Waltz the Hall

Waltz the Hall: The American Play Party

ALAN L. SPURGEON
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv79j
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  • Book Info
    Waltz the Hall
    Book Description:

    What did young people do for diversion and socialization in communities that banned most dancing and considered the fiddle to be the devil's instrument? The American play party was the fundamentalist's answer. Here the singing was a cappella, the dancers followed prescribed steps, and arm and elbow swings would be the only touching.

    The play party was a popular form of American folk entertainment that included songs, dances, and sometimes games. Though based upon European and English antecedents, play parties were truly an American phenomenon, first mentioned in print in 1837. The last play parties were performed in the 1950s. Though documented in rural and frontier areas throughout the United States, they seem to have been most popular and lasted the longest in the rural South and Midwest. "Skip to My Lou" and "Pig in a Parlor" are still sung today but without the movements and games.

    This is the first book since the 1930s to study this important and little-remembered phenomenon of American folk culture. The author interviewed a large number of Americans, both black and white, who performed play parties as young adults. Many of our parents and grandparents experienced these events, which harken back to a time when people created their own forms of entertainment. Today play parties are an important source of song and movement material for elementary-school-age children. A songbook of ninety musical examples and lyrics completes the picture of this vanished tradition.

    Alan L. Spurgeon, Oxford, Mississippi, is associate professor of music at the University of Mississippi. He is the editor ofPig in the Parlor and Twenty Other Authentic Play Parties, and his work has appeared in several music-related periodicals.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-078-9
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. PART ONE THE AMERICAN PLAY PARTY

    • INTRODUCTION
      (pp. 5-10)

      Phydella sang along as she walked up to her newly married sister Alma’s house, next to the Zion church. She could hear her friends inside singing the words, as they skipped and changed partners. There was a boy in the middle who ran wildly to steal a partner. There was a bit of good-natured pushing and lots of laughing, and then they went on to the next verse. “Lost my partner, what’ll I do? …” The boy was still in the middle of the circle, unsuccessful. It was 1933 and Phydella was fifteen. Her mother had let her go by...

    • AN OVERVIEW OF THE TRADITIONAL PLAY PARTY GATHERING
      (pp. 11-23)

      People who were separated by hundreds of miles describe play parties in remarkably similar ways. Though there may have been regional variances, research from early in the twentieth century shows that the activity was nearly the same everywhere. The event might include other games and dances, but the actual play party games were nearly always the featured entertainment, probably because they were the most fun. The information I gathered from interviewees is almost always in agreement with journal articles written earlier in the century.

      In Missouri the invitations to play parties were transmitted by word of mouth and were delivered...

    • PLAY PARTIES IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY
      (pp. 23-28)

      The period in which play parties flourished in the United States paralleled the period of racial segregation. Though African Americans were denied normal interaction with the white culture, it seems obvious that play parties, or something like them, must have existed in the African American community. All the journal articles and other printed sources from the first half of the twentieth century deal exclusively with play parties in white culture. There is no mention of African American play parties.

      According to written material which discusses folk songs and dances in the black community and interviews with older African Americans, the...

    • THE PLAY PARTY SONGS AND THEIR MOVEMENTS
      (pp. 28-35)

      The main difference between a square dance and a play party had to do with singing. Play parties were often held in the same communities as square dances, but play party songs were sung by the dancers and were unaccompanied. Square dances were accompanied by instruments, and a caller sang or spoke the words to the songs. The play party participants sang the songs and went through the movements and games that accompanied the song.

      Wolford, inThe Play Party in Indiana, does an excellent job of categorizing play party games to help the reader understand the types that became...

    • THE PROHIBITION AGAINST DANCING
      (pp. 35-47)

      Dancing was frowned upon by church members and by clergy and other leaders in the Christian churches of the United States for many years. Preachers spoke against the practice from the pulpit, pointing out that dances were not fit places for Christians to go and that dancing was an inappropriate activity for members of their congregations. Children were cautioned to refrain from dancing. In the most conservative churches, even children’s singing games were forbidden. Early Puritan preachers in the Northeast spoke forcefully against the practice. For example, Rev. John Cotton, in 1625, called it “lascivious dancing to wanton ditties, and...

    • ORIGINS OF THE PLAY PARTY
      (pp. 47-52)

      The play party evolved from a variety of sources including children’s singing games. These existed in antiquity. Game artifacts have been found in ancient tombs and temples, and a wall painting shows Egyptian girls in a hand-clapping game. Ring and line dances are depicted on ancient pottery from Greece, and the New Testament contains an account of Christ standing in the center of the ring while his apostles danced around him.192The traditional play party in its final state drew heavily upon children’s game songs from Britain, though it became much more sophisticated, with its own set of rules, movements,...

    • PREVIOUS RESEARCH ON PLAY PARTIES
      (pp. 52-57)

      Folklorists began collecting play party songs around the end of the nineteenth century, though often only the text was printed. Play party songs were included in W. W. Newell’sGames and Songs of American Children,219first published in 1883. The first song text printed in theJournal of American Folk-Lore(vol. II, 1889) was “My Pretty Little Pink,” a popular play party song.220A version of that song appears in this book. The term “play party” was not seen in print until 1904, when Emma Bell Miles published an article on the southern mountains inHarper’s Magazine.221The play party...

    • THE DEMISE OF THE PLAY PARTY
      (pp. 57-62)

      Botkin, writing in 1937, says that the play party had reached its height a generation or two earlier and then began to die out very quickly.239In 1928, he wrote:

      The play party in the United States has grown and decayed through the successive stages of western migration. Essentially a primitive folk-type, it sprang up in isolated communities in response to a definite need for vigorous recreation—a need not to be satisfied by church socials and literary societies, to be expressed only in rhythmic movement, and as such not to be put down by church restrictions on dancing…. Its...

  5. PART TWO THE SONGS
    (pp. 63-212)

    The formation is a circle with the players standing in couples in promenade position. The boys are on the inside, and the couples are moving forward to the beat of the music. One extra boy is inside the circle.

    On “Swing her by the right hand,” the boys swing their partners by the right arms and then by the left.

    They then change partners, with the girl moving on to the next boy. The new partners promenade.

    At the partner change, the boy in the middle tries to steal a new partner, and, if he is successful, the boy without...

  6. INFORMANTS
    (pp. 213-214)
  7. NOTES
    (pp. 215-223)
  8. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 224-230)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 231-236)
  10. SONG INDEX
    (pp. 237-238)