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Kentucky Play-Party Games from Graves & Carlisle Counties

A project to identify tunes to the play-party songs and document the movements that accompanied them when they were played as play-party games in the late 1920s.

Play-Party Games in Graves & Carlisle Counties, Kentucky

The focus of this Berea Appalachian Music Fellowship project conducted during May and June 2007 is a list of words to fifteen play-party songs from Graves and Carlisle Counties collected in 1928 by then University of Kentucky student Slayden W. Douthitt. They were subsequently published in 1930 with brief commentary by Douthitt in the limited circulation University of Kentucky publication for student writers entitled Letters. Play-parties were common entertainment in rural areas from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Usually neighbors gathered in a home to sing songs and perform movements. Although they looked like dances, they were considered games, as dancing was regarded as morally questionable. Often teens and young adults played the games under the supervision of adults. In some communities, entire families played the games together.

The main goal of the project was to identify tunes to the songs in Douthitt's collection and document the movements that accompanied them when they were played as play-party games in the late 1920s. Through a combination of archival research in Berea and field interviews in the two counties with persons who remembered attending play-parties, reconstruction of the games as they had been played was largely accomplished.

From a total of seventeen possible tunes (two songs indicated tune changes), interviewees were able to identify sixteen tunes as those performed. Of the fifteen songs listed in the collection, specific movements were recalled for ten games, with a total of twenty-six versions documented. In addition, interviewees described another twenty-five versions of movements which were general, that is, used for most or all games they played, not linked to any particular song.

Research to date suggests that the Douthitt collection of words to play-party songs may well be the only such collection in publication from the Carlisle - Graves County area of Kentucky. The ongoing outcome of my Berea Music Fellowship project is disseminating the reconstructed play-party games through school-based artist-in-residence teaching in eastern and other parts of Kentucky, lesson plans for use by other public school teachers, and dance workshop events such as Berea's Christmas Country Dance School. Also in the works is the possibility of expanding this research into a book-length publication for teachers that would include lesson plans for teaching the games, the cultural connection to rural western Kentucky, and stories from informants.