Timeline of African American Music
Secular

Game Songs/Play Songs

Back to timeline

Plantation Dance, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795

Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
Plantation Dance
Mary Mack
John’s Island Children
I Must See
Brown’s Chapel School
May Go ‘Round the Needle
East York School
Mr. Postman Died
John’s Island Children

Themes

  • Daily Life
  • Dance
  • Love/Relationships
  • Oral Traditions
  • Slavery

Musical Features

  • Phrasing
  • Call and Response
  • Body Percussion
  • Vocals
  • Sampling
  • Syncopation

Instruments

  • Voice
“I remember a hundred games, I suppose. I would say a hundred because there are so many of them. We had all kinds of plays; we had house plays, we had outdoor plays. Some of the plays have songs, and some have just plays – you know, just acts or whatnot.”
Bessie JonesStoryteller and Folk Singer

Throughout history children have participated in a range of recreational and social activities that develop motor skills and physical coordination, facilitate group cooperation, and foster creativity. Such play and games often are accompanied by singing and movement. The genre, known as game and play or play-party songs, passes down orally through the generations. As Africans in America, the enslaved and their descendants continued to participate in these and similar recreational activities as practiced in Africa. Over time they adapted and created new songs to fit changing conditions while retaining the stylistic and aesthetic character of their African heritage.

Context and History

African American children worked beside their mothers in the field and other settings, where they were exposed to the singing of adults. Leisure time mutually engaged children and adults in various play/game activities of both African and European origin and was broadly categorized as: baby games and plays, handclapping plays, jumps and skips, singing plays, ring plays, dances, house plays and home amusements, and outdoor games. Games/plays frequently were played in a ring or line formation. Despite a segregated society, the traditions of both cultures passed back and forth and were modified. In keeping with African practices, performers added individual signatures to these traditions through minor changes in melodies, rhythms, words, and/or movements. They also created songs to accompany new games and forms of play that became part of the broader repertoire. In mid-20th century America, for example, the Double Dutch jump rope became a common play activity among Black girls and a symbol of culture and a Black identity. Continuing practices from earlier centuries, girls created and reinterpreted earlier songs and chants (sung in rhyme) as accompaniment to their complex Double Dutch feet and other bodily movements.

Musical Features/Performance Style

The African American tradition is distinguished from its European-derived counterpart by its distinctive imagery and complex dance steps, accompanied by rhythmic (often syncopated) handclapping, and foot-stomping. The singing employs call-and-response structure and repetitive choruses also associated with African musical practices. These features are heard in “Mama Lama” and “Who are the Greatest” by Jane Hunter and children.

Lyrics

Game and social or play songs derived text from various sources: the game itself; folktales; children’s fantasies and experiences; popular songs of the time; and television commercials, along with their interpretation of local events and the world around them (often using their colloquialisms).

Mary Mack (handclapping play)
Miss-Ma-ry-/
Mack Mack Mack all dressed in/
Black Black Black with silver/
Butt’ns Butt’ns Butt’ns all-down her/
Back Back Back...

In the 20th and 21st centuries, girls often borrowed lyrics from the choruses of popular R&B and hip-hop songs for their handclapping game songs. The following lyrics are the chorus from: “Candy Girl” by New Edition and from the SOS Band “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”:

“Candy Girl”
Candy girl, you are my world
You look so sweet, you’re my special treat

“Take Your Time (Do It Right)”
Baby we can do it / Take your time
Do it right / We can do it, baby / Do it tonight
Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter
Ella Jenkins
Bessie Jones
Janie Hunter
John’s Island Children
Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter

Bibliography

  1. Jones, Bessie and Bess Lomax Hawes. Step it Down: Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1972.
  2. Gaunt, Kyra Gaunt. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop. New York: New York University Press 2006.
Carnegie Hall Logo White

The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

Learn More
Jessye Norman

Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

Neh Logo

The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

© 2022 Carnegie Hall