I’d be impressed if anyone knew what medley those musical notes refer to.
Think about how many of us may occasionally knock on a door – five quick taps, then a pause, followed by two taps.
Here’s the tune on an organ:
and Bugs Bunny:
At this point, I am guessing that most of you recognize that little ditty.
But how many of you know that those seven notes have lyrics associated with them?
Well, my wife did, but I did not.
We were watching The West Wing the other day, and one of the characters knocked on someone’s door using this pattern, and the closed caption said: “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”
I had no idea what that meant, I thought the closed captioning had made a mistake.
But then my wife told me those are the words that go with that little ditty.
So of course, I had to go out to Wikipedia, and I picked up a few fun facts about the tune:
- “Shave and a Haircut” and the associated response “two bits” is a 7-note musical call-and-response couplet, riff or fanfare popularly used at the end of a musical performance, usually for comic effect. It is used both melodically and rhythmically, for example as a door knock. (“Two bits” is an archaism in the United States for 25 cents; a quarter. “Six bits” is occasionally used. The final words may also be “get lost”, “drop dead” (in Australia), or some other facetious expression. In England, it was often said as “five bob” (slang for five shillings), although words are now rarely used to accompany the rhythm or the tune.)
- An early occurrence of the tune is from an 1899 Charles Hale song, “At a Darktown Cakewalk”. Other songs from the same period also used the tune. The same notes form the bridge in the “Hot Scotch Rag”, written by H. A. Fischler in 1911.
- Former prisoner of war and U.S. Navy seaman Doug Hegdahl reports fellow U.S. captives in the Vietnam War would authenticate a new prisoner’s U.S. identity by using “Shave and a Haircut” as a shibboleth, tapping the first five notes against a cell wall and waiting for the appropriate response.
- It is strongly associated with the stringed instruments of bluegrass music, particularly the 5-string banjo. Earl Scruggs often ended a song with this phrase or a variation of it. On the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, musical cues signifying the coming of a commercial break (cues which were in bluegrass style) frequently ended with “Shave and a Haircut”.
- In Mexico, the melody is highly offensive (I’ll leave it up to those interested to read the details).
So who knew that a simple seven-note medley could have such a fascinating background.
And for those who can’t get enough of this, here is a three-minute video that goes into more detail: