Sometimes a children’s song is more than a children’s song. Sometimes it’s a lesson and even a clear indictment of society. That is the case with the performative song “Hello, My Name is Joe (I Work in a Button Factory).”
Videos by American Songwriter
With its fun dance, its repetitive lyrics, and enjoyable melody, the song has become a favorite for classrooms, bedtime, campfires and more. But what is the meaning behind the song, who wrote it and what do the lyrics mean?
The Lyrics and the Dance
The kids’ rhyme begins innocently enough. The singer introduces himself by saying, Hello, my name is Joe / And I work in a button factory.
The introduction continues and we get to know a little more about Joe, who is a rather average (in the best of ways) person. He sings I’ve got a wife, a dog, and a family.
But then the drama hits—there is tension created by his workplace, which is then undercut by the fun dancing game associated with the tune. Joe sings, One day my boss came up to me and said, ‘Joe, are you busy?‘ And Joe says, ‘No!‘
The boss presses harder, demanding, Then push this button with your right hand.
Once this lyric is sung, the singer and everyone else in the room begin pushing an imaginary button with their right hand. But we aren’t done there.
In the second verse, Joe again introduces himself and again the boss comes up to him and asks if he’s busy (all the while, his right hand is continuously pushing the button). This time, though, the boss asks Joe to push another button, with his left hand. Here, the singer and all the kids listening begin pushing the button with their left hands, while still pushing the first imaginary button with their right.
This pattern continues for four more verses. The boss keeps coming up to Joe and asking for more. (Almost like an email inbox filling with more and more requests.) Right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot, head, tongue, even the singer’s rear end.
Who Wrote The Song?
As far as anyone can tell, the author of the song is unknown. In all of the videos, lyric links, and more, there is no one listed as the originator of the song.
But in that way, the folk tune and children’s songs might be authored by us all. Certainly, anyone who has held a job can attest: we’re all Joe and we’ve all experienced his plight.
Who Made It Famous?
There are many children’s performers who have helped to make many children’s songs into a household tune. But perhaps the group that helped makes this particular song so well known is the Canadian trio, Sharon, Lois and Bram. The award-winning trio (who American Songwriter chatted with HERE) that brought kids the popular television program The Elephant Show, sang “Hello, My Name is Joe” both live and on the show.
American Songwriter even reached out to Sharon and Bram to see if they knew who wrote the song. They revealed, “We don’t know!” That’s how far back it goes. It’s timeless and authorless!
The Clever Conclusion
Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this monotonous, crazy story.
Joe learns and adapts. He can only take so much.
In the final stanza of the song, the boss approaches Joe yet again. Mind you, Joe’s arms, legs, head, tongue and even butt are working overtime to satisfy his boss’ demands. But Joe has an idea.
In the final stanza, when the Boss asks if Joe is busy, he replies. ‘YES!’
That final stanza goes:
Hello, my name is Joe,
And I work in a button factory,
I’ve got a wife, a dog and a family.
One day my boss came up to me and said,
“Joe, are you busy?” I said, “Yes!”
There is a good, hard-won lesson to this song. In a world that will demand more and more from you, at some point, you can say no and walk away. Perhaps Joe should have said no to his boss between the head bob and the butt punch, but eventually he found his way and created his boundaries.
Good job, in the end, Joe.