Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ben Franklin, The Three Stooges, and Ancient Rites of Printers - the Inky History of Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Bu

In the Three Stooges’ short, Violent is the Word for Curley (1938), the Stooges blow up a car carrying three professors to Mildew Academy; assume the professors’ identities; and teach a class to a room full of co-eds.  The lesson consists of one of the best bits the Stooges ever put on film, the catchy song, Swingin’ the Alphabet; with the co-eds swingin' along like the Andrews Sisters.

The lyrics are simple; they start with “B-A, BA, B-E, Be” and continue through all of the vowels to “B-U, Bu,” and then cycle similarly through all of the consonants:

B-A-bay, B-E-bee, B-I-bicky-bi, B-O bo, bicky-bi bo, B-U bu, bicky bi bo bu.
C-A-cay, C-E-cee, C-I-cicky-ci, C-O co, cicky-ci co, C-U cu, cicky ci co cu.

You can watch the song on Youtube.  Listen at about 1:42 of the video, where the girls replace the expected line, “licky li lo lu” with “Curley’s a Dope.”

In 2005, film historian Richard Finegan discovered a nearly identical song published in 1875 by Septimus Winner, the same man who penned the perennial favorites, “Ten Little Indians” and “Where o’ Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”   Septimus Winner's song, The Spelling Bee was, in turn, based on an even earlier song with lyrics that date back to at least 1740 – and may be even further.

Catalog of Copyright Entries, Musical Compositions, U. S. Copyright Office 1938

Swingin’ the Alphabet

In 1938, the brothers Herman Timberg and Sammy Timberg teamed up to write, Swingin’ the Alphabet, which appeared in the Three Stooges’ short, Violent is the Word for Curly.  Sammy Timberg is a musician and composer known for writing music for Fleischer Studios’ cartoons, such as Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman; his brother Herman was a vaudeville performer.

Although they teamed up to write Swingin’ the Alphabet, they did not create the song from whole cloth.  It is nearly identical, rhythmically and lyrically, to Septimus Winner's 1875 song, The Spelling Bee.  But the melody is different, the arrangement was jazzed up, and the rhythm of a few of the bars were modified.

So the Timberg Brothers deserve at least some credit for spicing up an old song into a pretty cool swing song and memorable Three Stooges bit.

The Spelling Bee

Swingin' the Alphabet borrowed heavily from Septimus Winner's, The Spelling Bee (1875).  But like the Timberg Brothers, Septimus Winner borrowed heavily from an earlier song.

The lyrics of The Spelling Bee are identical to the earlier song, Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Bu, with the exception that Winner deleted the word "Bi" from the second beat of the third measure, moved up the rest of the lyrics, and replaced, "ba be bi'" with "bicky bi."  As a result, Septimus Winner achieved perhaps his biggest contribution to the song; fitting the lyrics comfortably into a more standard eight bar format.  The earlier song, Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Bu, had been stretched awkwardly into nine bars, with a hold on the last eighth-note of the sixth measure; it definitely did not “swing.”   


C. Wistar Stevens, College Song Book, Boston, Henry Tolman & Co., 1860.
Swingin’ the Alphabet and its predecessor The Spelling Bee are clearly based on Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Bu, which appeared in a book of college songs published in 1860, with musical accompaniment credited to C. W. Stevens[i].  The song was included in a group of songs traditionally associated with Harvard.  But Harvard was not the only school to sing the song; it also appeared in a collection of music for “day and Sunday schools,” in 1866, and in numerous college songbooks and other songbooks throughout the second half of the 19th century, including, for example, the Princeton University songbook (1869) and the University of Michigan songbook (1875). The song was included in a compendium of traditional songs published as late as 1918.  

Septimus Winner, The Timberg Brothers and the Three Stooges may well have been exposed to the original version long before updating it for the ‘swing’ generation in the thirties. 

Albert Wier, The Book of a Thousand Songs, New York, World Syndicate Co., 1918, page 36.

Ancient Rites of Printers

While it is possible, if not probable, that the song’s close association with several influential universities may have helped popularize the song, or at least keep it in the public eye for decades, the song did not originate with Septimus Winner or Wistar Stevens.  The song dates back to at least 1740, and is likely even older than that.  The song was reportedly sung as part of the initiation ceremony for new apprentice printers at printing houses in London.

[T]he first Printing Press in England was set up in a Chapel in Westminster Abbey, or some other religious House; from whence that Part of the House, which is assigned for Printing, hath been ever since call’d a Chapel, and constituted in an ecclesiastical Manner, with diverse religious Rites and Ceremonies. . . .

All the Workmen are call’d Chapellonians, who are obliged to submit to certain Laws, all of which are calculated for the Good of the whole Body, and for the well-carrying on of the Master’s Business . . . .

When a Boy is to be bound Apprentice, before he is admitted to a Chapellonian, it is necessary for him to be made a Cuz, or Deacon; in the Performance of which there are a great many Ceremonies.  The Chapellonians walk three Times round the Room, their right Arms being put thro’ the Lappels of their Coats; the Boy who is to be made a Cuz, carrying a wooden Swoard before Them. . . .

Whilst the Boy is upon his Knees, all the Chapellonians, with their right Arms put through the lapels of their Coats as before, walk round him, singing the Cuz’s Anthem, which is done by adding all the vowels to the Consonants in the following Manner.

B a – ba; B e be; B i – bi; Ba–be–bi; B o – bo; Ba-be-bi-bo; B u – bu; Ba-be-bi-bo-bu ---- And so through the rest of the Consonants.

The Gentleman’s Magazine (London), Volume 10, May 1740, page 240.[ii]

These Chapellonian initiation lyrics of 1740 are identical to the Ba-Be-Bi-Bo-Bu lyrics as published in 1860 and in 1918.  The song remained unchanged for nearly two-hundred years – until they were jazzed up for the Stooges in 1938.

Ben Franklin – an Early Curly?

It is impossible to know how ancient the printers’ rites were in 1740, but it is easy to imagine that they were already well-established by 1740, and had been around for decades.  If so, it is possible that a young Ben Franklin sang the song in 1718 when, at the age of 12, he became an apprentice printer under his brother James.

I wonder what Ben would have made of the Three Stooges singing essentially the same song more than two hundred years later?  As the writer of humorous bits for his own newspapers, perhaps he may have appreciated the image as much as I do. 

And Ben Franklin would have been a more suitable replacement for Curly than the dreadful Curly Joe – but Ben was no dope.

[i] Charles Wistar Stevens practiced medicine in Boston and New Hampshire.  His 1882 book, Revelations of a Boston Doctor, highlighted the plight of orphans, pregnant women and tuberculosis victims. His papers are held at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[ii] The article was reprinted in; The London Magazine, Volume 9, June 1740, page 279; and The County Magazine (Salisbury), Volume 1, June 1786, page 91.


  1. Thank you for this--this was cool!

  2. I first heard this song not in the Stooges short, but in the brutally underloved Richard Elfman film "Forbidden Zone".

    1. "Forbidden Zone" - Alphabet Song.

  3. Ah — the places following information takes you: I would never have thought I'd end up with the Three Stooges! This "ba be bi bo bu" is a really old thing. It was used in France, Spain and Portugal; there are 19th-century school books from France that teach it, a Portuguese grammar of Tamil from 1548 shows the counterpart used in India saying this was how "their ba be bi bo bu" works, and a 1593 catechism from the Philippines (one of the first two books printed there and the first in the local Tagalog language) starts off in its Spanish part with "ba be bi bo bu" exercises for all the letters of the alphabet plus ones ending in -n and with tildes over the vowels (bã etc.) before going on to the old Indian-derived Tagalog "alphabet" ("el a b c en lengua tagala").

    Not just this, but it goes back to the days of the Romans and ancient Greeks: there is an old potsherd inscription where a student was writing out the Greek equivalent and at one point wrote an eta by mistake and corrected it to an epsilon.

    I've been following this information up because I was curious about where the Spanish and Portuguese "ba be bi bo bu" came from when I saw them in these old books; I'm actually in the middle of writing a paper for a collective volume on learning to read and write in Indian scripts; the "classic" way of teaching arranges the letters systematically in a grid by the features of their sounds and teaches syllable combinations with something similar to the "ba be bi bo bu", except that combining vowels are written as something akin to accents on consonant letters rather than with independent letters. They call this "barakhadi" (twelve syllables) in Hindi and several other languages or "ka-gunita" (multiplication of ka) in Kannada, a language of the southwest.

    All of which is really different from the "alphabets" of the Philippines and parts of Indonesia, where they combined several or all the vowel sign "accents" on a consonant letter and read out the combinations in turn...

    Thanks for the interesting blog post!

    1. Thank you for the supplemental information. I hope you will share if you find anything else relevant to this subject. "Curley's a Dope."