Shave and a Haircut
"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.
In his 1933 novel, Hizzoner the Mayor, Joel Sayre wrote of boats "tooting the official Malta welcome blast to the tempo of 'Shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits, shave- and-a-haircut-two-bits, shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits,' which was soon taken up by every craft in the harbor that had a boiler," indicating that the tune was already associated by that time with the lyric.
The tune can be heard on customized car horns, while the rhythm may be tapped as a door knock or as a Morse code "dah-di-di-dah-di, di-dit" ( –··–· ·· ) at the end of an amateur radio contact.
The 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 "Shave and a Haircut" as a shibboleth, tapping the first five notes of against a cell wall and waiting for the appropriate response. U.S. POWs were then able to communicate securely with one another via the quadratic alphabet code.
The tune has been used innumerable times as a coda or ending in musical pieces. 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". It is the most popular bluegrass run, after the G run.
"Shave and a Haircut" was used in many early cartoons, particularly Looney Tunes cartoons, played on things varying from car horns to window shutters banging in the wind. It was also used as an ending to many cartoon shows, just after the credits. Decades later, the couplet became a plot device used by the chief antagonist Judge Doom in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the idea being that Toons cannot resist finishing with the "two bits" when they hear the opening rhythm.
The phrase has been incorporated into countless recordings and performances. Notable examples include:
- 'That's a Lot of Bunk', a 1920s novelty song by Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, known as "The Happiness Boys," uses the riff at the end of the song.
- R&B singer and bandleader Dave Bartholomew used the phrase on two of his recordings: "Country Boy" (1950) at the very end, and the original version of "My Ding-A-Ling" (1952) as a figure introducing each verse.
- Les Paul and Mary Ford's Capitol recording of "Magic Melody" concluded with the phrase minus the last two notes ("two bits"). Responding to complaints from disc jockeys, Capitol in 1955 released "Magic Melody Part 2"—consisting solely of the missing notes—on a 45, said to be the shortest tune on record.
- P. D. Q. Bach ends his "Blaues Gras" ("bluegrass") aria with "Shave and a Haircut", sung in Denglisch (mangled German and English): "Rasieren und Haarschneiden, zwei bitte" ("Shave and haircut, two please", ungrammatical in either language). "Zwei bitte" is a Denglisch pun, sounding like "two bits" to a speaker of both languages. The melody is also used in The Short-Tempered Clavier.
- The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" from Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story ends with the tune.
- The opening theme to the TV series The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson ends with the tune.
- The original version of "Love and Marriage" by Frank Sinatra (recorded for Capitol Records in 1955) ends with the tune.
- "Everything About You", by Ugly Kid Joe (recorded for Mercury Records in 1992), ends with the tune.
- "Unsquare Dance" (1961) by Dave Brubeck ends with the tune, and also features part of "Turkey in the Straw".
Uses in other countries
An example of the couplet.
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In Mexico, the melody is highly offensive, as it is commonly used to stand in for the rhythmically similar vulgar phrase "chinga tu madre, cabrón" (English: "Fuck your mother, asshole!").
The Italian version is Ammazza la vecchia...col Flit! (English: "Kill the old lady...with Flit!")—Flit being an old brand of DDT insecticide. This is a humorous popular version of a post-World War II commercial Ammazza la mosca... col Flit (English: "Kill the fly with Flit!"). This version is never perceived as offensive, but just as a joke.
The tune is used in Catalan with a different lyric: "Nas de barraca. Sant Boi" (English: "Shack nose. Sant Boi"). It is also tapped, as a door knock. The Catalan lyrics may come from Blanes, where it was sung twice with Nas de barraca. Sant Boi. Cinc de carmelos pel noi (English: Shack nose. Sant Boi. Five candies for the boy).
In Spain, it is sung with the lyrics, Una copita... de Ojén (English: "A shot of schnapps").
In Sweden it was used in a commercial for the Bronzol brand of candy with the slogan Hälsan för halsen—Bronzol (English: Health for your throat—Bronzol).
In the Netherlands, the phrase is used when someone leaves with the intention to not return. Die zien we nooit meer, te-rug (English: We shall never see them, a-gain). It is used as a way to make fun of someone/something, if it suddenly disappears from the scene.
In Argentina, Carlos Balá, a former children's TV programmes host, used to include a bit in his routine in which he would hum the "shave and a haircut" part of the tune, prompting the children in the audience to answer "Ba-lá" to the rhythm of the two final notes.
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