“Five little squirrels climbing up a tree…” begins my latest recording for children, my newly rewritten version of the old anti-bullying finger play I wrote so long ago called “Five Little Monkeys.” I’ve always loved sharing this old finger play in my children’s music programs, I thought it was playful and fun with a healthy message besides. I’ve found children are so familiar with little monkey finger plays, and hearing mine they were surprised that the monkeys were not jumping on the bed or teasing Mr. Crocodile. They would get completely absorbed in what happens to our main little character as he figures out how to share. In recent years as the conversation has deepened around recognizing the racist roots of some classic children’s songs and nursery rhymes, I realized that I needed to reexamine this one and decide what to do with it. I do think most of these problematic songs should be dropped rather than rewritten and used. The associations for communities of color in particular and the broader societal complicity in its messaging are painfully deep and essential to understand and respect. Yet I also think these songs and finger plays do merit evaluating on an individual basis, looking at exactly what about each one is at issue. The whole process of examining my finger play and deciding whether to discard it or rework it was an illuminating one, and I wanted to add to to the bigger conversation going on by writing about it here.
In analyzing my own, I decided to look at these specific components: melody, rhythm, form, character, setting, action and language. It was helpful to look at each element asking what historical roots it evokes and imparts? What stereotypes does it reinforce and maintain? Is there anything that could be kept, what should be changed? I wanted to keep my original anti-bullying message with its rhythmic, simple streamlined story arc while finding a way to contend with the echo of historical racism that lay hidden at its heart.
There is something irresistible about finger plays. Children love them and there are countless variations to be found. For young children, they reinforce rhythm, coordination, counting, and language. They are popular—both traditional ones lovingly taught through generations in families, and new ones created for fun and learning for home and classroom. Most reflect the time and culture they were created in, though their origins can become more obscure over the years. Some can seem innocent on the surface, but the ones with those racist roots can still carry and evoke uncomfortable and painful feelings for many. The messaging can unintentionally reinforce the very things we seek to counter. The five little monkey
finger play variations are an oft-cited example: five little monkeys jumping on the bed, five little monkeys sitting in a tree, etc. In the days of minstrel shows in the Deep South, the original rhymes circulated broadly with racist language that made them extremely offensive and a cumulative effect of dehumanizing and “othering” enslaved people to justify slavery. I felt that though I had a sound message in the one I created, it still resonated on some disturbing level with the old form it called forth. In creating and singing healthy and respectful music for the healthy child today, I believe we need to address those roots in our music. There are a number of great articles and listings online that delve deeper into this subject that I encourage you to find.
I often used finger plays in my children’s music program, Sound Beginnings. I love the form. In the mid 1990’s I wrote two of my own and recorded them on my first CD, “Make a Circle Like the Sun,” in 2000. I wanted to use children’s familiarity with the finger play format and combine it with a message of friendship and dealing with conflict. It started with children in my classes requesting “Little Bunny Foo Foo” which I really didn’t like. I thought it was pointlessly silly, had too much emphasis on bopping on the head, and had an unsatisfactory ending with the fairy turning him into a goon despite the fun pun at its conclusion. I decided to write about a little rabbit who did bop other creatures on the head to deal with his own pain but in the end was befriended by a red bird who helped him understand, heal and change. That was my “Little Rabbit and Red Bird.”
Children were always doing variations of five little monkeys finger plays, and without thinking too deeply about it back then, I decided to use the familiar form and make it about bullying. In my Five Little Monkeys, the little monkey who pushes and shoves learns how to be a friend and share. Looking at the specific components I mentioned earlier—melody, rhythm, form, character, setting, action and language—I began. What historical roots does it evoke and impart? What stereotypes does it reinforce and maintain? A song is more complicated than a spoken piece because the melody itself can evoke those roots whether the lyrics do or not. Spoken finger plays are simpler, especially those based on five counting down to one abound. That format is universal, like the five fingers on our hands, you can find them in cultures around the world.
In looking at my original “Five Little Monkeys,” I felt as a spoken piece, the finger play format was good. The problem came with the choice of monkeys swinging on a vine, raising the specter of the old minstrel day stereotypes. As a reminder of that disturbing imagery, I felt that character and action were the key things to change. I liked the structure of the story, the arc of the character’s change, the happy
resolution—all important and effective pieces of the story inside the finger play. I wanted to keep as much of my original flow of language and rhythm intact so that the structure of the finger play held up. I didn’t see any intrinsic issues with those choices. I loved setting it in a tree, so choosing another critter to place there, one whose natural habitat is up in the trees, made sense. For a while I tried this with tree frogs, but the smooth flow of language and rhythm wasn’t there in quite the way I wanted. When I settled on squirrels with their chittering and scampering and playful energy, it seemed a good fit. Substituting “climbing up a tree” for the key repetitive phrase that was part of the problem definitely fit the internal logic of the story and these little characters in a much better way.
Though “Make a Circle Like the Sun” is no longer in print, it has been available for many years to download, and now to stream. I will ultimately re-release this recording with the new finger play but I decided to go ahead and release it as a single, keeping its anti-bullying message out there in the world in a healthier way. What do we do with the five little monkey finger plays? I found the whole process of analyzing what to hold on to and what to change a thought-provoking one. I offer it here to contribute to this ongoing conversation, hoping you might find it useful as well. It comes down to how the values we hold dear determine the choices we make in our music, and I hope my five little squirrels tell that story well.