The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/American Song-Games and Wonder-Tales


By W. H. Babcock.

N her work on the Study of Folk-Songs, the Countess Martinengo-Cesaresco tells us that she has been unable to get anything of that nature from the United States. Nevertheless our children have a few native ditties and jingles, if one may judge by internal evidence and the absence of all that would contradict it.

For example, there is the skipping-rope formula first mentioned in my article on "Carols and Child-Lore" (see Lippincott's Magazine for September 1886). Since then other versions have reached me from various parts of the country, all traceable to the Atlantic slope. In New England it seems to have been used for at least sixty years, but probably it is much older than that. The original formula—or what I take to be such—runs as follows:

"By the old levitical law
I marry this Indian to this squaw.
You must be kind, you must be true,
And kiss the bride, and she'll kiss you."

Sometimes "levitical" becomes "leviticus." The injunction at the end may be widely varied; for example, thus:—

"You must be kind, you must be good,
And split up all her oven wood."


"Sober live, and sober proceed,
And so bring up your Indian breed."

All the above are from Massachusetts directly or indirectly.

In the district of Columbia we have:—

"By the Holy Evangels of the Lord,
I marry this Indian to this squaw.
By the point of my jack-knife
I pronounce you man and wife."


"By the holy and religerally law."

The other lines unchanged.

Among the coloured people of Virginia the first line becomes—

"The Bible is a holy and visible law."

This last instance, lying well out of the line of migration, indicates a very early date of origin. Note, too, that the "levitical law," and the tendency to lay on good advice and spare not, disappear from the ritual when we leave the Puritan settlements and their colonies. Nevertheless the resemblance is too great for us to suppose more than one root; and the "Indian" and the "squaw" require that root to be in the New World. Probably we are safe in ascribing it to some pioneer of the early colonial period when Indians were more plentiful than ministers, and sometimes inconveniently importunate in their desire to adopt the white man's ceremonies. Such a half-jesting marriage service would be readily picked up by the children and incorporated into their games, thus ensuring it a life as long as that of the language itself. Considered as a relic of earlier manners and race-dealings it is the most instructive American contribution of the kind that I know. "Blackberry Wine," reported in Lippincott's Magazine for March 1886, though seemingly of later date, has a certain value of the same sort. But perhaps I may be wrong in thinking it entirely American.

The negroes have a number of song-games still used by adults or half-grown young people in backward neighbourhoods, as well as those confined to the children of that race. I have already reported several which are without any considerable European element, and now add a few more collected by a lady of this city from the recitation of a coloured servant girl, formerly a resident of Bowling Green, Virginia:

Mosquito Dance.

"Mosquito he fly high,
Mosquito he fly low (sway body),
I get my foot on mosquito head
He'll never fly no mo' (turn hands).

"Bile the cabbage done,
Bile the cabbage done (whirl round),
I'm not after no foolishness now,
Bile the cabbage done.

"Stop that tickling me,
Stop that tickling me,
I'm not after no foolishness now.
Bile the cabbage done."

Skip, Angelina.

"Skip, Angelina, do go home, do go home,
Skip, Angelina, do go home.
To get your weddin' supper.

"You better not wait till ten o'clock, ten o'clock,
You better not wait till ten o'clock,
To get your weddin' supper.

"Skip all around the cherry tree, cherry tree,
Skip all around the cherry tree,
And get your weddin' supper.

"Walk, Angelina, you go home, you go home,
Ten o'clock will be too late
To get your weddin' supper."

Go on, Lize.

"Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lizy Jane,
The funniest thing I ever saw,
Go on, Lizy Jane.
Buffalo kick off bell-cow's horns.
Go on, Lizy Jane.

"Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lizy Jane,
The black cat skipping clime-eo.
Go on, Lizy Jane.

"Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lize,
Go on, Lizy Jane,
I'll tell my mother when I go home
The boys won't let the girls alone,
Go on, Lizy Jane."

Johnny Huntsman.

"Walk him, Johnny Huntsman,
You can't catch square.
Walk him, Johnny Huntsman,
You can't catch square.

Chorus."Dear little Johnny was my son,
And I can bounce him all around
From my elbow to my thumb,
I'll never come here no mo'.

"Run him, Johnny Huntsman,
You can't catch square.
Run him, Johnny Huntsman,
You can't catch square.

"He's down in the garding.
You can't catch square,
He's hid among the daisies,
You can't catch square.

Chorus."Dear little Johnny," &c.

Two by Two.

"Here we go two by two.
Do you want to get married?
Yes, I do.
Marry by love, and let it be true,
Salute your bride, and pass on through.
The needle works finely.
The thread runs through.
I courted a many pretty girls
Before I court you.
Hug so neat,
Kiss so sweet.
Take all that to make it look neat."

In this last we half enter on another class of songs, those originating among the whites—commonly long ago in Europe, but now finally lodged in the negro memory and fancy. The juxtaposition is sometimes rather grotesque. For instance, we may pass abruptly in the same company from "Skip Angelina" and the buffalo's incredible gymnastics to

"Sweet pinks and roses,
Strawberries on the vine,
I choose you a partner,
And go along with me.
We're walking on the green grass.
And round and round we go,
And if you want a lady
Pray take yourself with me.
Hand me your lily-white hand,
And go along with me."

The wellspring of this is unmistakable. Oddly I have not as yet found it among the white children, through whom it must have passed to its present repository.

Here is another of a very different sort that seems to have crossed the sea, gin being very little used in this country, to say nothing of other ear-marks:—

"Jennie loves brandy,
I love gin;
I had an old cow, and she gave such milk
It made me think I was rich as silk."

To return to more poetical specimens, I find among these Virginia negro-songs that variant of "Green grows the willow tree" which introduces the "lady with a rose in her hand." Except a slight change in the adjuration to the improvident "young man," who is to be held to his bargain, the words are identical.

On the other hand, the song-games which originate among the negroes never find permanent acceptance among the white children. An aphorism, a few words about weather-lore, a hint about "signs," appealing to childish fear or childish wonder, may thus be transferred, but even here the rule is otherwise. An elderly coloured woman, learned in such matters, explains that in "signs" she always followed her "old mistress." This explains the very great predominance of English elements in negro nurse-lore of birth and death.

But in anything so artistic and extended as a song, a narrative, or a myth-drama, there are, I think, no exceptions. The tradition is always downward, from the higher class to the lower, from the older to the younger, from the more advanced race to the less advanced. Add to this that the transmission is by way of mouth and ear, not by way of hand and eye, and it is obvious that the deposits having the greatest literary value will be of the period in which the greatest amount of intellect and art have sought an oral outlet. Our child-songs and dramas present side by side the superstitions of pre-Christian savagery, the working of mediæval fancy and institutions, the naive, touching, open-air world of balladry, and the makeshifts of our fighting, Old Testament-reading backwoodsmen a century or two ago; but beyond doubt the balladists have the best of the comparison. Nevertheless the other elements are well worthy of more study than any one has thought of giving them. As a Swiss lake-bed holds the history of all Swiss peoples since the first days of "the strange lake-men of the floating raft," even so the existing games of American children hold the history of the English-speaking peoples of the world from a very early day until now. Not that the record is complete in either case, but the anthropologist can no more afford to neglect the one than the other.