Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 9. Game and Play-Party Songs

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 9. Game and Play-Party Songs

Still another type of orally preserved verse appears in ring games, on the grass or in the parlour, “Play-party” songs, so-called, and in the singing games of children. The latter are now assuming a certain degree of stability or uniformity, owing to the printing of traditional songs for children in books of games, from which they are taught to pupils in the primary grades at school. “Play-party” games of young people are not yet quite extinct, though they are becoming so. They are typically dances, except that the participants move to the rhythm of singing, not to the accompaniment of some musical instrument. The words of the texts are more unstable, and the songs more structureless than in songs and ballads proper, and they are even more subject to local changes and improvisations. Gamesongs with strong formulæ of some kind are likeliest to retain vitality, because most easily remembered; the formula remains constant if nothing more. Collection of such songs has been made by W. W. Newell for New England, and by many collectors for the Central West. Some well-known examples of game-songs, most of them imported from the Old World, are Weevilly Wheat, Juniper Tree, Skip to My Lou, The Needle’s Eye, Happy is the Miller, We’re Marching Round the Levy; some favourite game-songs of the Central West are Bounce Around, We’ll All Go Down to Rowser’s, Pig in the Parlour. Beside traditional pieces and those of obscure origin, modern songs of all kinds have been utilized in play-party games: minstrel songs—as Old Dan Tucker, Angelina Baker, Jim Along Jo, Buffalo Gals—and the popular street songs, Nelly Gray, Little Brown Jug, John Brown’s Body, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. The modern pieces are likeliest to escape mutilation, at least so long as they retain currency as separate songs. Even hymns, scraps of glee club songs, and Mother Goose rhymes are sometimes utilized to form accompaniments to dances. New stanzas are welcomed, and local adaptations, irrelevant or facetious. Judging from recorded material, communal utilization and preservation of a song as a dance song does not bring improvement, nor does it bring development of a narrative element. The refrain formula, that element which shows greatest fluctuation in traditional ballads like the Child ballads, is the most stable element in traditional dance songs.

Other “floating” matter entering obviously by immigration like so many folk-songs and dance songs, and owing its existence to oral tradition, includes counting-out rhymes, flower oracles, skipping-rope rhymes, rhyming proverbs, or aphorisms, saws, weather lore, plant and animal lore, and good and bad luck signs. These belong, however, rather to folk-lore than to literature.