Thursday, June 22, 2017

Conceptualizing, Collecting, & Sharing Contemporary Black Children's Rhymes

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents statements about why and how I collect, document, study, and share English language children's recreational material.

The word "rhymes" in this post is a generic term "rhymes" that refers to multiple children's recreational compositions including jump rope rhymes, hand clap rhymes, singing games, parodies, "choosing it' rhymes, chants, children's cheerleader cheers, and the sub-set of cheerleader cheers that I call "foot stomping cheers" but which some people call "steps".

Since I began informally collecting children's recreational rhymes in 1985, I've been most interested in Black children's rhymes -particularly contemporary (post 1960s) African American children's rhymes. I'm most interested in this sub-set of children's recreational rhymes in part because I'm African American and also because it appears to me that there has been very little collection, documentation, and sharing of those sub-sets of children's recreational material. And, if I were to drill down even farther, "foot stomping cheers" are the types of African American children's rhymes that I really most interested in.

I've recently published this post in which I critique the analysis of a children's parody that appears to be widely known among African American children and non-African American children: "Were African Americans The Originally Composers Of "I Believe I Can Fly" Parodies?"

This evening I happened upon this second online excerpt that provides a number of analysis of contemporary African American children's rhymes: "Children's Rhymes from 1971 to 2001" in The Man who Adores the Negro: Race and American Folklore by Patrick B. Mullen,
While I very much agree with Mullen's conclusion that [certain] "play activities [can be] "part of the process of racial and gender identity formation", I very much disagree with some conclusions that that researcher/writer made about certain rhymes that I'm very familiar with. I believe that Muller relied too heavily on literal meanings and gave far fetched explanations for specific words and for famous fictional and real characters who were named within those rhymes.
Furthermore, I wondered if Muller had paid too little attention to the possibility of rhyming word play as the reason for those words and for some of those character placements. Also, it seems to me that Muller ascribed political and/or sociological meanings to specific rhymes in general and to specific lines or verses in those rhymes although the rhyme's contributors (informants) didn't indicate those were the meanings of those rhymes and when it didn't at all appear to me that those meanings were warranted.

Reading that excerpt led me to this decision to write what it is that I believe is important about how and why I collect, document, and share children's recreational material. I do so for my own clarification and for those who might be interested.

Recognizing that anyone can disagree with me, and that different people who are interested in the same subjects may have different methodologies and interests, here's my list of what I consider when I'm collecting, documenting, studying, and sharing children's recreational rhymes, with special attention to African American rhymes (i.e. rhymes that I directly collected from African Americans and/or have collected online and elsewhere which are either attributed to African Americans or are said to be performed by African Americans and/or which meet certain textual structures, textual content, are percussive, and -usually- have some performance activities)

[I've numbered these points although they might not be in any real order of preference.)

1. Text and performance activity

I'm interested in documenting the text (words), the performance activity (if any), and as much demographic information as I can [including race, ethnicity (i.e. Latino/a or any other ethnicity) nation, city, state, neighborhood, age when recited or learned/heard this rhyme, age range who performed this rhyme, year or decade when first recited this rhyme, and gender (girls only or boys only?).

Also, with regard to the rhyme, I'm very interested in document the vernacular meanings of the text for those who are sharing that example, and their meanings of any topical elements in that example. I'm also interested in documenting how the rhyme contributor learned that rhyme, and if she or he knows any other versions of that rhyme.

With regard to the performance activity, I'm interested in documenting whether the rhyme is a sung/chanted in unison or in a call & response pattern. And if it is performed in a call & response pattern, I'm interested in documented what form of call & response pattern is used.

I'm also interested in knowing the tune and tempo of the rhyme. When I collected rhyme examples face to face, I taped the examples. When I collect text only rhyme examples online, if the words and the textual structure are the same or similar as an example that I already know (from direct collection), I can assume that the tune and tempo are the same, but I can't be certain of that. I check YouTube to see if I can find a video (or less often, a sound file) of that rhyme, and often YouTube has examples. Of course,
that still doesn't mean that the text only online example that I found has the same tune and performance activity. But it's likely that it does.

2. Textual structure

I'm interested in how the rhyme is written (structured) i.e. the rhyming pattern, whether the rhyme is made up of strung together verses that are often unrelated and are often found as "floaters" in certain other rhymes, or could be used as standalone (independent rhymes).

Certain types of rhymes (traditionally*) have their own characteristic textual structure. For instance, "Foot stomping cheers" have a textual structure and a performance style that is distinct from hand clap rhymes, jump rope rhymes, other cheerleader cheers, and other categories of children's recreational rhymes. Foot stomping cheers "traditionally"* have a signature group call & consecutive soloist response structure. "Group call" means that the entire group (or the group minus the first soloist) is heard first. "Consecutive soloist"' means that in that cheer is immediately repeated from the beginning so that every member of the squad can an opportunity to be the soloist. Each soloist's performance is the same length. Some foot stomping cheers have several group calls followed by brief responses by the soloist before the soloist has a somewhat longer verbal and/or movement response. Other foot stomping cheers have one or two group calls followed by the soloist's verbal and/or movement response.

*By traditional, I mean the way that foot stomping cheers were performed by African American girls in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and perhaps also in the early 2000s to dste. I've noticed changes in the way that these cheers are performed as they become more mainstream (i.e. are performed by White or predominately White cheerleader squads.)

3. Dating rhyme examples, and ascertaining the possible source/s for specific rhymes

I'm interested in finding early or the earliest example of rhymes and I'm interested in comparing those early rhyme examples to other early (and later children's rhymes) as well as to recorded songs, poems, folk sayings, television ads, etc.

I'm interested in comparing the performance activity of contemporary rhymes with the "old school" performance activities such as "show me your motion circle singing games".

4. Examine Societal influences on Rhymes [Revised June 25, 2017]

I'm interested in exploring how other aspects of African American culture influenced/influence children's recreational rhymes. For instance, I believe that the performance activity and the beat patterns of foot stomping cheers were greatly influenced by Stomp and Shake cheerleading, Funk music, and Go Go music, all of which were developing around the same time and around the same geographical area.

I also believe that racialized rhymes such as the "I Love Coffee I Love Tea" versions with their "Step back white boy/You don't shine/ Imma get a black boy to beat your behind" verses were/are influenced by the nation's racial tensions and (also possibly) with experiences with integration in schools.
Added June 22, 2017 [11:17 AM]
Here's an excerpt of my comments in this 2012 pancocojams post: Racialized Versions Of "I Like Coffee I Like Tea"
"I believe that children's playground rhymes often reflect the mores of the society in which children live, move, and have their being. Therefore, girls (or boys) who recite rhymes with racial content are usually echoing what they have absorbed from society in myriad (often unconscious) ways. Just as I don't think that every mention of race or ethnicity is racist, I don't think that every mention of race in children's playground rhymes is racist."...
-end of June 22, 2017 addition-

5. taboo words, "dirty" content

I examine whether the rhyme has profanity and/or other taboo words, other risque content, and I am interested in how the contributors describe these examples- for instance a statement like "My mother would have whipped my butt if she saw how I was shaking my hips when I said that rhyme" or "If my mother knew that I said that rhyme I wouldn't have been allowed out for years".

6. Rhyme types & rhyme family

I document the category of rhyme that the example is (if possible, based on the contributor's comments, and/ or based on its performance activity). I also note what "family" of rhyme that example belongs to (based on its words, textual structure, tune, and performance activity).

7. Collect multiple versions of each rhyme

I'm interested in collecting multiple examples of each rhyme to document how that rhyme is the same or different within populations (including the same race and other races/ethnicities, age groups, and perhaps also genders) at the same time within the same city, state, nation, and/or within other cities, states, nations.

I'm also interested in reading comments about what the contributors think their version of the rhyme is about.
Added June 26, 2017
I think it is better not to attempt to suss out what a particular "Black children's rhyme" means to the children singing/reciting it unless you are aware of and have read/heard/observed/ studied a number of versions of that rhyme, and otherwise immersed yourself in the Black culture (music, dance forms, vernacular culture that influenced, and helped to produce those rhyme examples.
-end of addition-

8. Continuity and change

I'm interested in examining multiple versions of a particular rhyme to ascertain if that rhyme's text, textual structure, tune, tempo, and/or performance activity has remained the same over time or how it has changed within the same population and with different populations at different times.

9. Values and Concerns

I'm interested in studying (analyzing) the text of a rhyme or families or rhymes to consider what values and/or concerns that rhyme or those rhymes may be expressing. For instance, I believe that many "foot stomping cheers" promote the twin values of being "hard" (tough, assertive, able to defend yourself against anyone who might attack you verbally or physically) and also "sexy" (physically attractive and stylish in the latest Black urban street "fly girl" fashions).

10. Rhymes as opportunities to play, to be creative, and to excel

I'm interested in documenting the fact that children play because they like to play. Rhymes provide opportunity to develop, reinforce, and enhance children's creativity. Rhymes also provide opportunities to learn and reinforce social skills and gross motor skills while having fun. Children performing hand clap routines or jumping single rope or double Dutch, or doing step routines are memorizing words or quickly thinking of new responses, or new rhyming lines that fit the rhythm of a foot stomping cheer while at the same time remaining on the beat of a synchronized, choreographed foot stomp routine. Mastering these elements is work, but it's also enjoyable- and also is a way for children to learn self-confidence and gain status if they do well. Sometimes -maybe a lot of the time- the performance (which is often play acting in the dramatic sense) is more important than the words.

11. Preparing for adulthood

I'm interested in how certain rhymes in particular say about adult roles and adult experiences, and since most rhymes are performed by girls, I'm particularly interested in the ways that rhymes's words and performance activities help prepare girls and teens to be women.

12. Influence and impact on Black people

I'm interested in whether and how specific rhymes help Black people cope and confront racism. For instance, although it's not a contemporary example I believe the words of the African American singing game"Johnny Cuckoo" were composed to help Black children learn how to develop self-esteem that would help them (us) in the withstand verbal racial attacks. I'm specifically thinking of the "Johnny Cuckoo" being told "You are too black and dirty" and then answering "I'm just as good as you are".

13. Giving credit where credit is due

I'm interested in helping to ensure that African Americans and other Black people get credit for recreational material that we originated or adapted.

Too often African Americans' creative products are appropriated and our contributions are denied or minimized. I see that happening already with what I call "foot stomping cheers".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

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