Anndrena Belcher interviews traditional Kentucky performer and national treasure Jean Ritchie about the play party games she played as a youngster in Eastern Kentucky. Ritchie discusses the importance of the games as community celebrations and opportunities to court.
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Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky is a legendary singer, songwriter, storyteller, and dancer; her family is well known for its music. Ritchie shared some of the background of “play parties,” having learned them as part of everyday living in Knott County, Kentucky. “Children played games on the school ground,” she says. “The singing games got started when you were a little child going to school and at recess and dinner time—you’d go out and play on the school yard and in the twilight around the houses, around homes. The young un’s would get together and play the children’s games just anytime. But when you got up to courtin’ age, the places we played play party games were at parties.”
Ritchie’s family lived on what she calls a “semi-subsistence farm,” and the play parties served as a great reward for working hard all week. According to Ritchie, the play party games took place “largely around harvest time, around the work, you know, planting time, corn-hoeing time.” The adults knew the young folks had to have a way to get together and have some wholesome fun, and the courting couples needed a time and place to get to see each other. The play parties allowed both as well as supervision by the older folks. When Ritchie asked her mother how they let the young folks get away with playing those kissing games and those dances, her mother replied, “Well, young people gotta have fun. If you don’t let ’em have fun, they’ll do something worse.”
The churches disapproved of dancing and of the fiddle, but the play parties didn’t seem so worldly. “Some family would let the children all come in and play games. And you had to call it games because dancing was sinful,” Ritchie explains. “It was called ‘going to the plays,’ and so it got to be called a ‘play party’—a party where people played. The play parties included the older folks, the young ones, and the little bitty ones, too,” she says. “You start goin’ when you’re a baby and you watch until you’re big enough to toddle and big enough to get out there and try to join in…. I’ve seen, even today, people do that. They carry a little young’un with ’em when they’re dancin’ so it feels like it’s joinin’ in.”
Where did these parties come from? “From the countries that the people came from,” says Ritchie. “England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales … [and] some of them were made up after they got here.”
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