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Songs of Yesterday: Can't Dance and It's Too Wet to Plow

The play-party songs of our ancestors have remained in our culture, long after we have forgotten the movements that accompanied the words. Songs like "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch" and "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush" involved activities that were very close to dancing and were a way our Puritan ancestors got around the edicts that prohibited that type of activity.


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My husband often says, in answer to my request that he help me with something, accompany me somewhere, or otherwise engage in an activity about which he cares neither one way nor another, "Can't dance and it's too wet to plow." Now, I have taken to analyzing this phrase and its origin (no, this is not an article from my "Lost Lexicons" series) and have decided that it just might be something our ancestors would have uttered. (One website says that it is the reason one might give for engaging in sex - as if the possibility of dancing or plowing would be preferable!).

OK, I understand that if it is too wet to plow, that it truly is not a good idea to hitch up the horse and give it a try - you will end up with a muddy horse that will take the better part of the day to clean and, quite possibly, a ruined plow; not to mention a field that will most likely require re-plowing once the ground dries out a bit (and, since plowing implies planting, one does not really want to put seeds into a muddy mess). But what are the reasons one cannot dance (and that those circumstances might coincide with the weather being too bad to plow)? Certainly, if it is too wet to plow, dancing (usually an indoor activity) would be a great alternative and give one a little exercise. But, while I have been unsuccessful in finding the scholars' reasoning behind the "dance" part of this phrase, I have a suspicion that I know the rationale. It is not that one cannot dance but that one may not dance; i.e., it is (or was in many early American cultures) forbidden.

Some went so far as to declare that fiddle tunes were the music of the devil. Of course, much dancing was done to, what else: the fiddle. Dance tunes, then, were often dubbed "Devil's ditties." There are many folktales and songs about the Devil and the fiddler interacting, with the latter learning his craft from Satan himself. Surely this musician, producing his instrument and bow at a public gathering, was up to no good (Lomax, pp. xxiii-xxiv). Why it was as if Beelzebub himself had come to lead the innocents into perdition.

Yet we know so many songs from these same Puritanical cultures, and many involved both fiddling and dancing. Or did they? Well, there is not much one can do to disguise a fiddler, but it is amazing what our forebears did to enjoy a dance without appearing to be, well, dancing! And so the "play-party" song was invented. This unique genre allowed the participants to dance the night away while the preacher and the congregation nodded and enjoyed the "playing" that was taking place. But do not get me wrong, play-party songs were enjoyed by all ages (and probably even the preacher had a turn or two on the floor). Since partners would be swung by hands instead of arms around the waist, the movements appeared to be nothing more harmful than a game of tag or Red Rover (Botkin, p. 803).

Many songs used for play-party activities clearly outlined the actions to be done to the words. One example is, "Did you ever see a lassie, a lassie, a lassie/ Did you ever see a lassie, go this way and that?/ Go this way and that way and that way and this way/ Did you ever see a lassie go this way and that?" - a young girl is in the center of the circle as the other participants move around her singing, then she invents her own activity to the "this way and that way," such as hopping on one foot or twirling around, etc. Once she has shown what the motions are to be, those in the circle drop hands and do the same thing (Wessells, p. 54).

Others have particular motions or actions that must be taught before the dance, oops, I mean "play," begins. One example would be the movements for "The Muffin Man." When one first hears the song, it hardly sounds as if it is designed as a play-party piece, but actions are suggested in some of the written versions, making it a much longer song than I remember it from my childhood (Wessells, p. 43). While not all of the instructional books are clear on this, many play-party songs did not involve partner-dancing. (FYI, our ancestors did not have guide books for these dances, the "how to" books have been developed by those of us not inventive enough to create our own movements to the music.) "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch" involves a lot of solo action (looking for pawpaws, putting them in one's pocket, etc.), and when "partners" are selected, it does not necessarily mean a boy and a girl are paired: sometimes there will be a group of children, all "working" together as partners. In the song just mentioned, one verse asks "Where, oh, where are the three pretty girls?" implying that that primary dancer, oops, player, chooses three girls from the group to assist in the pawpaw search (Nelson, pp. 38-39).

Most of us remember the "patty-cake" type of hand motions we did with certain rhymes (e.g., "Pease porridge hot/ Pease porridge cold/ Pease porridge in the pot/ Nine days old): we would clap our knees, then our hands together, then right hands with a partner, then repeat the process with the left (or something like that). This may have been the precursor to the whole body movements, but children still do these today (or so I am told) (Saltman, p. 43).

Let's face it, music, or just a prosodic rhyme, often is screaming to us: "Move! Move!" What can we do but let the whole body get involved? And this is not unique to the American culture; most of our ancestors brought with them the music and dance (or rhythmic movements) of their societies when they came to America; no wonder we find so many different types of music connected to dance movement. It is suggested that these movements make non-verbal statements about the culture and its rituals. In studying the dance (or play-party) activities of our forebears, we can learn something about their communities and even values (Bohlman, p. 8).

Consider the community that includes "The Farmer in the Dell" at their harvest social. It is more likely that this group of individuals is involved in agriculture (with dancers representing the farmer, his wife, their child, the dog, etc. down to the cheese that, as we all remember, "stands alone") (Wessells, p. 9). Or the songs we find from our British ancestors declaring that "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down;/ London bridge is falling down, my fair lady." Then the actors commence to try to build it up with various types of building materials, each having its own weakness, causing the bridge to "fall." One version I located focuses only on this building process (Saltman, p. 45) while another adds verses about a prisoner who stole a watch and broke a chain, requiring gold and silver to set him/her free. As the children sing the song, two form the "bridge" (more of a tunnel, actually) and the others go around and duck under the upraised arms. At the prescribed time, the "keepers" (who have determined whether "gold" or "silver" is the key word) drop the arms to trap whatever child happens to be going under the gate (similar to the "musical chairs" theory where the one caught is now "out," then the process and singing continues). In this version, the two left end up in a tug of war (Wessells, p. 45). Not exactly what one would expect on a dance floor, but exercise, just the same.

Last month I discussed the debate over whether a weasel chased a monkey around a cobbler's bench or a mulberry bush, suggesting that the latter made no sense and was actually borrowed from another song altogether. Both of these songs are play-party songs (I will let you imagine what actions happen with the "Pop!" of the weasel). In the Mulberry bush action song, different activities are presented for each day, after the initial "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush;/ Here we go 'round the mulberry bush, so early in the morning." The verses speak of the various chores common in households of the 19th and (all but the last part of the) 20th Centuries: "This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes . . . so early Monday morning." (There was a time when Monday was considered washday, but life has altered the routines of our great-great-grandmothers.) Tuesday is reserved for ironing the clothes (there is no time for that task remaining on Monday after thoroughly washing clothing for the entire family). Wednesday is designated floor-scrubbing day. On Thursday we return to the clothing for mending purposes and on Friday it is back to the floors with house-sweeping (personally, I prefer to sweep prior to scrubbing the floors, but what do I know?). Saturday is baking day and bread is on the menu. Of course, church is the only acceptable activity for Sunday. As a play-party song, the participants simply mimic the activity for each respective day (Wessells, p. 19).

The kinesic activities of handclapping and toe-tapping are just a whisper away from a twirl on a dance floor (Dorson, p. 317). It is not surprising that our ancestors, even those ruled by the customs that dictated that they keep their feet still, might not have resisted the temptation to "circle left and right"; after all, this country was founded partly on the belief that men (and women) should be free to worship and act according to the dictates of their conscience, not as an appointed or born-to-the-throne monarch dictated; so the rulings of the community preacher often were ignored (Lomax, p. 3). Consider all the songs you learned as a child (maybe in school or from a parent, grandparent, or other person): which ones were really disguised dance tunes, actually developed to answer the inner demon that cried "dance, dance, dance"?


Bohlman, Philip V. The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Botkin, B. A., Ed. A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1944.

Dorson, Richard M., Ed. Handbook of American Folklore. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Lomax, Alan. Folk Songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960.

Nelson, Esther L. Dancing Games for Children of All Ages. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1984.

Saltman, Judith. The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985.

Wessells, Katharine Tyler. The Golden Songbook: 60 Favorite Songs and Singing Games. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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