Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Source Of The "Shave And A Hair Cut. Two Bits" Tune

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part pancocojams series on the tune that is commonly known in the United States as "Shave and a hair cut. Two Bits". Part I provides information about the source of the tune which is commonly known in the United States by the words "Shave and a hair cut. Two bits." This post also provides an explanation of the meaning of "two bits" (or "six bits", another common ending in the United States or "two bobs", a common ending in the United Kingdom.) A few sound files and video examples the "Shave and a hair cut. Two bits" tune also are included in post.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II of this post provides examples of "clean" children's rhymes that contain the line "shave and a hair cut".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and recreational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the musicians and singers who are featured in videos, and thanks to the publishers of those videos on YouTube.

"Shave and a Haircut
Two bits!

Probably the most infamous seven beats of music in the modern world, or at least high on the list, this five-and-two lick appears everywhere. In music, it's a sting to end a piece; in other media, it appears in a joke and/or as a recognition signature, usually a knock—the first person taps out "shave-and-a-hair-cut," and waits for the "two bits" response.

While the rhythm is flexible, and the words change, it's always to a similar tune, though some different versions of it exist."

Shave and a Haircut (two bits!)

Camille BaptistaPublished on Jul 18, 2012
This post focuses on this tune's ending notes.

From "Unlocking Clave" April 9, 2013 at 11:32am
"The "shave and a haircut—two bits" riff is a commonly known example of a clave-based phrase that can be heard in a wide variety of North American music, such as bluegrass and show tunes."

From "The Clave Page"
"'Claves' is the name for an instrument used in Caribbean music, composed of two short but thick sticks, usually of as hard a wood as possible, often rosewood. They have great cutting power despite their small size, and play a very important role in certain types of music, especially Latin music.

The Term 'clave' also refers to the rhythms played on these instruments, and to the concept which is embodied in these rhythms. The clave acts as a sort of backbone, a guide, if you will, to which the other instruments and the dancers synchronize themselves..If the other rhythms line up properly with the clave rhythm, the music is said to be "in clave". Traditionally the clave rhythm was always heard on the claves, but nowadays, a timbalero or other percussionist may be playing the clave rhythm on a wood or plastic block, along with other parts."

From Hereafter given as Wikipedia: Clave (rhythm).
"The clave rhythmic pattern is used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music, such as abakúa, rumba, conga de comparsa, son, son montuno, mambo, salsa, Latin jazz, songo and timba. The five-stroke clave pattern represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms.[1]

The clave pattern originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions, where it serves essentially the same function as it does in Cuba. In Ethnomusicology, clave is also known as a key pattern,[2][3] guide pattern,[4] phrasing referent,[5] timeline,[6] or asymmetrical timeline.[7] The clave pattern is also found in the African diaspora musics of Haitian vodou drumming, Afro-Brazilian music and Afro-Uruguayan music (Candombe). The clave pattern is used in North American popular music as a rhythmic motif or ostinato, or simply a form of rhythmic decoration...

Anglicized pronunciation: clah-vay
Clave is a Spanish word meaning 'code,' 'key,' as in key to a mystery or puzzle, or 'keystone,' the wedge-shaped stone in the center of an arch that ties the other stones together. Clave is also the name of the patterns played on claves; two hardwood sticks used in Afro-Cuban music ensembles—Peñalosa (2009).[8]

The key to Afro-Cuban rhythm
Just as a keystone holds an arch in place, the clave pattern holds the rhythm together in Afro-Cuban music.[8] The two main clave patterns used in Afro-Cuban music are known in North America as son clave and the rumba clave.[9] Both are used as bell patterns across much of Africa...

Both clave patterns are used in rumba. What we now call son clave (also known as Havana clave) used to be the key pattern played in Havana-style yambú and guaguancó.[17] Some Havana-based rumba groups still use son clave for yambú.[18] The musical genre known as son probably adopted the clave pattern from rumba when it migrated from eastern Cuba to Havana at the beginning of the 20th century...

Rumba clave.
The other main clave pattern is the rumba clave. Rumba clave is the key pattern used in Cuban Rumba. Use of the triple-pulse form of rumba clave in Cuba can be traced back to the iron bell (ekón) part in abakuá music. The form of rumba known as columbia is culturally and musically connected with abakuá which is an Afro Cuban cabildo that descends from the Kalabari of Cameroon. Columbia also uses this pattern. Sometimes 12/8 rumba clave is clapped in the accompaniment of Cuban batá drums. The 4/4 form of rumba clave is used in yambú, guaguancó and popular music...
This article continues with information and examples of clave rhythms in various musical genres in Cuba, Africa, Brazil, and the United States.

Son Clave vs Rhumba Clave

thisguy41487, Published on Dec 21, 2012

Rumba Guaguanco (Loop)

axelomar96, Published on Apr 24, 2013

A short loop of Rumba Guaguancó. It can be used to practice and improvise with the quinto. The following instruments were used for this recording:
1) 2 Congas (Salidor and Tres Golpes)
2) Timbales (Cascara for the Catá and Jam Block for the Clave)
3) Shekeré

The instruments were played by Axel Vera. The recording was made using Garage Band iPad version. It is a home made, humble recording.
Thank You

"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.

"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" 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 of the tune.

An early occurrence of the tune* is from an 1899 Charles Hale song, "At a Darktown Cakewalk".[2] 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.

An early recording used the 7-note tune at both the beginning and the ending of a humorous 1915 song, by Billy Murray and the American Quartet, called "On the 5:15".

In 1939, Dan Shapiro, Lestor Lee and Milton Berle released "Shave and a Haircut – Shampoo"[3] which used the tune in the closing bars, and is thought to be the origin of the lyric…
The Bo Diddley beat is derived from "Shave and a Haircut".[14][18]

"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."...
* [My asterisk] "An early occurance" here means "in the United States". As the earlier excerpts on this post indicate, that tune is a clave pattern which "originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions".

Stella 17-Inch Music Box Playing "At A Darktown Cakewalk"

MusicBoxBoy, Uploaded on Mar 22, 2009

Here's my 17" Stella Console Grand playing "At A Darktown Cakewalk". Cakewalks, a largely forgotten part of our musical past, were popular during the heyday of Minstrel shows well over 100 years ago and were always performed in a quick and lively tempo. Hope you enjoy this.
Here are three comments from this sound file's viewer comment thread:
"shave and a haircut 2 bits!

"@telesniper2 Cakewalks as musical pieces were white. The dance was devised by blacks as a way of mocking the way white people danced. All the written cakewalks were written by white composers--especially Kerry Mills, J. Bodewalt Lampe and Abe Holzmann. The Joplin-Marshall piece "Swipesy Cakewalk" is an exception although a lot of musicologists don't consider it a cakewalk."

"@telesniper2 Darktown was an imaginary black section of a given town…"

mario bauza y afro cuban jazz orq. tanga.

MrRobertopagan21, Uploaded on Sep 28, 2010
From Wikipedia: Clave (rhythm)
"Although clave-like phrases are found in early twentieth-century African American music, the use of the clave pattern as an overt rhythmic motif does not appear until the 1940s with the birth of Afro-Cuban jazz (or Latin jazz). The first original jazz composition to be overtly based in-clave was "Tanga" (1942) by Mario Bauza."

Bo Diddley Hey! Bo Diddley - 1964

Jorge Michelini, Uploaded on Sep 14, 2010

Apresentação no TAMI SHOW em 1964.
The Bo Diddley beat (Hambone beat) is an example of the "Shave and a hair cut. Two bits" tune.
The "Bo Diddley beat" (1955) is perhaps the first true fusion of 3-2 clave and R&B/rock 'n' roll. Watch: "Hey Bo Diddley" performed live by Bo Diddley (1965). There is no documentation of a direct Cuban connection to Bo Diddley's adaptation of the clave rhythm. Bo Diddley has given different accounts of the riff's origins. However, Ned Sublette asserts: "In the context of the time, and especially those maracas [heard on the record], 'Bo Diddley' has to be understood as a Latin-tinged record. A rejected cut recorded at the same session was titled only 'Rhumba' on the track sheets."[89] Johnny Otis' "Willie and the Hand Jive" (1958) is another example of this successful blend of 3-2 clave and R&B". Otis used the Cuban instruments claves and maracas on the song. The song "Little Darling" is also built around clave"


TheGoodlucks, Uploaded on Jan 20, 2012

Johnny Otis (and friends) perform "Willie and the Hand Jive". 1958

ADDENDUM: The "Shave and a haircut Two bits" tune DID NOT come from a Morse Code.
From "Amidst a tangled web: shave and a haircut, two bits"
[comment #10] "I know this little tune as “Shave and haricut, two bits” but I am more familiar with it as an ending to some folk music (I play a violin). I was once told that this was morse code for hello or ‘hi’, but the only thing this rhythm comes close to spelling is TINA (- .. -. .-)…so I disregarded that comment. I have also been told that this is an explative in Mexico" (involving ones mother and other things I will leave out).
"explative" = expletive

The Morse code " dah-di-di-dah-di, di-dit " (shave and a haircut, "two bits") is fairly common in the radioamateur service, usually as a sign-off, but is only easily recognised because the "two bits" musical version pre-existed. Dunno if this had a counterpart in landline telegraphy. With all the digital tinkering in amateur radio, this risks going full-circle and becoming "two bits", driven largely by the introduction of microprocessors in the 1970s and 1980s. K7L (talk) 14:10, 23 August 2013 (UTC)
That Wikipedia talk page also includes a comment about the Mexican expletive that has the same tune as "Shave and a haircut. Two bits".

This concludes Part I of this pancocojams post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. You do not say two bobs in England, you say two bob

  2. I remember hearing the rhythm in Morse code in the early 60's as dit di di dit dit (pause) dit dit (for those not acclimated to that vernacular of speaking Morse verbally, Dot Da Da Dot Dot [pause] Dot Dot.) Today I believe it is still somewhat frequently used in an abbreviated fashion as just ... dit dit, typically at the end of a Morse code contact as a friendly gesture and remembrance of the older times and days of Morse.

    1. By the way, in addition to what I just posted and to add a bit of info, I don't believe that the rhythm originated with Morse Code, but was just adopted by the operators who used the code, highly likely in the days when the song lyric was popular, and also because of the fact that the rhythm was easily adaptable to Morse Code.
      (Neil, K7WK)

    2. Thanks, Anonymous (Neil, K7WK) for sharing that information about some operators of Morse code in the early 1960s "performing" "Shave and a hair cut". Also, thanks for sharing that you believe this is still done in an abbreviated fashion as just ... dit dit, "typically at the end of a Morse code contact as a friendly gesture and remembrance of the older times and days of Morse."

      Was/is this in the USA? And what is your source?

  3. I learned what it was called watching "The Walking Dead" when Negan used it as a code while in-prisoned. And only because I had closed captioning on. After reading your piece (very well done, btw), I realized the theme song to "Green Acres" uses it extensively in the theme song.