When I was young, I liked to play clapping games like “A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” and “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl.” Here’s a simple version:
A sailor went to sea, sea, sea
To see what he could see, see, see
But all that he could see, see, see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea.
At the time, I didn’t stop to think it was a song about a sailor drowning. I knew it was a play on the words see and sea, but mostly it was something to sing while we clapped.
We used the same “Sailor” tune for “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl”:
I am a pretty little Dutch girl
As pretty as I can be
And all the boys in the neighborhood
Are crazy over me.
My boyfriend’s name is Mello
He comes from the land of Jello
With pickles for his toes and a cherry for his nose
And that’s the way my story goes.
Another version of the second verse went
I have a boyfriend Patty
He comes from Cincinnati
With 48 toes and a pickle on his nose…
In another, it’s a pimple instead of a pickle.
It was popular all over the USA and England. An Australian version uses “Bush girl” instead of Dutch girl. In others, he’s French. In Israel, the boyfriend’s name is Chaim, which is made to rhyme with Jerusalem. In some versions, the boyfriend is seen kissing another girl, and the narrator ends the story with kicking the boyfriend down the stairs.
In some versions, it’s conflated with “Miss Lucy,” (or Suzy, or other variant), to the same sing-song tune:
Miss Lucy had a baby
His name was Tiny Tim
She put him in the bathtub
To see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water
He ate up all the soap,
He tried to eat the bathtub
But it wouldn’t go down his throat.
Many also include near off-color jokes like this alternate version of “Miss Suzy” (one of many):
Miss Suzy had a speed boat
The speed boat had a bell
Miss Suzy went to heaven
The speed boat went to
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I’ll kick you in the
Behind the refrigerator
There was a piece of glass
Miss Suzy sat upon it
And broke her little
Ask me no more questions….and so on.
And that’s a pretty mild version!
Down, Down Baby
Sesame Street had a nice segment on teaching another child how to do the motions to “Down Down Baby,” another standard.
In this video, you can see more complex clapping pattern.
Another famous clapping game is “Mary Mack.” The most common version goes:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifty cents, cents, cents
To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And didn’t come back, back, back
‘Til the Fourth of July, ly, ly.
Origins of this song are obscure, and many explanations are hard to believe. One says Mary Mack was a passenger who went down with the Titanic. Another claims the name is a shortened version of the Merrimack, the ship the Confederates made into the iron-clad Virginia that faced off against the Monitor. Despite seeing this explanation repeated in more than one source, I can find no factual support for it.
Another origin story makes the story a slave song, with encoded references to freedom, perhaps wanting money to escape slavery. Yet another says the elephant is a reference to the Republican Party. And a different one says “Mack” was slang for flirting or prostitution.
Some recent versions have a very different last verse:
She was so high, high, high
She touched the sky, sky, sky,
And she didn’t come down, down, down
‘til she almost died, died, died.
The song is often described as a favorite of African American girls, particularly in low-income areas, in the 1970’s.
When I asked friends if they’d grown up with these clapping songs, most said they knew the same songs I mentioned. One grew up in Louisiana, one in Colorado, one in Texas, one in Illinois, one in New York, one in Michigan, one in California. So how did these songs become so popular they crossed continents and oceans – decades before the advent of the internet and YouTube videos? And where did they come from in the first place?
Those questions are actually more complicated than they seem, as are the answers. We’re asking about several histories here: the rhymes, the melodies, and the clapping patterns. And once you pull on a historical thread, you often find it connected to many others. In this case, the story involves immigrants to the US, a Pope with military ambitions, the West African slave trade, minstrel shows, vaudeville, population shifts in the US, and a lot of kids sharing and adapting clapping songs they liked.
Nursery rhymes have a long, well-documented history in Europe. “Pat-a cake” first appeared in a British play called The Campaigners, in 1698, though it probably existed in oral tradition long before that. In the play, a nurse makes reference to the cake and the Baker’s man while entertaining the baby. In Mother Goose’s Melody (1765), the full verse appears:
Patty Cake, Patty Cake
That I will, Master,
As fast as I can.
Pat it and prick it,
And mark it with a T,
And there will be enough for Tommy and me.
(Marking baked goods was a way for the seller and buyer to identify the loaf ordered.)
You may know a more recent version, like this one:
Pat-a-cake, Pat-a cake,
Bake me a cake
As fast as you can.
Roll it, and pull it, and mark it with a B,
And put it in the oven for baby and me.
Some of the rhymes in these games came from England, and were brought to the US by immigrants. Some are combinations of songs from multiple sources. Like all folk songs, they morphed with their singers and the situation. In some of the videos in the source list, you can watch girls – and sometimes boys ̶ from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and Japan doing clapping games. Many insert brand names, like Disneyland, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola, and jokes like “What color was his fart?”
There was no published music to accompany the Pat-a Cake verse until 1796, almost a hundred years after it first appeared. Personally, I’ve never heard it sung. It’s mostly recited, in a sing-song tone, with simple clapping and gestures that go along with ”roll it” and “pull it” and “mark it with a B.” Often the mother or caregiver will hold the baby’s hands and help form the clapping gesture.
Many of the other clapping games share similar simple melodies, more like chants. “My Boyfriend Gave Me an Apple,” “I Went to a Chinese Restaurant,” and “My Mummy” have the same basic melody as “A Sailor Went to Sea.”
Here’s where the story gets more interesting and a lot heavier. There seems to be a clear link between clapping games and Africanisms brought to the Americas and the West Indies with the slave trade.
While slavery of vanquished people was not uncommon in Europe and Africa, the West Africa slave trade the Portuguese began in the 1400’s increased dramatically in the 1600’s as demand grew for laborers to work on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean islands.
Historical note: In 1452, Pope Nicholas V called on the Portuguese monarchy for help fighting the Saracens in Constantinople. As a reward for their help, he issued a papal bull, Dum Diversas, which reduced non-Catholics to the equivalent of the Saracens, who were Muslims. Thus non-Catholics became enemies deserving of a life of perpetual servitude. Two years later, the Pope rewarded the Portuguese with a monopoly in the slave trade with West Africa. While other countries soon ignored this decree, it served as a religious stamp of approval for trade in captive humans.
However, as Dawn L. Wright points out in her Master’s thesis, “An Examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” many Africanisms survived, even in the face of enslavement and acculturation. Two of her examples are call and response patterns of participation, and body percussion. Both, she says, continue African music and movement styles while taking on parts of European customs as well.
Call and Response
Some clapping games involve call and response, but the pattern is more commonly found in work songs, sea shanties, and military marching songs.
This video, filmed at Kenya Connect Schools, features a call and response, a pair clapping game, and a circle elimination game. The last clapping game featured in the video is especially impressive in its speed and complexity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDF7PWPrNHs
Because masters feared that slaves might use drums as a secret communication system, slaves were forbidden to use them, so body percussion filled in with complex combinations of stomping, clapping, finger snapping, and patting thighs or cheeks.
Hambone (Juba Dance) is a perfect example, brought from the Congo to South Carolina by slaves and later spread through slave communities in the Caribbean islands, Brazil, and the southern US. Hambone body percussionists were usually male. And the lines “Hambone, hambone, where you been? Round the world and back again,” are one of many examples of double entendre in these songs. One explanation is that a hambone that went from one pot to another in slave quarters, flavoring the soup, but it often had a more sexual interpretation as well.
Here’s a contemporary hambone performance by Derique McGhee at Lincoln Center https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLmySQ5CuY0
Minstrel shows, variety shows featuring song and dance acts that exaggerated and ridiculed African American music and dance, became popular in the 1800’s. Drawing on a much older custom of holding up “others” as curiosities, minstrel shows incorporated “slave ditties,” purported to be from African slaves but sung by white musicians in black face.
Often the shows also included the Juba Dance, featuring a performer doing an elaborate dance involving stomping and body percussion. The two parts later split into tap dancing, which merged with European step dancing to become American tap dancing, and hambone (body percussion), which is now more commonly performed by white artists.
Here’s a contemporary video of body percussion by the Hambone Brothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuB9XFbeix0
But it was a weird business all around. By 1900, minstrel shows had morphed into Vaudeville acts. While most minstrel-style groups were white men in black face, there were also black minstrel groups who performed with or without black face, including Bert Williams, an African-American who was part of the Ziegfeld Follies beginning in 1910 and the highest paid African-American in show business at the time. Mostly, though, these shows sold a demeaning caricature of African-Americans. Thomas D. Rice, a white man who performed in black-face under the stage name “Daddy Jim Crow,” introduced the song “Jump Jim Crow,” accompanied by a dance. It gave its name to the institutionalization of segregation and discrimination that lasted until the Civil Rights movement. Its legacy still lingers today.
However, one of the many peculiar parts of this history is that the use of African-American songs, dances, and rhythms, even in the context of minstrel shows, served to perpetuate them. It also created a strange hybrid wherein northern white songwriters like Stephen Foster wrote songs about slave life in the antebellum south, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Oh, Susanna!” and “Camptown Races,” incorporating African-American rhythms and styles, which were then performed in minstrel shows by singers in blackface, often using African-origin percussion and instruments.
Here’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in black face in The Jazz Singer (pictured) and singing “Camptown Races” in the video:
While it’s sort of awful to see today, it shows the strange cultural mixing that went on in these shows.
Popular entertainment kept the clapping songs and dances alive in the public mind, but children must have passed them on simply because they were fun, right from the start. Many slave girls were assigned white children to care for. According to first-hand accounts, friendships between slave children and white children were fairly common. It’s not hard to imagine a couple of kids passing the time with a clapping game, which would then spread.
This spread happened on a far wider scale with the Great Migration. Before 1910, 90% of the US African-American population lived in the rural South. But between 1916 and 1970, over 6 million African-Americans moved to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West, seeking better jobs and treatment. And they brought their songs with them, which then fueled the spread of gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll.
And some became the clapping games that gleefully skipped across social borders everywhere. And morphed with each setting and group.
The earliest examples of clapping games were recorded in the American South in the 1850’s. By 1950, “Miss Mary Mack” was the most popular clapping song in the English-speaking world.
The Clapping Song
In 1965, Shirley Ellis recorded “The Clapping Song,” written by Lincoln Chase, whose parents were from the West Indies. It attempts to teach the clapping pattern while singing the song. It wound up being very popular, reaching #8 on the pop charts, a good follow-up to her earlier hit, “The Name Game,” also written by Lincoln Chase. It borrows from a 1930’s song “Little Rubber Dolly.” Here’s the Shirley Ellis version:
And the lyrics:
Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.
Clap pat, clap pat, clap pat clap slap!
Clap pat clap your hand, pat it on your partner’s hand
Clap pat clap pat clap your hand. Cross it with your left arm.
Pat you partner’s left palm.
Clap pat, clap your hand, pat your partner’s right palm
With your right palm again.
Clap slap, clap your hand, slap your thighs and sing a little song.
My mother told me, if I was goody.
That she would buy me a rubber dolly.
My aunty told her I kissed a soldier,
Now she won’t buy me a rubber dolly.
Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat….
Clapping games are currently enjoying a revival, especially among pre-teen girls who delight in learning and performing the really complicated versions with many different movements. Most of the YouTube videos you’ll see in the Sources feature girls who, at 8 or 10 years old, are making their own videos of the games, slowing down the explanation sometimes for us older, slower folks.
My neighbor who teaches in a local elementary school told me that in an attempt to get the kids off their phones and interact with each other at recess, teachers have started including clapping games. They teach hand-eye coordination, rhythm, and cooperation, and they exercise the brain and the body at the same time. Besides, they’re fun.
Sources and interesting listening:
“ABC, 123, and Peter Pan clapping games,” video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJUzX40zaw8
“Tic Tac Toe and other games,” video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhE38V1QbMO
Bishop, Julia, “Clapping Games,” British Library, 26 October 2016 www.bl.uk/playtimes/articles/clappinggames
“Blackface,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface
“Body percussion,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_percussion
Cabrera, Gertrudis, “A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child,” lesson plan and materials, Franklin Elementary School, Houston
“Call and response (music) Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_and_response-(music)
“Clapping Game,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clapping_game
“Doctor Pepper,” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Swe99oRW4wY
“Don’t Break the Window” clapping game, video also includes Lemonade, Bingo, and Double,double, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD42M40KMeQ
“Down, Down Baby,” video clip from Sesame Street, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K-FpmUUc7U Cute group
“Down, down, baby! A hand-clapping history, SAHMurai, 17 April, 2016, https://sahmurai.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-truth-behind-3-hand-clapping-games-from-your-childhood/
Ellis, Shirley, “The Clapping Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWuSPPLtkEQ
Gaunt, Kyra D. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Hambone Brothers, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuB9XFbeix0
“Iona and Peter Opie,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iona_and_Peter_Opie
Jenkins, Ella, “A Sailor went to sea,” Smithsonian Folkways recording, with clapping. Jenkins identifies “a sailor” as African-American. https://folkways.si.edu/ella-jenkins-a-sailor-went-to-sea/children/music/track/smithsonian
“Juba Dance,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juba_dance
“Juba Dance,” WikiVisually, https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Juba_dance
“Liberian clapping games,” video from Africa Heartwood Project, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtnTFj9xjKw7t=13s
“Mary Mack” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GU4cVSdllko
McGhee, Derique, Hambone demonstration at Lincoln Center, New York, August 12, 2010 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLmySQ5CuY0
Mintz, Steven, “Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery,” Children & Youth in History, Columbia University, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/57
“Miss Mary Mack,” Pop Culture, by Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/miss-mary-mack/
“My Mummy” British Library video clip and explanation https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/my-mummy
“Nigerian clapping game” video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDF79WPrNHs clapping pair, elimination game, boys and girls
“Nursery Rhymes, childhood folklore and play: The archive of Iona and Peter Opie,” Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, a Bodleian Libraries blog, 7 March 2017, http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.ukarchivesandmanuscripts/2017/03/07/opie-archive/
Opie, Iona and Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat-a-cake/
Photo of children playing clapping games by Jarek Tuszynski, 2011
“Pretty Little Dutch Girl,” Wikipedia, https://wen.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Little_Dutch_Girl
Rosen, Michael, “An introduction to clapping games,” British Library, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNVjc3c_SSc A very good source
“A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” video clip, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28uNq8XQPK8
Wiggins, David K. “The Play of Slave Children in the Plantation Communities of the Old South, 1820 – 1860,” Journal of Sport History, Vol 7, No.2 (Summer, 1980) 21 – 39.
Wright, Dawn L. “An examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” Master’s thesis, Clark Atlanta University, 1 July 1996, available through Atlanta University Center’s Digital Commons @Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, open access.