Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Chicken On The Fence Post (information & lyrics)

Edited by Azizi Powell

Update: Dec. 12, 2020

This is Part II of a two part series of 19th songs that include the phrase "dance Josey" or "can't dance Josey".

This post focuses on the play party song "Chicken On The Fencepost".

Click for Part I of this series. That post focuses on the songs "Hello Susan Brown", "Hold My Mule" and several other songs.

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

Thanks to all those who composed these songs. Thanks to those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publisher of this video on YouTube and thanks to those who are featured in that video.

"Chicken On The Fence Post" is lifted from the 19th century couples' dance (reel) that is known as "Hello Susan Brown", "Four In The Middle" and other titles. All of those songs -including "Chicken In The Fence Post" are likely of African American origin. The term "Dancing Josey" is also a likely indication that this song is of African American origin. 

Here's information about those dances from
Play-Party Songs and Dances in Texas

From Bill Owens "Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song"
"...In parts of Texas "Dance Josey" became so popular that play-parties are still remembered as "them old Josey parties." The song was easily adapted to the place, the time, the dancers, or the need for a laugh:

Chicken on the fence post, can't dance Josey;
Chicken on the fence post, can't dance Joe;
Chicken on the fence post, can't dance Josey;
Hello Susan Brown ee o.

Hold my mule while I dance Josey, Etc.

Big foot Charlie can't dance Josey, Etc"

FEATURED VIDEO: Chicken On a Fencepost
Note: The YouTube video that was originally featured in this post is no longer available.

Here's a link to another video; {Unfortunately, this new Google blog format won't allow me to embed the video itself ).

Chicken on the Fencepost

Craig Hurley, Dec. 18, 2018

How that game is played in this video:
Children form two circles, one inside of the other. Children in each circle hold hands with the person on either side of them. Each circle moves in the opposite direction. Two people outside of the outer circle run around to outer circle moving in opposite directions.

At the end of the word “brownie-“o”, all of the people forming both of the circles race their linked hands up in the air forming an arch. Both of the two people who were outside the two circles try to get in the second circle before the other one. When one of those people gets in that circle, the game begins again.

The second circle makes sense, given the "four in the middle" lyrics for early versions of this song.
Another version of the "Chicken On The Fence Post" play party song can be found at
"2 concentric circles w/ two “foxes” on outside.

Teacher chooses 1 “gate” in each of the circles. Rubber chicken is placed in the inside circle.

Gates are closed. Foxes may watch now. Both circles sing while moving in opposite directions. On the “o” of Brownie-o” the 2 gates open forming a maze in which foxes race to grab the chicken from the middle of the center circle.
Notice the addition of a "rubber chicken placed on the inside of the circle (ring). It seems to me that using that type of prop is an unnecessary substitute for children developing & using their imagination.

Pancocojams Editor's Notes:
The word “Brownie-o” appears to be a contemporary, rhythmical revision of the earlier form of that last name. It's likely that "Brown" was originally used as a reference for a Black woman as was the case with the Jamaican & American sea shanties "Sally Brown". Click for information about and examples of "Sally Brown".

UPDATE: Dec. 12, 2020
On Dec. 10, 2020 Rhonda, an elementary school music teacher asked "Many music educators are citing this web post as evidence that Chicken on a Fence Post/Dance Josey is racist and therefore we shouldn't use it anymore. I personally feel that if this is a song that was likely of African-American origin that to stop using it is even more racist. Just curious - where do you weigh in on this issue? Is the song racist, so we shouldn't use it?"

In this post I indicated that I believe that "Chicken On The Fence Post" is probably of Black (African American) origin.  I never suggested that this singing game was racist and I'm sorry that anyone jumped to that erroneous conclusion from reading this pancocojams post.

There is a BIG difference between bein racist and and stating the likely racial provenance (the origin or earliest known history of ) a singing game. My statement about the likely provenance of "Chicken On A Fence Post" is African American, isn't racist,. It's a statement of (likely) fact.   

Rhymes, singing games, and other lyrical compositions could be racist when they mention race.* However, "Chicken On A Fence Post, singing game doesn't even mention race**.  

All songs, rhymes, and singing games are racial (i.e. they are composed by a person or persons who are of one or more races/ethnicities. ("Ethnicity" in that sentence has the United States meaning of "Latinx"). The composer/s may be unknown and therefore the race/s of the composer/s may be unknown. However, the structure, lyrics, accompanying activities, and where early examples of the song were collected should be used to infer the race/ethnicity of their composer/s. I believe that "Chicken On The Fence Post" is of African American origin for those reasons.  

I'm opposed to a color blind attribution for singing game, songs, and rhymes that just refer to those compositions as "folk music" or "American folk music". 

In case there's any doubt, I like the "Chicken On The Fence Post" singing game, and I applaud its inclusion in elementary school music curriculums along with the statement that the composers of this singing game are unknown, but they were probably African Americans.  
* Some versions of older and contemporary rhymes do mention race and can be considered racist or at least concerning about the realities of racial attitudes, perceptions, and experiences. Click for a pancocojams post about an example of what I call racialized rhymes (i.e. rhymes that have been adapted to include race/ethnicity). Also, click for a pancocojams post about examples of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" whose words and/or gestures I consider to be racist. 

** In the context of the "Chicken On A Fence Post" singing game, there are several reasons why the   last name (surname) "Brown" may have been used in the line that includes "Susan Brown eeo":
1. The last name "Brown" may have been a nod to the race (skin color) of the people who originally composed and sung this singing game. Also, read my earlier comment about the name "Sally Brown" being a generic referent for Black women in Caribbean/United States shanties.

2. The last name  "Brown" may have been used because it rhymes so easily with other common English words such as "down" and "downtown". (for instance in the old singing game "Little Johnny Brown"/lay your comfort [blanket] down" and the large rhyme family "I Went Downtown To See Mrs. Brown" or "Charlie Brown".) 

3. "Brown" may have been used because it was and still is a common last name in the United States and elsewhere. 

Either one or more of these points may have been the reasons why the last name "Brown" is used in that "Chicken On A Fence Post" singing game.

With regard to point #1,in some singing games such as "There's A Brown Girl In The Ring" the last name "Brown" may have been used to help children develop and/or reinforce self-esteem and group esteem. In the singing game "There's A Brown Girl In The Ring", "brown" is an adjective. In contrast,  in the singing games "Chicken In A Fence Post" and "Little Johnny Brown", "Brown" is a last name. 

In these singing games the last name "Brown" wasn't used to identify a person in the group who has brown skin or to make fun of a person because of her or his brown skin. However, the "Chicken In A Fence Post" could be harmful to people's racial self-perceptions and people's racial group esteem if that last name was changed to "Susan Black eeo" or "Susan White eeo" based on the skin color of the game's participants. And, in the same way, I very much frown upon changing the word "brown" to another skin color.  I hope that music education teachers and others teaching these songs would know better than to do this. 

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here's a reposting of a comment that I added to my post on the game song "Charlie Over The Ocean" which explains why I think that it's important to note when game songs (or other folk songs) are of African American origin:

    "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."

    1. Here's an excerpt from a video summary of a performance of the Jamaican folk shanty "Sally Brown" which also addresses the issue of generalizing the source of folk songs & rhymes:

      "Excerpt from the uploader’s summary of the video about the Jamaican sea shanty “Sally Brown”:

      “Interesting how many modern versions of this have sort of neutralized it, removing racial or ethnic markers. Too bad this also removes the Jamaica setting and some of the depth of meaning of what is going on here in this chantey...” by hultonclint

  2. Can I ask... I am a white Elementary Music teacher, and my kids love Chicken on a Fence Post. All colors of kids - and we have 50% white, 50% black/hispanic/other. Many music educators are citing this web post as evidence that Chicken on a Fence Post/Dance Josey is racist and therefore we shouldn't use it anymore. I personally feel that if this is a song that was likely of African-American origin that to stop using it is even more racist. Just curious - where do you weigh in on this issue? Is the song racist, so we shouldn't use it?

    1. Hello, Rhonda.

      Thank you for your comment. I had no idea that anyone had reached the mistaken conclusion that I thought that "Chicken On A Fence Post" was racist.

      Please read the response that I included in this post itself.

      Thanks again,

      Azizi Powell

    2. Here's a long excerpt that I wrote that I added to another pancocojams post about the related subject of whether songs that have racist origins should be taught to children:

      "As an African American community folklorist who is particularly interested in playground rhymes, I’m aware that some playground rhymes – like other folk material – have problematic, and even quite offensive early versions. However, I don’t think that means that people should avoid teaching and sharing with children those politically correct versions which were purposely made to substitute for those offensive versions, or which developed non-racist variants by happenchance.

      For what it’s worth, I learned “Eeny Meenie Miney Mo” with the “catch a tiger by the toe” line when I was growing up in the mid 1950s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And it wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I learned that “tiger” (or some other word) was a replacement for the “the n word”. From reading other online discussions about this song, including your comment, it seems that a number of people who know that “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo” choosing it rhyme don’t know that it once included the “n word”."

      I’m not encouraging people to forget the history of rhymes or songs that contained offensive referents. I believe that it would be beneficial for children of certain ages -at least pre-teens- and adults to formally and informally study & discuss this subject as an introduction to and auxiliary resource for the study of anti-racism, multiculturalism, and folklore etc.

      What I’m much more concerned about is the fact that some playground rhymes are still being recited today that are racist- for example, some examples of “I Went To A Chinese Restaurant”. I strongly believe that those rhymes shouldn’t be recited, and I would have no problem whatsoever contacting the school or community center if I learned that a teacher or staff person was teaching my young granddaughter those offensive versions of those rhymes. Her parents and I would redirect my grandchild in an age appropriate way if she learned an offensive version of that rhyme or if she learned any other offensive rhyme or song from her friends, from television, or the internet or elsewhere.

      However, I would have no problem – and I believe that her parents would also have no problem – if she recited a non-racist version of a rhyme or a song that had a racist version in its past or its present.

      I agree with the principal who had concerns about “sensitizing a child to something that we cannot quite explain in full as there is no context for the child – we can’t tell them what the old words used to be.”

      Just saying that “Some examples of that rhyme have hurtful words” is too vague unless we also say what those words are. And I don’t think that adults need to do that unless the children are older or are the children are heard using those words or hear someone else use those words and ask us about them."

      Here's another response I wrote [no date given] to the question "If "Five Little Monkeys" and "Shortnin Bread" do indeed have racist roots, does that mean that people who are anti-racist shouldn't sing those songs and teach them to children?

      I believe that current versions of "Five Little Monkeys", "Shornin Bread" and "Eenie Meenie Miney Mo" may be acceptable for singing and viewing with children in spite of their racist origins if their drawings or other visuals aren't stereotypical and if those versions don't include any offensive words or gestures."...

    3. Thank you for taking the time to post such a thorough reply! I was first acquainted with your blog in the summer of 2019, when there was a huge controversy in Music Ed groups on Facebook. At the time, I felt certain you were being misunderstood. I have revisited this page, along with the page on Old Dan Tucker, off and on to re-assess my own understanding. I feel very alone in not jumping on the bandwagon to eliminate these songs, and your response has renewed my courage to enjoy them and teach my students to appreciate African-American folk music, which is the backbone of all modern music. Thank you!

    4. You're welcome, Rhonda.

      Until I read your first comment, I wasn't aware of that Facebook comments about this subject and I regret that people misconstrued what I wrote about the "Chicken On The Fence Post singing game.

      I don't do Facebook any more. I would appreciate it if you would share these updated comments that explain that I don't consider this song to be racist.

      Your question about that song motivated me to do some more online research on the larger subject of African American influences on folk music. As a result, I published this post: "Excerpt From a 2002 Sociology Pdf Entitled "Aesthetic Identity, Race, and American Folk Music" by William G. Roy

      With regard to your latest comment Rhonda, I don't agree that African American music - or African American folk music- is the backbone of all modern music. However, I believe that African American music has greatly influenced a lot of music genres, including a lot of American (United States) popular secular and religious music. I include children's hand clap rhymes, cheers, and singing games as components of secular folk music genres that have been and continue to be very heavily influenced by African Americans. That leads us back to the "Chicken On A Fence Post" song.

      Best wishes!

    5. I updated the comment that I made in this "Chicken On A Fence Post" post to further explain my statements about that singing game and about race and racism as they refer to that singing game in particular and children's rhymes and singing games in general.