My daughter Lily and her friends spend their time at recess singing songs and doing clapping games.
Here’s her current favorite. They sing ABC by the Jackson 5, but only for the first three lines, and then it becomes a rap done in tandem with an elaborate clapping pattern:
A,B,C, it's easy as 1, 2, 3,
My mommy takes care of me,
My daddy says, ooh aah, I want of piece of pie,
Pie too sweet, I want a piece of meat,
Meat too tough, I want to ride a bus,
Bus too full I want to ride a bull,
Bull too black, I want my money back,
Money too green, I want a jelly bean,
Jelly bean too red, I want to go to bed,
Bed not made, I want some lemonade,
Lemonade too sour, I want to take a shower,
Shower too cold, I want a piece of gold,
Gold to shiny, I want to kick your hiney,
Hiney too smelly, I want a bowl of jelly,
Now count to ten with your eyes closed,
(At this point you must do the complicated clapping pattern with your eyes closed,
and if you mess up, you must start over again.)
Watching her perform these chants makes me realize that she lives in a separate culture to mine, a “ kid culture” to which I once belonged years ago, but forgot about --
-- until she sings a piece of “kid culture” that I remember from my own childhood, and a buried memory will surface and become vivid and alive again. It’s another reason I love being a parent; as I witness my daughter move through childhood, I will glimpse something that sends me time traveling back to the West Portal schoolyard and I am suddenly eight years old again, like her.
I remember one song that the girls used to sing to taunt the boys. It starts with the word “boys,” but the girls would insert the first name of any boy they liked enough to harass:
Boys are made of greasy grimey gopher guts,
Mutilated monkey feet,
Itty bitty birdy feet,
French fried eyeballs,
Swimming in a pool of blood,
Gee, I forgot my spoon!
My wife Robin, who grew up in Sherman Oaks, California, sang the same rhyme. She remembers it differently, however, and insists that the correct phrase is “chopped up monkey meat.” Maybe both are correct and are regional variations of the same song.
Robin was thrilled when Lily came home knowing this next classic, which she’d forgotten about. It started long before Robin was a child and it is still being passed down, girl to girl, through the years.
Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack
All Dressed in Black Black Black
With Silver Buttons, Buttons, Buttons,
All down her back, back, back,
She asked her mother, mother, mother,
For Fifty cents cents cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant
Jump over the fence, fence, fence,
He jumped so high, high, high,
He touched the sky, sky, sky,
And he never came back back back
until the 4th of July, lie, lie…
NO, YOU LIE!
(you both stop clapping and then point at each other)
What defines culture?
A culture, whether it’s French, or Swahili, is a group that shares the same songs, games, jokes, art, fashion and cuisine. What Lily and her friends are doing qualifies as culture, especially when you throw in the lanyards, rainbow loom wrist bands and the cootie catchers (fashion and art work) that they create for themselves.
And no adults are involved; kids always teach other kids, and they pass their culture down through the generations, while the original “authors” or “creators” of these works are usually lost to history.
My own crowning creative achievement was learning how to make a switchblade out of popsicle sticks and rubber bands, and then sharpening the wooden tip by filing down the edges on the playground asphalt. Gary Nakamura taught me how -- eat four Orange Creamsicles at lunch and save the sticks, get four rubbers bands, and get busy.
I showed Robin how to make a popsicle stick switchblade early in our dating, and I believe it was the reason she fell in love with me. She knew that I was still a kid at heart, and that I would enjoy having kids.
The Internet and Youtube is changing this, however. Now kids can learn the same game that other kids are playing across the country, and even around the world.
“The Cups Song,” is the perfect example of this. This is another popular game and song that all the girls are doing on the schoolyard. As you sing the song, you play the “cup game” at the same time -- either alone, in pairs, or in larger and larger groups. Here are the lyrics, which I’m sure you’ve heard:
I got my ticket for the long way round
Two bottles of whiskey for the way
And i sure would like some sweet company
And I’m leaving tomorrow
What do you say?
When I’m gone
When I’m gone
You’re going to miss me when I’m gone
You’re going to miss me by my hair
You’re going to miss me everywhere
Oh, you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.
The song “When I’m Gone” was written in the 1930s by one of the Carter sisters and the cup game that kids play is decades older, but the two were paired together in a movie from 2012 called Pitch Perfect, starring Anna Kendricks, and it became a radio hit.
Lily never saw the movie, nor did we. However, after first learning the song and game on the playground, she perfected it by watching “how to” videos on Youtube. I walked into my office one day and found her at the computer watching a video of a young girl from Atlanta teaching other kids how to play the game. Kid Culture has gone viral.
It all comes full circle this weekend, when I teach my daughter how to make a popsicle stick switch blade. I just checked, and there’s a how to video for it on the Internet. Kid Culture is alive and well.