Playing It Forward: The democratic implications of the Singing Game “Little Johhny Brown” and the Work of Bessie Jones



Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones (Feb 8, 1902-July17, 1984) felt the call to teach in 1960 while participating in a film documenting the music of the Colonial Williamsburg era for Alan Lomax. [1] Her realization that she was a cultural reservoir of oral history laid out in song and games gave her purpose not just as a performer, but also as an educator and clinician. “The Lord blessed me not to forget these things … and keep them up among people who weren’t studying it.” [2] As part of this mission she collaborated on the book “Step It Down” with Bess Lomax Hawes who respectfully and painstakingly put the words, notations, and instructions of Jones’ considerable body of knowledge on to paper. As a result a large collection of children’s games have survived and serve as a major resource for music teachers –particularly those concerned with Blues and Jazz education. I argue that Jones is an important figure not just as a holder of historical knowledge but also as an influence on future generations as her works pass on practices that still hold significance. Within popular culture Jones’ work continues to influence modern-day musicians, but I argue that the games she taught bare continuous relevance and imbue vital skills required for honing democratic practice. Jones had many different categories for games and the games themselves had many different purposes. I will focus on the “ring plays”, one in particular called “Little Johnny Brown” (appendix A) and demonstrate how this game contains the “5 Basic Concepts of Democracy” outlined Magruder’s American Government Ch. 1, Sec. 3. This is demonstrates that Bessie Jones is an American Cultural Icon based not just on her role as an Oral Historian, nor her role as a talented Musician, but based on the reach of her teachings and their socio-political significance in modern day democratic community building practices.


“Little Johnny Brown” embodies the “recognition of the fundamental worth and dignity of every person” through its use of the human body as an instrument, through the ceremonial nature of the central action and by honoring the central figure. Like all of Jones’ games there are no instruments necessary. The ability to create is unmediated by tools. While the origin of this practice is no doubt a practical answer to a lack of access, on the part of both slaves and children, the result is a celebration of the human form and its natural capabilities. “Throughout most of human history, each child was born into a community that assumed they would sing” writes Frankie Armstrong in her essay “Freeing the Singing Voice”. (1997:43) She later concludes that the singing voice is “…art, living in and through us, via this most basic form of expression” (pg. 49)[3] By relying on the voice and body, this game can be played anywhere and all have equal access to the means of production. While I am aware people with different physical abilities may need to modify this game to accommodate their involvement, the intention of the vocal media sends a clear message: come as you are. The regard for the worth and dignity of each person is continued in the ceremonial play required in the game. “The folding of the comfort…is ceremonial…” the instruction from Hawes states. The instructions open with a quote from Jones “You got to time it right to play it right”[4] These instructions imply the importance of following the steps with precision in order to create ritual and all the importance that it brings. The first principal of democracy is also demonstrated in the honoring of the central player. I have witnessed this game played many times by many different groups of people over my 13 years as a music teacher. As the group sings slowly and raises their hands up and down to encourage the centre player to “lay his comfort down” the visual effect is one of worship towards the central figure. This honouring is shared equally among all participants as each takes his turn in the ring. The importance placed on the fundamental worth of each person in this game allows children to practice empathy and social responsibility, core components of functioning democracy.


The ring shape of this game encapsulates the 2nd of McGruder’s democratic principals “Respect for the equity of all persons”. The ring shape represents the equality of each player, as there is no lead singer. In fact it demands it. “There are no head and foot couples, no captains, no opposing ranks.”[5] Writes Hawes. The 3rd principal –“Faith in majority rule and insistence upon minority rights” is also demonstrated in this form as the ring encircles the centre player. For the first half of this game, the ring shape acts as a protective community that will “take in” the suffering being dramatized and help the individual synthesize their sadness into a celebration. “It surrounds and enfolds while it walls off and repels. Inside a ring, within it’s bounds you are safe from what is outside”[6] As the ring players encourage and mimic the motion of the centre player they enact the promise to observe the individuals needs, and to synthesize it into the group’s endeavours. Educator Doug Goodkin chronicles how this game protects and encourages shy students as they “grow to accept the responsibility of expressing themselves in front of the group.”[7] By practicing the rights and responsibilities prescribed by the ring shape in Little Johnny Brown children are being socialized in accordance with the democratic principals of respect and equity for all, and the practice of majority rule balanced with minority rights.


The 4th basic concept of democracy as outlined by Magruder is “an acceptance of the necessity for compromise.” Each player will perform both roles and this activity provides practice in the acceptance of the necessity for compromise. The interplay between these two roles is as of much interest to this argument as the individual roles themselves. Children must learn to wait at many junctures within the game. Exuberant individuals must contain their actions to provide the solid basis over which the centre player can build their solo dance movement. Players must learn to keep a beat while letting the centre player “do their thing” in order to create the call and response structure laid out in the lyrics. Only at the second to last verse may they engage in the more expressive dance move initiated by the centre player. Even at this moment, they may have to modify the dance move in order to make it functional within the ring form. For example, a traveling motion demonstrated by the centre player will have to be negotiated into its stationary equivalent in order to allow everyone to carry out the roles prescribed. Each child patiently waiting to have their turn in the middle must come to understand that a successor will be chosen “and it go on until you get each one”…says Jones.[8] In my experience teaching this game, this is the time when relationships and reputations result in natural consequences. Children will of course choose others that they feel most favorable toward and so there is a natural consequence stemming from the daily community interactions that comes into play and holds the participants accountable. All the same, the game continues until everyone has had a turn and so the dynamic between open and closed relationships is played out in very concrete terms.


The final principle of democracy as listed by Magruder is the “insistence upon the widest possible degree of individual freedom”. The game “Little Johnny Brown” embodies this principle in the very motive of the game: encouraging the centre player to improvise a dance move within the timing of the song. In this act children are able to be as expressive or subtle and as unique as they feel necessary. They are entirely in charge of their own offering, and as such they are developing their “voice”. What’s more is that in this ring game and its repetition we find the development of “voice” enshrined in the act of authorship. As children repeat the game they are able to craft their offered dance step into something satisfying. In my experience as a teacher I have had students request the game as part of a lesson because they had a plan, something they wanted to share with the group. As such they were willing and interested in watching what others had to share too. Just as the jazz ensemble creates space for individuals to celebrate themselves, so does this preparatory game stemming from the same cultural roots.


“Little Johnny Brown”, first documented in the book “Step It Down” by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes, contains within it a concrete experience of Magruder’s 5 basic principals of democracy. It recognizes the dignity of each participant by using the human body as an unmediated musical instrument. The game’s circular formation defines the community and each player’s equity within it. The ring form surrounding the individual soloist also imparts the principal of majority rule and minority rights. The turn taking and the imitation of the soloist’s dance demands compromise on the part of the group. While the creative opportunities offered to the central figure offer practice of individual freedoms. This offering stands as just one of many made by Bessie Jones. Her reach has influenced not only the likes of musicologists such as the Lomax’s Jr. and Sr., but she has also influenced Pete Segar [9]Moby[10], the soundtrack to the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”[11]. Her singing and clapping games have been well documented by Hawes and were taught by Avon Gillespie to Doug Goodkin[12] who continues to train other teachers placing the work in schools around the world. She is often regarded as a great reservoir of African American oral history. While I make no argument against Bessie Jones’ historical significance I believe the greater contribution she makes lies in what she has to teach us about the future.



Armstrong, Frankie. Freeing our Singing Voice in The Vocal Vision, Views on Voice Hampton, Marion & Acker, Barbara, ed. New York, London: Applause Press, 1997


Goodkin, Doug. Now’s The Time, Teaching Jazz to All Ages. San Francisco: Pentatonic Press, 2004


Garon, Paul. Blues and the Poetic Spirit London: Eddison Press, 1975


Fischlin, Daniel & Heble, Ajay. The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation and Communities in Dialogue Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004


Harold, Ellen & Stone, Peter Bessie Jones


Jones, Bessie & Lomax Hawes, Bess. Step It Down, Games, Plays, Songs & Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1972


Characteristics of Democracy in America excerpt from the textbook Magruder’s American Government found online at


Moby, “Honey” on the album “Play” Mute Records, 1998


Various Artists, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Lost Highway/Murcury records, 2000





Appendix A:

Exerpted from “Now’s The Time, Teaching Jazz to All Ages”

Little Johnny Brown as Taught to Doug Goodkin by Avon Gillespie


Little Johnny Brown, lay your comfort down X2

Fold up the corner, Johnny Brown x2

Show Us The Motion, Johnny Brown x2

We can do it too now, Johnny Brown x2

Take it to a friend now, Johnny Brown x2



  • Leader sings the song and demonstrates the sequence as follows:

“Little Johnny Brown, lay your comfort down”—Strut into the circle and lay out a scarf or handkerchief (square is best) in the middle of the circle.

“Fold up the corner, Johnny Brown” —Fold each corner precisely on the syllable “corn.” “Show us the motion, Johnny Brown”—Pick up the scarf and make a clear, repetitive motion.

(Later, make sure that the group does not copy while singing this phrase.)

“We can do the motion, Johnny Brown”—The whole group imitates the motion.

“Take it to your friend now, Johnny Brown”—Strut over to someone else and hand over the scarf. That person now goes into the center and the whole song starts again.

  • Continue playing until everyone has had a turn. If the group is too big, there can be several Johnny Browns (each with a handkerchief) going in the center at once, with the remaining people in the circle choosing whose motion they want to copy.


[1] Peter Stone, Ellen Harold, Bessie Jones

[2] Bessie Jones, Bessie Jones: For the Ancestors, Autobiographical Memories, John Stewart, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 53 as found in Peter Stone, Ellen Harold, Bessie Jones

[3] Frankie Armstrong Freeing our Singing Voice in The Vocal Vision, Views on Voice, Marion Hampton and Barbara Acker, ed. (New York: Applause Press, 1997)

[4] Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes Step It Down (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972) pg. 92

[5] Ibid, pg. 87

[6] Ibid, pg. 87

[7] Doug Goodkin Now’s the Time, Teaching Jazz to All Ages (San Francisco: Penatonic Press, 2004) pg. 39

[8] Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes, Step It Down (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972) pg. 88

[9] Jones appeared on the series “Pete Segar’s Rainbow Quest”
Peter Stone, Ellen Harold, Bessie Jones

[10] Moby, samples Jones singing “Sometimes” on the track “Honey” on the album “Play” released 1998 on the label Mute

[11] Jones has been recorded singing “Go To Sleepy, Little Baby” and “Oh Death”, two songs that appear as part of the movie soundtrack.

[12] Goodkin, pg. 18



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