Down by the River…: The Diffusion of Children’s Game Songs


Being taken away from “The Motherland” caused Africans to be stripped of many things. What remained with them was their culture, their religion/folklore, and their music. They even took the European traditions that were forced upon them and conformed them to the “African aesthetic ideals”. Africans always seemed to find a way to make it through, even in the toughest times. One of the ways they were able to do so was through music.

Even in Africa, it was custom to sing while one worked, so its only natural that they carried that practice with them to the New World. They used songs in order to keep a steady pace when working. Many things like unbroken rhythms and call and response phrases were ubiquitous in work songs. These patterns carried on within the children, who then made up their own songs in order to pass the time and have fun. These songs also featured unbroken rhythms and call and response phrases. It also introduced pauses in the songs that were usually filled with rhythm clapping or body movement of some sort.

When Europeans took Africans from their homes, they took them from many different places. It was soon discovered that although they did not know the same language or have the same religious practices, the music that they sang and danced to were quite similar. They all had a similar foundation, and each culture provided different styles to that same foundation which caused African and African American culture to evolve even more.

No one made money off of these hand games, they were used as a source of entertainment for young children. These games did, however, build a foundation that rhythm in many songs is based upon.

Even today, many children still play what is now known as “Hand Games”. I never realized how diverse the lyrics to the hand games had become. Growing up, I thought the version I sang was the one that everyone in the world knew because everyone around me knew it. Even when I moved to different parts of the state of Georgia, the lyrics were about the same except for maybe a couple of words. Coming to college was the first eye-opener that happened for me in regard to these games. When I would reminisce about my childhood and the games we played, my friends would join in. Almost all the games started the same way. The foundation of the songs was the same, but as we began to go further into the song, we realized that the lyrics were drastically different.

We all laughed and were quite confused when we heard the different variations of the song. Each one of us grew up with a specific way to sing these songs and to see them performed in a totally different way actually shocked us. A friend and I who were from the same state, but not from the same neighborhoods and had just met in college, still grew up learning the exact same lyrics to these songs. This shocked us even more because even people who had never met still knew the same lyrics to these songs.

One of my favorite games to play was called “Down by the River”. The song was quite silly but was loved by all. The lyrics were:

Down by the river, Hanky Panky/ Bullfrog jumps from bank to bank/ I said, “Eeps, Iyeps, Opes, Oops”/Chilly willy ding dong/ Yo mama smell like King Kong…. and so on and so forth.

I asked a friend who was from a different state to tell me her version of the lyrics to the exact same song. The lyrics were:

Down by the Riverside, Hanky Panky/ Said, “A bullfrog, a bullfrog”/ “Your momma stanky”/ Said a “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum”/ pass it to the bullfrog…. 


Although the lyrics were different, the hand motions and rhythm was still the same. This discovery confirmed the belief that African culture has never ceased to run within our traditions, and even in our blood from something as simple as a game song.


By Candace Carter and Shalyn Carthan

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