Women’s History Month: ‘Down, Down Baby’

Music between the sexes, from double-dutch to hip-hop

Volume CIX, No. 3March, 2009

Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D.

There is music in the games of girls. Specifically, there are complicated rhythms in the double-dutch jumprope games of African-American girls. Just in time for Women’s History Month, ethnomusicologist Krya Gaunt gives us a brief tour of a musical genre that’s right under our feet.

When we think of the music that drives the popular culture of African Americans, our first thought is not of double-dutch: girls bouncing between two twirling ropes, keeping time to the tick-tat under their toes, stepping out with snatches of song and dance that animate their torsos and release their tongues with laughter.

Girls’ vernacular forms of popular music culture will never be assigned copyright; no royalties for the song-makers of double-dutch.

But their musical games reflect the exchange of music between the sexes, specifically between girls and men, that can be traced through recorded songs by male artists for over 50 years.

The music between the sexes I speak of is not found in the sexually explicit videos of MTV or BET and girls’ chants are not some secondary form of expression to men’s.

Girls’ musical chants have actually informed the making of pop chart hits by men while male recorded hits often inspire new chants among the youngest generation of black female music-makers.

Female artists, or perhaps their male-oriented producers, seem to disregard their younger counterparts musical expression altogether.

Perhaps it seems too easy.

Perhaps it would diminish reception of female artists’ musicianship, which is always in question in male-dominated genres.

I trace evidence of the music between the sexes to 1958 with Little Anthony and the Imperials recording “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Pop.” The hook can be found in a contemporary popular black girls’ game-song known as “Down, Down Baby” also known as “Hot Dog.” The game-song features a significant swivel- or snake-hip gesture that seems to also been the shimmy of the dance that accompanied the 1958 hit.

This exchange begins to explain how black musical style is learned (rather than biologically transmitted) at a young age through oral and kinetic practices (by word of mouth and body) that teach syncopation, call-and-response, percussive uses of non-verbal expressions, and the social dance moves needed to be competent and masterful in performing “musical blackness” later in young adult settings.

It also suggests that the art of sampling previously recorded or familiar musics found in hip-hop began long before the genre and is not exclusive to the male-dominated genre.

Other examples of music between the sexes appear with Michael Jackson’s first teenage hit single “Rockin’ Robin” from 1971 that continues in a contemporary handclapping game known as a “bridge” featuring four girls in a square creating bridges over and under the adjacent pairs’ clapping gestures.

In the hop-hop era, Afrika Bambaataa’s hip-hop classic “Planet Rock” from 1983 is still practiced in a cheer known as “Rock, rock, the planet rock” that I collected from a black women who grew up outside Chicago in the mid- to late 1980s.

She had never heard of the hip-hop song which clearly had informed her social network’s musical practice.

Another exchange, from girls to men, took place when rapper Nelly released “Country Grammar” which won a Grammy Award in 2001.

The funky lyrical hook in the chorus features the first two sections of the handclapping game-song “Down, Down, Baby” or “Hot Dog” with its suggestive but playful hip gyration mentioned above.

Nelly samples from a girls’ game-song, from the public domain, and the familiarity of the hook surely played a role in the popular reception of the song.

Male fans I interviewed often recognized the familiar tune when asked, but often couldn’t place its origin as a girls’ game.

The shift in context didn’t distract girls and women from claiming it as their own, but men who look to hip-hop as a sort of guide to representing real urban masculinity were lost.

This research, presented in my book “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop,” suggests that girls have played an important but often overlooked role in the social and musical formation of black popular music.

It is glossed over when writers treat black music-making and history as a non-gendered realm rather than the often sex-segregated practice of music and dance found in black musical (heterosexual) settings.

Girls’ games have played a role in defining commercial popular musical taste as a result.

Black music studies rarely examines the gendered and embodied relationships shared between the sexes through female experience.

From the life histories of different women born in diverse locations (Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Shreveport, Louisiana — to name a few), I discovered other connections between game-songs like “Miss Mary Mack” and a popular song by Memphis rhythm and blues and soul singer Rufus Thomas.

“Walking the Dog,” Thomas’s Top Ten hit from 1963, opens with the handclapping chant “Mary Mack, all dressed in black.” Accompanied by a provocative dance called “the Dog” featuring a conspicuous pelvic thrust, girls caught “doing the Dog” on the school premises were expelled during segregation, according to women from Detroit and D.C.

This policing of sexual gestures in dance led me to examine the music and dance between the sexes that has kept the popular dance floor packed even when male voices are being suggestive contributing to and maintaining male dominance in the public sphere.

In the case of hip-hop, it keeps girls engaged in a commercial form of music that can be sexist and misogynistic while also signifying a shared black identity between both sexes.

This month, when you notice girls playing games, consider the role they are playing in teaching and learning what black musical style and popular culture are all about. 

Kyra D. Gaunt is an associate professor at Baruch College (CUNY). She teaches anthropology and ethnomusicology and was the recipient of the 2007 Alan Merriam Prize for the most outstanding book from the Society for Ethnomusicology for her book on black girls’ musical game-songs.