Between 1976 and 1978 Karen S. Ellis recorded the playground songs of elementary school students on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. She was teaching at the Ricardo Richards School and many of the children she recorded were her students. This work culminated in a book and recording, Domino, a resource for children and teachers, published in 1990. The collection, An Abridged Compilation of American Virgin Island Children’s Songs (AFC 1984/54), has recently been digitized and is now available in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress.
This year marks the 100th year since the U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased by the United States from Denmark. I had planned to write something to celebrate this anniversary once some of our Virgin Islands collection items were digitized and could be presented. As progress was made on this effort, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were hit with two devastating hurricanes. It didn’t seem to be the best time for a celebration. But the people of these islands have made good progress in their recovery. They are welcoming visitors again and hoping that the important winter tourist season will help in the recovery. So this seems to be a good moment to focus on the vibrant and resilient culture of this part of the United States.
To collect songs, Ellis asked students to teach her the lyrics. Her goal was to understand her students better, as she did not speak Virgin Island Creole — a mixture of English, West African languages, and words unique to the Virgin Islands. (The word for the language of the islands that Virgin Islanders use is ”dialect,” but linguists recognize it as an English-based creole, a complex language mixture learned from childhood.) Ellis also had students whose first language was Spanish. She wanted the children to learn that their traditions and languages were valuable, while also helping them to learn standard English. To do this, she first needed to learn their languages. She wrote down the songs both in their original Virgin Island Creole or Spanish and in English translation. The songs she collected varied in their use of language, reflecting the complex language mixture of the islands. Some are English and seem to have English origins (British or American), while some show the grammar of Virgin Islands Creole. Some originated in other islands in the Caribbean.
In this recording of a call and response song, “In a Fine Castle,” Ellis can be heard singing along with the children:
In this clapping song, the children ask for mother to make “Johnny cake,” because Christmas is coming. Johnny cake in the Caribbean is not usually the cornbread varieties of quick breads found in the mainland United States called “Johnny cake.” Instead it is a fried (or sometimes baked) wheat flour bread about the size of a bagel. Most recipes call for baking powder, but yeast versions exist as well. In fact, every family seems to have their own recipe, or perhaps more than one. Johnny cake is not just for Christmas, but in this song it seems to be an important food for the holiday. At the end we can hear Ellis interview the lead singer, Shirley Daniel, and ask about the lyrics of the song.
Migrations from nearby Puerto Rico brought Spanish to the Virgin Islands. A large wave occurred during the Great Depression, but movement of people between the islands is a natural part of life in the Caribbean. This recording of “Ambos a Dos” demonstrates the student’s enthusiasm for the recording project. The girl who begins the call and response song starts shyly, but as the other children join in, the song grows louder and more confident. When they get to the end the students are not satisfied with it, so they decide to sing it again.
In 1978, the group Boney M recorded a version of a Caribbean children’s ring-game song, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” on the B side of a single. The song on the A side was “Rivers of Babylon,” which became a hit in the United Kingdom. Eventually someone decided to play the B side on the radio, and “Brown Girl in the Ring” became a hit as well. This recording is of the original game song, thought to have originated in Jamaica and perhaps brought to the Virgin Islands by the children of immigrants. In the game, children form a ring with one child in the center. As the children sing, the child in the ring dances as the lyrics say “show me your motion.” When the lyrics ask the child to “show me your partner,” the child picks someone from the ring to join him or her. The two dance in the ring before the first child joins the circle and the second child is asked to “show me your motion.” The students are dancing to the song and laughing as they sing.
Karen Ellis’s use of her student’s songs in Virgin Islands Creole and Spanish, translated into standard English to help teach reading, was reportedly a success. It is not difficult to imagine that students who have often been told that there is something wrong with the way they speak may respond well to an acknowledgment that there is value in the language that they learned at home and that standard English is another language that will open doors for them. Virgin Island Creole is now less widely spoken, as television, the internet, and the economic benefits of standard English bring about social changes. To linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists, the documentation of creole languages has value in that it can provide insights into the development of creoles and into the cultures where they are found. So the recordings of these children may find new uses as they are now made available to researchers.
I wonder what Virgin Island children of today might think about these songs, sung by children who must be old enough to be grandparents today. Do children today still sing some of these songs? Do they sing them the same way?
Davis, Jennifer. “Worst. Birthday. Ever. Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, United States Territories.” In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress, November 13, 2017.
Virgin Island Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture (finding aid for the American Folklife Center archive)