“Translating” Wooly Bully in 1960s Southeast Asia

Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ 1965 song “Wooly Bully” was a major hit.

The song’s lyrics, however, make very little sense. Here is the first verse: “Matty told Hatty / about a thing she saw / Had two big horns / and a wooly jaw / Wooly bully. . .”

It does contain the phrase “come and learn to dance,” and in reading the Wikipedia page about the song, one can see that the song about dance (to some extent), but the lyrics don’t make that very clear.

When, however, Ros Sereysothea recorded the song in Cambodia, the connection to dance was made explicit in the lyrics.

“We’re dancing along with the music / We’re dancing with boys and girls / We’re dancing all night long / Please dance to your heart’s desire / Wooly bully. . .”

Meanwhile in Singapore Rita Chao used this song to sing about love.

“I want to tell you / In my heart there is only you / When we are together / Life is that much more beautiful / Wooly bully. . .”

The concept of “translation” has been used a lot by academics in the past decade or two to talk about not just how words are translated but how things like culture are “translated” as well.

Listening to these three songs, I think there is a lot that one could learn about the “translation” of something like American pop culture in 1960s Southeast Asia.

On the one hand, the “translations” were all accurate, in that everyone was emphasizing youth culture, but on the other hand, if we look more deeply I’m sure that we can probably find interesting differences in the ways that youth culture was expressed in Southeast Asia at the time, and as a result, of how foreign expressions of youth culture were “translated” in those societies.

“Wooly bully, wooly bully. . .”

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