I was watching an episode of Ralph J. Gleason's television series Jazz Casual (1962) featuring the singer and pianist Jimmy Rushing, who was remembering his first encounter with Count Basie:
Rushing: Basie was an actor on the stage when I first saw him. And they used to ballyhoo. You know what that is? That's about fifteen minutes prior to the show, they would take a band -- the band would go out from the show. They'd play a number. And a fella singing. People would gather round. He would explain the show.I've always thought of ballyhoo as a close relation of such nouns as hoopla and hype. But Rushing was using the word as both noun and verb, and the word seemed, in his use, to denote the act of performance itself, not mere promotion. I was curious enough to look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Gleason: Oh, out on the street?
Rushing: Yes. . . . See, in those days, Ralph, they did a lot of ballyhoo. Whatever place you worked for, you had to advertise it yourself.
The OED's definitions certainly suggest hoopla and hype. For ballyhoo the noun: "A barker's touting speech; hence, blarney, bombastic nonsense; extravagant advertisement of any kind." And for ballyhoo the verb: "To cajole by extravagant advertisement or praise (after the manner of a barker); to advertise or praise extravagantly." But the OED's first recorded use of the word (from World's Work, 1901) jibes with Rushing's use: "First there is the ballyhoo -- any sort of a performance outside the show." (I've omitted the rest of the citation, which uses the racist terms of the time to describe performances by singers and dancers.) By 1914, Jackson and Hellyer's Vocabulary of Criminal Slang marks the word's move toward its still-current associations: "Current amongst exhibition and ‘flat-joint’ grafters. A free entertainment used for a decoy to attract customers." And by 1927, a Mr. Weiner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission is calling "Dempsey's letter" "mere ballyhoo." (It seems likely that the reference is to the fighter Jack Dempsey, who fought and lost to Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926.)
Neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster offers an etymology for ballyhoo. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes a village named Ballyhooly in County Cork, Ireland and the nautical word ballahou or ballahoo, meaning "an ungainly vessel" (from the Spanish balahú, schooner), but this site too offers no explanation of the word's origin. The American Heritage Dictionary adds a reference to an 1880 Harper's article describing the two-headed, four-winged "ballyhoo bird," which could whistle through one bill while singing through the other. That'd draw a crowd. The scholarly online archive JSTOR holds five articles spanning three decades (1935-1965), covering (with much greater detail) the possibilities I've sketched here. But still, the origin is unknown.
The use of ballyhoo among performers helps to explain what must be its most famous appearance -- in Harry Warren and Al Dubin's song "Lullaby of Broadway":
Come on along and listen toJimmy Rushing (remember him, a few paragraphs ago?) recorded that song in 1956 for The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq., a great LP now available on CD.
The lullaby of Broadway,
The hip hooray and ballyhoo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
Ralph J. Gleason's Jazz Casual (All About Jazz)
The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq. (Amazon.com)