Monday, August 5, 2013

"Aunt Jenny Died" & Other Similar African American Playground Rhymes That Mention Death

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest Revision: May 31, 2023

This is Part I of a four part pancocojams series that presents examples of and source songs/rhymes for the African American children's rhyme "Aunt Jenny Died" (or other similar  titles) that mention death.

This post features a video example and several text examples of this rhyme. In addition, this post includes titles, hyperlinks,  and information about several songs/rhymes that I believe to be sources for the "Aunt Jenny Died" rhyme.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II of this series provides examples of the song "Jenny Jones" and versions of that folk song.

Click for Part III of this series. That post provides information & examples of the song "Jenny Jenkins".


Part IV of this series provides an example of the Jamaican song "Come To See Janie".

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who I have quoted in this post. Thanks to the children who recited this rhyme in that video and the producer of this showcased film clip (who may have arbitrarily decided to include that rhyme.) Thanks also to the publisher of that video on YouTube. 

PART I: VIDEO & TEXT EXAMPLE OF "THE POSTMAN DIED" (A rhyme that is related to "Aunt Jenny Died")
Editor's note: This entire video is very worthy of viewing. However, for the purpose of this post, please focus on the rhyme found in the background of 5:01-5:56 of this video [The clearest rendition of the same rhyme is found at 5:34-5:56.]

"We Shall Not Be Moved: African Americans in the South, 18th Century to the Present"

SouthernHistorical Uploaded on Oct 22, 2009

A preview of the Southern Historical Collection's exhibit, "We Shall Not Be Moved: African Americans in the South, 18th Century to the Present". The exhibit is on view in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room on the third floor of Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill, from Oct. 8, 2009 through Feb. 5, 2010. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information about the exhibit, please email Biff Hollingsworth at
Transcription of that rhyme:

Lead - The postman died
Group- (How did he die)
He died like this
(He died like this)
The postman living
(Where he livin)
Lead & Group -He livin outside Tennessee
He got a short _ _ and a _ _*
He can twist his thing everywhere he please
Hands up tuchie tuchie tuchie
Hands down tuchie tuchie tuchie
Touch the ground tuchie tuchie tuchie
Turn around tuchie tuchie tuchie
I never went to college
I never been to school
But when it comes to boogie
I’m an educated fool.
Transcription by Azizi Powell. Additions & corrections are welcome. The end lines are heard in the background at 5:25 of this film.

I was unable to decipher the words represented by dashes. Italics means that I'm not certain of those words.

Aunt Jenny died. .
How did she die?
She died like this. [The soloist makes a funny pose such as raising one of her legs and raising her arm at the same time & freezing in place.]
She died like this. [The group tries to exactly imitate the soloist's pose]
She died like that. [The soloist strikes a new pose]
She died like that.
[The group tries to exactly imitate the soloist's pose. The soloist and the group repeat the same sequence with the mention of other relatives until "momma" is mentioned]
My momma livin'.
Where she livin'.
Soloist & group in unison:
Well she lives in a place called Tennessee.
Jump up Tenna Tennessee [The entire group performs the movements as indicated by the words]
Jump back Tena Tennesse
Jump in Tena Tennesse
Jump out Tena Tennessee
Well I've never been to college
I never been to school.
But when it comes to boogie [On the word "boogie", while still standing in place, the entire group does a hip shaking dance movement] The girls don't have to do the exact same movement]
I can boogie like a fool.
You go in, out, side to side.
You go in, out, side to side.
-African American children's rhyme, collected from African American female Barbara Ray (memories of her childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1950s); collected by Azizi Powell, 1998 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
"Boogie" means "dance".

I collected this rhyme from Barbara Ray as part of her response to a voluntary, written survey on children's rhymes that I conducted with fellow staff at my [then] work site. Barbara wrote that girls stood in a circle or semi-circle while chanting this "song". She later performed "Aunt Jenny Died" for me during a break at our work site.

For what it's worth, I don't have any memory of this rhyme from my childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1950s.

Note that “aunt” in this rhyme might not have originally referred to a relative as in the Southern region of the United States until the end of slavery, the term "aunt" was used as the instead of "Mrs" or "Miss". Those titles were reserved for White females.
Click for a 1973 rendition of portion of this rhyme by the Jazz vocalist group The Pointer Sisters. That group chanted the portion that begins with "Ladies & Gentlemen, Children Too".

We used to play a related game when I was young. Players sit in a circle. The leader starts with the statement to player on her left who questions her, then turns to the player on his left in turn. All players continue the action or contortion until it returns to them the next time when they *add* another action or contortion. The object is to not laugh, but maintain an air of solemn sympathy.

"Old Miss Onion Died."
"How did she die?"
"Closing one eye"
[next time round]
"Old Miss Onion Died."
"How did she die?"
"Mouth awry"
"Waving goodbye"
"One leg held high"

There might have been more; don't remember.

Did anyone else ever play that one? Guess I had a weird enough childhood."
-:Judy Cook, 17 Feb 05, , Origin of Aunt Jenny Died?
This post is from rhis discussion thread about "Aunt Jenny Died" that I started in December 2004 on the Folk music/Blues forum called Mudcat: . To date, I've not found any other versions of "Old Miss Onion Died" online or off-line.

This isn’t a hand clap game, instead its played with several kids, one is the leader (it’s kinda long)

Leader says: "Momma’s dead"
Kids say: "How’d she die?"
Leader says: Oh, she died like this (leader strikes a pose)
Kids say: Oh, she died like this (kids duplicate the pose)
The leader repeates the above 2-3 more times, then says: "Momma’s livin"
Kids: "Oh, how is she livin"
Chorus: "Oh, she’s livin in the country, gonna move to town,
She’s gonna shake her shimmy til the sun goes down
She’ss gonna wear her dresses up above her knee,
She’ss gonna do what she wants, where ever she be
Hands up, tootsee, tootsee, tootsee, tootsee
Hands down, tootsee, tootsee, tootsee, tootsee
Turn around, (say tootsee 4 times)
Touch the ground (say tootsee 4 times)
Peaches on the table (extend right hand), pears on the floor(extend left hand)
Jump back baby, I don’t love you no more

The following part we would hop front, back and side and say:

"To the front to the back to the side by side" (say once more)

I don’t remember all of the rest....except something about an educated fool
-OHR, 7/28/2004;
It appears from this discussion that all of the participants in the discussion forum are African American women. The name npptuarality refers to wearing one's nappy hair naturally.. 

An early example of the floating verse "I've never been to college, never been to school" is found on (pp 71-72} of the 1925 book On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs by the White American folklorist Dorothy Scarborough. Here's that song (presented with explanations given in parenthesis). Note: That book spells out what is now known as "the n word". For the purposes of this post I've written that word as "N__".

Old Jesse was a gemman {gentleman}
Among de olden times.

Verse 2
N__ never went to free school,
Nor any odder college.
An' all de white folks wonder whar
Dat N_ got his knowledge.
He chawed {chewed} up all de Bible.
An' den spat out de Scripter,
An' when he 'gin {begin} to arger {argue} strong,
He were a snortin' ripter!
According to Dorothy Scarborough, the song "Ole Jesse" is from Alabama. This song shouldn't be confused with another traditional African American plantation song entitled "Uncle Jesse."

This concludes Part I of this series.

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