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Discovering rhythm

Creation sings, so we sing. Creation thumps and bumps in time, and so do we. It seems to be what God intended.
Girls playing double Dutch outside The Ida B. Wells Homes in Chicago, 1973. Photo by John H. White. Wikipedia.
Girls playing double Dutch outside The Ida B. Wells Homes in Chicago, 1973. Photo by John H. White. Wikipedia.

Peel a banana upside down
See if you can touch the ground
If you spell your name correct
You may say the alphabet…

If you learn that rhyme, you can learn to sing. You can learn to speak a foreign language. You can learn to talk to God.

It’s a jump rope song, as we called them when I learned them in the 80s. It’s the first poetry I learned by heart, not counting prayers.

When you skip rope you are forced to land, hard, over and over, on asphalt or cement. You stomp, stomp, stomp to a rhythm set by the rope-twirlers. And they shout — loud — wacky lines of slang that somehow give order and sense to it all.

You feel the rhythm of the words in your bones. You have to memorize, or it just won’t work. And so the text enters your mind and your muscles and your imagination.

If you want to master language and music, you have to master rhythm. And jump rope songs teach rhythm with a lure as hypnotic as any tribe’s drums.

Texico, Texico (the rope rocks back and forth, which is called “cradles”)
Over the hills to Mexico (the rope begins going all the way around)
Chinese dancers do the kicks, kicks, kicks (kick!)
They do the splits, splits, splits (jump with legs apart!)
They turn around, round, round (whirl around!)
They touch the ground, ground, ground (touch the ground!)
They get out of town (jump out!).

You learn this stuff from other kids — other little kids, when you’re all six years old.

Even at the time, you know something strange and strong is going on.

Where is Mexico? What is a Chinese dancer?

When you hear these sequences for the first time, it’s as if your slightly-older or better-versed peers have become possessed by an alien spirit.

Rhymes and consonant clusters and wordplay and jokes — sometimes bawdy ones — churn out of children at high volume to the relentless slap of the rope.

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back;
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifteen cents, cents, cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant
Jump the fence, fence fence;
He jumped so high, high, high
He touched the sky, sky, sky
And he didn’t come back, back, back
Till the fourth of July, ly, ly.

Where do they get this stuff? Who was Mary Mack? It’s mysterious knowledge from beyond.

(Some think Mary Mack was a play on the name of an ironclad ship from the American Civil War, the Merrimac. Then again, there was a woman who drowned on the Titanic called Mary Mack — was it her? No one really knows. And I am told that “fifteen cents” has been inflated to “fifty cents” since I learned the rhyme.)

Linguists tell us that jump rope songs thrive in every culture where children are free to play. If there’s no rope, there are clap songs and circle dances and “selection/exclusion rhymes” (“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo…” is one of those).

There’s something ancient and ancestral about these chants. They teach essential human skills: language skills like diction and pronunciation, obviously, but also turn-taking, rule-setting, cooperation and competition.

And they provide exercise.

The weirdest and most wonderful thing about these chants — especially now, in the virtual age — is that they aren’t mediated or produced or packaged in any way. You don’t learn them from TV. You learn them from other children. No one owns them. None of you understands them. And yet they are preserved over decades and spread across whole continents, simply by being yelled over asphalt by people who weigh less than 50 pounds.

This is unchained, untamed folklore. It lives in a cranny of our culture, and long may it thrive. It’s human — an artifact — but who can call it artificial? It seems bigger than any of us.

To me, these chants are powerful.

Could I ever belong, really, in a society where I don’t know the jump rope songs? Could I write and speak my own language with music and pleasure if I didn’t have the “rhythm of the head”? If I didn’t have the thromp, thromp, thromp of “Cinderella dressed in yella” hammered into my joints?

Cinderella dressed in yella
Went downstairs to meet her fella
By a mistake she kissed a snake
How many kisses did she make?

(One. Two. Three. Four. Five!)

Jump rope songs make me think of prayer. Maybe that seems flippant, but it’s not.

Words give order to our actions. In my Catholic world, the sacraments — all seven of them — require the spoken word. And all of them have an order; a rhythm.

The universe took shape when God said, “Let there be….”

Words frame the world. At a word, a world is made. And the spheres, having been made, sing of their Maker — a pounding, charming chant.

So how can we respond? Jump in!

Creation sings, so we sing. Creation thumps and bumps in time, and so do we. It seems to be what God intended.

Didn’t King David write, in his very last psalm,

Give praise with blasts upon the horn,
praise Him with harp and lyre.
Give praise with tambourines and dance,
praise Him with strings and pipes.
Give praise with crashing cymbals,
praise Him with sounding cymbals?

Notice, it isn’t “give praise with the trickle of the electric fountain and the wavering strains of the Wurlitzer.” Music to digest by isn’t Temple music.

No: crashing cymbals. Tambourines. Blasts.

Creation has a beat.

By embracing meaning, we hasten our salvation. And you have to know the song, the beat, if you want to play. Shout, shout, shout — stomp, stomp, stomp — and the game gets fun.

There’s a rhyme and a rule. There’s a rhythm. Know it. Call it out. Jump along with it, and you’re home free.

Engraving from Renaissance Italy (from F. Gaffurius, Practica musicae, 1496) showing Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical modes. Wikipedia.
About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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