Who Put The “Dum-Dum” In The “Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum?” – Non-Lexical Vocables In Leonard Cohen’s Songs

dudumEchoing Barry Mann’s metaphysical query, “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp),”1 is the question of the origin of the “Dum Dum” – an essential component in the key “Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum” refrain of Leonard Cohen’s Tower Of Song. While the above photo, taken in Montreal by Leslie Py Wener, makes a case for a confectionery theory of the genesis of those syllables,2 Mr Cohen himself attributes that phrase to another singer-songwriter. More about that in a moment.

Introduction: Nonsense Syllables In Leonard Cohen’s Songs

This is the first of a series of posts investigating the use of nonsense syllables, known in musicological circles as non-lexical vocables, in the songs written by Leonard Cohen.

Nonsense syllables have long been a part of music, having been used in second century AD Greek and Byzantine music3 and manifesting more recently in such forms as yodeling, scat singing, beatboxing, and doo-wop.

A few examples of popular songs featuring nonsense syllables follow:

  • Little Richard: Tutti- Frutti (“a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop”)
  • Edsels: Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong
  • Manfred Mann: Do Wah Diddy Diddy
  • Marcels: Blue Moon (“Bomp bomp ba bomp, ba bomp ba bomp bomp” and “dip-de-dip-de-dip”)
  • Van Morrison: Brown Eyed Girl (“Do you remember when we used to sing Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah”)
  • Gene Vincent: Be-Bop-A-Lula
  • The Crystals: Da Doo Ron Ron
  • Police: De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
  • Paul McCartney: Life Goes On (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”)
  • Traditional: Deck The Halls (“with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la”)

Leonard Cohen, among the most elegant and precise of songwriters, follows in this tradition with a number of tracks in which he or his backup singers sing La La, Dum Dum, and other (ahem) non-lexical vocables.

Tower Of Song: Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum

The Leonard Cohen nonsense syllables most familiar to contemporary audiences is the “Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum” refrain sung by the backup singers in Tower Of Song.

In a 1993 interview,4 Cohen explains the effect of those syllables as well as naming the musician with whom they originated:

When Jennifer [Warnes] came up with that part [“Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum” in Tower of Song], I knew we’d nailed the song … That really gave the song the perspective of real humor. Real lightness.

In some instances, Cohen has, in fact, elevated the significance of this phrase to cosmic levels. The pertinent passage, transcribed below, begins at 6:33 in this video (the video should automatically begin at the beginning of the pertinent portion)

Leonard Cohen – Tower Of Song
London: 2009

[Background singers start singing: “Do dum dum dum, de do dum dum.”]

I’m so grateful to you because tonight it’s become clear to me, tonight, the great mysteries have unraveled, and I’ve penetrated to the very core of things. And I have stumbled on the answer, and I’m not the sort of chap who would keep this to himself.

[Background singers keep singing: “Do dum dum dum, de do dum dum.”]

Do you want to hear the answer? Are you truly hungry for the answer? Then you’re just the people I want to tell it to. Because it’s a rare thing to come upon this, and I’m going to let you in on it now. The answer to the mysteries: Do dum dum dum, de do dum dum.

Other Posts About Nonsense Syllables In Leonard Cohen’s Songs

This is the first post in the series; this and future posts can be accessed at Nonsense Syllables In Leonard Cohen’s Songs

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  1. And yes, I know Jan and Dean, Bobby and Jerry, Frankie Lymon, and others have released songs setting forth their claims to having themselves been the bomp-putters, but the question remains unsettled []
  2. Note: The preceding text and the graphic atop this entry were originally posted Dec 3, 2012 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric []
  3. Nonsense Syllables in the Music of the Ancient Greek and Byzantine Traditions by Diane Touliatos. The Journal of Musicology. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 231-243 []
  4. Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, WFUV-FM: June 13, 1993 []

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