Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Charlie Over The Ocean (children's game song)

Edited by Azizi Powell

"Charlie Over The Ocean" is the name of a children's singing game.

This game may have been of African American origin as the earliest mention of it that I've found is in [White American] folklorist Harold Courlander's book & recordings entitled Negro Folk Music of Alabama.* That book & records were compiled from field recordings that Courlander made in rural Alabama in 1950. "Charlie Over The Ocean" is also included in Harold Courlander's 1963 collection Negro Folk Music: U.S.A.

*Notice the update about the song "Over The Water" [or "River"] to Charlie" which is added below on August 14, 2013

Here's the excerpt about this game from Negro Folk Music: U.S.A Google Books

[Pages 159 - 160; "Ring Games and Playparty Songs]

"Charlie Over the Ocean" is a drop-the-handkerchief type of game, in which the leader moves around the outside of the ring, He sings each line of the song, which the group repeats responsively. He thrusts a small object, such as a small stone, in the hand of the person standing in the ring;** the individual so designated chases the leader around the outside of the ring and tries to catch him before he gets to the vacated space. If he fails to accomplish his mission, he, in turn, become the leader.

Charlie over the ocean
Charlie over the sea
Charlie caught a blackbird (blackfish)
Can’t catch me.
Can’t catch me.
The person who is "it" & then the rest of the group sings "blackfish" in their second iteration of that game song [as sung in the brief sound file in the field recording by Harold Courlander that is found at [See the Related Link below for the complete listing of songs in that recording.]

Notice also that it appears that the way that "Charlie Over The Ocean" was played by the group of African American children who were recorded by Harold Courlander was that the name "Charlie" was retained with each iteration of the song. The first time the song was sung "Charlie" caught a "blackbird". The second time the same person who was "it" sung the song, "Charlie" caught a "blackfish". Although “Charlie” is almost always considered a male nickname (for Charles)***, that name doesn’t change with each person who is “it”, regardless of the gender of the child.

Also notice that in renditions of this game that I've found online, "blackbird" and "blackfish" are replaced by "big bird" and "big fish" or some other items (for instance, "starfish").

My position is that the words "blackbird" and "blackfish" may have been purposely used by the Black children who played that game that Courlander collected. To be clear, I believe that "black" in the word "blackbird" and "blackfish" was an allusion to a racial reference for those Black children who (given those times-in the 1950s) probably considered it to be an insult to be called "black" or "blackie". Notice that there aren't any versions of this game in which another color bird or another type of fish is used. And is "blackfish" a real type of fish? If the color "black" wasn't significant why not use a more common type of fish- or a different type of bird?

My guess is that the word "black" was purposely replaced in contemporary renditions of "Charlie Over The Ocean" because of the possible problematic racial associations of that word.****

Editor's Notes:
*See Update below.

**In contemporary renditions of Charlie Over The Ocean, it appears that the game is played like "duck duck goose": A person is tapped on the back or the shoulder instead of a small item being handed to the person that "it" selects.

***Although it’s rare, “Charlie” could be considered a female nickname of “Charlene”. However, I don’t think that children playing this game are/were concerned about the possible mismatch between the name of the character in the rhyme and the person who is “it”.

**** In this age of (in my opinion) "pretend" [racial] color blindness, just mentioning skin color is often considered by adults to be problematic and even racist. As you can probably tell from my comments, I don't agree with such conclusions.

For what it's worth, I don't remember this game from my childhood (in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1950s.) Nor do I remember my children playing this game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1980s. However, although I don't have any written documentation of it, I vaguely recall an African American female friend of mine sharing with me that she & her female & male friends sang this version during their childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1980s as a prelude to a chasing game:
"Charlie over the ocean
Charlie over the sea
Charlie kissed a iittle girl
But he can't kiss me.
If this recollection is accurate, that was "back in the day" when boys and girls played [self-initiated and not adult initiated] singing games & chasing games together. It seems to me that boys and girls rarely play self-initiated singing games. Also, it seems to me that boys & girls rarely even play playground games together with the exception of lightly competitive hand slapping games such as "Stella Ella Ola". Furthermore, if girs and boys do play playground games together, they absolutely don't play "give me a kiss" games.

(These videos are given in chronological order based on their posting date with the oldest video presented first.)

Example #1: Charlie Over the

denisegagne50, Uploaded on Sep 9, 2010

Singing game for children from Musicplay 1 elementary music curriculum. This is included in Musicplay 1 digital resources.
Children playing this game retain the name “Charlie”. However, with each iteration, the child who is “it” changes what “Charlie” caught [for example “a name of a cartoon character” or a hamster.]
Another change in how this group plays this game is that the children who were “it” sit in the middle of the circle (the ring) after their turn.

Example #2: Game - Charlie Over the Ocean 1 2B

mpielementary Uploaded on Dec 13, 2010
Recorded on August 24, 2010 using a Flip Video camcorder.
This group substited the name of child who is "it" instead of the name “Charlie”. Also, “blackbird”/ “blackfish” are changed to the non-problematic & potentially positively received item “starfish”; Example: “Ian” [child who is “it”] caught a starfish

Example #3Charlie Over the Ocean

Vincebates, Published on May 3, 2012
Charlie over the ocean . . .
Charlie over the sea . . .
Charlie caught a blackbird . . .
Can't catch me . . .

(You could sing the name of the student-who-is-it in the place of "Charlie")
This group is probably education students who are learning this game so that they can teach it when they become elementary school teachers.

Here's a complete listing of the songs that are featured in Harold Courlander's 1955 record Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6: Ring Game Songs and Others Various Artists FW04474. Brief sound clips of these songs are featured at this link:

Mary Mack [performed by] - Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) [length of recording] 2:00

Bob a Needle - Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) 0:54

Watch That lady -Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) 1:20

Old Lady Sally Wants to Jump -Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) 0:51

Loop de Loop -Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) 1:47

Green Green Rocky Road -Lilly's Chapel School (Ala.) 1:29

Rosie Darling Rosie -Brown's Chapel School 1:37

I Must See -Brown's Chapel School 1:37

Bluebird Bluebird -Pilgrim Church School (Ala.) 1:13

May Go 'Round the Needle -East York School (Ala.) :2:35

Stooping on the Window -East York School (Ala.) 1:10

Charlie Over the Ocean -East York School (Ala.) 0:55

Session with Celina Lewis, (a)Catch That Squirrel, (b)Sangar ee, (c) Whoa Mule, Can't Get the Saddle On,... Celina Lewis 5:14

Water on the Wheel -Annie Grace Horn Dodson 0:48

Go Pray Ye -Annie Grace Horn Dodson 2:37

Captain Holler Hurry -Willie Turner 1:27

John Henry -Willie Turner 2:16

Going to Have a Talk with the Chief of Police -Peelee Hatchee (Emanuel Jones) 1:48

Meet Me in the Bottoms -Davie Lee 1:36

When the Role is Called in Heaven -Joe Brown, Harrison Ross, and Willie John Strong 2:40

I Moaned and I Moaned -Joe Brown, Harrison Ross, and Willie John Strong 1:21

I'm Standing in a Safety Zone -Rosie N. Winston 2:53

UPDATE: August 14, 2013 [amended] & UPDATE: August 16, 2013
I just came across the song "Over The Water [or "The River] Charlie [or "To Charlie"]. Here's a version of the lyrics for that song from

Over the Water to Charlie

It's over the water, it's over the sea
It's over the water tae Charlie
Come weal, come woe, we'll gather and go
To live or die wi Charlie

Come boat me over, come ferry me o'er
Come boat me over tae Charlie
Hear the call once but never again
To carry me over tae Charlie

O once I had sons, but now I've got nane
I treated them all sae sarely
But I would bear them all again
To live and die for Charlie

I swear by moon and stars sae bright
Sun that shines sae dearly
If I had twenty thousand lives
I'd live them all for Charlie

Come boat me o'er, come now or never
Come boat me o'er tae Charlie
I'll gie John Ross another bawbee
To ferry me o'er tae Charlie

It's well I lo'e me Charlie's name
Tho some there be abhor him
But O tae see Auld Nick gaun hame
And Charlie's face afore him
Click Origins "Weevily Wheat" for several comments by Richie and others that provides information about this song including this documentation from Andrew Kuntz:
"OVER THE RIVER TO CHARLIE [2]. AKA ‑ "Over the Water To Charlie." AKA and see "We Prefer Our Own King," "Wha'll (Who'll) Be King But Charlie," "Royal Charlie," "Fy Buckle Your Belt," "More Power to Ye," "Behind the Bush in the Garden [1]." Scottish (originally), Irish, American; Jig or March. USA: southwestern Pa.; Wetzel County, W.Va. A Mixolydian. Standard. AB. Bayard (1981) feels this tune has more claim to its title than other of the "River" or "Water" tunes, as it had Jacobite associations prior to its first printing. The earliest version found by him is in Capt. Simon Fraser's collection and appears as "Se'n Righ atha aguin is fear linn" (We Prefer Our Own King), and Fraser's notes indicate that it was known in Ireland as well as Scotland. By 1745, the high tide of the Jacobite rebellion, the tune was disseminated enough to be called "one of the incentives of rebellion" (Fraser) and soon became associated with the anonymous lyrics "Wha'll Be King But Charlie?" by which title instrumental versions are often known"...
[posted by Richie, 15 Dec 06 - 11:20 PM]
I'm convinced that the song "Over The Water To Charlie" is the primary source of the game song "Charlie Over The Ocean". Given the documentation that I've found to date, it still appears to me that African Americans were the ones who created the children's game from that "Over The Water [To] Charlie song.

Click for a video of "Over The River Charlie".

Thanks to Harold Courlander for collecting this game song. Thanks to all those who are featured in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. While there is probably no connection between the song "You Can't Lose Me Charlie" and the children's game song "Charlie Over The Ocean". However, those songs remind me of each other.

    Click for a pancocojams post of
    "You Can't Lose Me Charlie"

  2. To expand on my comments in this post about "color blindness" and children's playground rhymes, I think that it's unfortunate that non-offensive references to race have been purposely deleted from most American children's rhymes and many American folk songs. Those deletions, or the failure to recognize certain references as being racial in intent results in many Americans and other persons assuming that the only pre-20th century American songs that are of African American origin are Spirituals, Gospel songs, Blues, Ragtime, and Jazz.

    That listing of pre-20th century African American songs are incomplete as it doesn't include "American Folk songs", Old Time Banjo & Fiddle songs, Sea Shanties, children's playground rhymes, play party songs, and probably other music genres.

    It seems to me that failing to even briefly note the African American origin of that music means missed opportunities to recognize & celebrate the cultural diversity of the United States, and help African Americans develop & reinforce their sense of self-esteem and group esteem.