Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Partial List Of African American Play Party Songs

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides a partial listing of 19th century American play party songs that I think may have been originally composed by African Americans or which may have African American variants. This post also includes my comments about why I think it's important to mention that a particular play party song or any other folk song (or rhyme) comes from originated from or was later influenced by African American culture and not just American culture.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, sociological, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unknown original composers of play party songs, and thanks to those who collected examples of this song. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

"Play party songs" is a reference for singing games from 19th century America that took the place of dancing at social events since dancing & playing musical instruments were prohibited in those communities.

Online articles about play party songs routinely refer to the European sources of those songs and routinely omit any acknowledgement that a number of play party songs are of African American origin or have African American influences. For example, the album notes to "American Play Parties" by Pete Seeger, Mika Seeger, and Rev. Larry Eisenberg FW07604 provides this description of play party songs:
"To evade the religious prohibition against dancing in certain American communities, young people in the 19th century devised an ingenious solution—they adapted children’s games, which were permitted. The result was so-called play parties. Participants sang creative songs to cue movements, and the events were great “mixers.” The only element lacking was instrumental music."

The author of that album's notes cites "Anglo-American" as the cultural group that is the source of the play party songs which are found on that album. However, I believe that at least three songs of the fourteen songs that are included on that album are of African American origin: "Shake Them 'Simmons Down", "Goodbye Liza Jane", and "Great Big House in New Orleans". Some of the other songs on that album may also be of African American origin or those versions of the song may have been African American influenced. Yet based on its wording, people reading those album notes would believe that all of those songs are only from Anglo-Americans.

Here are other examples of online articles about play party songs that only refer to the European and/or Anglo-American sources of those songs:
"The play party is one of America's most important contributions to the world of folk dances and folk games. It is rooted in the customs of the old countries from which the early settlers came. Defined simply, a play party is a kind of country dance done to a singing accompaniment. The songs and figures of our early play parties harken back to Scottish, English, Irish and German folk traditions."

"Waltz the Hall: The American Play Party" by Alan L. Spurgeon
“The play party was a popular form of American folk entertainment that included songs, dances, and sometimes games. Though based upon European and English antecedents, play parties were truly an American phenomenon, first mentioned in print in 1837.”

"A play party is a social event in which people gather to sing and dance. Play parties began in the 1830s in the United States as a route around strict religious practices banning dancing and the playing of musical instruments. The areas most influenced by the practice were the Southern and Midwestern parts of the United States. Folk songs, many of European and English origin, were used as means to give the attendants choreographed movements for each phrase. No instruments were played at the events, as they were banned by the religious movements of the area. Singing and clapping were used to convey each song. Because dancing was banned, the movements took on the quality of children's games. Though the performance of play parties dwindled in the 1950s, music educators use them as ways to incorporate music and dance in their classrooms."
While I agree with the statement that the "figures [dance formations] of our early play parties harken back to Scottish, English, Irish and German folk traditions", I don't believe that the lyrics of every play party song came from European or Anglo-American sources. I'm also not certain if every tune used for play party songs came from European or Anglo-American sources.

Notice that I use past tenses, since it's my sense that any composition that would have been called a play party song in the 19th century is now called a "singing game". Indeed, "singing game" is commonly used to refer to those 19th century play party songs.

I strongly believe that it's important to acknowledge that African Americans also contributed to America's play party repertoire for the sake of historical documentation, and for psychological reasons. Providing the information that some American folk songs are of African American origin helps build and reinforce group esteem in a population that is still being maligned and a population that is still experiencing the effects and consequences of personal racism and of institutional racism.

People may think that they are being "color-blind" by not mentioning race (when they are teaching children folk songs and at other times). However, by not mentioning race they are actually reinforcing the viewpoint that only White people are responsible for accomplishments. This is because both online and offline "White" is the default race (just as "male" is the default gender). When no race is mentioned for an individual (unless the discussion is about some criminal act or something that is stereotypically considered to be the purview of a particular race/ethnicity), people automatically assume that that person is White (just as people automatically assume that people posting online are male).

Regardless of their race or ethnicity, children shouldn't be led to believe that White people were the only composers of play party songs or other folk songs.

*This comment also applies to other American folk songs.

UPDATE: February 26, 2014
I want to clarify that the list of songs below is mostly guessing on my part. I'm very interested in learning what songs other folks think should or shouldn't be on this list.

Also, I want to clarify that from my reading, it seems likely that Black folks sung and danced to play-party songs from Anglo-American sources, and White folks sung and danced to play-party songs from African American sources. Furthermore, some (if not many) of these songs may have had both Anglo-American and African American sources/influences, as was the case with many 19th century minstrel songs.


"Alabama Gal"

"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight"

"Charlie Over The Ocean"

"Chicken In The Fence Post"

"Draw Me A Bucket Of Water" (also known as "Frog In The Bucket")

"Goodbye Liza Jane" (and other "Li'l Liza Jane" songs)

"Going 'Round The Assembly" (also known as "Bounce Around") [This may be a singing game and not a play party game.]

"Great Big House in New Orleans"

"Hello Susan Brown"

"Tideo" (also known as "Jingle At The Window")

"Little Johnny Brown" [This may be a game song and not a play party song]

"Old Grandpaw Yet", [updated entry, 2/26/2014]

"Paw Paw Patch"

"Shake Them 'Simmons Down"

"Rabbit In The Pea Patch" [updated entry, 2/26/2014]

"Riding In A Buggy Miss Mary Jane"

"Roxie Anne" [updated entry, 2/26/2014]

"Weevily Wheat" (also known as "Charley He's A Dandy", "Four In The Middle", "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss”, "Coffee Grows On White Oak Trees", and "Over The River ").

"We're Marching 'Round the Levy"

*This is only a partial listing of play party songs that I believe have African American sources. By "sources" I mean "origins and/or influences". I based this list on information I read from the collectors of those songs, and/or from the song's lyrics. By "song lyrics I particularly mean the following:
-the presence of floating verses which are found in (other) folk songs that are attributed to African Americans

-the presence of geographical references to places where Black people lived during the time the earliest examples of that song was collected

- the songs' use of African American Vernacular English (although I'm aware that non-Black Southerners also used that same or similar dialect and grammar
Some of these song titles may be variant forms of the a particular play party song. Also, some of these songs have have Black versions and White versions.

I welcome additions & corrections to this list.

Some of these songs are showcased in other pancocojams posts. Links to two of those posts are given in the Related Links section below.

UPDATE: February 26, 2014
The album notes to the vinyl record Old Mother Hippletoe: Rural & Urban Children's Songs (NW 291 Mono), written by Kate Rinzler include an informative overview of play party songs, as well as lyrics to three play party songs "Rabbit In The Pea Patch", "Old Grandpaw Yet", and "Roxie Anne". I believe those songs are of African American origin.


"Draw Me A Bucket Of Water & Three Other African American Children's Singing Games"




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