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Musical Space: Story Of A Comedic Musical Staple


“Shave and a Haircut” is a ditty that has been a part of American culture for more than a hundred years; a sort of musical meme that worked its way deeply into our collective brain. You’ve heard it a million times.

Its ubiquity comes partly from its characteristic rhythm, which is related to the famous clave or “Bo Diddley beat” from the Caribbean by way of New Orleans.

Another reason we hear it a lot is because it is an effective cadence, or musical ending, so it is a great way to cue the end of a tune. The beauty of “Shave and a Haircut” is its “call and response” format; when the leader plays it, the rest of the band knows to play the last two notes. Flatt and Scruggs used a variation of it to end their famous “Ballad of Jed Clampett.”

“Shave and a Haircut” became a cliché a long time ago, but that made it perfect for comedy, starting with the Three Stooges back in the '40s. Leonard Bernstein uses it for comic relief in West Side Story.

And, to guarantee its cultural immortality, the Tonight Show band used it for decades to introduce Johnny Carson.

This commentary originally aired on April 16, 2013.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.