Sunday, August 5, 2012

Examples Of The Game Song "Sissy In The Barn"

Edited by Azizi Powell

[Update March 15, 2015]

This post presents lyrics, performance instructions, and comments about the singing game "Sissy In The Barn" ("Sissy In De Barn").

Brief sound files of "Sissy In The Barn" ("Sissy In De Barn" are included in this post. Unfortunately, to date, I've not been able to locate an online video of this singing game.

The content of this post is presented for recreational, folkloric, educational, and aesthetic purposes.

All rights to this material remain with their owners.

Bessie Jones, African American performer, folklorist, and co-author of Step It Down, a collection & study of African American children's singing games in the Georgia Sea Islands, described singing games as forms of dramatized play. During that dramatized play, children take on the role of certain characters and sing & act out the words of those characters. "Sissy In The Barn" is a good example of African American children's game song as a theatrical play. Read the performance instructions for Example #2 for a great example of this singing game as theatrical play.

The earliest date that I've found thus far for the game song "Sissy In The Barn" (under the name "Little Sister Won't You Marry Me") is 1922. That example is included in Thomas W. Talley's book Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise And Otherwise posted online at

A 1937 version of this song can be found at AFS 884B4-886B3: Eight songs sung by older children. Brandon, Mississippi, March 9, 1937.
886A3: "Sissy In The Barn". I believe this version is the same as that given as Example #1.

Notice that the version of "Sissy In The Barn" that is given below as Example #9 is included on a 1978 recording of Caribbean songs & games and ascribed to Trinidad. To date, I've not found any other indication that "Sissy In The Barn" is of Caribbean origin. If that ascription is correct, my guess is that someone in Trinidad either learned this song by visiting the United States South or by having contact with someone in the United States South.

For explanations of various words found in versions of "Sissy In The Barn", read my comments in the section below entitled "Word Meanings".

[Posted in chronological order]

Liddle sistah in de barn, jine de weddin'.
Youse de sweetest liddle couple dat I ever did see.
Oh Love! Love! Ahms all 'round me!
Say, liddle sistah, won't you marry me?

Oh step back, gal, an' don't you come a nigh me,
Wid all dem sassy words dat you say to me.
Oh Love! Love! Ahms all 'roun' me!
Oh liddle sistah, won't you marry me?

From: Negro Folk Rhymes, Wise and Otherwise: With a Study
Author: Thomas W. Talley; originally published in 1922
E-book edition:

Example #2: Sissy In The Barn; Eva Grace Boone
From the Album Field Recordings Vol. 4: Mississippi & Alabama (1934-1942)[Sound file/MP3 Download]; [1937]?

Sissy in the barn, barn the levee**
Prettiest little couple I ever did see,
Oh bon bon***, put your arms around me,
Say little sissy, won't you marry me?

Oh step back now, don't you come near me,
All those sassy things you say
Oh bon bon***, put your arms around me,
Say little sissy, won't you marry me?


*Transcription by Azizi Powell from the sound file whose link is given above.

**This word might be "de lairy".

***These words might be "barn barn".

Example #3: field recording (Julia Griffin and group; Women's Dormitory; State Penitentiary, Raiford, Florida; June 4, 1939; collected & recorded by Alan Lomax & Ruby T. Lomax)

Sissy in de barn, join de wedding
Prettiest little couple I ever did see,
Oh, bye-an'-bye put yo' arms around me
Says, little sissy, won't you marry me.

Oh, step back, gal, don't you come near me,
All those sassy words you say
Bye-an'-bye, throw yo' arms around me
Pretty little sissy, won't you marry me.


These singers were African American women.

Example #4: Altona Trent Johns Play Songs Of The Deep South (The Associated Publishers, Inc.; 1st edition; 1944)

My comment:
Altona Trent Johns' book includes two versions of "Bon Ton or Sissy In De Barn" (pages 1-5) Two of these pages are drawings. One drawing shows Black girls & Black boys outdoors forming a circle [with the children not holding hands] and a girl & boy in the center of the circle. The other drawing shows a Black girl and Black boy outdoors dancing the two step [with no other children in the drawing.] A piano score is provided for the first "arrangement" of this song. The words to the second arrangement of "Bon Ton" are given within a piano score.

Here's the lyrics and directions from that book:

Sissy in de barn,
O jine de weddin'
Sweetes' li'l' couple I e'er did see,
O Bon Ton, put yo' arms around me!
Say, Ii'l' Sissy, Won't you marry me?

Get back, gal.
Get yo' arms from 'round me!
All those sassy words you say,
O Bon Ton, put yo' arms around me!
Say, Ii'l' Sissy, Won't you marry me?

Get back, boy,
Don't put yo' arms around me!
All those foolin' words you say,
O Bon Ton, put yo' arms around me!
Say, 'li'l' Sissy, Won't you marry me?

"Sissy" is affectionate for "little Sister" [This is the author's statement and her performance directions follow.]

Any number may participate. The players form a large circle with a boy in the center.
They clap hands on each beat throughout as they swing.
1. Boy in center advances in short, skip-like steps to a girl in the circle and stops in front of her on the words, "li'l' couple".
2. He catches girl's right hand in his.
3. They take position for social dancing.
4. They move to center and dance the "two step" inside the circle.
5. Pushes girl gently from him
6. Shakes finger in mock anger at girl, meanwhile skipping back to her.
7. Same as (2)
8. Same as (3)
9. Same as (4)
10. Reverse (5), i.e. girl pushes boy from her.
11. Reverse (6)
12. Use steps (2), (3), and (4) again.
13. At the conclusion of the above directions this girl and boy join the ring, some other boy goes to center and the dance is begun again.

This should be sung and danced gaily and not dragged out.
"This second arrangement of "Bon Ton" can be played by more advanced pianists. It would provide a more colorful and more difficult accompaniment for the dance and could also be used as a piano solo".
Altona Trent Johns provides more information provided about how the piano solo is played. The lyrics are the same as above.

Notice that this song is performed by a co-ed group of children (females & males). I believe this is the earliest way this courting game song was played.

Example #5: [late 1930s] From
Subject: RE: lyr/info req: Sissy/Missy in the barn... (Bon Ton)
From: GUEST,Betty Pierce
Date: 31 Mar 14 - 09:03 AM

"When I was in the 4th and 5th grades in a little country school in North Alabama, we played this game, both girls and boys. I cannot remember how the went but we were in a circle. This is how we sang the song......................Sissy in the Bon, was the name of it or that is what we called it.

Sissy in the bon,
bon in the lerry.
Prettiest little girl that I ever did see.
Oh bon, bon, put your arms around me.
Say my little sissy won't you marry me.

Oh step back gal, don't you come nigh me,
All those sassy words you said.
Oh bon bon put your arms around me.
Pretty little sissy, won't you marry me

...........This was in the late 1930's. I will be 85 years on April 18, 2014. The reason why I remember the song so well is that I guess I liked it and I would sing it at home all the time. My uncle still at home at time learned it to and it stuck with him as long as he lived. I have a tape with him singing it. As I remember we would sing it real fast.
I changed the formating of this comment for this post.

The word "nigh" in this example may be a typo for "near".

Example #6: The Archive Of Folk Song;
B. A. Botkin [prior to 1950]

Sissy in the barn, the levee
Prettiest little couple I ever did see,
Oh barn, barn, put your arms around me,
Say little sissy, won't you marry me?

Step back now, don't you come near me,
All those sassy things you say
Oh barn, barn, put your arms around me,
Say little sissy, won't you marry me?

Folk Music Of The United States
Music Division
Recording Laboratory AFS 19
Library of Congress, Washington [No date is given for this recording. However it must be 1950 or earlier as the cover art for the album is documented to have been donated in 1950.]

There are no collector's notes or performance instructions are given for this example.

Example #7: Carver Elementary School
Recorded: May 6, 1954

From 1954 Florida Folk Festival White Springs, Florida
(S 1576, reel T76-1).

Sissy in the barn barn a lairy
pretty little sissy I ever did see
Oh bon bon, throw your arms all around me
little sissy won’t you marry me.

Oh step back sissy, don’t you come near me
all those sassy words you say
Oh bon bon, throw your arms all around me
little sissy won’t you marry me.

[both verses repeated]

Transcription by Azizi Powell from the download/sound file given as #15 on that list. This rendition is performed with the children clapping their hands and either stomping their feet while standing or the sounds of their feet while they move around.

Although the race of the children isn't noted, they are probably African American as "Carver Elementary School" was probably named after the African American scientist/inventer George Washington Carver.

Example #8: Folkways 07858, Songs for Children from New York City (1978)

Sissy in de barn, de barn de leary.
Prettiest little gal I ever did see.
Oh barn, barn put your arms around me.
Say pretty sissy won't you marry me.
Oh step back gal*, don't you come near me.
All those sassy words you say.
Oh barn, barn put your arms around me.
Say pretty sissy won't you marry me.

The children circle holding hands during the first part of the game. The child in the middle picks a partner and dances with him. The partner rejects the child with exaggerated movements on "step back gal." They reconcile and dance again at the end. The partner now becomes the new "Sissy."

* "Oh step back gal" is spoken.

Collected by Alan Lomax from African American children.

Posted by Joe Offer on 14 Jul 09 - 01:59 PM on "lyr/info req: Sissy/Missy in the barn... (Bon Ton)"

Example #9: Caribbean Songs And Games: Puerto Rico, Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, The Bronx, 1978 [Trinidad]

Sissy in the barn the barn de lerie
Sissy in the cupboard, the cupboard we'll see,
Oh by and by, I'm the one who
Say little Sissy won't you marry me.
Just step back girl
Don't come near me
Say little Sissy won't you marry me.

The children are in a circle with "Sissy" in the middle. She chooses a partner on "Oh barn." On "step back," she pushes the partner from her, points her finger and shakes her hip. They reconcile at the end and she leaves her partner (usually a boy) in the middle of the circle to start again.

-snip- Band 3A
Folkways Records Album No FC 5856
Copyright 1978 Folkways Record
Recorded and annotated by Edna Smith Edet

Notice that this example is the only one presented which doesn't include the line "All those sassy things you say".

Here is a list of words from the game song "Sissy In The Barn" whose meanings may be unclear. Many of these featured words help document the evolution of that song over a period of time. The changes in these lyrics are probably a result of folk etymology - mishearing or misremembering words, or unknowingly replacing an unfamiliar word, phrase, or sound with a familiar word, phrase or sound. Click for more information about "folk etymology".

"Sissy" is an affectionate nickname for females, from the word "sister". This nickname is used by family members and non-family members regardless of the females' personal name.

The Caribbean game song "In A Fine Castle" which includes the repeated line "do you hear my sisi-o" is another example of a game song that includes this meaning of the nickname "Sissy". Click and for pancocojams posts about the song "In A Fine Castle".

A somewhat familiar use of the nickname "Sissy" is Anglo-American actress "Sissy Spacek".

The song title "Sissy In The Barn" simply describes where the young woman called "Sissy" is. The title "Missy In The Barn" given in the Mudcat discussion forum link above is probably a misremembering of the title by the person seeking information about that song.
"De" - "the"
"O'lairy, "o'leary"; "de lerie"
"O'lairy" and similarly spelled words are forms of a phrase found in English language children's playground rhymes from at least the mid twentieth century on. Here's an excerpt from a Mudcat discussion forum post which includes a rhyme with the word "o'lairy" and which provides information about the source & meaning of the word "o'lairy":
"Chicago, early 1940s:

One, two, three a'leary,
Four, five, six a'leary,
Seven, eight, nine a'leary,
Ten a'leary, USA!...

[Folk singer] Jean Redpath pointed out, as she was doing one of these ball-bouncing/leg-cross-over games, that there is a line in [the British folk song] Piers Plowman about beggars sitting at the city gate, "Legs aleery." I'm not sure of the spelling, but the meaning was clear: they had their legs crossed, i.e.: sitting in what we call "Indian fashion." In the game, of course, the player crosses her leg (this is usually considered a girl's game) over the bouncing ball." Jazz Lyric '1 2 3 O'Lairy' - Count Basie 1940; posted by Sandy Paton; 19 May 99 -10:08 PM
According to this information quoted by Sandy Paton, "o'lairy" pronounced "oh-LEER-ree"] means "legs crossed". Traditionally, when children bouncing a ball say the word "o'lairy" as part of a rhyme, they were supposed to raise one leg and bounce the ball under that leg. Or when children playing jump rope (skipping rope) say "o'lairy", they were supposed to cross their legs. Nowadays, in the United States, that movement is called jumping "criss cross".

However, I don't mean to imply that children singing "Sissy In The Barn" crossed their legs when they sang the words "o'leary". Actually, I believe that they probably did no such thing. In my opinion, the traditional meaning of the word "o'lairy" became largely unknown to children in the United States, if not elsewhere, decades ago. Children sang or recited "o'lairy" because it was/is a part of a rhyme or song, but they didn't/don't attach any particular meaning to it.

My opinion is that children started singing "o'leary" at the end of that line in "Sissy In The Barn" because they were familiar with the "o'leary" at the end of lines of text in children's rhymes & game songs. The "jine the wedding" with its outdated word "jine" was eventually dropped and was replaced by the words "de barn o'lairy" ["the barn o'lairy"] ["Sissy in the barn the barn o'lairy"].

Also notice how the words "o'lairy" [and similar sounding forms] were changed in Example #4 to the words "the levee". A levee is "an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river."

In addition, it should be noted [no pun intended] that the words "the barn o' lairy" has five beats while the words "jine the weeding" has four beats. Yet Black children would have no difficulty whatsoever elongating the word "wedding" to make the words "the barn o'lairy" substitute for those earlier words.
"Bon Ton" and "Bye and Bye"
Example #3 of "Sissy In The Barn" posted above gives "Bon Ton" as the alternate title for that song.

"Oh bye and bye" in the line "Oh, bye-an'-bye put yo' arms around me" may have been an unintential folk etymology replacement for the words "bon ton".
"Bye and bye" means "eventually". In my opinion, that meaning doesn't fit the theme of the song as well as the meaning for the words "bon ton".

In the lyrics "O Bon Ton ["oh bon bon"] put your arms all around me", bon ton [bon bon] is similar to the affectionate terms "my sweetie, "my honey" or "my dearest one". However, "bon ton" also carries a connotation of a person with high fashion & sophistication.


a. A sophisticated manner or style. b. The proper thing to do. 2. High society. [French : bon, good + ton, tone.] bon ton (French) [bɔ̃ tɔ̃]. n Literary. 1. sophisticated ...

The Zydeco song "Bon Ton Roulet" is a somewhat familiar use of the words "bon ton". According to
" "bon ton roulet" ("bon ton roula") is a phonetical approximation of "bons temps rouler", Louisiana Creole French for "good times roll" as in "Laissez les bons temps rouler" or "Let the good times roll", an unofficial slogan for New Orleans and the Mardi Gras celebration."
"Jine" - "join"
"Yo'" = "your"
In the context of the line "all those sassy words you say", "sassy" means "improperly forward or bold".

Also, click for my comments about the changing meaning of "sassy".

Example #6 as found above, gives the line "Sissy in the cupboard the cupboard we’ll see". This line is an obvious folk etymology form. The word "cupboard" may have been used since a cupboard may have been more familiar to those children then a barn. The ending words "we'll see" may have been a folk etymology replacement for the words "the levee".

Comparing it with the other presented examples, this line in Example #7 "Oh by and by, I'm the one who" seems like it is incomplete.

Thanks to all those who have shared examples of this song in records, books, blogs, and otherwise.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. I remember this song being played on what I assume now was public broadcasting in the "mid-60's". I was attending a public school in NJ then and I was either in kindergarten or first grade--we watch the show during school hours. The lady who played was on older woman who played an upright piano. She had young children around the piano who accompanied her.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      That was interesting. Apart from that Mp3 sample, I've never heard "Sissy In The Barn". Nor have I ever seen it played.

      The title of that game song made me curious about it because I thought it was about kids teasing someone in a barn for being a "sissy". I'm glad it didn't mean that.

    2. Yep! When we would sing this song in kindergarten every morning back in 1960, the lyrics were:
      Missy in the barn, the barn o'leary-
      Sweetest little Missy I ever did see-
      Oh, bon bon won't you be my partner-
      Hey little missy won't you dance with me-
      Step back Gal, Don't you come near me-
      All those fancy words you say-
      Oh,bon bon won't you be my partner-
      Say, little Missy, won't you dance with me|:|

    3. Greetings, Anonymous.

      It's interesting how songs learned in elementary school make such an impression on us that we remember them decades afterwards.

      Thanks for sharing your memories of this old game song.

  2. We would sing this song "Missy in the Barn" every morning in kindergarten at Ethel Phillips Elementary School, 2930 21st Ave, Sacramento, CA 95820 in 1960. The lyrics must have changed frequently… I didn't even know how to ride two wheel bicycle but, I knew the lyrics I was taught to this song!