Who dat say who dat when I say who dat? Part 2

Mama, me, and Daddy

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 old 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?

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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, one 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,



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  1. Oh you’re so right. Don’t wait until tomorrow to ask questions, you may never get the chance to find the answers you’re looking for. Whether it’s a phrase or about generations past, you just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
    My dad went through a period where he was visiting the graves of long deceased relatives. At least a year passed when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Last May he moved in with my brother and it was my job to close up his home. While cleaning out the tool shed, I came across a grave marker (with a first name only) he had brought home to repair. He repaired it and I’m now riding around with it in my trunk. It turns out it is the marker for a Great-great Aunt, but know one I’ve asked knows where she is buried.

    1. I know you’ve probably thought of this, but in years past, LilSis and I did some sleuthing/research at a couple cemeteries and found out that if you have the name of the person, (or the name of someone in the family buried in the same plot) they can most certainly tell you if the person is buried there and the exact location the person is buried. So, start calling all those cemeteries, friend, and get that grave marker back where it belongs!

      1. It’s amazing how many records are online now. After Mom died, I was pretty sure, but not completely sure, that there was one stone for both she and dad, and all that would be needed would be for her dates to be carved on it.

        I got online, and sure enough – the town name + cemetery was enough to get me to a site that not only listed the names and locations of everyone buried there, but had photos of every grave marker! I couldn’t believe it.

  2. Oooooh, that got me teared up, Wendy. And of course I recognized the phrase right away, because my own Dad (Wendy’s father’s younger brother, y’all) said it all the time too…and still does, every once in awhile. I’m so glad you started digging up its origins. I especially like the anecdote of fighter pilots keeping themselves company across the sky with it.

    1. Mindy, would you please ask Uncle Tommy if he remembers where he first heard it and why it stuck with him? I hope he will read the story and maybe leave a comment and clear this up for us once and for all!! That would be great! I’ll go visit him on FB right now and ask him to stop by.

  3. While back in dog years an airman from Rantoul by way of Ohio used to hang out at the farm. Every phrase started or ended with ‘you know’.
    After a couple months this degenerated to this snappy exchange.

    ‘you know’


    All I got kind of slow day here at home.

  4. Well, there you go — ask Uncle Mindy’s Dad what he remembers about that expression, not that you haven’t sufficiently solved the mystery, but you’ll probably find even more details as time goes by. Any of his siblings or peers might be able to add to the story. It’s a great story. You’ve now added to the ‘who dat’ lore; Google has you at #9 on its search results.

    You look like both your parents — her eyes, his nose. How many children did they have? I’ve heard about BigSis and LilSis.

    Did you notice how when Lil Ol’ Bosco stepped off the magic carpet in front of the Taj Mahal he didn’t have the bag of cookies in his hand? hehe.

    [‘once thing is certain’ near the bottom]

    1. Ha, Brenda! That was my first thought, but I didn’t know Uncle Tommy ever said it. Mindy and I grew up in different cities–me in Bossier, she in Monroe, so we only visited a couple times a year. I can’t wait to hear what my uncle might remember about the famous old question. I just think it’s a hoot that something so “off the wall” has such a rich literary, musical, dramatic, cinematic, and historical background. Imagine that? There is one more living sibling, Lil Bro, who is the youngest of all–that makes four of us.

  5. Love it! I miss Papa very much. What a great man, and so funny! Except I always hated it when I’d ask how much something cost and he’d answer “Skeighty eight.”

    Who dat knew all dat histories was behind all of dat!

  6. Yes, definitely teared up and love the picture of the 3 of you!
    Wonderful story. Yes, I remember this expression often. Actually just talked to Dad and he does not remember where he learned it. But said he will put some thought to it and let you know.
    We are blessed with such family traditions we grew up with…
    you have such a gift of writing…

  7. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about ‘Who Dat’, too. Mostly concerning ghosts. I did jump over here this morning from Facebook.

  8. I recall both Uncle Bill and Tommy saying it. My husband’s aunt says it, too, all the time. She told me she picked it up from the movie you mentioned. Back when I was young I would stay up late at night to watch old movies from our parents’ era (still do). I vividly remember watching that same movie and the quote so I guess I always assumed that’s where it came from.

    FYI, did you know my Uncle Jack and Uncle Bill used the same way to get in the service? Grandma signed Jack’s papers, after he was already on a ship and was found out to be only fifteen.

    Love our two family’s history together!

  9. Believe it or not, I learned that phrase in the ’50s, in Iowa. Every Friday night Mom, Dad and I would go up to the Masonic Lodge for dinner and dancing. They had a live band – a smaller version of a swing band like Benny Goodman’s or Glenn Miller’s – and that’s where I learned to dance, with my dad.

    I can remember the band members calling out the phrase “who dat?”, and the people dancing responding. I never gave it a thought for decades – until I got down here and heard it from time to time.

    1. I do very much believe you, and that tells me that my dad, who loved to dance, surely had a similar experience as a young man, either in the marines or fresh out of the marines! I am waiting to hear from my dad’s younger brother whether or not he can recall why he and my dad retained that phrase all these years! Thanks for sharing.

  10. I’ve got Daddy here with me this weekend. Take a wild guess what I’ve heard him say at least 6 times since 9 a.m.? We brought him over to #2 son’s house to see the grandchildren’s Christmas present…a horse. Anyway he said it to all 4 grandchildren. He may be using “Who Dat” now because he can’t remember their names. Anyway, it got me to thinking (and Hubby confirmed). Just about every time someone walks in the door he says it, but…he’s been saying it off and on for years.

  11. I’m chiming in a bit late here but better late than never.

    I grew up hearing my Mama repeat the “Who dat?” routine.

    She grew up a long way from Saints Country; no connection there.

    She was a teenager in the 40’s, so it had to be from the movies of the day and the big bands.

    All I know is that I can still hear her launch into the “Who dat?” routine at the drop of a hat. ‘Mairsy Doats’ was another favorite of hers.

    Oh, for Pete’s sake….Now I’ll have THAT in my head all day! LOL

  12. Jeez, I’m singing it now too! … And Doats , and doats and little lambsey divey. Kittley divey do, wouldn’t you? ( It sure wouldn’t do any good to hit spell check right now). At least I’ll only have it running through my head for a few hours before bedtime. I think my mom sang it every time we were driving a good distance.

    1. Sorry about that!

      Once those things get in your head, it’s awfully hard to get rid of them, isn’t it? lol

    2. Ha ha ha! I love it! I’ll be singing it all night now, too! I remember hearing those words just like that when I was a little girl, and it was a very long time before I realized it was “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you? I LOVE THAT!!!!!

    3. Ha ha ha! I love it! I’ll be singing it all night now, too! I remember hearing those words just like that when I was a little girl, and it was a very long time before I realized it was “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you? I LOVE THAT!!!!!

      1. Show off! LOL!
        Hey did your mom sing the one about the 3 little fishies and the mama fishie too…they swam and they swam right over the dam.

  13. Oh no! Now I have the little fishies song in my head. That was one the grandkids sang all the time when they were in preK and kindergarten.

  14. Well my Dad was saying Who Dat say Who Dat when I say Who Dat to me in the 60’s and 70’s long before the Monistere’s even learned how to record music or steal phrases from the public domain.

  15. My Mom taught my son the who dat…she’d call out “who dat” and my son would reply “who dat” and she would say “well, who dat dat say dat second who dat”….My Mom was born in 1931 and said she saw it as a skit on tv.

  16. G’day. Frank from the land of Oz here. I have just found your blog. I am researching Who Dat.Four years after you wrote it.I remmember as a young person watching TV in the mid 50’s. We got to see many old black and white movies. There was a series of “The Thin Man” starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The series were made in the 1930’s. One which I recall and have used the words often (sprinkled in conversation. Unlike the “Who’s on First by Abbott & Costello, “Who Dat Who Say Who Dat When I say Who Dat?” is just not known by 99.999% of the population. The Thin Man and his wife had a black manservant…whose name I cannot recall.One night the team were in an old house – haunted perhaps – While Mr & Mrs Charles got to stay upstairs in a room with a fire and a four poster bed, the manservant got a draughty creepy downstairs room. For some reason another black man was in a closet, scared silly and knocked on a wall. The first man heard the knock and himself being scared silly, asked “Who Dat”? The other man responded “Who dat who say Who dat?” To which the manservant asked “Who Dat Who Say Who Dat When I say Who dat?” I found it uproariously funny and still do.It is quite possible your Dad may have seen the original film and like me, the phrase had stuck in his mind!

    1. You know, now that you mention this and describe the scene, I have a very vague recollection of seeing this same scene. You’re right – it was funny then and still funny now!! As you read, my dad used to say this all the time when we were children, and it still cracks me up to think about him saying it . . . I can still hear his voice although he’s been gone 20 years. Funny the things we retain. Thanks for stopping by and leaving this great memory with us! BW

  17. I was born in Columbia, LA in 1960 and I heard that old saying, “Who dat say ‘who dat’ e’ry time I say ‘who dat’?” early in my youth. I heard it in the context of a joke in circles of older men. I suspect that, like a lot of jokes I’ve heard in my life that make the rounds and transcend the generations, those ‘in the know’ don’t repeat the joke over and over. Just the punchline is repeated and most know exactly to what it refers. If the origin was in an old vaudeville act, those were often played out on radio and people would repeat them at school and work and in other social settings so that they became so commonplace, that only the punchline remained years later.

    1. Hi John and welcome. This sounds like a plausible explanation! I can believe this was so popular that only the punchline remained years later . . . and that’s exactly why my dad used to say it. I hate to say it, but it seems some grammar-challenged young girl will go down in history for saying to Dr. Phil . . “Cash (catch) me outside. How ’bout dat?” And if you haven’t heard or seen any references to this . . then you just might be the lucky one who has managed to escape this social media upheaval (or you live under a rock, LOL)!!!!!

  18. I just googled this phrase after seeing it on a Mardis Gras segment on the news tonight and found your blog. I remembered my mom saying it randomly when we were kids. Like you, I never asked her reason for saying it or what it meant to her. Orphaned by age 7, she eventually ended up living with her brother and graduated high school in Bastrop, LA, near Monroe. I’m sure it was a popular phrase when she was growing up in the late 30s and early 40s before she left the area for Tulsa. I enjoyed reading your blog and the following comments. Thanks.

    1. Hi John and welcome to the bayou. I’m curious as to what news station that was, must be somewhere in La? Love reading others’ stories about this old saying. I can still hear Daddy saying it! Glad you enjoyed the post and hope you visit often! BW

  19. Thank you for blogging your wonderful story! I just googled this phrase. I’m another one that heard this phase randomly from my father. He said it to his grandson as well. My father would be 100 this year. He retired from the Marine Corp.

    1. Hi Jane and thanks so much for the comment on the blog post. My father would have been 90 this coming November, and he was also in the Marine Corp but did not become a lifer. He served long enough to get the GI Bill.
      Isn’t it odd the things we heard our fathers say without knowing the background? There are so many little things like that which come back to my brain when I least expect them to! How in the world did you end up here??? Thanks again for stopping by.

  20. Thanks for the quick reply! Last night my husband just randomly said dat who dat phrase. He remembered my dad saying it to our son. It is odd the things we remember. When I googled the phrase this morning your blog came up. I’ve been spending the last couple hours reading about your interesting life!

  21. I’m an old geezer, and when I was young, in the 1950’s, I saw an Abbot and Costello movie where Stepin Fetchit and some other black guy were searching a haunted house. One of them heard a noise, and said, “Who dat?”. Then the other one said, “Who dat say who dat?”. Then the first guy said, “Who dat say who dat say who dat when I say who dat say who dat?” Then it went on for several minutes, getting longer and longer each time one of them spoke. It was really funny.

    1. Hi Jerry and thanks for stopping by. Are you sure it was Abbot and Costello? They may have copied it from the older, original act. No matter, it’s still funny! And quite an old memory for me, as well. Come back any time!

  22. My mom use to tell me about her father quoting this phase. She grew up in GA. When she and her siblings were young. Before WWII. (She was 10 years older than her twin brothers) And when WWII hit the twins enlisted. As kids, my Grandfather would knock on the bathroom door and ask who was in there. Ofcourse the kid inside would ask who’s there. Then Grandad would yell back”who dat say who dat when I say who dat”.