Down Down Baby (aka: Exploring Children’s Folklore)

girls playing games It is a part of nearly every childhood. It is passed on from one generation of children to the next, and from one side of the country to the other.  From the outside, it looks so innocent: clusters of little girls clapping hands together and singing songs on the playground. So sweet, right? Surely they  are singing about rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns.

Completely wrong. Chances are, those little girls were singing something like this:

Down down baby, down by the roller coaster

Sweet, sweet baby, I’ll never let you go

Shimmy shimmy cocoa pop, shimmy shimmy rock!

Shimmy shimmy cocoa pop, shimmy shimmy rock!

Ooh chi chi wa wa (a biscuit)

I found a lover (a biscuit)

He’s so sweet (a biscuit)

Like my candy treat (a biscuit)

 Or perhaps:

 

Uno dos ciento

East to west

I met my boyfriend at the candy store

He bought me ice cream, he bought me cake

He brought me home with a belly ache…

Passed down through the ages

 

What’s that you say? These little girls are singing about finding lovers and meeting boyfriends? But they are only children! Well, it is not so unusual. When I was studying child development in university, I came across a number of interesting books chronicling children’s folklore throughout the decades. When one looks at the songs, chants, games, rhymes, and stories shared by children, and passed down from one generation to the next, one thing becomes glaringly evident: childhood is not completely innocent. Children’s folklore is filled with adult themes of violence, sex, racism, and classism, because they see and experience these things, to some extent,  in their actual lives.  Through childish expression of play, music, and games, children often explore and attempt to make sense of the issues which confuse, worry, or frighten them.

These examples which I have shared are fairly innocuous. Truth be told, I am too embarrassed to publish some of the blatantly racist jeers and games that were common among groups of children for many years (“Open the refrigerator, take out a Coke” may ring some uncomfortable bells for a few of you). A number of other rhymes and songs were disturbingly violent.

On top of Old Smokey, all covered with blood

I shot my poor teacher with a .44 slug…

 

Fudge fudge call the judge

Mama has a newborn baby

Wrap it up in tissue paper

Throw it down the elevator…

 

And a larger number of these rhymes and games were based on issues of sex and promiscuity.

 

Apple on a stick, makes me sick

Makes my tummy go two-forty-six.

Not because it’s dirty, not because it’s clean

Just because I kissed a boy behind a magazine.

Hey boys, wanna have fun?

Here comes ______ with her pants undone.

She can wibble, she can wobble, she can do the splits

But most of all, she can kiss kiss kiss!

 

Mama’s in the kitchen, burning rice

Daddy’s round the corner shooting dice

Brother’s in jail, raising hell

Sister’s ‘round the corner, selling fruit-cock-tail

hand clapping games

 

Children’s folklore has been documented for many decades, and in countries around the world. Though there are often variations from one town to the next, it is interesting to note how little the rhymes and games have varied over time. If you were once a child – especially a young girl growing up in the USA, chances are you recognize at least one of the rhymes I have listed here, and probably a few more which you would prefer to forget about. Of course, our own children are much more sheltered than we were as children. Much more innocent, too. Surely, they only play innocent games and sing about rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns.

Resources on Children’s Folkore:

One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Mary Knapp

American Children’s Folklore edited by Simon J. Bronner

Children’s Folklore: A Source Book by Brian Sutton-Smith, Jay Mechling, Thomas W. Johnson, and Felicia R. McMahon

Children’s Folkore: A Handbook by Elizabeth Tucker

 

 

 

 

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2 responses to “Down Down Baby (aka: Exploring Children’s Folklore)

  1. You forgot the ’empowerment’ of children after the 1970’s when children were counseled to call the police if their parents disciplined them. Not talking about spanking, just grounding and such. My precocious son was one of those who played joint custody into hell. It looks like your girls are on the verge of that magical age when hormonal may turn them into either demons or (in my case of my daughters) angels.

    I grew up in the Bronx, but despite being in a good neighborhood, bullying among the Irish Catholics, the Jews, and Protestants was common. Riverdale, at that time, was defacto segregated. That is, the majority were 3rd generation Jewish accountants, doctors, etc. The Guiterrez brothers were the first latinos in JHS 141 and there was the daughter of a black doctor.

    As I recall the ’50s the drama began on our trips to the East Bronx to buy fireworks from a guy named Vinny who hung out at a candy store under the elevated subway. Judging from the FB patter from the grandkids, whorebag and slut are common salutations (I’m on good enough friends with them to be FB friends although I never join the conversation).

    So, I agree that your thesis that children’s chants can provide important insights into social well being at a particular place and time. I would also mention that my mother had a book, “The child from six to sixteen,”which she kept on the top shelf of the linen cabinet that I would consult from time to time to control my living situation. One memorable chant to avoid school was “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to school we go, from 9 to 3 it’s misery,…” This was very effective in convincing my single mother that my teachers were evil. Good luck.

    • Viewing teachers as ‘evil’ was the acceptable norm for kids throughout the ages. The proof is in the children’s folklore. A popular rhyme that I remember well was “April fool, go to school, tell your teacher she’s a fool. If she whips you, don’t you cry. Pack your books and say goodbye.” I think that for kids, there was a sense of power to be gained from singing shockingly disrespectful songs about teachers, parents, and others who held real power over their daily lives. As for the racist rhymes, I think that they were not always sung to be malicious, but in order to feel connected to the “in” group by putting down the “out” group; and occasionally just due to ignorance about how harmful such sayings and games could be to the children on the receiving end. With maturity and understanding, the magic, power, and mystery of children’s folklore is lost, replaced by shame.

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