I started an Ask Metafilter thread on the quadratic equation songs I wrote about the other day, and got a few more submissions. In case you’re keeping score at home, so far I’ve been told of versions sung to the tune of the following familiar melodies:

  • Frere Jacques.
  • Pop Goes the Weasel
  • Row, Row, Row your boat
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  • The Notre Dame Fight Song
  • The U of M fight song
  • Jingle Bells
  • Ballin’ the Jack

     For some reason, I had never heard of ‘Ballin’ the Jack.’ Maybe it’s just me. Turns out its a 1913 rag that sparked a gigantic dance craze. Gelling nicely with yesterday’s post, Harry Nilsson even recorded a version of it. Just to add to the useless trivia – here’s some info on where the phrase ‘Ballin’ the jack’ comes from, via this newsgroup thread.

     “The “Historical Dictionary of American Slang” says that “ball the jack”
means: to go fast (said espcially of a railroad train), make haste; (hence)
to run away. The 1913 quote from a well-known ragtime song gave the phrase
wide currency and referred specifically to a dance step presumably
introduced by the song. Whether the phrase itself was coined at the same
time is uncertain. This reference is to the Jim Burris and Jim Smith song
called, “Ballin’ the Jack” as in…”and that’s what I call ballin’ the

     So there you are. There are all kinds of references to useages of
“ballin the jack”
but not a word as to what “ballin” (in this context) or “jack” (in this
context) mean. What an elusive phrase. Sure it means, “make the train go
fast” but why does it mean that?

     From the Glossary in the back of Lucius Beebe’s “High Iron” (1938):

JACK: Locomotive.

     Unfortunately, there is no reference to ‘ball the jack’. Maybe ball is
short for highball:

HIGHBALL: Signal for clear track, deriving from the first train signals
which were in the form of painted metal globes hoisted to the crossarm of
a tall pole when trains were to proceed….

     Given that a “Jack” is a loco, and to run on a clear signal (Highball)
is to “Highball” the train, it’s probably most likely a contraction:
‘ballin’ the Jack…or running the train at top speed on clear signal.

     You can download a recording of ‘Ballin’ the jack’ for free from Amazon via this link.

     Be on the lookout for my next band: ‘Quadratic Invasion.’ Our reportoire will consist exclusively of these different arrangements of the quadratic equation… as they would sound if performed by (early) Beatles.