Folk music boomed in the 1960s, its popularity largely credited to Pete Seeger (1919-2014). In fact, his name is permanently connected to the hootenanny.
Also in the ’60s, information and misinformation assailed us regarding “the new flag of Canada.”
At a Falcon Lake hootenanny in the summer of 1964, I heard a silly song about this non-existent flag. I don’t know who wrote or sang this masterpiece. I seem to recall that Ian and Sylvia performed at that gathering, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t their song.
Sung to the melody of The Twelve Days of Christmas, we heard that the new flag of Canada would please Canadians of all stripes.
“On the new flag of Canada,” the song went, “There will have to be/Ten pension plans/Nine sons of Freedom/Eight gushing oil wells/Seven starving doctors/Six potato farmers/Five closed coal mines/Four Union Jacks/Three hungry bison/Two codfish/And a jolie fleur de lys, ho, ho, ho.”
How joyfully we joined the singing. That’s what hootenannies were all about.
Dictionaries define hootenanny as a gathering of folk singers with audience participation.
It’s a strange word. Not only is hootenanny strange to the ear, but we don’t know where it came from, although the word was known prior to its use as a noun depicting a folk-song get-together. By the early 1920s, it referred to, “Any unspecific object — a gizmo.” Then, it meant, “nonsense; rubbish; anything insignificant.”
Still, no one knows its origin; no one has been able to attribute it to any specific language the way we can say that “folk” comes from the German, folkam, and song is from the Old English, sang.
Wikipedia claims the word to be Scottish, related to New Year’s Eve celebrations of Hogmanay. Not one reputable source agrees with Wikipedia, so I must conclude that Wikipedia, as it so often is, is wrong.
Another fanciful and equally unreliable explanation was suggested by folk singer, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). He thought hootenanny evolved from the name of a raucous singer known as “Hootin’ Annie,” although such a person likely never existed.
Oxford says the word’s origin is unknown.
American Slang believes hootenanny is related to “hooter” (anything insignificant), a word found as early as the mid-1800s. As well, this source says it might have to do with an unknown mythical creature known as a hewtag. The syllable , “hoo,” which shows up in such usages probably denotes the interrogative pronoun, “who.”
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang defines the noun, “hoot,” as in, “What a hoot that party was,” as an abbreviation of hootenanny and dates hoot to the 1940s. Oxford Slang, dating “a hoot” to 1942, and defining it as, “fun,” says its origin is American and it comes from the notion of hooting with laughter. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1972) claims hootenanny is U.S. in origin. No dictionary or usage book even suggests a Scottish origin.
We don’t know where hootenannies came from and we don’t know where they’ve gone. But they were loads of fun — a hoot, you could say.