Friday, January 20, 2012

What "Ranky Tanky" Means

Edited by Azizi Powell

Linda Tillery & The Cultural Heritage Choir - Ranky Tanky

Uploaded by bluesvoice04 on Jan 17, 2009

"Ranky Tanky" is a social dance song that comes from the African American (Gullah) traditions of South Carolina and the Georgia Sea Isles. That song is also known as "Ranky Tank", "The Old Lady From Booster", and "The Old Lady From Brewster".

The earliest recordings of "Ranky Tanky" that I've found are from the 1970s. However, that song may have been composed in the late 19th century before the end of the United States Civil War. [Read the update below for a version of this song from around 1963.]

There are different versions of "Ranky Tanky". Each example of that song that I've found include the phrase "ranky tank" or "ranky tanky".

"Ranky tanky" (or "ranky tank") is
- a phrase that refers to certain styles of dancing.

- the name of a particular family of social dance songs which include the repeated use of that phrase .

- an exhortation to do the "ranky tanky" dance, and/or an exhortation to "to dance well" (using contemporary slang "to dance funky").

Also, notice in the Georgia Sea Isles version of "Ranky Tanky" (given below) that "rank" and "rankin" are used as a verb:
"I'm goin' to rank/ Ranky tank.../See me a-rankin'/ Ranky Tank"
It's likely that these definitions of the word "rank" resulted in the use of that word for a form of dancing that in those times was probably considered to be risque:

The word "rank" is the base word in "ranky tanky" (or "ranky tank"). Here are some definitions of the word "rank" as used in the phrase "ranky tanky" (or "ranky tank")


[adjective] very fertile; producing profuse growth; "rank earth"

[adjective] very offensive in smell or taste; "a rank cigar"

[adjective] growing profusely; "rank jungle vegetation"
The phrase "Ranky tanky" or "ranky tank" is an example of reduplication. Here's a definition of reduplication from

"The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis."

In the late 19th or early 20th century Gullah traditions where the "ranky tanky" family of songs originated, "Ranky tank" apparently referred to a certain style of dancing. There are different descriptions of how the "ranky tanky" was danced. In the record notes for the song "Old Lady From Booster", collected in St. John's Island, South Carolina in 1970, the writer describes a line game that is performed this way:
"The players stand with their feet slightly apart. Throughout this game, both feet tap out the following pattern: left, right, left, right, right moving slightly to the right on the last tap. The last tap then becomes the first tap of the second pattern, thus, line 5 has the right, left, right, left left moving slightly to the left on the last tap. Continue the foot patterns to the rhythm of the song until the end. Place hands on the different parts of the body mentioned in the song. Source: "St John’s Island, South Carolina: It’s People And Songs""

In the 1972 book Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage (Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes: Athens, Georgia, The University of Georgia Press, 1972, pp. 129-130) the "ranky tanky" dance is described this way:
"The Islanders had learned the "Ranky Tank" from the people of nearby Sapelo Island; no one was sure just how the dance was organized. but the chant and step was remembered. The step itself would be called a "buzz" step by dance teachers; the weight is keep on one foot while the other toe pushes the dancer along, very much like the motion of a child riding a scooter. The weighted foot "chugs" the offbeat. The dancer can progress either to the right or to the left (depending on which foot is carrying the weight) and in a straight line or around in a circle."

That Georgia Sea Isles description of "Ranky Tanky" reminds me of this 1980s Hip-Hop dance:

How to Do The Running Man

Uploaded by livestrong on Jun 24, 2009

The running man is a hip hop fundamental dance move...
Is the "Running Man" a 1980s recreation of the 1970s and maybe as old as the late 19th century "Ranky tank" dance? It's possible.

In each of the renditions of "Ranky Tanky" that I have found, the song includes a call & response portion in which the group says "Ranky tanky!" (or "Ranky tank!"). For instance, here are the lyrics to the Bessie Jones (Georgia Sea Isle) version of "Ranky Tank":

Lead Voice - Oh, ranky tank
Group Voice- Ranky tank
Lead Voice - Oh, ranky tank
Group Voice- Ranky tank
Papa's goin' to rank
Ranky tank.
Mama's goin' to rank.
Ranky tank.
Down in the cornfield,
Ranky tank.
I'm goin' to rank.
Ranky tank.
Sun is hot,
Rank tank.
See me a-rankin',
Rank tank.
Oh, ranky tank,
Rank tank.
Oh, ranky tank,
Rank tank.

[book citation given above]

It's likely that the phrase "ranky tanky" was used as a general exhortation to dancers the same way as the 1970s African American vernacular phrases "Get Down!", "Let it all hang out!", and "Ah Sukie Sukie!" None of those phrases are meant to be taken literally. "Do that funky dance!" and "Get funky!" are equivalent exhortations which also originated in African American culture. Another equivalent exhortation from contemporary African American culture is "Work it! Work it!"

I believe that "Ranky tanky!" may have come to mean the same thing as "Get funky" and each of those other exhortations - "to dance skillfully and with flair in an free, unrestrained manner. Of course, prudish people would probably consider those dancing styles to be "dirty" or "improper", but they don't know the value of being funky.
One video of people doing "ranky tanky" dance moves is given at the beginning of this post. Here's an additional video of "Ranky Tanky":

Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem - Valley Stage '07 - Ranky Tanky

Uploaded by elcabi on May 12, 2008

Editor's Note
As an aside, the Caribbean Dancehall music's use of the word "ranks" as a last name for vocalists (such as in "Shabby Ranks" and "Cutty Ranks") is different than the use of the base word "rank" in "ranky tanky". In the case of Dancehall music, the last name "ranks" comes from this definition of that word:
Rank -"a high or eminent status"
Source for definition:

Click for more information about "Ranky Tanky" songs, for words to six renditions of those songs, and for four videos of "Ranky Tanky" songs.

UPDATE 12/15/2012
Hat tip to Dan Greenwood, who performs a version of "Old Lady From Booster". I received the following information from Dan in two emails:

"The version I referenced is sung by National Heritage Fellow Mrs. Janie Hunter, collected by Guy and Candie Carawan on John's Island in the early/mid '60s and later released on the 'Been In the Storm So Long' CD" Been in the Storm So Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children's Games from Johns Island, South Carolina, Various Artists SFW40031 has a brief sound sample A sound file & MP3 purchase link to that song (credited to The Moving Star Hall Singers)

Here's that version of "Old Lady From Booster":
The old lady come from Booster.
She had two hens and a rooster.
The rooster died.
The old lady cried.
He* couldn't get egg like he use ta.

Oh ma,** you look so.
Oh pa,*** you look so.

Who been here since I will gone?
Two little boy with the blue cap on.
Hang **** him on the hickory stick.
Ranky tanky done***** my shoe
The buffalo boy ****** want to buy it back.
Pain in the hip
Pain in my knee.
My leg
Ranky tanky
Pain in my elbow
Ranky tanky
Ranky tanky
Pain in my shoulder
Ranky tanky
Pain in my neck
Ranky tanky
Pain in my head
Ranky tanky

You'll didn't hear?
The old lady come from Booster.
He couldn't tell the news like he use ta.
[singers start giggling.]

*The pronoun "he" is also used for females.
Old lady come from Booster

** This word sounds like "my", but I think it's "ma".
*** This word sound like "pie", but I think it's "pa".
**** This word might be "hit".
***** "done my shoe" - took my shoe?; In that line "Ranky Tanky" appears to be used as a person's name or nickname.
****** Buffalo boy - I wonder if this could be a referent for a Black soldier (Buffalo soldier)
Here's a link to a sound file of Dan Greenwood's group's rendition of "Old Lady From Booster". That example is based on the version of this song that was sung by Mrs. Janie Hunter:

Thanks Dan Greenwood for that information & example!

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Your comments are welcome.

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