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Reel Folk: The Making of Let’s Get the Rhythm

The following is a guest post by Irene Chagall, the co-producer of the film Let’s Get the Rhythm, which will be screening on September 30 as part of the AFC’s “Reel Folk: Cultural Explorations on Film” event (September 29-30) in the Library’s Pickford Theater. Co-producers Irene Chagall and Steve Zeitlin, the director of City Lore, will be on hand during the event to present and discuss their film.

A frame of 1937 footage by John Lomax of children playing handclap games in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

The image of two girls, face to face, interactively clapping rhythmic patterns, is an icon of childhood joy. This widespread oral tradition, usually referred to as handclapping games or hand games, goes on today, as it has for ages, without attracting much attention from anyone except those actively engaged. At first glance, it can be seen as a pastime perpetuated by children, usually girls, between six and eleven years old. On second look, it is remarkable for its integration of the basic elements of the arts of music, movement, and poetry. Yet another perspective reveals it as a unique expression of a budding social mind, both in terms of developing cooperative involvement and in terms of the embedded communication. Participation is completely voluntary and spontaneous, suggesting that rhythmic expression is a universal human trait.

Today, the longstanding handclapping tradition remains robust, although it has no formal channels for transmission. It is not taught in schools; rather, most children learn it from a family member, close friend, or babysitter. Evidence of this tradition of games goes as far back as Ancient Egypt.[1] Amazingly, it is found in remote villages and in heavily populated areas across the world.

The documentary film, Let’s Get the Rhythm, highlights these handclapping games. It questions assumptions about clapping, a very basic gesture we share with other primates, and it stimulates discussion about rhythm and its evolutionary function.

For me, the “ah-ha” moment that sparked the making of the film happened in 1998 in Ghana. Professionally, I identify with minstrels of past millennia. In today’s context this role has morphed into my being a music educator. I work in schools teaching music as a dynamic force that integrates multiple fields of knowledge. My older brother was teaching in Ghana while on sabbatical. I took advantage of the opportunity to visit and connect more deeply with African drumming and dance traditions. While we were walking up the street to visit the Cape Coast Castle, a euphemistic reference to a slave trading port, my attention was drawn to three girls who were handclapping. Not only were they engaged in an activity that I had relished in my own girlhood, but these Ghanaian girls were clapping in a pattern identical to one that had been popular on the playgrounds of my own childhood in California, since at least 1960. With their permission, I photographed them (back in the day of single lens reflex). This encounter ignited an inquiry into the nature of rhythm and rhythm games, and my first step was to amass a video archive of them.

Three girls play at a session of hand games organized by folklorist Beverly Robinson in Georgia, August 2, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collection (AFC 1982/010).

Fast-forward four years, when I traveled to Thailand with a consumer-quality video camera in hand. Right before my eyes, while on an offshore excursion, were two young girls who broke into a game. Their restless fidgeting transformed into distinctly organized clapping patterns, including gestures recognizable as a salute and a mother cradling a baby. I filmed them, and joined them in their game, although I never caught the lyrics.

Once back home in the Bay Area, I enrolled in a filmmaking class at the local community college as I wanted to begin collecting footage of handclapping games. While researching potential support for this project, I came across June Anderson, an anthropologist specializing in traditional arts at the California Academy of Sciences, and became her research intern. She recommended that I research handclapping traditions that have already been documented, especially with respect to the archives of the Library of Congress, as well as audit the class, Introduction to Folklore, taught by the renowned folklorist, Alan Dundes, at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the summer of 2004, I embarked upon archival research in Washington, DC, going through reel-to-reel recordings and films of children’s games collected in 1930s from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center. At the AFC, I also dove into footage of children’s games and hambone in the Pete and Toshi Seeger Collection, as well as documentation of children’s games in the South by Zora Neale Hurston [2].

At the same time, I discovered that the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage housed the Kate Rinzler Collection, which contained footage of Bessie Jones and her treasure trove of musical materials from the Georgia Sea Islands. During the 1970s, Kate Rinzler extensively filmed children’s traditional games at the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals and at schools in Washington, DC. Further research uncovered the oldest handclapping footage, which dates to 1931 from Angola and is located in the Laura Boulton Collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Studies Film Archives. It portrays a group of women assembled in two rows, playing a handclapping game [3].

That same year, when auditing Professor Dundes’s class, I shared my initial promotional trailer Hand Jive!, which features my footage of handclapping traditions in Thailand, as well from Korean, Latino, and African American neighborhoods, among others, in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, he encouraged me to present my work at the 2005 American Folklore Society Annual Meeting as a way to connect to other folklorists and develop the project further. During the conference, I learned about the book, City Play (Rutgers, 1992), by folklorists Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan, which contained a chapter on the traditions of handclapping and rope skipping. I realized that we had a like-minded approach in wanting to bring attention to the often overlooked, but robust traditions among young girls.

Two girls play at a session of hand games organized by folklorist Beverly Robinson in Georgia, August 2, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collection (AFC 1982/010).

In 2006, I became a Smithsonian Research Associate, working with Kate Rinzler. Based on my research and documentary footage of children’s games, Steve Zeitlin suggested a collaborative project that focused on the questions of who plays these games, what is being said during them, how the games are transmitted, and what the implications are for the future of the genre. It also jived with Steve’s new work on The Poetry of Everyday Life. As a first step in this collaboration, I created a new trailer, relying on an on-camera interview with folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes, the former director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), whose film, Pizza, Pizza Daddy-O, featured a collection of the traditional games played by African American girls in Los Angeles.

With Public Art Films as a fiscal sponsor, the project secured further support from the NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts. Our sights were set on creating a longer film that explored these traditions across diverse cultures. I established a bi-coastal rhythm, with concentrated periods of intense film production, between 2007-2014. Taking advantage of Zeitlin’s community-based network, we focused on the stories of three young girls, Sarah Wright from Spanish Harlem, Heaven Sabina from Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Eve Cooke from Montclair, New Jersey. Expert informants provided insights into understanding rhythm as a uniquely human trait, as well as postulated ideas about the gender bias behind the practice, making their cases for the importance of preserving these traditions.

The fruits of our labor resulted in Let’s Get the Rhythm, a celebration of the beauty of the beat, a charming exposé of the wit and wisdom of young girls, for all to savor. The film premiered at the 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2015, it screened at Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera Film Festival; it was also named Best Documentary at Dance Camera West and was honored with an Impact Award at the San Francisco International Dance Film Festival. For the past two years, it has screened at numerous festivals in the U.S. and beyond, including at the Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival, Cascadia Dance and Cinema Festival in Vancouver, Ostrava Kamera OKO in the Czech Republic, Ethnografilm Festival in Paris, Way Out West Festival in Sydney, Australia, and the Society for Visual Anthropology Film Festival. I am also happy to say that the film’s Facebook page just recently reached one million hits!

As Heaven Sabina’s grandmother, Nekhena Evans, notes: “As long as little girls keep clapping, I think the world will be okay.”


[1] The following resources provided evidence of hand games in Ancient Egypt: communication with Andrew Bednarski, curator at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; Hans Hickmann, Ägypten: Musikgeschichte in Bildern, Veb Deutscher Verlag Fur Musik Leipzig, 1961, 84-85; The Sakara Expedition. The Mastaba of Mereruka, Parts I & II, The U of Chicago Press, Oriental Institute Publications, Volumes XXXI & XXXIX, 1938; and Arroyo, Rafael Perez. Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids. Madrid Editorial Centro de Estudios Egipcios, S.L. 2003.

[2] Special thanks to AFC librarians Ann Hoog, Todd Harvey, Guha Shankar, Cathy Kerst, Judith Grey, Steve Winick, and Peggy Bulger, who kindly assisted in my research efforts.

[3] Although there is no sound, in her autobiography, The Music Hunter (Doubleday, 1969, 78) Boulton describes the game as being like Pease Porridge Hot. She translates the lyrics: “Do not put the brother of your friend/In the kitchen/ There the food is bitter.”

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