The play-party typically used a song like "Skip to My Lou" or "London Bridge" as a game, combined with music. Participants and sometimes bystanders sang the songs. Play-parties took the place of dance parties for children and adolescents where all other dancing was forbidden. Also popular in less restrictive communities, the play-parties continued into the1930s as entertainment for young adults who could not afford to go to a public dance. As public schools developed, play-parties thrived on the playground. In the twentieth century playgrounds likely preserved many of the songs. Play-parties, common in most Oklahoma communities, only began to lose popularity in the 1950s.
A play-party could be held in a front room, on a front porch, in a schoolroom, or in any other open area. Participants dressed more casually than they would have for dances of the same eras, but play-parties that were planned in advance encouraged some girls to "fix up." Often the play-party allowed young women to take the lead in a social situation, as girls usually organized the party.
Oklahoma play-party song themes varied and included a range of references ranging from war, "Had A Little Fight In Mexico," to multiplication tables, "Twistification," and to obscure English history and lore. The words were well known, but the original meaning of the verses was often forgotten. A substantial part of the lyrics were falderal or nonsense. Lynn Riggs, a notable playwright from Claremore, Oklahoma, used several play-party songs in his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which later was used as the basis for the Broadway musical Oklahoma! The musical deleted the play-party tunes but did use some of the old "squares," figures used in play-party games, as a part of the choreography.
Benjamin A. Botkin conducted notable research on play-parties and in 1937 published The American Play-party Song. Conducted almost entirely in 1930s Oklahoma in more than fifty counties, the research has been considered by many to be the most complete collection of play-parties of any American state. The book also included variants of Oklahoma songs and interviews with play-party participants.
Interviewing two of his nieces about 25 years ago, I got the idea that he Leadbelly played a lot of children's songs. This is not a new thought; he has often been praised for his communications skills with young people. But to hear it directly from part of that audience was an eye-opener.
My wife and I do a program on Louisiana Music and Leadbelly plays a big part in that program. We've been inserting activities that go with the songs and, after 25 years, I found out what Irene was talking (singing) about with "I measure my love to show you."
An interview with Irene Campbell and Viola Daniels exists in a different place on this blog: "Leadbelly's Nieces"
Irene: we had a wonderful time with our hymns and songs that we sang. . . Games — what you call
I measure my love to show you
I measure my love to show you
We have a game to do. . .
Songs that you can act out. What is this you go "in and out the window?"
“In and out the window” (This is the same song as “I measure my love to show you” and "Round and round the levee.")
Viola: I forgot that one.
Irene: And what were some other play songs that we used to have?
Viola: "Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer" - that sort of thing. "Skip to My Lou, my darling." We'd do the skipping.
Irene: "I measure my love to show you" you know, those were the sort of things he would play for us and we would do them out on the lawn, out in the yard. And we'd have, uh, "Goodbye Mary, I hate to leave you,"
Viola: And then I notice in this children's book they've started this "Wild Goose." . . .
Irene: (takes up the recollection) . . . the bird would come from heaven a certain time of the year. He was so large that his wings would cover the sky. It would get dark. And he would say "QUA, QUA" (laughter) and when you see this bird coming over, you tell him what you want him to tell your loved ones in heaven when he gets back, and you give him what you want him to tell, and he'd say "QUA-K-QUA" and he just pass on over and then it get light again. Cause it was black as night while he was passing over. And I can't sing - can you remember some more songs we would sing when this bird was coming over? But the tale is that the group of them went hunting and the big eagle - big bird - came over and they shot him and it took - how long did it take him to fall? -
Viola: I don't remember that.
Irene: So many years, I think it was eight years to fall, and then he fell, and then - eight hours! it took him a long time to fall. And then they decided they would cook him and they put him on to cook and it took that same length of time for him to cook, and they cooked him and they got him boiled, done, and then when they got him ready to eat, he flew away (laughter). That was a tall tale!
Viola: That's what the children -
Irene: That's what Huddie would tell us and we were there spellbound, listening.
Viola: You were listening, I don't know where I was, I didn't hear that one. I'd get part of it, I didn't get the other part of it.
Irene: Boiled him and boiled him and he finally flew away. Now he has that in music. That record would get it straight, because I have it all twisted. I know it was a ridiculously long time. Falling and cooking and finally flew away. That was just a tale to make the kids laugh. (Leadbelly) loved children. I think, cause he took so much time with us.
This next part I found online and it's a massive collection of "Ozark" folksongs with many original field recordings at:
The John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection
Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas
Wolf Collection Homepage
©Copyright 2002 Lyon College
'Marching Round the Levee,' is very interesting. The crowd forms a circle, boy and a girl, boy and a girl, boy and a girl. And some girl takes her place in the center of the circle. And they sing, 'We're marching 'round the levee . . .' [etc.], and then we sing to her 'Go forth and choose your lover . . .',[ etc.] And she chooses some young boy from the circle. That young boy takes his place in the center of the circle with this young girl. Then they sing 'I kneel because I love you . . .', [etc.] And then they sing next, 'I measure my love to show you,' that's with crossed arms, hand to hand, arm to arm. Finally, then, we sing, 'I take a sweet kiss and leave you . . .', [etc.] That winds it up, unless the boy is inclined to kiss the girl goodbye. Is that it?"
Dr. Wolf: "Now go ahead and tell about the others, how they get a new partner, a new one in the circle."
Mr. Jernigan: "Then, when this one person leaves, then the one left in the center chooses another partner, and then it's repeated again."
Dr. Wolf: "Is the outer ring marching all the time, or do they stop?"
Mr. Jernigan: "No, they're standing.")