Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Thread The Needle" Games In Britain, The United States, The Cameroons, & Jamaica

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides information about and lyrics for some examples of the European originated "Thread The Needle" games in Britain and in the United States. This post also provides information about and lyrics for versions of "Thread The Needle" in Jamaica, (the Caribbean) and in the Cameroon (West Africa).

A YouTube video that showcases an example of the Jamaican children game "Long Long Thread" and a video of a similar thread the needle Yiddish dance are also included in this post.

[Added March 16, 2017- Two videos of traditional British "thread the needle" games are also included in this post.]

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, and recreational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to all those who are featured in this video. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

"Webfeet: Thread the Needle
...Threading the Needle
Generally a dance figure rather than a dance but most likely someone, somewhere will have called a dance after it... In the eCeilidh repertoire you'll meet the movement in Bottoms Up or the Witches' Reel. It's a children's game (first recorded in 1744) and it's there in Dicken's description of Sir Roger de Coverley (where it is there in name, although likely not the same figure)"...

"Colonial Games: How To Play Thread The Needle


Thread the Needle, Thread My Needle, Thread the Tailor's Needle is an old game that was popular for both girls and boys.

There are two popular versions of the game. In the first version, all join hands to make a line. The last two people of the line raise their arms to form an arch and the first person in line goes under the arch, leading the rest of the line under. The person who was previously first in the line then becomes the end of the line and will be one of the people forming the next arch. The new front of the line will now try to go under the new arch and the whole completed until the chain is broken. The point of the game is to try and do this many times without breaking the chain.

The second version of this game was popular in the U.S. and includes a Biblical chant. Everyone holds hands and forms a line the two people at the head of the line chant "How many miles to Babylon?" The end two people chant in response "Three score and ten." The conversation continues "Can I get there by candle light?" "Yes, and back again." "Then open the gates with mere ado and let the King and his men pass through. The end couple then raises their hands up in an arch and the game is played the same as the first version."

From Thread the Needle Games, April 26th, 2010
"In Thread the Needle Games, the players stand in two rows across from each other. They hold hands in an arch with the person across from them. Players go under the arch and join the end of the line once they’re through the arch. Sometimes they’re played while singing a song. There are variations on how the game is played.


Here are the lyrics to some British Thread the Needle songs...
I. Thread my grandmother’s needle!
Thread my grandmother’s needle!
Thread my grandmother’s needle!
Open your gates as wide as high,
And let King George and me go by.
It is so dark I cannot see
To thread my grandmother’s needle!
Who stole the money-box?


2) Thread my grandmother’s needle,
Thread my grandmother’s needle;
It is too dark we cannot see
To thread my grandmother’s needle.


3) Come thread a long needle, come thread,
The eye is too little, the needle’s too big.
4) Thread the needle thro’ the skin,
Sometimes out and sometimes in.

In some places in Great Britain they played a Thread the Needle game for Shrove Tuesday. (Shrove Tuesday is the day before the start of the fasting season of Lent for Christians. Sometimes, there’s a party before the before the fasting – like Mardi Gras.)"...
"Mama Lisa". the editor of that site noted that she received an example of a "Thread The Needle" game from a reader from the Cameroon. That example (and the Jamaican examples that I've found which are presented in this post) appear to be variant forms of the British "Thread The Needle" song that mentions "long long thread" (such as is found in Example #3 above).

"Nyango sent this song with a note that this is "a game where a long line of children weave in and out through a ring of other children standing with arms raised as arches."
Thread and Needle
Children's Song
Thread and needle,
Thread and needle.

Long, long thread,
Thread and needle, needle
Long, long thread.

Oh, thread and needle
Thread and needle.

Long, long thread,
Thread and needle, needle
Long, long thread."
Nyango doesn't indicate how he (or she) learned this song, but it clearly has its source in the British "Thread The Needle" game.

Folk-Games of Jamaica






"[page] 38 Field Work in Folk-lore
Folk Games Of Jamaica Beckwith
31. Thread the Needle/

a. Thread Needle.

(1) (Maroon Town.)

T'read needle, t'read needle,long,long t'read.Nannie got to t'read, oh, long, long t'read.

Tread needle, t'read needle, long long t'read,

Nannie got to t'read, oh, long long t'read.

Players join hands in a curved line. The end player passes under his own and the second player's linked hands, then, followed by the second player, under the hands of the third and fourth, and so on until all are wound up in a coil.

(2) (Bethlehem.)

Annie, Annie, thread the needle, reel and sew,
Thread the needle, thread the needle, reel and sew.

[Note #] 35 See Folk-lore Record 5, 88. This is perhaps the "interesting dance movement" which Mrs. Gomme fails to find in versions of the "Babylon" game. The words "Dan, Dan, thread the needle, Dan, Dan, sew," as well as other references to "threading the needle" are found attached in some songs to the game of "How Many Miles to Babylon?" See Gomme I, 234; County Folk-lore (Suffolk), 63. In this it resembles the familiar
Open the gates as wide as high
And let King George and I go by"...
[ADDED March 18, 2017 11:47 AM]
Here's the portion of Beckwith's 1922 book that serves as an introduction to these thread the needle games and other folk cultural examples:
[page] 8
"The wake or "set up" for the dead is probably the most strictly popular of ajl [sic] Jamaican festivities and the one most closely approaching old African customs. On the third night after death — some say on the third to remain until the ninth night — the spirit of the dead is believed to return at night "to visit his relatives and associates and overlook all his possessions. " For this reason, the friends must gather on this night — the third in some districts, the ninth in others — and indulge in all sorts of sports supposed to interest the ghost and prevent him from harm- ing anyone until day dawns. 7 Such a festivity is called "Bakin- ny," or "Back in i' " as I take to be the meaning with reference

Folk Games of Jamaica [page] 9

to the driving of the ghost back to the grave. A bonfire is built outside the house, around which the men and boys gather in a circle while the women sit by to watch the sport. Among the games most commonly played are the stone-pounding and stone- passing games, and such song-games as "Going through the
rocky road," "Thread the needle/' and "Hill and gully riding." Games of wit with words are also popular at such times. Only a few specimens of the innumerable games, songs and dances improvised for such an occasion are represented in this collection."

SHOWCASE VIDEO: traditional Jamaican Dances

Simon Miller Published on May 9, 2015
The ring game is shown at 12:07-14:03 in this video.

Here's my transcription of that game song's lyrics and the narrator's words: [Additions and corrections are welcome]
[Girls singing in unison]
"Nanny, show me how you thread the needle
Your long long thread
Thread oh, thread oh
Your long long thread

Show me how you thread the needle
Your long long thread.
Thread oh, thread oh
Your long long thread".

"Ring games were originally English children's games. In the past, traditional ring games were played by not only by children but also by adults. Today, however, it is mostly children who play the games of song and dance.

Ring games have taken on a local flavor over the years and now show some physical dexterity and creativity."
The video narrator doesn't give any name for this game. I posted a comment requesting the name for this game in this video's discussion thread and in the discussion thread for this blog about Jamaican names:

However, I didn't receive any response to those queries. As a result of Google search I found the "Long Long Thread" examples in Martha Warren Beckwith's 1922 book Folk- Games From Jamaica. And those examples led me to the other information about "thread the needle" games that is presented in this post.

In addition, I also found this video of a Yiddish thread the needle dance:

Threading and unthreading the needle

dancinstevechicagoUploaded on May 7, 2007

Steve Weintraub leads folkdancers at Cornell U. in the classic yiddish dance figure. Joel Rubin and the

Cornell Klezmer Ensemble playing.

There's undoubtedly a connection between the British, United States, Cameroon, and Jamaican examples of "Thread The Needle" games/dances. But is there also a connection between this Yiddish dance and the British "Thread The Needle" game/dance which is the primary source for those games in the other nations that I listed? If so, did the Yiddish game come before the British game?

ADDED March 16, 2017
Here are two videos of a British thread the needle game songs

Ally Ally Oh

Vincent Bates Uploaded on Mar 23, 2011

Oh, the big ships are sailing down the Ally Ally Oh, the Ally Ally Oh, the Ally Ally Oh.
Oh, the big ships are sailing down the Ally Ally Oh. Hey, ding dong day.

In And Out The Dusty Bluebells

thefoxtamer, Published on Dec 12, 2012

Traditional Nursery Rhyme

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  1. I found a ref in The Times (London), 1st August 1816, to an Irish game. The name though is given as 'Mothers thread my needle'. The game isn't described, but the odd thing is that it seems to have been discussed as a game adults might play? Or I think that's what they mean. The whole article is odd.

    It's actually a law case - a clergyman was accusing two men of trying to bully him into a duel. They came to his house and called him a poltroon and a coward, and threatened to beat him with a stick. They said he'd insulted a lady, the aunt of one of them.

    At a dinner party one evening she'd happened to mention this game as a favourite of hers (this is a mature woman, she has a married daughter). The clergyman picked her up on it, and used it to make a kind of blue joke. He asked her which of three male friends is "merriest" at playing it with her, and that one of them - whom he's already suggested looks very like her daughter - was well known to be "a merry old cock".

    It's pretty clear he's using the name in a sexually suggestive way. I doubt that was it's origin, but the lyrics could be taken suggestively.

    It sounds to me like he was drunk, anyway.

  2. Found an earlier ref, and it does sound as if adults - or young adults anyway - played.

    This is from 5 June 1786, describing a Whit Sunday Fair at Greenwich in London. It's a rough event, bringing together sailors, prostitutes and "runagate apprentices" who are all "drinking and smoaking - dancing and boxing - singing and shrieking - praying and cursing".

    But they also play games:"And now the sport begins - Thread my needle - Kiss in the ring - and roll on the hill..." I don't think the last is a game, it's what happens after everyone's had a drink and got excited by playing contact games.

    1. Thanks for sharing those very old British newspaper reports.

      The narrator of that Jamaican video said that the thread the needle game was played by adults and children. Maybe the "thread my needle" phrase and the weaving in and out movement became sexualized references that eventually were represented by adults' and children's dance movements and were even later were "reduced" to a children's game without any sexual connotations at all.

    2. Yes, that's pretty much what I was thinking. Perhaps it started as a party game for young adults, with some low-level but exciting physical contact? A bit like Twister. Children would copy it in all innocence.

      I played 'In and out the Scottish bluebells' as a kid, and 'The big ship sails down the alley alley oh'. We were taught the first by adults at primary school, and it was very sedate. The second we played on our own n the street. I used to be baffled by the words, but to this day I still like the tune :))

  3. I just realised the Alley-oh video tune is not quite the one I remember. Not unusual, there must be thousands of variants.

    As far as I recall, we sang:

    The big ship sails down the alley-alley-oh
    The alley-alley-oh
    The alley-alley-oh
    Oh the big ship sails down the alley-alley-oh
    On the last day of September.

    My husband he is the captain of the crew
    The captain of the crew
    The captain of the crew
    My husband he is the captain of the crew
    On the last day of September.

    I dipped my head in the deep blue sea,
    The deep blue sea
    The deep blue sea..

    And here my memory gets faulty. I think there may have been something about 'never never die'.

    What puzzled me as a child was, we always used to call marbles 'alleys'. When we played alleys we used the heel of a shoe to make a hole in the soft ground to roll the alleys into: this was the alley-hole, or as we said it, 'the alley'ole'...And I used to think, however could a big ship sail down the alley-hole???

    1. I've decided to publish a post on "The Big Ship" rhyme instead of adding additional comments/examples of that singing game in this comment section.

      Having its own thread will help people find material on that rhyme in this blog and also via other internet search engines such as Google search.

      I hesitated to publish a separate post on "The Big Ship" singing game because this blog focuses on music and dance and other cultural indices from Africa and the Black African Diaspora and I don't want to give the impression that "The Big Ships" singing game is of Black African origin or that variants of that singing game were composed by people of African or Black African descent. [If so, I don't know of any.]

      But it occurred to me that other children's rhymes and other children's singing games that I've showcased on this blog don't meet those criteria, but were (sometimes; also) played by people of African or Black African Diaspora descent* the same way that non-Black people played them.

      I'll include some of the content and comments from this thread on that "Big Ships" post. And I'll add a link to that post here.

      *For what it's worth, I don't remember "The Big Ships" or "The Dusty Bluebells" from my childhood (in the 1950s in New Jersey). I don't think either one of those singing games were/are well known and independently played by children in the USA (without teacher or other adult direction).

      Of course, I might be wrong about that.

    2. Here's a link to that pancocojams post: Some Theories About The Origin & Meaning Of "The Big Ship Sails On The Alley Alley O" Singing Game

  4. The only singing game that I remember from my childhood that is at least almost like a "thread the needle" game is "Go In And Out The Window". Here's a link to a YouTube video of a singing game that has more verses than the game than what I remember (The only verse that I remember are "go in and out the window" and "now bow and face your partner":

    Somewhat off topic, but the "go in and out the window" verse is included in a version of the singing game "Water Water Wildflowers" singing game that is documented in England and in the United States.

    Click for Part II of a two part pancocojams series about those singing games.