This question comes from way back in my childhood–my memory of it refreshed one recent morning when the Great Horned Owl asked me who I was from the oak tree.
It’s something my father would jokingly quote from time to time for no apparent reason. I would wager a guess that my three oldest children still recall hearing him say it. As I sat on the deck that morning, watching the owl on her nest, I wondered where my father learned that phrase and why he had such a deep connection to the words?
Because he passed away in 1996, I can’t ask my father what that phrase meant to him. Instead, I turned to the Internet to help me find the answer. The first day I looked it up, I was writing the post about the owl and made a mental note to do a follow-up story about my father’s penchant for those words. That day, my reading on Wikipedia.com revealed some interesting copyright-infringement information about the phrase.
How ironic that yesterday, when I went back to Wikipedia to do more research for this post, I found the site blacked out in protest of two new bills–SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), having to do with copyright infringement. It’s ironic because there was a recent battle over ownership and use of the words “who dat” in conjunction with the iconic fleur de lis and NFL fan gear.
It is no secret that the phrase “Who dat?” has been associated with New Orleans Saints since 1983 when Aaron Neville added a chant to his version of “When the Saints Go Marching In”–the theme song for the NFL team. Today, the chant is popular with the Who Dat Nation, fans of the New Orleans Saints football team. It goes like this: “Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints? Who dat? Who dat? But I know that’s not where my father picked it up, because he said it for as long as I can remember. I would have to go much further back in history to get a clue.
It is ridiculous to think anyone could own the words “who dat” since they first appeared in the late 1800′s in a poem by African American poet and writer, Paul Laurence Dunbar of Ohio. Even though African Americans nowadays might be offended by his written dialect, it absolutely made him a popular and nationally-accepted American playwright. The poem, “When Malindy Sings”, sings her praises, and the “who dat” verse goes like this:
Who dat says dat humble praises
Wif de Master nevah counts?
Heish yo’ mouf, I hyeah dat music,
Ez hit rises up an’ mounts–
Floatin’ by de hills an’ valleys,
Way above dis buryin’ sod,
Ez hit makes its way in glory
To de very gates of God!
Somehow, though, I don’t think my dad would have known about this song or this playwright since they were before his time. No, that is not his connection to the question.
As it turns out, the words “who dat” have a prolific history, including being part of a Vaudeville act. Mantan Moreland, born in Monroe, LA in 1902, made his mark on Broadway with an act that played off the back-and-forth question “Who dat?” answered with “Who dat say who dat?” I doubt Daddy would have seen the Vaudeville act, which was before his time.
However, I do remember him talking about going to the movies as a boy. It is highly possible that Daddy saw a feature cartoon titled “Little Ol’ Bosco Goes to Bagdad” when he went to the picture show. If so, then he might have related to Bosco, who was frightened by every bump and thump while walking in the dark to his grandmother’s house. He stops and asks the darkness, “Who dat?”, and an owl answers, “Whooooo?’, with the boy asking back, “Who dat say who when I say who dat?”
In the 1930′s and 40′s swing era, big band leaders would call out from the stage, “Who dat?”, and the audience would answer with “Who dat say who dat?” Since big band music was popular when Daddy was in high school, maybe he experienced that or saw it play out in an old black and white movie featuring Count Basie, Benny Goodman, or Glenn Miller. It is very likely.
Later, the Marx brothers spun a skit of their own around the words. Oftentimes, the skits involved a ghost and became a mainstay of American comedy through the 1950′s, with reruns making their way into television. Surely, he would have encountered one of those comedies somewhere along the way.
Daddy was in high school during World War II and so did not get the chance to fight for his country. However, these words found their place in the war even though he didn’t. The story goes like this.
During the war, fighter pilot squadrons often flew under radio silence, which got very lonely. In order to break the lonesome monotony, a pilot would key his microphone and ask, “Who dat?”, to which a second pilot would reply, “Who dat say who dat?” A third pilot then finished the historical skit with “Who dat say who dat when I say who dat?”. At that point the squadron commander would butt in on his microphone with “You guys cut that out!” followed by a period of silence, and then a quiet “Who dat?” would break the silence, thus starting the sequence again.
Even though Daddy never fought in World War II, he must have still had a desire to serve his country, exemplified by the fact that he joined the marines after graduating high school. While the simple act of enlistment might not seem like a big deal at a time when patriotism was running high, it was his age that was a big deal. He was only sixteen. He somehow convinced his mother, a God-fearing, Sunday-school-teaching Christian widow, to sign a document stating he was seventeen so he could join the marines before his seventeenth birthday.
From page to stage, from big screen to TV screen, either in its original form or a shortened version, these words have entertained people from the 1800′s to now. From poems to NFL gear, from ghosts to football fans, these words seem to have become immortal, spanning three centuries.
Whether my father’s fondness of the rhetorical question stemmed from a boyhood cartoon, swing era entertainment, or war-time shenanigans, once thing is certain, those words were an indelible part of something in his past. Today, the recurrence and resilience of these words raise another question about my own history with the same:
Why did take it take an owl calling to me from a tree to finally make me wonder why Daddy was so fond of the phrase, and why wasn’t I more curious about it back when I could ask him?
Those are two questions, even with the blackout lifted, that Wikipedia will never help me answer.
Rather than focus on what I might never know, I will instead share another of my father’s famous quotes with you and hope you take his advice:
“Now, let that be a lesson to you.”
With fond memories,