Background Notes on Filmming and the Subject
As studies by Brian Sutton Smith and Roger Abrahams have shown, although the singing game has almost vanished within the Anglo-American community, it is still active within the Afro-American child tradition in urban as well as rural areas of the midwest, the east and the south. Observations in Los Angeles indicate that the same pattern is in effect on the west coast; that is, black children play singing games and white children, on the whole, don't. Further, it appears that the repertoire of games played by Negro children across the country is both highly stable and highly dynamic; new games (usually re-workings or parodies of older ones) appear and disappear, but their essential structure and stylistic characteristics continue to be handed on from one generation of school children to the next.
The footage included in this film was taken in December of 1967 on the playground of a school in a Los Angeles black ghetto. The players are a dozen fourth grade girls (9 to 10 years old) whose well-developed repertoire had been earlier brought to my attention by a sympathetic teacher. They had been prepared for the experience of filming by being recorded both by the teacher and by me, and by a previous visit in which they had been "shot" with an unloaded camera to get them used to the new experience.
The actual film was taken in a playground area which had been reserved for us for the morning so as to minimize the number of spectators. We used two 16mm cameras, one in fixed position and one hand-held; sound was recorded via an overhead boom mike. The children had had the location of the mike pointed out to them and for the entire morning they centered themselves without direction under the mike with almost professional aplomb. Actually, they referred to the entire session as "the taping" and appeared to ignore the cameras, except that they tended to turn their backs on the hand held camera when it came too close.
All action in the film was undirected, for it turned out that the children needed no direction. They had come to play, and play is what they did, whether the cameras were loaded or not. Further, they played what they wanted to play, and it turned out that what they wanted to play was their own tradition of singing games. The parallel bars, sand-boxes and so on in the play yard received the scantiest of attention for the whole morning; occasionally they would settle onto the jungle gym for a few moments, but almost at once they would wheel and re-group, pushing and shouting, for just one more round of Pizza Pizza Daddy-0, their current favorite. For this reason, and not because of an especially sophisticated field technique on the part of the film-makers, the organization of the games shown is entirely the work of the children themselves.
Specific incidents connected with the individual games will be discussed later, but a few general observations as to the important stylistic and structural elements of this tradition might be of help.
First, this seems to be primarily a female tradition; little girls begin to learn it during their 6 th or 7th year. By the time they reach puberty the tradition is abandoned, or perhaps simply transmuted into social dance. Boys of the same age-span seem invariably to know the games but do not perform them in public situations such as the school yard. In backyards or alleys, however, the games may be played by mixed groups.
The primary game form is the ring. The clapping formation in which two children face each other and clap hands is actually itself a small ring to which others can be added like a string of beads. The other principal play form consists of parallel lines of players facing each other. All action takes place inside the ring or between the parallel lines; players do not go "outside". Characteristically, there is a central figure who initiates the action, and the "plot line" of each game then consists of a series of moves which constitute one run-through of the play; this is repeated until the group is satisfied, or until everyone has had a turn at the center role. This structure guarantees that there will be no more or less time for any child to have the central power position; competition, then, in the sense of winning-losing, is absent. Though individual players may try to outdo each other in improvisational detail, there is no reward expressed in terms of game action (another turn at the central role, for example).
Stylistically the major feature is call and response; almost every phrase is echoed both in singing and movement patterns. Motor expressiveness is elaborated; musical expressiveness is not. Though the children clap, their clapping style seems to stress tactile rather than tonal values. Their hands are quite relaxed; they stroke instead of making an impact. This effect is emphasized by the degree of body empathy the children share; they move over, make room, spread out, close together, move in tandem and adjust to each other's physical presence in a thousand subtle ways. Physically speaking, they enjoy group blend to a degree that white society only seems to achieve under the strictest imposed discipline.
It was deeply disturbing to discover that these same children are also expert street fighters. Within their own circle or between their parallel lines they demonstrated social tolerance and mutual support to a degree inconceivable to those used to supervising white children's play; apparently the high social empathy which so distinguishes their play is somehow thwarted in less formal relationships, or perhaps by the structure of "outside" institutions.
It is important to bear in mind that this tradition is a child-initiated and child-directed activity; there is a minimum of adult intervention, if indeed there is any at all. Most of these children’s' teachers, for example, seemed unaware of the fact that the children were playing these games, and those who were aware of it had a tendency to disapprove. Within this context, the sheer survival of these games becomes even more impressive; some of them are hundreds of years old. From the point of view of demonstrating the antiquity of this tradition, it is particularly unfortunate that technical problems prevented the inclusion in the film of one of the most wide-spread and historically interesting of their games: "Little Sally Walker". "Punchinello" and "Head and Shoulders Baby" also had to be omitted from the final version; except for these three games, however, this film represents the total repertoire of this particular group of girls.
Though considerations of space forbid any real discussion here of the problem of cultural origins, this overall tradition appears to present in almost schematic form one of the principal ways in which European and African elements have combined upon American soil. In terms of lexical content, over half these games are indisputably British, the other half being most probably indigenous to the United States. Stylistically, especially in terms of musical and kinesic elements, they seem equally clearly African, or at least Afro-American. Finally, the total tradition is at the time of this writing (1969) the exclusive cultural property of black American children.