The play-party developed out of the American frontier experience and continued in rural environs well into the twentieth century. A play-party is a social gathering in which young people "play" a game involving drama and swinging movements performed to singing and hand clapping, without instrumental accompaniment. The play-party evolved from children's games and grew up in an era when musical instruments were considered inappropriate for proper social occasions. Many churches in early American communities shunned the fiddle, which was often described as "the Devil's box." In the middle South and in the southern highlands, oral tradition preserved play-parties, and as pioneers migrated westward, they carried these traditions with them.
The play-party typically used a song like "Skip to My Lou" or "London Bridge" as a game, combined with music. Participants and sometimes bystanders sang the songs. Play-parties took the place of dance parties for children and adolescents where all other dancing was forbidden. Also popular in less restrictive communities, the play-parties continued into the1930s as entertainment for young adults who could not afford to go to a public dance. As public schools developed, play-parties thrived on the playground. In the twentieth century playgrounds likely preserved many of the songs. Play-parties, common in most Oklahoma communities, only began to lose popularity in the 1950s.
A play-party could be held in a front room, on a front porch, in a schoolroom, or in any other open area. Participants dressed more casually than they would have for dances of the same eras, but play-parties that were planned in advance encouraged some girls to "fix up." Often the play-party allowed young women to take the lead in a social situation, as girls usually organized the party.
Oklahoma play-party song themes varied and included a range of references ranging from war, "Had A Little Fight In Mexico," to multiplication tables, "Twistification," and to obscure English history and lore. The words were well known, but the original meaning of the verses was often forgotten. A substantial part of the lyrics were falderal or nonsense. Lynn Riggs, a notable playwright from Claremore, Oklahoma, used several play-party songs in his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which later was used as the basis for the Broadway musical Oklahoma! The musical deleted the play-party tunes but did use some of the old "squares," figures used in play-party games, as a part of the choreography.
Benjamin A. Botkin conducted notable research on play-parties and in 1937 published The American Play-party Song. Conducted almost entirely in 1930s Oklahoma in more than fifty counties, the research has been considered by many to be the most complete collection of play-parties of any American state. The book also included variants of Oklahoma songs and interviews with play-party participants.
B. A. Botkin, The American Play-Party Song: With a Collection of Oklahoma Texts and Tunes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1937).
Maria Leach and Jerome Fried, eds., Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (1949; reprint, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1972).
Marion Thede, The Fiddle Book (New York: Oak Publications, 1967).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Rodger Harris, “Play-Parties,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=PL001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.