“Say, Say, Oh Playmate” – Finding Innocence in a 1940s Hit Song, and a Princess’s Smocked Dress

Once upon a time, back before manufacturers began plastering NFL logos and raucous Disney designs smack down the front of newborn onesies and made size-three toddlers look like hookers, little girls wore simple dresses – much like the smocked floral frock Princess Charlotte is wearing in her latest photos.

And they sang sweet little songs while swinging on the backyard swing.

Take “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” for example. The 1940s hit song reflects a time when the only thing reminding kids to go home for supper was the rumble in their stomachs. It was even on a Wee Sing video. I know because my kids used to have it. (Along with an alphabet video featuring a family of talking bears.)

But you have to admit, Princess Charlotte’s smocked dress is adorable. And the photos of the newest royal, taken by her mother, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, could not be sweeter. (I know, I’m using that word a lot.)

In case you haven’t opened the photos – which are definitely a “clap trap” for anyone with an ounce of estrogen – the frock by Spanish designer Margarito Pato reminds me of the way kids’ clothes used to look.


Or maybe you don’t remember.

But I do. It was a time when kids’ clothing didn’t have licensed characters or slogans emoting some designer’s idea of what a baby wants to say. And while there wasn’t as much of this stuff on the racks when my kids were little, I avoided it at all costs. That was before they became teenagers and started buying their own clothes, and I had the distinct privilege of spending hours in a frozen trance at Aeropostle and Charlotte Russe. (Aren’t those jeans a little too tight? Too low-cut? Too saggy?)

Writing this post, I let my mental musings run from Princess Charlotte’s smocked dress to the smocked dresses that were handed down to me by my great-aunt Sarah. I even found a photo of my  own little girl wearing one at a birthday party.

Eating cake and ice cream in a smocked dress.

My daughter, eating cake and ice cream in a smocked dress.

But now that I have grands, I have to scour the stores to come up with something – anything – that doesn’t advertise or emote.

Why do I care? Because this is the way in which we as a country are weaning our children onto a lifestyle of consumerism. It’s subliminal, exposing children to branding from the time they come out of the womb. The worst part is, so many manufacturers today are contributing to the sexualization of young girls, leaving parents to wonder what on earth they’re supposed to buy.

To me, sweetness and simplicity should be the order of the day.

As a child, I used to swing on the tall metal swings in the junior high playground across from my grandparent’s row house. Remember the kind that could knock you unconscious? If I was lucky, someone would push me, and I’d fly so high the chain would buckle. It was quite a rush, brushing up against the sky.

In my own backyard, on the simple swing-set my carpenter-father made, I didn’t just swing. I had to sing and swing at the same time.

And now I sing when I push my grandchildren on their swing-set – all the little children’s songs I can think of: “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” “Row, Row, Your Boat,” “I See the Moon.” “Little Miss Muffat,” and so on.

But there’s a swinging and hand-clapping song my grandchildren may not know.

It’s called, “Say, Say, Oh Playmate.” Originally written in ragtime, and later given a swing sound, the tune reaches back to an era when children didn’t call ahead before going to friend’s house. (The telephone is not a toy!) And they weren’t allowed to ring the doorbell, either.  Oh, no. That was reserved for grown-ups, at least where I grew up.

Instead, children went around to the back and sang out, “Susaaaan! Susaaaan!” “Tommeee! Tommeee!”

And maybe in some places they even called out, “Say, say, oh playmate!”

You could hear their voices on lazy summer days. Or after school, about an hour before the smells of supper-cooking filled entire blocks.

rain barrel

Old-fashioned rain barrel.

“Say, Say, Oh Playmate”(Song and Handclapping Rhyme)

Say, say, oh playmate,
Come out and play with me,
And bring your dollies three,
Climb up my apple tree.

Slide down my rain barrel,
Into my cellar door,
And we’ll be jolly friends,
Forever more – more – more!

Verse 2

Say, say, oh playmate,
I cannot play with you,
My dolly has the flu,
Boohoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.

Cellar Door

Cellar door, leading to basement.

Ain’t got no rain barrel,
Ain’t got no cellar door,
But we’ll be jolly friends,
Forever more,more, more,more,more.

In case you don’t know about rain barrels and cellar doors, well, that’s another blog post.

According to Wikipedia, “Playmates” was “ostensibly written by Saxie Dowell. The main theme was note-for-note plagiarized from the 1904 intermezzo “Iola” by Charles L. Johnson, for which Johnson sued, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum.”

The song was recorded by a few big names, including Kay Kayser and his orchestra (1940), reaching #1 on the billboard charts, and the Fontane Sisters (1955), where it remained on the Cash Box magazine charts for three weeks. (Such an age of innocence!) Playmates was also featured in the 2008 drama-comedy, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, covered by the Puppini Sisters.

But this…this is something else. You MUST listen to this “live-linking” Youtube recording of “Say, Say, Oh Playmate,” by the talented Ambre McLean. All I can say is, WOW.

I’m not for going back to the olden days. I like my cell phone too much.  But I am for preserving childhood innocence. Not the Disney version. But the kind real little princesses need. Yours and mine. It might be the one thing we can preserve without an act of Congress. FFG

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