Shave and a Haircut
In music, the call "Shave and a Haircut" and the associated response "two bits" is a simple, 7-note musical couplet or riff 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. Play (help·info)
"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. Naval Seaman Doug Hegdahl reports fellow American captives in the Vietnam war would authenticate a new prisoner's American identity by tapping the first five notes of "Shave and a Haircut", against a cell wall, waiting for the appropriate response. American 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.
The phrase has been incorporated into countless recordings and performances. Some 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.
- Dexter Gordon's version of Billy Eckstine and Gerald Valentine's "Second Balcony Jump" on his 1962 album Go ends on the phrase, minus the last note ("bits"). Gordon was known to frequently insert humorous quotations into his solos.
- 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.
- "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.
- In the book Genellan: Planetfall by Scott Gier, a character uses the tune to establish contact with an alien race.
- The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" from Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story ends in the tune.
- Nardwuar the Human Serviette, a music journalist, ends every interview with this melody, pausing before the final two notes and leaving them to be completed by the interviewee.
Uses in other countries
An example of the couplet.
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In Mexico, the tune is highly offensive, as it is commonly used to stand in for the rhythmically similar vulgar phrase "chinga tu madre, cabrón" (translation: "Fuck your mother, asshole!").
The Italian version is Ammazza la vecchia... col Flit! [i.e. "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 [i.e. "Kill the fly with Flit!"]. This version is never perceived as offensive, but just as a joke.
The same tune is used in Catalan with a different lyric: "Nas de barraca. Sant Boi" ("Shack nose. Sant Boi"). Is also used 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" (Shack nose. Sant Boi. Five candies for the boy).
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