[1998:] Who put the bomp? Well, it's got to be Barry Mann, hasn't it? A former architecture student from Flatbush, Brooklyn, he wrote it, sung it and charted with it in 1961 when he was 22, then went on to write a roomful of hits with his wife, Cynthia Weil [...]. The man, that is, 'who put the bomp in the bomp ba bomp ba bomp' and 'the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong'. [...]
Rock 'n' roll itself [like pop] was full of gibberish masquerading as lyrics. [...] Nonsense syllables didn't start there either, of course. Think of 'Twelfth Night' with its 'Hey, ho, the wind and the rain'. Or Kenneth Williams's folk song parodies with their cascades of 'rum-te-tums' and 'derry-down-derries', all designed to conceal filth or, rather, to point to imagined filth. So where and when did it first become acceptable to pad out a song with a lot of made-up words? 'I have a theory,' said Vic Gammon [...]. Vic is a lecturer in the Education Department in the University of Leeds. His doctoral thesis was on English traditional song - 'not folk song, we don't like that word' - and showed that the nonsense syllable - 'or vocable, as we call it' - is widespread in English traditional song, even in the tunes of our diaspora - Newfoundland fishermen's songs, for example, or Australian elegies about the horrors of transportation.
'The idea of a sound coming in a song which doesn't make any sense is quite old,' he says. 'You sometimes get them in refrains but mostly they come at the end of a chorus. Derry-down-down, for example. Why did songs have these meaningless bits? They have two functions. The first is what linguists call "phatic" - that is, it allows others to join in on the chorus. The second, and more interesting, is that in the more bawdy songs they can be suggestive of meaning. For example, "I caught sight of her rumpty-tump-tum". By way of elaboration, Vic pointed me towards 'The Idiom of the People', a collection of English songs by James Reeves. His point was made on nearly every page. Take, for example, one of the many songs which starts with the line 'As I walked out one May morning'. This one is the tale of a 16-year-old girl seducing a man so he will marry her. Its chorus - sung by the man - runs: 'With my ree rum a day / Fall the diddle i day / Fal the dol the diddle-i-day'. Strip out the euphemistic vocables and we are talking - in modern parlance - of rumpy- pumpy.
Not that all nonsense is barely disguised filth. 'Vocables can be associated with serious matters as well,' says Vic. 'The Three Ravens is a most doleful piece from Shakespeare's time.' Indeed it is, a tale of a knight slain in battle, his corpse watched over by the birds. Its chorus is 'Down a down, hay down, hay down ... with a down derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe'. [...]
But when, why and how did 'bomp' and its fellow vocables first make their way into song anyway? It is time for Vic's theorem. 'If you go back to late medieval times, you will find that a lot of carols are what we call macaronic. That is, in two languages - English and Latin in this case. [...] Those English carols which switch between English and Latin would have been written by monks. You can find many examples in 'The Early English Carol' by [Richard Leighton] Greene.' I did. Here are two. The first is an example of stand-up comedy circa 1400: 'Aparuit Esau / A red gowne is not blew / In ciuitate Dauid.' The second is a nativity carol: 'Now he is born, Scripture doth say: Veritas de terra orta est.'
Vic continues: 'This is my theory. Those Latin lines would have been meaningful to the monks but meaningless to most of the general public, who therefore became accustomed to the idea that songs had nonsense syllables in them, particularly in the chorus.' So nonsense syllables provided an immediate solution to the quandary faced by the Tin Pan Alley of Shakespeare's day. Why stretch to find rhymes when you could just make them up? (Peter Silverton, Observer, 5 July)