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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

You know the kind of people who think “hey nonny nonny” is from a folk song? I don’t like those people. You know who I mean. People who think folk music is inherently funny. The kind of people you want to poke in the lips.

“A folk song you say? Ooh! Hey nonny nonny!”

What, mate?

“Hey nonny nonny!”

What’s that then?

“English folk songs. They’re all hey nonny nonny, aren’t they?”


“They are.”

“Hey nonny nonny” appears in no folk songs. None is the number of folk songs “hey nonny nonny” appears in. William Shakespeare came up with “hey nonny nonny” for a song that appears in Much Ado About Nothing, written during his middle period when he was still doing jokes. Now I’m as grateful as the next failed drama student for many of the words Shakespeare gave us. Where would we be without bedazzled, addiction, frugal and gust? But nonny? No.

Here’s how writing this stuff sometimes works. That was all I had, the bit about “hey nonny nonny”. And it’s not enough, is it? It’s just a man pretending to be more angry about a thing than he really is. My mum emailed to say she really liked last month’s column about Ed Sheeran; I doubt she’ll mention this one. But just as I was preparing to bin it all and start again, a friend who works for one of the big papers asked for help with a piece he was working on. He was researching the trend for pop singers to shout “hey!” on their records. There’s a lot of it about and he wondered if it had been started by those waistcoat-wearing folky groups that were popular five years back. And if so, does “hey!” have its origin in traditional song?

Sadly for his feature, it doesn’t. But could it be that those bands thought “hey!” was the type of word you’d find in folk songs? After all, theirs was a music based on an imaginary Greenwich Village where, for all they knew, fisherman-jumpered men shouted “hey!” on a nightly basis. And if you shout “hey!” enough times in enough banjo-bothering songs, perhaps it becomes a tradition in its own right. “A folk song you say? Ooh! Hey!” Well yes, sort of.

But that still leaves us with Shakespeare’s Sigh No More, Ladies and the “hey nonny nonny” it bequeathed us. What was its purpose, since it makes little sense in the context of the play? Scholarly thinking (trans: a quick search on Google) suggests it was written in the style of an old ballad. So just like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, Will was approximating trad. He’d no doubt have heard them all bellowing “fa la la la”, “twanky dillo” and “ummatiddle, ummatallyho” down at the Avon & District singers club, that time Will Kemp persuaded him to go. And with a swish of his quill, the bard gave the world its first fake folk song, knowing full well that if enough people repeated it then it would either pass into the mists of tradition or really annoy me. What a knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking.

Tim Chipping


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