Fascinating rhythm

There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, my favorite tv sitcom, in which Sheldon’s neuroscientist girlfriend, Amy, tries to cure him of his obsessive need for closure. Sheldon insists he has no such obsession. Amy demonstrates her point by rapping out the first five beats of the “shave-and-a-haircut” rhythm on the kitchen counter. Sheldon struggles to hold back, but cannot. He finishes it with two knocks against the counter—”two bits.” Score for Amy.

That famous 7-beat rhythm was featured in many early cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, and later in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s used as a “secret” knock on the door and honked on car horns. It even appears at the end of the song “Gee, Office Krupke” in West Side Story. (Stephen Sondheim had to change his original lyrics accompanying the “two bits” part of the rhythm to something a little less coarse: “Krup You.”)

According to The Book of World-Famous Music by James J. Fuld, the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm first showed up in an 1899 minstrel tune, “At a Darktown Cakewalk.” There were no lyrics. In 1914, it occurred in the last two bars of “Bum Diddle-de-um Bum, That’s It!” Again, no lyrics. Then in 1939, a similar musical phrase—this time with words—found its way into “Shave and a Haircut, Bay Rum.” In some versions, it’s “Shave and a Haircut, Shampoo.” Either way, the song is described in The Big Band Reader (by W. Studwell and M. Baldin) as “decidedly unelevating.” And largely forgotten, apparently. I found no trace of a recording. No one knows quite how we got from the tagline “Bay Rum” or “Shampoo” to the current “Two Bits.”

Some say that Bo Diddley’s eponymous beat derived from the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm. You can decide:

Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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One Response to Fascinating rhythm

  1. Jessa says:

    That’s so interesting! I actually have never known for sure how that musical phrase truly ends.

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