Gwen’s Girls’ Jump Rope/Hand Clap Tones

A ringtone project that reflects the soundscape of any U.S. city would not be complete without recordings of hand clapping games and jump rope songs. So I’m grateful to the young ladies at Gwen’s Girls for their essential contribution to Locally Toned. Here’s their Cinderella Jump Rope Tone and their Down By the Bank Ringtone (based on a traditional hand-clapping game). [Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a transcription of these two rhymes.]


These tones were contributed by a group of  young ladies within Gwen’s Girls’ after school program. They brainstormed and performed the rhymes we recorded, and helped to create concepts for the above (ringtone icon) photos.

A young lady describes her experience in Gwen’s Girls this way, “It’s an afterschool program for young girls who need help. I’m here because my grandma wanted me and my sister to come. It really helped me through hard times in my life and is helping me find myself.” Young ladies are referred to the organization by family members, school counselors or the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (an agency mandated by law to protect children from abuse and neglect).

“The organization is a safe and nurturing place that helps girls to recognize their potential and strengths. Our  dedicated staff helps the girls to set goals for the future,” says Gwen’s Girls’ Executive Director, Lynn Knezevich. “Our founder would be very pleased to know that the organization has been able to continue in her memory.”

Portrait of Gwendolyn J. Elliott by Robert Daley

Gwen’s Girls was founded in 2002 by Gwendolyn J. Elliott, a local champion for women and girls. During her 30 year tenure as a police officer, Sergeant and then Commander of the Pittsburgh Police force, she witnessed the particular struggles women and girls have when they are brought to the attention of law enforcement. Elliott wanted to create a program that would help improve quality of life for these young ladies. You can read more about her story (and the services provided by Gwen’s Girls) here.


Developmentally, these largely cooperative but sometimes competitive games, allow children to practice communication skills, coordination and memorization. They’re also played for fun. Babies learn simple hand clapping games like, “Patty-cake, Patty-cake, baker’s man,” before pairs of girls in school yards teach each other more complicated rhymes like “Miss Mary Mack.”

A way-more-complicated bridges hand clapping rhyme like, “Tweedle deedle dee,” which four girls play together, is something for younger girls to aspire to. That rhyme, based on the Michael Jackson hit, “Rockin’ Robin,” is a game I learned as a kid growing up in Inglewood, CA. Working on this tone series, I found that my Gwen’s Girls’ collaborators knew a version, too. There’s a huge archive of jump rope rhymes here (including jumper participant instructions) collected by Stan Kulikowski II. And if you’re really interested this subject, read ethnomusicologist Kira D. Guant‘s book The Games Black Girls Play for both scholarly and experiential insight.


Cinderella Jump Rope Tone:  “Cinderella, dressed in yellow/went upstairs to kiss a fellow/made a mistake and kissed a snake/how many doctors will it take/one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, [etc.]”

Down By the Bank (hand-clapping game) Ringtone:  “Down by the bank with the hanky pank/where the bullfrog jump from bank to bank/say E-Fi-E-Fi-Fo, skittle diddle kernel pop/I pledge allegiance to the flag, Michael Jackson makes me glad/Coca Cola has caffeine, now we’re talking jelly bean/Jelly beans are out of site, now we’re back to/Down by the bank with the hanky pank…”


In my research, I discovered that the origin of the “Down By the Bank” rhyme may go all the way back to sheet music published in 1896 by Charles E. Trevathan, entitled, “May Irwin’s Frog Song.”

The first verse of the song begins this way:

“Away down a-yonder in Yankety Yank,/A bullfrog jumped from bank to bank…”

And our ringtone begins this way: “Down by the bank with the hanky pank/where the bullfrog jump from bank to bank…”

Out of curiosity, I took some time to trace the evolution of this frog song to versions of “Down By the Bank” as a hand clapping rhyme. Today’s “Down By the Bank” begins with a remnant from an old song (with its associated history of stereotyping), but as it was processed by children, it became something else. Another valuable skill children develop when learning, playing and sharing hand clapping and jump rope games is psychologically important–a capacity for resiliency. The transformation of of the frog song into “Down By the Bank” amounts to 100+ years worth of a collective effort by children, to play out, filter and re-write something they didn’t like, ultimately producing something they did like and made their own.

Jump rope songs and hand clap rhymes, as experiences, remind me of  internet memes–especially when the memes are transformed into digital artifacts that people make as responses to original content. The best example I can think of is this treatment of a now-famous song by the marching band at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Though we don’t pay very much attention to these children’s games, perhaps these (r)evolutionary “street” memes–small works that evolve as children tweak and play them together–are powerful and important acts that enable girls speak about and respond to their worlds.


Thanks very much to Samantha Stowe and other members of Gwen’s Girls’ hardworking staff for their help with the project. Additional thanks to Beth and Emmai at Hip Hop On L.O.C.K. for suggesting I contact Gwen’s Girls to collaborate on this tone series.


Filed under Locally Toned (all posts), Ringtones

5 responses to “Gwen’s Girls’ Jump Rope/Hand Clap Tones

  1. Great post!
    I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and have done some cultural programming for Gwen’s Girls. This program is a wonderful testimony to its founder, Gwen Elliot.

    Regarding “Down By The Banks Of The Hanky Panky”, I agree with you that “May Irwin’s Frog Song” is a key source of that rhyme. However, it should be noted that that 1896 song is part of a very old and very large “Frog Went A Courtin”/ “Frog In The Well” family of songs. Many of the verses of those songs are found in 19th century African American plantation songs/minstrel songs. And, as a result of a court case, Charles E. Trevathan was forced to admit that he learned the words to that song from a Black woman singer at a notorious St. Louis Black “sporting house”.

    There are a number of significant influences which led to the transformation of the late 19th century “May Irwin’s Frog Song” into the (probably) early to mid 1980s handclap rhyme and hand slap elimination game. From my research, among those very significant influences were the 1940s Fats Waller song “Eeps Ips, Wanna Piece Of Pie”, the 1966 hit Pop record by Tommy James & The Shondells “My Baby Does The Hanky Panky”, and the 1973 Pete Seeger story & song “The Foolish Frog”. A very significant event that led to Michael Jackson being linked to many of the longer forms of the Hanky Panky rhyme was the King of Pop’s hair burning accident in 1984 while he was singing an adaptation of his hit song song “Billie Jean”. Another very key event that led to the creation of standardized “Michael Jackson” verses for many “Down By The Banks Of The Hanky Panky” rhymes was the Coca Cola/Pepsi Cola marketing battle, and, in particular, Coca Cola’s decision in 1985 to withdraw its original recipe for Coke and replace it with a new recipe, only to bring back “plain ole coke” after considerable public outcry.

    It’s my position that a lot of words that appear to make no sense in these Hanky Panky playground rhymes are the result of children substituting familiar words & phrases for unfamiliar ones. Lines to rhymes are also changed because of mishearing or misremembering certain words & phrases. For instance, the phrase “jelly bean” in the example given above is a folk processed form of “Billie Jean”. Folk processing leads to some creative, accidentally witty, and sometimes innocently chuckle worthy examples of rhymes & songs.

    To read a number of examples of “Down By The Banks Of The Hanky Panky” and other playground rhymes & cheers, visit this page of my website

    • Hi, Azizi! Your work is wonderful. Thank you for your insightful and informed comment here. It adds so much to the conversation. I’m delighted that you took the time to reply and share. Pittsburgh is fortunate to have you here, and the world is fortunate to have your work accessible online.

  2. Maritza

    Gwen was one of the real people I worked with in Pittsburgh… after I presented a project that focused on the goodness of detective work, the availability of discussions between victim and perpetrator, and the reality of art as a vehicle for change… Gwen Elliot willingly commanded each detective to work with me, so I could photograph them and schedule them to print their large scale portraits at Artists Image Resource and also…exhibit them at the Warhol Museum… great work, great dialog, great community!

  3. Does anyone know the Italian or Spanish version of this clapping game? I am trying desperately to figure it out. Thanks.

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