The American Play Party: An Appreciation

by Cecilia Riddell, PhD

Cecilia Riddell received her B.A. in Music at Pomona College, her M.A.T. from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and her PhD in Ethnomusicology and Music Education at UCLA. Cecilia's thirty-year teaching career spans both coasts with a focus on early childhood and teacher education. She taught at Lowell State College in Massachusetts, then at California University Dominguez Hills (28 years), then at Pasadena Community College until her retirement.



An appreciation is overdue for the play party, an authentic, indigenous music of movement with singing accompaniment. It is an American song and dance form born when settlers and pioneer families needed social entertainment. Taught initially as American folklore by oral tradition, the play party was later documented in print so that new generations could duplicate its delightful musical aspects. Songs sung to dances reflect an ancient, historical layer of musical expression, perhaps from all cultures. They reflect the music-making of American immigrants during the 100-year westward expansion. Hundreds of settlers and pioneer families brought their music, patterns of expression, and elements of song and dance, to be gifted to us, and reshaped into our own American musical repertoire.

I hope to inspire those who have yet to encounter the play party, thus giving value and appreciation to its perpetual possibilities. I believe the play party deserves a revival. I view this art form as a remarkable contribution to our musical history as a nation.

Descriptions of Play Parties

Several writers describe the colorful details of this genre. In the book Songs Lincoln Loved, John Lair wrote of the future President's affection for the play party during his youth in Indiana. "At such play-parties nobody sang any louder, stomped the rough puncheon floor any harder, or swung the bright-eyed girls in linsey-woolsey any higher than big, lanky, awkward Abe Lincoln." According to Lair, "Old Sister Phoebe" was Lincoln's favorite play-party game. He writes:

To play it, any number of boys and girls, odd or even, joined hands and circled to the left around one girl in the center of the ring - the "Old Sister Phoebe" of the song. She held in her hand the hat, or coonskin cap, of one of the boys, and while the circle moved around, she carefully considered on whom to bestow her favor, as set forth in the first and second lines of the second verse. The blissful ordeal over, she could join in the anonymity of the circle while the young man she had honored now took his place in the center to crown the young lady of his choice with the same hat and in the same manner. This could go on and on for hours - and usually did.

Old Sister Phoebe

Old Sister Phoebe how happy were we
The day we sat under the juniper tree
The juniper tree, hi ho, hi ho
The juniper tree, hi ho

Place this hat on your head it will keep your head warm
And take a sweet kiss it will do you no harm
But a great deal of good, I know, I know
A great deal of good, I know

Old Sister Phoebe how happy were we
The day we sat under the juniper tree
Around and around we go, we go
Around and around we go

Another interesting description is by Jean Ritchie in A Garland of Mountain Song. In her rural Kentucky, singing games are called "plays." She wrote, "… [these] require skill of execution, a good memory, and a second sense of what comes next… players sing the beautiful melody, clap the hands to give more lift to the feet, go through the figure changes that make the game, all at the same time." Ritchie's parents said the games caused them to be a little winded and a little hoarse. Afterward, there was "as much as a quart of pine dust" on the floorboards. 

In The Wayfaring Stanger's Notebook, Burl Ives wrote about the play party's family nature. It was "danced and sung by teens and younger children along with their parents or other adults." 

Folk Song U.S.A., a classic book by John and Alan Lomax, also features descriptions of the play party in the chapter "Swing Your Pardner." An earlier book, The Play Party Song by Benjamin Botkin, is an encyclopedic-sized study of lyrics.

Origins of the Play Party

The origin of the term "play party" is interesting. Some rural religious communities didn't approve of dancing or music of the fiddle, which they considered the "Instrument of the Devil." In paintings such as "Wedding Dance" (1566),  Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel and his son portrayed scenes that appear to be joyful dancing by peasants. However, today some scholars believe this art intended to show caricatures of socially-disgraced dance, violations of the Church's rules for behavior. The Church code of conduct read that unruly song and dance was a social evil. Specifically mentioned was the forbidden swinging of arms and legs. Centuries beyond the lives of the Brueghels, rural Americans agreed on an acceptable cover-up for dancing. It was a new term: play party. These two words together suggested healthy recreation to the authorities who might otherwise have objected. After all, there would be no fiddling since everyone sang the music. Approved conduct rules fell into place, such as no alcohol, no carousing, and no swinging by the waist.

The play party traveled with pioneer families across the United States in the 1850s and onward. Settlers and immigrants sang about cities and states. such as "Goin' to Boston," "Alabama Gal," and "Great Big House in New Orleans." I note, however, that they were only singing about these urban places, not wanting to move to them.

In the "old days," play parties needed some non-musical organization. There was a need to accommodate parents with babies or small children. Volunteer hosts provided extra rooms for the youngest while parents danced. Hosts (girls or women) secured a place such as a living room, parlor, or barn. They found room to tie up horses or to park buggies and wagons for those who didn't walk to the events. If the weather was fine, dances might take place in someone's field or front or back yard, perhaps under moonlight.

My father told the family a story about a young pioneer girl who, in the 1850s, traveled westward with her family. Recently I discovered an unpublished family journal describing her story, which hints at the popularity of dancing itself. She voiced her excitement about "dancing when we get there." She took off her only pair of shoes to save for dancing and walked barefoot, not reasoning that her feet would suffer. They did suffer, but my father said that when her family reached Salt Lake, she danced anyway.

This story, also described in Laraine Miner's book Mormon Pioneer Dances, helps us appreciate the importance of pioneer dancing to religious groups. Whether Mormon or Methodist, church leaders saw the value in uniting their congregations musically beyond hymn singing. We can understand how these religious groups contributed to the play party's very existence.

Play Party Songs

"Songs were catchy and provided an easy verse form to which new lines could be made up," notes Ives in The Wayfaring Stranger. One of those catchy songs was "Skip to my Lou," a favorite of Lincoln's. Others were well-known folk and popular songs of the time, such as "Yankee Doodle," "Pop Goes the Weasel," "Oh! Susanna," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

I enjoy the melodies and lyrics of American personalities, such as "Old Joe Clark," "Sally Down the Alley," and "Captain Jinks." This very song, "Captain Jinks," captured my attention and introduced me to the play party. At the first meeting of my graduate school course, Music Education, the professor led us onto a dance space. He began to sing and showed us how to join him. We sang "I'm Captain Jinks of the horse marines. I feed my horse on corn and beans." After a playful year of discovering folk music, I shared these songs and dances nonstop with young and older students.

An alternate version of "Captain Jinks" appears in Handy Play Party Book with instructions:

Captain Jinks

When Captain Jinks comes home at night
(1) He claps his hands with all his might
(2) Salute your partner, smile so bright
For that's the style in the army

(3) Join your hands and forward all
Backward all, backward all
Join your hands and forward all
For that's the style in the army

When Captain Jinks comes home at night
(4) The gentleman passes to the right
(5) Swing your partner so polite
For that's the style in the army

(6) Promenade all around the hall
Around the hall, around the hall
Promenade all around the hall
For that's the style in the army

Formation: Couples in a single circle, facing in, girls to right of partners.

Action: (1) Clap hands. (2) All bow to partners. (3) Join hands in complete circle and march to the center and back twice. (4) Gentleman crosses in front of his own partner and takes partner of man on his right. (5) Swing lady once around and keep her for new partner. (6) Promenade counter-clockwise until song is finished. Then start over.

Humor abounds in play party lyrics. Even the courting verses often have an amusing ending. In "Cedar Swamp," the kissable girl ends up as a wife who "makes me work all thru the week and get stove wood on Sunday." In "Jingle at the Window," a man asks a lady to marry him, but she says, "No, not on your life!" so he proposes to her mother! Rather than censor the lyrics, teachers might emphasize the humor and provide context - "this is what some of your grandparents might have sung."

Play Parties and Other Dance Forms

In many books and on recordings, the play party is listed as, or implied to be, a "singing game." Janet E. Tobitt described it as a "singing game for recreation." She writes that her examples are American play parties but refers to them as "singing games for recreation." Elsewhere in her publications, she uses the term "song dances." Notably, she was born and educated in the U.K., where the term play party is not generally recognized. 

The American square dance provides another genre for comparison. The square dance, so familiar to Americans, is rooted in dance forms brought over by the Colonists, including Scots-Irish reels, the French quadrille, and the English country dance. (see Southern Appalachian Square Dance: A Brief History)

I feel it is necessary to clarify the confusion over play party, singing game, and square dance. I offer this chart of my own comparisons:

Singing Game
Play Party
Square Dance
centuries old about 100 active years about 200 years old
universal American known in many countries
played by young children played by families played by all ages
lyrics are sung lyrics are sung usually instrumental only
taught by parents, teachers, and children to children first taught by oral tradition  taught by a trained caller
still alive and popular about 100 years of popularity still alive and popular
no funded organization no funded organization American Square Dance Association
many published examples not many published examples many published examples
many recordings Some recordings many recordings and videos
simple to learn mostly simple to learn range from simple to challenging

From Oral Tradition to Print

Whereas professional dancing masters taught country dances and quadrilles, people learned play parties through informal oral tradition. There were no lyrics, tunes, or instructions on paper. Eventually, like folktales and folksongs, publishers made a standard repertoire available through print. During the early 1900s, Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály expressed and expanded the national identity of their country by collecting and studying folk song and dance in remote villages. In England, Cecil Baring-Gould, Cecil Sharp, and Ralph Vaughan Williams were just a few of the scholars promoting folk song and dance. These scholars shared their enthusiasm in America, where ethnomusicology and folklore societies began to evolve.

In America, Katherine and Lynn Rohrbough created a successful business printing pocket-sized books that included play parties. Significantly, their first company was called "Church Recreation Services" (1930-1933). The couple graduated from Boston University's Religious Studies Program, which inspired them to publish booklets for recreational purposes. These small, spiralbound booklets were handy to carry around for reference. The couple drove across the country and, hosted by Methodist congregations, collected songs and dances. Returning to their Ohio barn, they purchased a mimeograph machine. In no time, the Rohrboughs had started what became a successful business. Customers included summer camps, Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, colleges, schools, and churches. Their Handy Play Party Book, published in 1940, offers nearly a hundred play parties, each dated and located with the contributor's signature.

Decline of the Play Party

In his book Waltz the Hall, Alan Spurgeon attributes the decline of the play party to the fact that American rural settlements hardly exist today. He suggests that those rural settlers and pioneers eventually would have been tempted to find competing entertainment in nearby cities, particularly when cars were more available. To my mind, many of these urban choices would fail to satisfy the human need to dance, clap hands, sing, and swing elbows with other like-minded folks.

In 1990 Kenneth Munson referred to the play party as "a lost art." Remembering his childhood of dancing, he and his family wrote down the play parties they could remember so that their rural community of Hope, Texas, could revive them. Along with renovating the town's historical buildings, the townspeople agreed to dedicate a dance hall so that play parties could be taught to the young, just as Munson experienced them in his youth. His booklet, published by the Texas Folklore Society, is A Lost Art; Play-Party Songs and Games of Hope, Texas. This booklet was incorporated two years later as the final chapter of his book, Texas Play Party: A Lavaca County Life 1912- To the Present.

In both booklet and book, Munson recalls that play parties were vital in Hope during the first four decades of the twentieth century, even with the advent of the flapper culture of the 1920s. In neighboring towns, women with bobbed hair and short skirts danced the Charleston. Perhaps Texan teens drove to Yoakum and Hallettsville to see moving picture shows. Regardless, the play party in Hope remained the favorite Saturday night entertainment. Munson remarks that Hope, Texas, might be the only place in America that revived the play party following World War II.

Reviving the Play Party

Music educators have become known for promoting play parties in journals and at national and local conferences and meetings, particularly by the American Orff Schulwerk Association. Martha Riley, a prominent music educator, wrote in the Orff Echo:

Accompanied only with singing, play parties use simple footwork with the emphasis on social and 'game' aspects. Children experience movements and concepts found in traditional folk dances . . . While you may think play parties are more difficult than dancing to recorded music because the children must do two things at once: sing and move. But the words of the song often include dance instructions, so that singing makes the game easier to play. Furthermore, when children are singing, the beat is internal… Children are more aware of the beat, phrase, and form when making music themselves.

Other educators, including Jill Trinka, Sanna Longden, Jos Wuytack, Randy DeLelles, and Jeff Kriske, have published and taught these dances across the country.

Aside from music educators, recall that the Rohrboughs sold instruction books in the 1930s to summer camps, Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, colleges, schools, and churches. These groups and their leaders might offer sources for a contemporary play party revival.

The American Folklore Society is an enormous resource for play party studies. Their journal is available in university libraries and online at The serious researcher must turn to these national and state folklore societies. This essay references but a few such sources.

Alan Spurgeon's Waltz the Hall contains the most extensive chronicles of the social and historical conditions of the play party. Spurgeon and his university students and colleagues found folks who still knew play party games, often through older relatives in neighborhoods and small towns. After providing ninety complete instructions with music, Spurgeon gives us an index at the book's end which comprises seemingly endless lists of bibliographical material. Just as Iona and Peter Opie wrote the book on singing games, Alan Spurgeon wrote the book on play parties. 

I am surprised at the dramatic increase in play party descriptions as I write this article. I accessed nearly all the resources listed here from my home music library. For abundant studies of play parties in journals other than The Orff Echo, I recommend the bibliography of Waltz the Hall and the archival materials through the American Folklore Society. 

Finally, I wish to paraphrase Alan Spurgeon, who has reminded us that the pioneers who danced and sang in the tradition of the play party have passed on, but we teachers and folklorists are still alive.

Further Reading

1937 - Benjamin A. Botkin.  The American Play-Party Song. University of Nebraska Press.

1940 - Katherine and Lynn Rohrbough. Handy Play Party Book. Cooperative Recreation Service, Ohio.  

1940 - Woody Guthrie et al. Southern Mountain Hoedowns Sung and Played.  Stinson Records, SLP 54.W. 

1942-1952 - Janet Evelyn Tobitt.  Singing Games for Recreation. H.F. W. Deane and Sons, The Yearbook Press, London. 

1945 - Ed Durlacher. The Play Party Book, Singing Games for Children. The Devin Adair Company, New York. 

1947 - Lomax and Seeger. Folk Song U.S.A. Duell, Sloan & Pearse.

1947 - Janet E. Tobitt.  Promenade All; A Compilation of Song-Dances. Copyright by the author, New York.

1949 - Richard Chase. Singing Games and Play Party Games. Dover Publications, New York. 

1951 - Singing Together. Ginn and Company (national school music book; many earlier books).

1953 - Jean Ritchie. A Garland of Mountain Songs. Recording by Broadcast Music Inc.

1953 - M. Katherine Price. The Source Book of Play Party Games (3rd printing). Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Price references 5 titles by Lynn Rohrbough of Delaware, Ohio, including Church Recreation and Cooperative Recreation titles).

1954 - John Lair. Songs Lincoln Loved. Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

1957 - Jean Ritchie. Jean Ritchie Sings Children's Songs and Games from the Southern Mountains. Folkways Records Album No. FC 7054, New York.

1959 - Pete Seeger, et al. LP.  American Play Parties. Folkways Records and Service Co.

1962 - Burl Ives. The Wayfaring Stranger's Notebook. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York.

1962 - John and Alan Lomax. Folksong U.S.A. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. Reprinted edition.

1963 - Harold Courlander.  Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. Columbia University Press, New York and London.

1968 - Jean Ritchie. Marching Across the Green Grass and Other Game Songs. Smithsonian Folkways Records 7702. 

1970 - Nancy and John Langstaff. Jim Along Josie. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. New York. (Play parties are called singing games here and throughout many other listings.)

1970 - Ruth Crawford Seeger. American Folk Songs for Children. Doubleday Publishing, 1970.

1972 - Jos Wuytack and Tossi Aaron. Joy! Play Sing and Dance: American Play Parties. Leduc, Paris. 

1978 - Tossi Aaron. Punchinella 47: Twenty Traditional American Play Parties. Coda Publishing Co, Inc., Philadelphia, PA. 

1982 - Vance Randolph. Ozark Folksongs, edited & abridged by Norm Cohen (See Chapter 10).

1982 - Cecilia Riddell. Revision of Handy Play Party Book, Cooperative Recreation Service, Ohio, available at  

1985 - Iona and Peter Opie. The Singing Game. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

1987 - Jill Trinka. Folksongs, Singing Games and Play Parties. (3 booklets and recordings) GIA Publications, Chicago.

1987 - Lois Choksy and David Brummitt. 120 Singing Games and Dances for Elementary Schools. Prentice-Hall, Inc. (multiple international locations) 

1988 - Eleanor G. Locke. Sail Away, 155 American Folk Songs to Sing Read and play. Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.

1990 - Kenneth E. Munson. A Lost Art: Play-Party Songs and Games of Hope, Texas. Texas Folklore Society. (soft cover, pamphlet)

1990 - Cecilia Riddell.  Traditional Singing Games of Elementary School Children in Los Angeles. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

1992 - Kenneth E. Munson. Texas Play Party, A Lavaca County Life; 1912 - To the Present. Guild Craft, Division of Guild Press, Indiana. (hard cover book)

1999 - Alan L. Spurgeon. "The Play Party in the Ozarks." Journal, Kodály Envoy, Fall, 1999, Organization of American Kodály Educators.

2004 - Martha Riley. "Orff Process Applied to Folk Dance." Journal, The Orff Echo. American Orff-Schulwerk Association. 

2005 - Alan L. Spurgeon. Waltz the Hall, The American Play Party. University Press of Mississippi. 

2017 - Laraine Miner. Mormon Pioneer Dances of the Early Saints. Cedar Fort Inc., Springville, Utah. (includes CD)