Singing Calls - a short history
History of Singing Squares
by Tony Parkes
The earliest description of a singing square I've found so far (in fairly shallow digging) appears in the first edition (1925) of Good Morning, prepared by Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Lovett for Henry Ford. It is Plain Quadrille No. 13, Figure 4, page 65, "Girl I Left Behind Me." It is first described in the same terms as the other quadrille figures in the book, with prompts: "Wait First Eight Measures. First couple lead to the right, Balance - 4 bars. Pass through (one bar) balance back to back (one bar) - 2 bars. And swing that girl behind you - 2 bars (etc.)" Then comes a note: "These words fit both the music and the movements of the dance: I take that girl, that pretty little girl / The girl I left behind me, / And pass right through, and balance too, / And swing that girl behind me." It is nowhere explicitly stated that the calls are sung, though I think they must have been.
The use of "I" harks back to the lyrics of the original song, and also gives the dance a strong flavor of the play-party tradition. And indeed, in B.A. Botkin's monumental work The American Play-Party Song (1937), several variants of this title are given and references listed for many more. In his Chapter 3, "The Play-Party and the Dance," Botkin appears to conclude that although several games appear to be watered-down versions of square dances, it is impossible to state in any given case whether game or dance came first. Other titles he mentions that have both game and dance versions are "Buffalo Girls" and "Captain Jinks."
"The Girl I Left Behind Me" also appears in Neva Boyd and Tressie Dunlavy's groundbreaking Old Square Dances of America (1925). Judging from the wording of the calls given there, the authors' informant sang some lines and spoke or chanted others. The title tune is given as the first choice, but "Grey Eagle" and "Buffalo Girls" are suggested as alternatives.
By the following year, the floodgates have opened. In The Handbook for Dances of Our Pioneers (1926), Grace Ryan includes several singing calls: "Girl I Left Behind Me," "Captain Jinks," "The Head Two Gents Cross Over," and the Waltz Quadrille ("First couple down center and there they divide"), which does not appear in Good Morning until the 1941 edition. (In the case of "Head Two Gents," the tune is not specified, but the accompanying tune book has piano music for "Life on the Ocean Wave" marked as corresponding to that figure, though even there the tune title is not given.) Ryan also includes a circle dance with clear play-party roots, a variant of Ninepin or Old Dan Tucker, entitled "Wild Irishman," with a set of lyrics akin to "Pig in the Parlor."
The 1941 edition of Good Morning includes seventeen singing calls, counting those in the three-part "Singing Quadrille." The 1943 edition subtracts one, adds two, and gives catalog numbers for those that have been recorded on the Ford label.
Editor's note: The easiest way to locate singing squares in this collection is to go to the Advanced Search page. Enter "singing square" in the tags field, and you'll be directed to 150 examples [April, 2013]. half of which are videos and half are audio only.