with "John Kanakanaka," "Mobile Bay," "John Cherokee," and "South Australia." I will have to think of more examples to cite. Generally, cotton-stowing songs and others that give off a Southern U.S. African-American vibe (to me) are coming to my mind.

I will note something a bit more specific in terms of song comparison. The 2nd solo line of "Rookey Ookey" has a tune that is the same as "John Cherokee"(the Hugill/Harding version). It's the part that sounds like "Dueling Banjos." A common pattern in music, perhaps, but these are the only 2 chanties I can remember having it.
my attempt of "Cherokee", as illustrative example


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Joe_F
Date: 08 Feb 13 - 08:34 PM

"Kanaka" is Hawaiian for man, and thus became slang among English-speaking traveling men for a Hawaiian man.

Kipling did indeed use "rookie"; indeed, the OED's earliest citation is from him (1892). It may be worn down from "recruitie", which also occurs in Kipling.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: mg
Date: 08 Feb 13 - 09:58 PM

some could have come from Chinook jargon perhaps, which did have Hawaiian words. Also, I have a book onj my kindle..an old Scottish Highland folklore set of articles..it goes on about toora loora and other "nonsense" phrases were really old relics of druid chants and authors did a very good job of relating these phrases to old Gaelic calls to sun, moon etc.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Phil Edwards
Date: 09 Feb 13 - 06:00 AM

I'd be interested in hearing more about that, mg, although I don't guarantee I'd believe a word of it - some folklorists have been very inventive over the years.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Lighter
Date: 09 Feb 13 - 08:56 AM

Nobody interested in this subject (particularly the part about finding foreign words in English nonsense) should miss this Wikipedia page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mots_d%27Heures

Van Rooten's book is a work of genius - though of a very unusual kind.


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Mr Red
Date: 09 Feb 13 - 09:21 AM

Stan Hugill referred to his "camouflage" - words that in the early 50's UK would not have been published.
Some nonsense is Bowdlerising.
Phonetic rhyme obviously.
Misheard lyrics of: particularly foreign languages, real people (eg Paddy Doyle) etc, or even mumbled words because they had the wrong scansion for the job.
A lot of what we know is the version that made it to the "collectors".
Stan Hugill was pretty sure that versions were customised to what sailors knew, the skipper, the well known doxy, chandlers etc.
Dare we mention Modegreens?

Er..... the folk process?


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 09 Feb 13 - 04:49 PM

I made a rendition of "John's a Rookeyookey", to deal with some of its challenges.

J-A-R-O


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Subject: RE: 'Unexplained nonsense' in chanties
From: GUEST,Beachcomber
Date: 09 Feb 13 - 05:02 PM

"Johyn's a Rookie OOkie " could be what sailors (of different nationalities) understood or heard, from the sung line "John is a Rooskie,(Russian) OK " couldn't it ? It could , eventually, from common usage, have metamorphosed into the above
And, just because a certain term or slang word didn't appear in Literature doesn't mean that it didn't exist prior to Mr Kipling's writings or anybody else's, does it ?


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