“I love folk music,” Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her diary, “but the name ‘Hootenanny’ rather repels me.”
Oh dear. All the hoot ’n’ holler got her goat? No need to be so owlish about it…
Not that this term for the folk music equivalent of a jazz jam session has any direct reference to owl hoots or nanny goats. It showed up in the 1920s as a word for a thingumajig, a doodad, a whatsis. But by the 1940s it had been picked up by folk musicians – well, it just sounds like a folkie thing, dunnit? I half expect there to be a folk group called the Hootin’ Annies. Oh, wait, there is. Five women who play bluegrass. Um, also there seem to be several other small-time groups going by that name. Of course.
Folk music likes to go for the earthy. It has different streams, but one thing that they mostly have in common is that they eschew the sophisticated and elegant feel. It’s folk, after all, not ladies and gentlemen. So I’m not surprised that they would be attracted by the sound of hoot with its dull round high back [u] sound, which generally carries an unrefined air – large, dull, and so on – and also by the maximally contrasting but also somehow less-refined-sounding nasal [æ̃], the usual sound used to imitate bagpipes. And it gives the speaker the chance to use a country-sounding syllabic [ʔn̩], like the end of hootin’. Simply not somethin’ yer fancy sorts a people would be caught sayin’.
At the same time, the word has rhythm to it. In fact, it neatly matches the rhythm pattern of a standard 4/4 bar of music. And it has a certain visual patterning: the paired oo in the first part, the paired nn in the second part, the h of the beginning rotated and bent to the y of the end, a t and an e in the middle hinge. So, Lady Bird notwithstanding, it has just the sort of appeal one wants… precisely because it’s an ungainly, even repellent word. It’s honest. Or it sounds like it is, and if you can fake honest, well, you’re set.
And, like a lot of folk music, it comes from who knows where. Yes, it was first a word for ‘thingamabob’ or ‘doohickey’, but who made it up, when, where, why, how? No one knows. It was penned by that great folk author, Anonymous – or confected on the spot by a bunch of people, like any good hootenanny.