Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Videos Of "Great Big House In New Orleans" (Play Party Song)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents showcases three YouTube videos of the play party song "Great Big House In New Orleans" (also known as "Great Big House"). General information about play party songs and lyrics & performance directions for this song are also included in this post. My comments about the reasons why I advocate using racial identifiers for folk songs that have African American sources is included in this post along with my comments about two other songs that I believe are related to "Great Big House In New Orleans".

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the performers of this song, thanks to all those who are quoted in this post, and thanks to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.

"Play party songs" is a reference for 19th century American group movement songs that took the place of dancing at social events since dancing was prohibited in those communities. Those movement songs had no instrumental music and touching another person while playing those "singing games" was greatly regimented.

Online articles about play party songs routinely refer to the European sources of those songs and routinely omit any acknowledgement that a number of play party songs are of African American origin or have had African American influence. For example, the album notes to "American Play Parties" by Pete Seeger, Mika Seeger, and Rev. Larry Eisenberg FW07604 provides this description of play party songs:
"To evade the religious prohibition against dancing in certain American communities, young people in the 19th century devised an ingenious solution—they adapted children’s games, which were permitted. The result was so-called play parties. Participants sang creative songs to cue movements, and the events were great “mixers.” The only element lacking was instrumental music."

The author of that album's notes cites "Anglo-American" as the cultural group that is the source of the play party songs which are found on that album. However, I believe that at least three songs of the fourteen songs that are included on that album are of African American origin: "Shake Them 'Simmons Down", "Goodbye Liza Jane", and "Great Big House in New Orleans". Some of the other songs on that album may also be of African American origin or those versions of the song may have been African American influenced. Yet no one reading those album notes would know that.

I strongly believe that it's important to acknowledge that African Americans also contributed to America's play party repertoire for the sake of historical documentation, and for psychological reasons. Providing the information that some American folk songs are of African American origin helps build and reinforce group esteem in a population that is still being maligned and a population that is still experiencing the effects and consequences of personal racism and of institutional racism.

People may think that they are being "color-blind" by not mentioning race (when they are teaching children folk songs and at other times). However, by not mentioning race they are actually reinforcing the viewpoint that only White people are responsible for accomplishments. This is because both online and offline "White" is the default race (just as "male" is the default gender). When no race is mentioned for an individual (unless the discussion is about some criminal act or something that is stereotypically considered to be the purview of a particular race/ethnicity), people automatically assume that that person is White (just as people automatically assume that people posting online are male).

Regardless of their race or ethnicity, children shouldn't be led to believe that White people were the only composers of play party songs or other folk songs.

*This comment also applies to other American folk songs.

Click for a pancocojams post on this subject.

1. Great big house in New Orleans,
Forty stories high;
Ev'ry room that I been in,
Filled with chicken pie.

2. Went down to the old mill stream,
To fetch a pail of water;
Put one arm around my wife,
The other 'round my daughter.

3. Fare thee well, my darling girl,
Fare thee well, my daughter;
Fare thee well, my darling girl,
With the golden slippers on her.

1. First verse: students form a circle, holding hands, walk keeping a steady beat, then stop.
2. Went down to the old mill stream,
(every other student moves to the center, holding hands with arms below waist)
To fetch a pail of water;
(outside circle moves behind inner circle, placing arms over the shoulders of the inner circle and holds hands)
Put one arm around my wife,
(keeping hands held, outside circle raises arms to ceiling, bringing them down behind the back of the inner circle)
The other 'round my daughter.
(keeping hands held, inner circle rises arms to ceiling, bringing them down behind the backs of the outer circle)
3. Third verse: keeping arms around the outer circle, the whole circle walks to a steady beat.


Origin: USA - Louisiana Play Song
Other performance instructions are given with the videos below.

Unlike the song "Li'l Liza Jane" ("Little Liza Jane") and many other folk songs, with one interesting exception*, all the lyrics to online versions of "Great Big House In New Orleans" are the same. I'm not sure if this is because each of these websites used the same source or not. I would be very surprised to learn that there weren't any variant forms of this song when it was a naturally occurring part of children's and youth's social play and not as it is taught to students in school as is done nowadays.

*The exception to the lyrics is the substitution of "pumpkin pie" for "chicken pie", giving the lyrics "Ev'ry room that I been in/Filled with chicken pie."

The "chicken pie"** lyric is important because although chicken is a basic part of a meal and not a dessert, among 19th century African Americans, chicken was considered a luxury. And during slavery, when chicken was available, it was served as a pie and not fried as is stereotypically attributed to Black Americans. (Read "Food And Beverages Mentioned In Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes").

As such, the reference in the song "Great Big House In New Orleans" to the each room of a forty story high house being filled with chicken pie is a grandiose image that reflects more than the singer's desire for comfort and good living. To long for chicken pie is important since the singer might have experienced a number of days without adequate food. Chicken pie would have satisfied the singer's hunger much more than a dessert, particularly one he or she might not have been that familiar with.

The change in lyrics from "chicken pie to pumpkin pie" might also have cultural implications as it appears from online discussions (and my experience) that even nowadays pumpkin pie isn't a dessert that African Americans are familiar with, preferring the somewhat similar dessert of sweet potato pie - a dessert which many White Americans apparently aren't that familiar with.

**Nowadays, "chicken pie" is most commonly known in the United States as "chicken pot pie".

Click for a post about the cultural, regional, and racial associations of sweet potato pie.

These examples are presented in chronological order based on their posting dates with the oldest dated examples given first.

Multiple versions of a song are presented not to rank which one is best, but to showcase some of the different interpretations artists have given of this song.

Example #1:Great Big House In New Orleans

Anthony Meehl, Published on Oct 9, 2012

3rd Grade students singing and dancing to "Great Big House In New Orleans"

Anthony Meehl, 2014
1st vs [verse]
march to beat around circle

2nd vs
#1's march to middle and join hands (went down to the old mill stream)
#2's march to middle and join hands over the top of #1's. (to fetch a pail of water)
#2's bring hands over the top (put one arm around my wife)
#1's bring hands over the top (the other round my daughter)

3rd vs
keep hands joined and slide feet to the beat around the circle. Hope this helps :)

Example #2: Great Big House In New Orleans

HelenIn Harmony, Published on Sep 9, 2013

Midwest Play-Party Singing Dance

Filmed November, 2010 - 3rd Grade

Great Big House in New Orleans
Forty stories high
Ev'ry room that I've been in
Filled with pumpkin pie.

Went down to the old mill stream
To fetch a pail of water
Put one arm around my wife
The other round my daughter

Fair thee well, my darling girl
Fair thee well, my daughter
Fair thee well, my darling girl...
With the golden slippers on her

Example #3: MUSIC TEACHER RESOURCES - Great Big House

Kate Fellin, Published on Oct 18, 2013

TEACHING TIPS: Students stand in a circle alternating between boys and girls. (We used lanyards to differentiate between the groups, which also works). Boys go in four steps and back out; girls go in four steps and back out. Boys go in four and hold hands, then girls go in four steps and hold hands in front of boys. Girls raise arms over the boys' heads and put them behind their backs, then boys raise their arms and put them behind the girls' backs. The interlocked circle moves clockwise (to the left) for eight counts, then they raise their arms and step back to their original positions. For a more advanced version (that we did), the outer circle moves clockwise one window so that they are standing next to a new person for the dance. The words are "Great Big House in New Orleans/Forty stories high/Every room that I've been in/Filled with pumpkin pie./Went down to the old mill stream/To fetch a pail of water./Put one arm around my wife/The other round my daughter./Fare thee well, my darlin' girl/Fare thee well, my daughter/Fare thee well, my darlin' girl/With golden slippers on her."

The "house in New Orleans/forty stories high/filled with chicken pie" lines in the song "Great Big House In New Orleans" reminds me of the African American old time song "Riding In A Buggy Miss Mary Jane".

Sally got a house in Baltimo',
Baltimo', Baltimo'
Sally got a house in Baltimo'
And it's full of chicken pie.

I got a gal in Baltimo',
Baltimo', Baltimo'
I got a gal in Baltimo',
And she's sixteen stories high.

Click for a post about that song.

"Great Big House's" verses also could serve as floaters for versions of "Li'l Liza Jane".

Click for a post about that song.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I enjoyed the different takes on this American folk song. I am teaching this right now to my second grade class, and it is one of my favorite play party games.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chrystal!

      I hope your class enjoys this play party song.

  2. Thank you for your interpretations. I have been trying to research older folk songs and their meanings and origins and most information seems to stop at "here's how the play party goes." This song in particular, I've wondered about. You mentioned it could be dreams of comfort. I have wondered, though, about the lines saying goodbye to his wife and daughter. I wonder if it is actually a field slave saying goodbye to his wife and daughter as they are sold, as they are to now go be house slaves and the step-up in comfort that would be, and wishing the luxuries of chicken pie and golden slippers on them. Alternatively, perhaps the singer is a field slave and he is able to meet up with his wife and daughter (house slaves) at the mill stream. A meet up with a loving hello and goodbye. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, or any guidance in researching if my theories have any credence.

    1. Unknown, thanks for your comments. I'm glad to "meet" someone else who is interested in the origins and meanings of old folk songs.

      I don't know if anyone can be certain about what "Great Big House In New Orleans" means, as I don't think it's anyway to verify any theory.

      Your ideas are certainly credible. Perhaps that song has more than one meaning.

    2. Sorry, I am the "unknown" above... I wasn't able to update my ID for some reason.

    3. No problem, Amber.

      Commenting on this blog isn't as easy as on some other blog formats. But it's free -at least it is now-so there's that :o)