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





Just Another Christmas


Just Another Christmas

So this woman sees me standing there

in line

at the store full of plastic and junk and

tiny lights that blink

and cash registers chiming

like canned holiday tunes.

And she smiles all wide

and spreads out her hands

like she wants to say,

“It’s Christmas. You should be happy

and merry and shit.”

So I flash her the quick-fake smile

that you have to give

to strangers

and look away

because who is she?

And why should I care that it’s

just another Christmas

full of rich people who aren’t me

wasting their rent money on shiny paper

and battery toys and clothes

that ain’t gonna fit anyway?

She don’t know that the smell of pine

makes my eyes water and my heart twist up

like an old rag

from those memories

of music and love

when Christmas smelled like a perfect

peppermint candy cane hanging on a tree,

not just another day of

empty stomachs and

empty pockets except for


to stand in this line

to buy me one loaf of bread.

Then the cash register chimes

in front of me

and that lady has the nerve to

reach over me

and give the guy some money.

Then she walks away with nothing

and I walk out of that store with

a loaf of bread


and one perfect striped

peppermint candy cane

that smelled like



Being Ghetto (aka Teaching My Kids About Culture…Again)

ghetto urban alley GhettoBall “Mom, what does it mean when people say, ‘That’s so ghetto’?” my oldest children wanted to know. “Is that the same thing as being black?”

I groaned inwardly. Clearly I am not doing a good job of teaching my children what it means to be black. Maybe it is because I don’t understand it very well, myself. “A ghetto,” I explained, “is just a place. Usually the housing is inexpensive and the crime rates are high. Saying that someone or something is ‘ghetto’ can be taken as an insult to poor people.”

Okay, so that was the cop-out, politically correct answer, and probably the kind of explanation that suburban white families give to their kids. But those of us with ties to the ghetto know better. Being ‘ghetto’ is so much more than just living in low-income housing. Being ‘ghetto’ is:

  • Painting your house a bright, happy color to cheer you up after a long, hard day of backbreaking work (if you’re lucky enough to have a job).
  • Avoiding the death-trap elevator at the Geneva Towers in San Francisco and walking up twelve flights of stairs instead to visit relatives.
  • Little girls on the sidewalk playing hand-clapping games about boys and sex before their baby teeth have even fallen out.
  • Druggies and drunks at the bus stop, at the Bart Station, at school (and everywhere else), because sometimes people give up on their dreams and escape their lives in the wrong way.
  • Spending eight straight hours sitting on the living room floor while your cousin braids your hair into one hundred tiny braids.
  • Hanging out with your friends listening to the rhythms of loud music blaring from the car stereo.
  • Bringing a plate of dinner to that old lady across the street who lives all alone.
  • Head coverings – ball caps, babushkas, patkas, hijab, do-rags, head scarves, etc.
  • Young men at the park talking trash and playing basketball.
  • Blue cream sodas, Now & Laters, and sunflower seeds from the corner liquor store.
  • Paying that stranger $5 to wash your windshield, because you’re lucky enough to have a car, and he hasn’t got two nickels to rub together.
  • Black American kids who learn how to say bad words in Spanish and enjoy enchiladas and arroz con pollo from their Mexican friends, who in turn learn to say bad words in English and eat soul food.
  • Chained-up Pit Bulls and scary little Chihuahuas chasing the kids playing outside.
  • Neighborhood mamas chasing off the bad guys with their brooms so their kids can play outside.
  • Shopping cart races up and down the street because there isn’t enough money to replace your bike that got stolen.
  • Saying hello to the homeless people, and offering them a bologna sandwich, because you know they’re just people like you, down on their luck.
  • Dressing up for church and not saying bad words on Sunday. Singing and dancing in the pews with neighbors.
  • Young lovers kissing out in the open, because even when life is ugly and hard, love is a beautiful thing.
  • Neighbors sharing food, and tools, and whatever else they have, because no one has enough on their own, but together everyone has what they need.

ghetto storeghetto-baby-stroller-500x37480s ghetto

Being ‘ghetto’ is more than just being poor or urban. It is a million tiny things, a million ways of thinking and living that tie together a group of people. It is something that those of us with personal ties to the ghetto use somewhat endearingly. When we see one another doing something familiar that was born from the culture of poverty and urban life, we smile and say teasingly, “That’s so ghetto.”