Down By the River Game and Song

My informant taught me this game in the context of our Forms of Folklore JEP class. My teaching partner and I brought up the game I know as “Down by the Banks,” when she shared this oicotype. She says that she learned this game from her friend, a fellow second grader. She says that she plays this game when she is bored, outside, or when her teacher gives her class free-time. She says she likes it because it is fun, and that is also why she plays it.


The students sit in a circle (with 3+ people), legs crossed and hands palms up. Each person should have one palm on top of one neighbor’s palm, and one palm beneath the other neighbor’s palm. So, for example, one’s right hand is above one’s right-hand neighbor’s left hand and one’s left hand is below one’s left- neighbor’s right hand. Then, one person is chosen to start. This person moves his/her hand (whichever hand is on top, in this case the right), and makes contact with his/her neighbor’s palm (in this case, the person’s right). This next person then makes contact with his/her neighbor’s right hand, and the pattern continues around the circle.

While this occurs, the students sing a song. The song can vary in speed, and is often primarily led by one student but sung by all. It goes as follows: “Down by the river with the Hanky Panky, with the bullside jump from bank to banky, with the east side, west side, suicide, pop!”

At the last word, “pop,” the person whose hand is last touched has lost and so must sit outside the circle while the other children continue to play on and eliminate others. In the final round, the students take one hand (again, the right) and hold the other student’s hand and pull their hands toward one student, and then toward the other. Whichever student’s hand is extended by the last word (again, “pop”) is eliminated, and the other student wins the game. You can see an example of this here: Down By The River.


This game is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is intriguing that there is a clear understanding of spatial realms: the “east” and “west side.” Clearly, there is a sense of differentiation and an awareness of neighborhood identity. Also interesting is the phrase “hanky panky.” This phrase usually connotes sexual content, but the rest of the song does not follow up with this theme.

Then, the most interesting part of this piece of folklore is certainly the way it presents violence. The word “suicide” is certainly violent, as is the word “pop” in this situation. The chance mention of suicide points to its existence and prevalence in this neighborhood. Moreover, the use of the word “pop” as a signal of elimination seems especially intriguing, especially directly after the word “suicide.” Clearly, the person who loses is also killed, with a “pop,” a clear reference to the sound of a gun firing.

Considering the neighborhood in which this piece of folklore was collected and in which my informant lives (the USC surrounding area), it is not terribly surprising to note the prevalence of violence. Even at this young age, my informant and those that play this game with her are aware of the violence surrounding them.