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Down, down, baby! A hand-clapping history

hand clapping

Last week, the storied history behind hand-clapping games whetted my nerd appetite, so I wrote a rich, three-course post about it all. This is that, only broken down into snack-sized bloggy portions. Here’s part 1: 

I awoke Monday last with “shimmy shimmy coco pop” in my head. And all at once hand-clapping games seemed extremely, urgently important. It’s been a lovely week of Youtube searches and nostalgic play.

While too young for fancy-pants clap tracks, our kids (2 and 4) do like learning the words and/or basic moves. And for me there’s something about those catchy, semi-crass classics that really bring back the old schoolyard feels.

If you Google or Pinterest (is that a verb yet?) hand-clapping games, you’ll find many articles about how these “activities” support various aspects of cognitive development, along with stock photos of very cute, very white girls wearing very clean clothes.

I didn’t read those, of course, because nothing spoils a good time like hearing about how it promotes academic achievement. But I did gather up some facts and links related to actual fun.

Aaaand history. Because let’s not pretend we made these up. The internet is lousy with lists of “hand-clapping games of the 1980s/1990s,” which include rhymes dating back not only to the American Civil War (“Miss Mary Mack”), but even to the (17th-century) British Civil War (“Pease Porridge Hot”). Not to mention moves consistent with probably much older clapping games spanning the African continent. Sure, references to roller coasters, Pepsi, and McDonalds reflect recent additions, but even these tend to sample the dusty past.

This is oral tradition at its best: outside, on a hot day, and (mostly) in pig tails. Because, let’s give credit where it’s due. This sub-culture has been developed and disseminated almost entirely by little girls, and above all little girls of color.

In today’s post, we’ll look at…

The truth behind “Down, down baby:”

1. Down, down baby

Forty years before Nelly’s 2000 sample in Country Grammar, Little Anthony and the Imperials released “Shimmy, shimmy ko-ko bop” (which may have inspired the clapping game).

I remember the song as it appears in this bad-ass Sesame Street clip from the early ’80s. They use a circle clapping game, also popular among girls at my (Akron, Ohio) elementary school in the 1980s and ’90s.

They sing it like this:

Down, down, baby. Down, down, the roller coaster.
Sweet, sweet, baby. I’ll never let you go.
Chimmy chimmy coco pop. Chimmy chimmy pow. (Repeat)

Grandma, grandma, sick in bed.
Mama called the doctor, and the doctor said:
Let’s get the rhythm of the head: DING-DONG! (Repeat)  
Let’s get the rhythm of the hands: *clap hands twice* (Repeat)
Let’s get the rhythm of the feet: *stomp feet twice* (Repeat)
Let’s get the rhythm of the hooooot dog: *shimmy hips on “hot dog”(Repeat)

Put it all together, and what do you get?
Ding-dong, *clap-clap*, *stomp-stomp*, hot dog!
Put it all backwards, and what do you get?
Hot dog, *stomp-stomp**clap-clap*, ding-dong! 

So, what’s that “hot dog” hip-shimmy business about? Well, we didn’t know either, but it felt at once silly and risqué, so it brought us great joy.

Let’s compare to this video of the song from just three years ago. These girls play a classic (advanced) two-person clapping sequence sometimes referred to as “the Tic-tac-toe.”

They are gifted teachers, these two. And their lyrics are different. Especially since they replace the sick grandma requiring (non-cow bell) rhythmic remedies with:

I like coffee. I like tea.
I like another boy, and he likes me.
From up and down, and side to side.
All around, and shake it, little ride.

P-O-P spells POP!

Hmm… Let’s say we not worry ourselves too much about what underlying message those directional/ closing words might imply. Those little girls clearly didn’t.

Then I read that precursors to this version sounded more like:

I like coffee. I like tea.
I like a black boy, and he likes me.
So step back, white boy, you don’t shine.
I’ll get the black boy to beat your behind.

It sometimes goes on to the further detriment of said white boy’s behind (unless the races were swapped, depending on who was singing). I don’t recall this version, but amazing hobby ethno-musicologist Azizi Powell has collected some facts and thoughts about it you can read on Pancocojams, one of her four intriguing and meticulously curated blogs about black cultures around the world. (I will say that Ms. Powell does not appear distressed about race popping up in child’s play like this, nor does she seem to find much malice in it.)

Sometimes these white/black versions pivot to describe either an innocent courtship at a candy shop, or something far more controversial. (Decide for yourself.)

Last night and the night before,
I met my boyfriend at the candy store.
He bought me ice cream; he bought me cake.
He brought me home with a belly ache.

Mama, mama, I feel sick.
Call the doctor, quick, quick, quick!
Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Close your eyes and count to five.
I’m Alive!

See that house up on the hill?
That’s where me and my baby live.
Eat a piece of meat
Eat a piece of bread.
Come on baby, let’s go to bed!

Speaking of bed, that’s just where I’m heading now.

But! if you’re still hankering for schoolyard folklore, please help yourself to part 2, on “Miss Mary Mack”, or part 3, on “Miss Susie (had a steamboat)”.


Is this how you sang it? Feel free to reminisce in the comment section below!



2 thoughts on “Down, down, baby! A hand-clapping history

  1. Pingback: The truth behind 3 hand-clapping games from your childhood | Just Rocky

  2. These sorts of rhymes for hand clapping never appealed to me as a child and less-so as a parent. As a child I was one of those annoying kids to ask “why” and did not sheepishly accept anything. I’m surprised I still haven’t found answers to why many of these rhymes sound down-right creepy or don’t make sense. “down down baby I can do karate” has always sounded like someone about to discipline a baby (or loved one the refer to as “baby”) using karate. lmao I grew up in a home where we would say “down” to pets when up somewhere against the rules.

    I can’t help but worry myself with the underlying messages of other rhymes that sound very sexual, since these are the very types of things that led to molestation in my neighborhood. An older kid would offer to “explain” the darker side of something like that and to the kid it would be ok because mom and dad didn’t explain so at least someone is. Ick. But people frown upon my teaching my 6 year-old about the origins of “Ring Around the Rosie”. lol I think it’s better to be informed. In my experience lack of information has always made me a victim, rather than protect me in the name of “innocent fun”.

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