The Musical Culture of African American Children in Tennessee
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines music-making by African American children. It focuses on two singing games played by children at Red Elementary School in Applesville, Tennessee, and another singing game from the author’s childhood. Games and songs serve as a homogenizing agent in stabilizing issues of race, poverty, and social injustice that concern African Americans within their communities. Further, the games contribute to the formation and maintenance of personal and group identity, survival, socialization, solidarity, cooperation, and strength within the group. The songs of African American children also reflect features of African American adult music.
African American children are known for their ingenious, inventive, and highly rhythmic singing and chanting games, jump rope games, hand clapping games, and line dances. Each day they generate, perform, and pass on these games to their family, friends, and others who listen, watch, and may join them in their performance (Gaunt 2006: 1). The children preserve, invent, and reinvent these forms of expression for reasons that include sheer pleasure and enjoyment, the social interaction that they provide, and the release of energy that these songs allow. These children’s musical forms also serve a historical purpose as a vital link to a rich African American music heritage that has been transmitted from generation to generation. They reflect the rhythmic complexities of ragtime and jazz, the sliding and bending notes heard in spirituals and the blues, and the fervor of gospel music, poetic verse, and the rhythms of rap. In the Southern region of the United States, one of the main vehicles for transmission of African American music and culture has been through children’s games. The games are often learned by the children from adults and preserved through playful interactions.
Children on the playground of Red School (a pseudonym), an urban elementary school in Applesville, Tennessee take ownership of their musical games as well and describe them in vivid ways that emphasize their personal, mutual, and communal interests and identities with them. Listen to the children as they describe the musical games they play:
MM: What is the name of your game?
Child: “Apple on a Stick.”
MM: How did you learn to play the game?
Child: My sister taught me.
MM: Will you show me your games?
MM: Are these your games or do other children play them?
Children: Our games!!!! Children value their singing games. They regard them as their own African American songs, games, and lore and derive pleasure from playing, showing, and sharing them with others. The history of African Americans in the United States provides insight into the struggle of a people to find their identity and maintain a sense of pride and community, and music was often present to assert identity and to enhance lives. Often, it was through the hand clapping songs, jump rope chants, and singing games of African American children that issues of identity and status were addressed, particularly within the historic communities of the American South. For example, the folklorist Harold Courlander examined the song “See See Rider” and found it functions as a children’s ring game, one that expresses discontent with young lives that were created by a historically dominant white society and displeasure with a double standard that exists among elder generations within their own community.
Version I (Discontent)
See see rider, satisfied!
What’s the matter? Satisfied!
I got to work, satisfied!
And I am tired, satisfied!
And I can’t eat, satisfied!
Satisfied Lord, satisfied!
Version II (Double Standard)
Mamma Mamma, satisfied!
Leave me alone. Satisfied!
When you were young, satisfied!
Were you in the wrong? Satisfied!
Papa Papa, satisfied!
You the same, satisfied!
You the one, satisfied!
Give Mamma’s name. Satisfied! (Courlander 1963: 152)
National and Cultural Imperative: Historical Perspective
Upon arrival to the United States from mostly sub-Saharan Africa, former citizens of African kingdoms and cultures were forced into servitude, in the North primarily as indentured servants and into slavery in the South. The treatment of African arrivals to the Southern United States was most severe, immediately and continuing for generations. There, attempts were made to strip Africans of dignity and identity (p. 352) with their homeland. The Virginia General Assembly was the first to legalize slavery in December 1662, as reflected in Act VI, Laws of Virginia (Hening Statues at Large 1662). Later, the General Assembly published the following declaration on slavery, “All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened” (Virginia General Assembly Declaration 1705).
News of the declaration passed through the American South, and soon similar laws were enacted for the enslavement of Africans in Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas—and parts of the border states Maryland and Missouri. According to the 1860 US Census, of the 31.4 million people in the United States, 4.4 million were African American, and 90 percent of African Americans were slaves in the South. Due to their physical and social treatment, these slaves were made to feel that being black was a “problem” and that their blackness made them inhuman. In 1863, after the emancipation of the slaves, African Americans faced further challenges in a very slow transition to their roles as freed men and women in a predominantly white society and in developing their own free communities and creating their personal identity.
Throughout their history, music was a primary source for realizing an African American identity. Vibrant musical expressions were a constant presence within African American life—as created by adults and as adapted, expanded, and created anew by children. In the Southern states, African American culture developed separately from white society and created unity within their communities. Song, instrumental music, and dance were performed regularly for many occasions, much of it reminiscent of the African cultures they had been forced to leave. Despite their roots in various African regions and nations, there were pan-African facets and features that they remembered and fused into the African American music genres that were emerging. These genres have permeated American music and have become known and influential throughout the musical world, even while they maintain their uniquely African American character.
Children’s songs and singing games were important vehicles for transmitting essential elements of African American musical culture, learned from adults and preserved, reinterpreted, or even transformed through the children’s playful interactions. While the children learned the rhymes from their elders, they also improvised and created other versions in their street and playground games and often regarded those taught to them by their parents as inaccurate (Harwood 1998a: 114). In true African American style, these hand clapping games were passed on to other children: friends, playmates, and classmates. These games served as a basis for the later creation by children of jump rope games, including a “double Dutch” repertoire of tunes and moves, as well as hip-hop and rap music. Planet Rock illustrates the somatic historiography of the children’s games to transmission of African American music culture (Gaunt 2006: 182–183).
Much of the contemporary repertoire of children’s songs was created by African American children living in poverty and within societal circumstances that (p. 353) delivered messages of their inferiority to white culture. However, these songs mirror the resilience of the children, the song makers whose joy and hope were evidenced in their songs and games. For example, when I was a young child during the era of segregation (a period lasting until the mid-1960s), I accompanied my Mom uptown for a shopping trip in a Southern city. It was a hot summer day and while shopping in a department store, I became thirsty. I ran to the water fountain and my Mom immediately ran after me because she knew the conditions for getting a drink from the fountain. When we arrived at the fountain, we were faced with a sign that stated, “Negroes drink from the cup,” a cup that was chained to the water fountain for all African Americans to drink from. My Mom read the sign to me and, needless to say, she would not allow me to drink from the cup. She attempted to explain why I could not have a drink, but I really did not clearly understand until some years later after remembering that a white adult had immediately gone to the water fountain after we were there and was able to have a drink from the free flowing water that bubbled forward. My Mom informed me, years later, that after I arrived home that day, I created a rhythmic chant and hand game from the incident that she heard me playing with my friends:
No water for me,
No water for you,
But I won’t cry,
Boo hoo, hoo hoo!
This was my way of dealing with the disappointment of not being able to drink from a water fountain.
Often African American children in the South created games that served to confirm their self-image and worth, especially when white oppressors treated them as less than human. I recall an incident on another occasion in which I turned my personal hurt and shame into a playful game. At that time, all public facilities were segregated and designated as “Negro” or “White” with areas in the front reserved for “Whites” and those in the back for “Negroes.” This meant that when African Americans rode public transportation, they rode in the back of the bus while special areas in the front were designated as “white only.” My mother and I boarded a bus to travel uptown to buy me a special dress. How excited I was with the prospects of that trip, such that I did not pay attention as my mother proceeded to the back of the bus, but instead I sat on the front seat, with thoughts of getting my new dress. The bus driver yelled to my mother, “You better get this *N-word* child to the back of the bus,” causing me to recoil, infuriating my mother, and resulting in an exchange of words. She then took me by the arm and forced me to sit in the seats reserved for “Negroes.” The bus driver’s words were so hurtful and penetrating, that with tears streaming down my face I suddenly broke out in a chant, creating a body percussion on the back of the seat in front of me (Figure 20.1).
Somehow I had managed to combine words from one of my father’s sermons about how much God loves us and my feelings about the bus driver’s actions toward (p. 354) me into a chant to reaffirm my worth. This became MY hand clapping game that I taught and played with my friends. They in turn taught it to their sisters and cousins, and it was passed around to children within the community.
African American children’s play reflects the music-making principles found in popular genres of African American music, as it also underscores the oral-kinetic mode of learning music characteristic of the culture (Gaunt 2006: 1). As Harwood points out, this style of learning supports not only acquiring and sustaining a standard repertoire of hand clapping games but also “learning how to learn music” (Harwood 1998b: 54).
The Musical Engagement of African American Children
Charles Keil observed the physicality of children in their musical engagement, noting that, “It’s about getting down and into the groove, everyone creating socially from the bottom up” (Keil 1995: 1). African American children make music for enjoyment and the pleasure of social interaction. Their music is rooted in the musical qualities of African American genres, which recalls old-world African musical characteristics as well. In other words, the music of African American children is an integral component of who they are as descendants of African society and as members of the greater community of African Americans whose adults help to transmit, nurture, encourage, and applaud their musical efforts.
In a gathering of African American children at play with their singing games, most of the players are girls. They are fully focused and engaged in their play and they smile, laugh, and encourage each other with expressions such as “Bring it on down,” “Take it to the lap,” and “You go, girl.” They clap, snap, stomp, and jump up and down as the games reach a climax, after which they often fall into each others arms, laughing from sheer exhaustion. As well as encouraging each other during play, the children can be very free with voicing their criticism to each other when the games are not played with precision and accuracy, an important ingredient to the children (Harwood 1998b: 56). They can spend hours playing the games with the numerous repetitions providing opportunities for learning all aspects of them. I (p. 355) remember that when I played games with my friends, we would often play until we fell down to the ground, totally drained of energy, at which point someone would say, “Oh-o-o, child, I’m so tired, I’ve got to go home.” (“Oh-o-o, child” was an adult expression that we echoed in our play.) Participation in playing singing game creates a sense of bonding and belonging among the girls, helping to sustain them as individuals when they depart from the group, as it also assists them in establishing identities that are unique yet reflective of their playgroups. As Gaunt recounted, the games serve as “ethnic cohesion and solidarity despite the national, geographical, and socioeconomic differences among African American across time and place” (2006: 57).
Common features of adult music emerge in the musical expressions of African American children, including (1) call-response forms, as found in spirituals and work songs (many of which are still performed today); (2) the bending and sliding of notes, as heard in blues and gospel music; and (3) the presence of syncopation, present in ragtime and jazz styles as well as other genres of African American music (Gaunt 2006: 2, 58). One of the children’s games that I recall playing with friends illustrates a clear example of the use of the sliding notes. We made “Mary Mack” our very own song as we sang it with our stylized melody (see Figure 20.2).
In addition to displaying specific features of adult music, “Mary Mack” relates a personal reaction to the difficulty of combing African American children’s hair in its natural state. Many combs have been broken by mothers and girls while attempting to comb and braid the hair. Further, the expectation of a whipping, a common punishment awaiting African American children (certainly in the 1950s and 1960s) (p. 356) for breaking a valuable item like a comb, or for misbehaving, was a worrisome thing to young girls. The texts of children’s songs are reminders of African American life, as they provide a historical perspective on experiences and modes of expected behavior within the community—all preserved and passed on to generations of children through play. Gaunt similarly observed, “Black girls” musical play offered insight into the learned ways of being that foster and reflect individual and group identity within the African American community” (2006: 13).
One of the troublesome issues of identity in African American society, especially among young girls in their childhood and adolescence, was body image—what it meant to be pretty and how to achieve it. In the singing game “East Coast Line,” there are references as to how pretty a child can be if she (or he) has “good food” available to eat. The message is directed to the necessity of having adequate food for the health and balance of children’s development and of the community (Wharton-Boyd 1983: 47). That the message sounds through the song of African American children is yet again an example of how culture is transmitted through children’s playful musical interactions.
African Traditions in American Music
When African Americans arrived in the United States, they were initially permitted to perform their music, especially in the South, which contributed to the preservation of African traits within the music. Although the landowners were uncomfortable with the drums because they suspected them of carrying messages, other forms of music were encouraged by the owners as a form of entertainment, especially when guests were present (Brooks 1984). There is strong evidence to confirm the retention of the African cultural legacy in music and the memories of the past (Maultsby 2005: 326). Although surrounded by European traditions and artistic forms, African Americans were able to retain basic African perspectives and create new expressive forms relevant to their situation. Levine supported this probability when he concluded, “Culture is a product of interaction between the past and present. Its toughness and resiliency are determined not by a culture’s ability to withstand change…but by its ability to react creatively and responsively to the realities of a new situation” (1977: 5).
There is continuing evidence of the African legacy in the music and dance of African Americans in the pre- and post-Civil War periods, as well as throughout the twentieth century and into the present time. Prior to the Civil War, African Americans of the Southern states lived on plantations, where they were forced to rely on the slave owners to provide for them. While working, music and dance were central to their existence. In the fields they often expressed themselves through cries, calls, hollers, and spirituals—ways that lightened their loads as they communicated with one another; this practice dates back to their African ancestors. The (p. 357) spirituals they sang were generally performed in the call-response expression of African forms, which allowed the delivery of information by one individual as well as a response to it by another (or by many within earshot who had heard the delivery). This traditional musical form provided opportunities for improvisation in the solo (call) and a repetitive phrase in the refrain (response). Call-response is a frequent characteristic in the songs and musical games of African American children.
Following their emancipation, the former slaves faced a social system that denied them equal access in American society when compared to their white counterparts. They were forced to perform strenuous labor in order to provide for their families, and they often worked long hours in gangs and groups. From their labors emerged work songs, with workmen singing in call-and-response form, which provided opportunities for solo improvisation of melody and text and group affirmation. The subjects of work songs ranged from humorous to sad, from community gossip to social commentaries. Singers communicated their views of their bosses, their preachers, their neighbors, and almost any other subject they encountered in their lives (Courlander 1963: 89). African American children’s games and songs exhibit a connection to work songs in their frequent call-and-response form as well as the commentaries on aspects of everyday African American life and the individuals—teachers, friends, neighbors—that fill them.
By the late nineteenth century, a new African American musical expression was developing especially for singing voices and guitars. With texts that were secular in nature, the blues featured the flatted third and seventh notes, called “blue notes.” These tones lent the songs a sad and mournful sound, which was conducive to expressing sorrow (or hope for a better life). Blue notes are frequently heard in children’s songs. “Mary Mack,” for example, supports the children’s worry for “Mama’s” discovery that one of her children had broken a comb—and what sort of “sad event” that would bring for them.
Ragtime was another African American musical form of the period, created alongside and flourishing in the period of the early blues (Cohn 1993: 16). Peaking in popularity from 1896 to 1917 (Brooks 1984: 65–67), ragtime was distinguished from other genres of African American music in two important ways: it was dance music, and it was played on the piano. It accompanied popular dances such as the cakewalk and the two-step. Ragtime did not retain the practice of call-and-response, but it was known for its employment of syncopation throughout. Ragtime employed the use of accents that were performed on the weak beats of the rhythm; the second and fourth beats in the treble pitches of the right hand played over an even rhythm in the lower pitches of the left hand (Brooks 1984: 67). These features can be seen in African American children’s games as they employ the interacting of syncopated rhythms in their chant and complementary rhythms in their body movements.
One of the most improvisatory musical forms, jazz, was developing in African American communities of the early twentieth century alongside blues and ragtime. While ragtime’s popularity rose and then waned, the flexibility of jazz (and jazz musicians) allowed it to sound new and fresh from its beginnings through its considerable developments and interpretations. Jazz is notable for its extensive (p. 358) improvisation by wind, string, and percussion instruments. It employs textures based on heterophony and exhibits form that is not structurally fixed (Brooks 1984: 83–91). Jazz is reminiscent of African music in its use of multilinear rhythms and melodies, polyrhythms, and polymelodies. Extensive syncopation, polyrhythms, melodies consisting of blue notes, and improvisatory performances are jazz features that also appear in the hand clapping, foot stomping, chanting, and singing of African American children’s songs and games.
Gospel music was central to African American religious life in the early twentieth century and has continued in popularity as a contemporary religious expression that is carried by the media. Gospel music is unique in its juxtaposition of religious text to elements of blues melodies that employ the flatted third and seventh degrees and that use syncopated jazz rhythms alongside vocal (and instrumental) improvisation. A common feature of gospel music in live performances is the use of vocables sung by the soloists and singers to add intensity to the music and create a heightened sense of fervor among the singers and the listeners. This technique can frequently be heard in the performances by African American children of their singing games as well, especially after many repetitions of the songs and singing games or sections of a melody. Shouts of encouragement, support for continuing certain motions within the games, are features of gospel music that can be heard in the children’s songs, too, as they play.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, American popular styles like R&B, soul, rap, and hip-hop have taken in the African American components of syncopation, blue notes, and improvisation. Hip-hop is an outgrowth of the frustrations of many African Americans over the discriminatory practices they have experienced in housing, education, health, and other social services. Rapidly spoken and highly rhythmic, with punctuations, accents, and syncopations of every sort, rap takes speech to new levels of expression. The language of rap is frequently abrasive and offensive, yet it conveys the realities of harsh experiences and provides a platform for young African Americans to express what they feel. When listening to African American children play hand clapping games, I am reminded of rap as they chant their spoken language in intricate rhythms and fortify their words with the rhythmic density of hand clapping, slapping, snapping, and intricate body movements at an almost unmanageable speed.
Components of African American music are notable in the music in the children’s songs, games, and body movements, evidence that adult expressions and mediated forms have been woven by children into their own expressions. Maultsby (2005) pointed out that specific African songs and genres no longer exist in the music of African Americans. However, “Africanisms do exist in the old and new forms of African American music in that [new songs were] created in the style of the tradition, using its [African] vocabulary and idioms, or in an alternative style which combined African and non-African resources” (Nketia 1981: 82–88). In African American genres, including spirituals, work songs, blues, ragtime, jazz, gospel, and rap, these musical features have been retained, as well as in the music that children make.
(p. 359) African American Children’s Songs in Applesville, Tennessee
Children of the third-grade class at Red Elementary School in Applesville, Tennessee showed themselves to be active agents in the preservation and transmission of an African American musical heritage. The school, located within the city of Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, is uniquely named after an African American educator, Louise Red, the granddaughter of a former slave. Red rose to prominence in the Applesville community in the 1940s because of her visionary teaching and curricular development in the establishment of her own kindergarten (when it was not popular for African Americans to do so). Later, Ms. Red served on the Applesville school board and was influential in politics and in the education of all children, especially African American children in the city. She lives in Applesville and celebrated her centennial birthday in 2010.
Applesville, Tennessee shares a similar history with other African American communities in the Southern United States in that the predecessors of its citizens today were resident workers on large white-owned plantations. These African Americans lived together in small houses with limited land space. After their emancipation, children and their families were permitted to live in a certain community but only in accordance to the laws of segregation, which declared them “separate but equal.” Other African Americans migrated to the North and elected to live together in their urban neighborhoods, creating the phenomenon of the “inner city” (Hahn 2003: 455–456).
African American Children in Applesville and Red School
The citizens of Applesville, Tennessee, a city of 600,000, are predominantly African American. Children attend the community’s schools and are joined by small populations of children from adjacent white and Mexican American communities who are bused to the schools. African American children attend the same churches, play at the same community centers, and shop within the same stores. Many of the African American children who attend Red School enjoy playing singing games and are eager to share their music with each other and interested visitors like me. They are articulate and protective of their songs and games, which they identify as their very own, to pass them on to younger sisters and brothers. In listening to the children, ten third-grade girls, eight to nine years of age, gathered on the playground of Red Elementary School during their recess period one day, and they revealed to me, through a conversation, an understanding of their musical and socially interactive activities.
MM: What is the name of your singing game?
Child: “Apple on a Stick.”
MM: Who do you think gave it this name?
Child: [Giggling] Applebee’s Restaurant [the name of a family restaurant chain].
MM: How did you learn to play the game?
Child: My sister taught me.
MM: How did she teach it to you?
Child: First, she taught me the song [the chant], then she taught me how to do the hand thing.
MM: Do you think that children other than African American children play these games?
Children (together): NO!
Child: Yes, other children play them.
MM: What other children do you think play the games?
Child: Korean, African, and probably Chinese.
MM: Do you think they play them in the same way?
MM: What makes us play our games differently?
Child 1: Because, like, where ’cause they are a different type of person that learn in different ways and we are a different kind of person that learns different ways.
Child 2: Because we speak different languages.
MM: Have you taught this game to anyone else?
Child: My little sister.
MM: Did she learn it well?
Child 1: No, she hit me in the face [while playing the hand game].
Child 2: My baby sister.
MM: How old is she?
Child: Three. The explanation by one girl that their singing games might be played by children outside their immediate circle is noteworthy. She was attempting to articulate that she and her friends were unique and that they learned in distinctive ways. While some children’s songs have spread throughout the world, including African American songs such as “Mary Mack,” there are those that belong principally to the children who invent and reinvent music that is uniquely theirs to hold.
The Music of Children’s Games
An examination of two singing games of the children at Red Elementary School and another singing game (in ring, or circle, formation) from my childhood shows African American musical features and gives weight to the argument for Africanisms in the music making of African American children. The girls who immediately yelled out “Apples on a Stick” and “Down by the River” as their first choice songs were willing to show and share them with me. They later demonstrated a jump rope game, too, and the enthusiasm of one girl for “Ice Cream” was visible in the unusual height of her exuberant jumps (see Figure 20.3). (p. 361)
Singing games can be viewed musically through the lens of Mellonee Burnim, who proposed that “time, text and pitch are the three basic components that form the structural network for interpretation of black music” (1988: 115). In Burnim’s system of analysis, time refers to the structural and rhythmic aspects of the music and includes illustrations of repeated words, phrases, sections, and cadenzas; layers of hand clapping; rhythmic complexity: syncopation; and change in tempo: speed. When considering the text, the qualities of call-and-response form and local dialect emerged. Melodic features of bending tones, sliding tones, and melismata were notable, as the particularities of many African American genres were apparent: blue notes, syncopation, improvisation, vocables, and the rapidity of syncopated rhyming lines (see Web Figure 20.4 ).
As they sang “Apple on a Stick,” the girls clapped hands in partners that faced one another (see Figure 20.5).They chanted in one rhythm while clapping in a second rhythm and swaying from side to side in yet a third rhythm, crossing the rhythms in their integrated performance of music and movement. The words of their chant contained snippets of African American slang, for example, “two forty six”, perhaps indicative of the tempo of the heart beat, although this would be considered very fast, since the maximum heart rate for a healthy young adult is just 200 beats (see Figure 20.6). The technique of bending pitches was also in play at the same phrase “two forty six.” Further, within the same chant, sliding tones were in evidence, most obviously in their articulation of “boyfriend.”
As in “Apple on a Stick,” there were no boys in the ring for the performance by the Red Elementary School group of “Down by the River.” The girls were animated in their performance, vigorously tapping each other’s hands as they chanted. (See (p. 362) transcription on website, Web Figure 20.7 .) Their regular and intricate movement continued unabated, even as they appeared to change the grouping of the song’s rhythm from duple to quadruple meter, with accents shifting from every two pulses to once every four pulses. As they approached the end of the game, the girls became more animated and increased the speed of their performance. The girls stood in circle formation, each one placing her right hand atop the hand of the girl standing to her right, with her left hand underneath the hand of a girl to her left, tapping the beat. A single collective “tap” was passed from one hand to the (p. 363) next all around the circle. As the hand-tapping gesture progressed similar to a wave around the circle, the tempo increased until it became too fast to manage, after which the girls would step out of ring formation in boisterous laughter that ended the game. They would then commence to tap and chant in playing the game again. (See photo, Web Figure 20.8 .) The African American (and African) musical features described previously were present in the performance.
From my own childhood comes the singing game “Shortnin” Bread,” popular among my friends in the early 1960s. We would stand in a circle facing inward, clapping our own hands while lifting our left foot and placing it to our left side while rocking. Next, we would turn our backs to the center of the circle and lift our right foot, placing it to the right side while rocking. We continued to alternate our positions of facing in to the circle, and then out of it, while clapping and singing, to the end of the refrain. Then on the verse, each person improvised a gesture simultaneously, depicting certain words in the text before returning to the refrain. Nine features of African American (and African) music are identifiable in this ring game: syncopation; call-response; African American dialect; tone bending; tone sliding (in the refrain); the presence of blue notes on “lo-ove,” “ma-ma,” “pa-pa,” and “every-body”; improvisation in movements to the text and at the song’s end (when each person invents a phrase to chant); vocables (such as “yeah,” “do tell”) that operate as interjections; and the increased speed of the spoken chant (see Figure 20.9).
The Impact of Technology on African American Children’s Music
From the prominence of music in African American culture, historically and in current times, music appears as vital to African Americans as breathing is to life. While African Americans have established unique sonic features in their music that come from within their community, they are not immune to outside influences that have helped to shape their characteristic ways of creating and making music. For adults, African and European features converged in the design of musical forms and (p. 364) expressions. Certainly, African American children have found themselves between two music worlds, too: that of a first culture that is handed to them by their parents, grandparents, and other family elders (which is grounded in the essence of all that constitutes African American music) and that of popular culture that comes at them through technology and the media.
The global reach of technology, including satellite television, mobile devices, and the internet are influential in restructuring children’s media practices (Drotner 2008: 1). The music of popular culture is readily accessible by African American children, and they are active in their incorporation of facets of song texts, rhythms, and melodies in their musical play. This blending of family and mediated music cultures is exemplary of “transculturation,” a process that occurs, according to Wallis and Malm (quoted in Lull 1992: 18), when aspects of one musical culture merge with a second musical culture. This process gives way to the development of “hybrid” musical forms. The new, or visiting musical culture, is accepted but is actively shaped and manipulated to suit the musical tastes and needs of those who listen to or perform it. Lull (1992: 17) observed the tendency of pop and rock bands to incorporate new material into their own more familiar musical expression. Another example of transculturation is rap music in Russia, in which African Americanisms are musically present even when traditional instruments such as the balalaika are played as music accompaniments.
Transculturation may also occur as two musical genres from a single culture come together, as is the case when African American children’s singing games sound “rap-like” in quality. Verses may be chanted at high speed and with spoken (and underlying tracks) of rhythms that consist of complicated syncopations. In rap, these tracks are instrumental or technologically produced synthesized rhythms, while in children’s songs the rhythmic layers appear in the sounds of clapping, slapping, and snapping. As well, children’s song texts may point to the tough realities of living in a poor, urban setting, which may approximate or approach the harsh realities to which rappers refer. The hand clapping game “Mission” makes reference to the experience of incarceration in a prison referred to as a “mission.”
I don’t want to go to mission no more, more, more.
There’s a big old watchman at the door, door, door.
He’ll make you want to hollar, make you pay a dollar.
I don’t want to go to mission no more, more, more. (source unknown)
Children who perform this song may not be fully aware of the text’s expression of how it feels to be profiled and jailed, but the embedded meaning is definitive of a very real experience.
Technology transmits African American children’s music to listening communities throughout the world where their music and games are not part of the ethnic culture. Through sonic and musical media, the music games reach children in world cultures who speak a language different from the African American children but perform the games in their play. Within the United States, technology has played a (p. 365) major role in preserving and making African American children’s games available initially through field recordings, Folkways Records, and recordings housed in the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. Later, for financial reasons, the games appeared in commercials on radio and television that depicted African American girls playing their games (Gaunt 2006: 56). Consequently, many young listeners were exposed to the lively rhythms and driving sounds that emanate from African American children’s songs such as “Mary Mack,” “Apple on a Stick,” “Down, Down Baby,” and “Shortnin’ Bread.”
Rap music is typical of African American genres that reflect the adoption of African American children’s handclapping games and utilize technology in a revolutionary way. Tricia Rose supports this in her reference to rap as fundamentally literate and deeply technological. She describes rap as lyrical, with musical texts that echo features in African American music (including children’s hand clapping games) of oral traditions and postliterate orality with advanced technology (Rose 1994: 95). The technological advancements made in rap were the unique uses of the drum machine and samplers to duplicate a sound and play it back on any pitch or in any key. Prior to rap, sampling was used primarily to add an instrumental section to an existing piece of music on a specific instrument/voice or as vocal backup. However, with the advent of rap music, the break beat was invented, which allowed all sounds in a piece of music to “rupture” (to be suspended) so that individual rhythms could be isolated and heard, for example, drums (Rose 1994: 73)—after which all rhythms and sounds could be layered one on another and presented as a total sound. This technique mirrors the sounds heard in African American children’s hand clapping games, in which chanting and body movements are layered but heard and performed as a whole. Famous rap artists have used sampling and other electronic devices to arrange and reproduce children’s playground songs to create new renditions of classic children’s songs. One rapped rendition by Little Richard (the rock-and-roll artist from the 1950s) in 1991 features chanting in rap style of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Other examples are Kanye West’s “Family Business,” in which he incorporates a syncopated African American children’s version of the traditional rhyme “Rain, Rain Go Away” and Nelly’s use of “Down, Down Baby” and “Shimmy, Shimmy Ko-Ko Pop” in his recording of “Country Grammar.” Technological means, as well as mediation to listeners through recording, radio, television, and the internet, provide young listeners with fresh renditions of the continuing traditions of African American children’s music.
African American children mirror their environment in the hand games, songs, and dances they play. The games and songs are important because they serve as a homogenizing agent in stabilizing issues of race, poverty, and social injustice that concerns African Americans within their communities. Further, the (p. 366) games contribute to forming and maintaining personal and group identity, survival (Gaunt 2006: 14), socialization, solidarity, cooperation, and strength within the group (Wharton-Boyd 1983: 52–53). Although, the songs and games of their African ancestors no longer exist, the structure of African music remains within the music culture of the children. In addition, the songs of African American children exude features of African American adult music that have emerged over the decades. Young girls, especially those in their middle childhood years of seven to ten, are protective of their singing games, maintaining them and shaping them to their needs. The enthusiasm of African American children for their singing games ensures the continuation of long-standing beliefs and values that belong to them and to the spectrum of musical expressions within African American culture at large.
Special thanks is extended to the third-grade girls in “Red School,” a public elementary school in Tennessee, for sharing their African American games with me.
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