A Thousand People to Be: Wilson Pickett, “Land Of 1,000 Dances” (1966)

“Do the Watusi!”

I’ve never had the faintest intention of learning or performing a new dance, but Wilson Pickett’s exhortation in “Land Of 1,000 Dances” is a grabber.  It’s not just nonsense.  It’s not just fun.  This is about jumping on an opportunity (on a glittering merry-go-round of opportunities) to embody that way of doing things, to be the Watusi man.

But the great Watusi way is overshadowed, as it turns out, by the song’s refrain:  “Naa na na na naa . . .”

Could this be the most important utterance in all rock music?  We also find it in the coda of “Stand!” (one of the greatest of all rock riffs, turbo-boosting an inspirational call to activism), in the poignantly historical chorus of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (actually a mixture of “las” and “nas”), and in the epic last four minutes of “Hey Jude.”  What it does in every case is draw everybody in.

Apparently, the dances really did draw the kids in.  There were 1,000 dances to learn but just one way to be crazed.  Every new sensation swept the nation.  (The show Hairspray captures the sunny side of this phenomenon, perhaps its Platonic Form, beautifully—in Baltimore.)

If we live in a land of 1,000 dances, and we have this song as our national anthem, and our anthem’s chorus is

Naa na na na naa
Na na na naa na na naa na na naa
Na na na naa

then as responsible citizens we should know what we mean by our “nas.”  They are obviously not far from being “nos.”  Consider the counterattack song, “Nobody But Me” by the Human Beinz (1968), where “no no no no no no no no” pushes everybody away:   nobody can do the shing-a-ling, the skate, or any dance like he can.[1]  Launched with the nose-raising “n” (at least when I do it), “na” has the spunk of the denying “no” and the spiteful “nyaah,” but it marvelously bends its negative energy toward the reaching-out “eah” part of “yeah.”   It’s like the playful “naw” that treats a claim as too good to be true.   (We’re talking about the exuberant “na na na” here, but there’s also a wishy-washy “na na na,” as in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” that hesitates between the negative and positive gestures.)

So what “naa na na na naa” is saying is that I’m a feisty individual ready to rumble and I’m ecstatically rumbling together with all y’all.  Purely kinesthetically, though, naa-na-na-na-naa is the song’s own dance.  Thus I don’t need to learn the Watusi.  Na-na-na-ing, I can be the “Land Of 1,000 Dances” man, like all my fellow citizens of soul, and in dancing this sublime pattern we will never get tripped up.

_______________________________________________________

[1] The “no no no no no no no no no” riff, which I’m calling a counterattack in the 1968 context, is in fact already in the 1963 Isley Brothers original “Nobody But Me” and thus precedes the “na na na” that was added to “Land Of 1,000 Dances” (originally by Chris Kenner in 1962) by Cannibal and the Headhunters in 1966.  Give the Isley Brothers credit for putting a memorable “no no no” into the pop music bloodstream along with the “yeah, yeah, yeah” of  “Shout” (1959).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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