Call and response songs have a rich and varied history. Throughout the years, they’ve played a key part in the social changes of the sixties, the improvisation in the jazz era, and are known today primarily as children’s entertainment.
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Call and response songs for kids are perhaps the primary example of this call-and-answer singing style today. They’re ideal for teaching singing to young children because they rely on mimicry. Here are some of the best call and response examples for kids.
Alouette is a French-Canadian folk song popular with kids for its repeat after me structure.
Today it’s also well-known for being one of the most covertly gory examples of the call and response song, as kids sing with escalating gusto about plucking the feathers out of a lark.
Alouette is an excellent way to instill a love of music and language in young kids. Provided you can bear singing about a dead lark, naturally.
Originally a Jamaican working song, this call and response song example has become a favorite of summer camps everywhere.
It tells how the workers loaded their banana crop in the cool of the evening to avoid the noonday sun. It uses Calypso rhythms typical to the Caribbean to reinforce the work song feel.
If Alouette is too grim a call and response example for a sing-song, rest assured it’s not the only way for kids to pick up another language.
Bonhomme first appeared in the 1600s. It’s gentler than Alouette, and its best-known lyrics ask the winter carnival representative if he can play various musical instruments.
As the lines stack, the verses get longer and longer, and kids love racing to see if they can do it all in one breath.
Made famous by Raffi, Down By the Bay is a call and response song example that is full of nonquitters and improbable word combinations.
The history of the song remains nebulous, but it continues to be a campfire staple.
Song leaders can improvise their own rhymes or stick to the original lyrics.
This Appalachian folk song is not only a call and response song but another example of a cumulative song. Like Bonhomme, the verses get longer and longer as singers add lines with each repetition.
Although the song first appears in a songbook circa 1877, musicologists believe that it predated publication.
A beloved clapping game with kids, this song uses call and response techniques to stick in your memory.
Theories vary about the origin of the song. In some, the eponymous Mary is a passenger on the Titanic, and still, another believes ‘Mary Mack’ is a corruption of the union ship Merrimack.
The union ship was black with silver trim and fought for the confederates during the civil war. While the theory makes sense, there’s no hard evidence for it.
Musicologists agree that its popularity was firmly established by the 1920s.
Once I Met A Martian or The Martian Song is another excellent call and response song example.
It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Martians and humans while using the call and response song style to inspire confidence in young singers.
It’s also got an embedded message about sharing and inclusivity that, while not blatant, should reach kids, especially on the reprise.
Based on a German folk song from the 1700s, this delightfully circular narrative isn’t your standard repeat-after-me song. Instead, as the battle between Henry and Liza escalates and Henry looks increasingly ridiculous, the song uses an echo structure to frame its verses.
On the odd-numbered verses, Henry’s side presents the problem. Liza then tries to solve each problem as it occurs on the even-numbered verses.
The conversational structure is especially fun for creative kids since they can deviate from the script the song offers, and over the years, the unhappy couple has found themselves divorced, without central heating and all manner of innovative catastrophe.
Yet another call and response song, The Other Day I Met a Bear has evolved so that it has not only several titles but several versions.
It’s sometimes called:
- The Bear in the Forest
- The Bear In Tennis Shoes
The second alternative title includes an extra verse with a more obvious moral than the original lyrics.
The princess Pat is a rare instance of a call and response song that’s suitable for the army and kids.
Originally, Princess Pat was the marching song of the Princess Pat Light Infantry.
Over time the lyrics became distorted, and today they survive in various permutations of this repeat-after-me favorite. In some versions, Princess Pat lives in a tree.
In all permutations, Pat and her infantry take the unlikely rickabamboo with them. As per the chorus, it’s red, gold and purple. The theory is that this references the regimental flag, which was indeed red, gold, and purple.
Almost all filmed representations of the army have it marching in time to a cadence or call and response song. But it wasn’t until 1944 that this took off.
When they did, they scored, though, because a good cadence helps:
- Build morale
- Keep a marching rhythm
- Develop cardio
Here are some of the staples.
The lyrics to this call and response song aren’t the most uplifting. Despite that, it remains a favorite with the army because of its slower pace. That makes it easier to march and sing.
Additionally, many people add in a count-off that helps improve beat work and timing. Alternatively, “left, right, left” is another popular repetition between the verses.
This call and response example from the army repertoire is much more uplifting than its predecessor.
Structurally, the verses are solos, while other participating members chant ‘hard work’ between lines and verses.
Captain or Whiskey Jack is extremely popular for its improvisations. This call-and-response is never the same twice.
It’s a staple part of basic training to help build timing and rhythm between people, partly because singing synchronizes the singers' heartbeats.
But its many improvisations vary from ribald to tongue-in-cheek and also help keep spirits up.
C130 Rolling Down the Strip is a must-learn for new army recruits. It uses words like ‘motivated’ and ‘dedicated,’ ensuring that when the inevitable earworm sticks, so do the core values and beliefs of the regiment.
It’s also one of the best-known and often used call and response cadences. It goes much faster than some of the other marching chants and is full of innovative improvisations.
How’d You Earn Your Living is another example of a call and response song that is also military running cadence. It’s fast-paced and well-known to army regulars.
Its pace and steady rhythm make it ubiquitous in running drills, both in life and film. As with other call and response examples for the army, the lyrics instill core values and beliefs integral to the soldiers’ success.
Everywhere We Go is a cadence so well-known it’s become part of more than just the army. It’s also a staple marching song in the:
- Girl Guides
- Boys/Girls Brigade
Leaders everywhere use this call-and-response song to keep track of pupils and campers alike.
But in the army it’s also the ideal song for solidifying a group identity and boosting morale.
Finally, 1,2,3,4 is the quintessential military cadence. This military call and response example is especially popular with the marines.
As each verse ends, the Marine Corps marching chants ‘Maines!’ with gusto. It’s another call and response song with a steady rhythm that helps new recruits acclimatize to marching.
Typically we think of call and response songs as being for singers. But there’s a long-standing tradition of instrumental call and response in jazz music.
Informed by music from baroque to blues, jazz took the musical theme and variation and adapted it.
Jazz's use of the call and response technique also owes a debt to:
- African traditional music
Some of the best-known examples of call and response songs in this genre include:
- Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
- Baby, It’s Cold Outside
- West End Blues
Much like A Hole in the Bucket, this is another conversational call-and-response song. Once again, a couple finds themselves disagreeing, this time about the linguistic nuances of a shared language.
It’s catchy, playful, and doesn’t hesitate to break the musicality of the song for the sake of a good musical joke.
Fitzgerald’s velvety musicality offers a stylistic contrast to the rougher but equally distinct tonality of Armstrong, heightening the contrast between speakers and making it a call and response with personality.
Yet another conversational call and response song, and one that gets associated with cold wintery evenings and cozy firesides.
Harmonically, the musical lines often overlap or fade out, giving this call and response song a heightened sense of naturalism.
West End Blues is the ideal example of instrumental call and response. Notice how the clarinet echoes or responds to the vocal-led melodic phrases.
Not only that, but Armstrong incorporated several other military elements into the song when composing it. The most striking of these is the use of triplets.
But the singer-clarinet exchange isn’t the only call and response example here. Several instruments get solos, including:
This song starts as a duet but evolves into an unlikely and harmonic call and response.
The singers shift from singing simultaneous harmonic lines to playful dialogic exchanges. These poke fun at the conventions of theatre and film as well as the listener’s musical expectation.
The result is a musical and witty call and response that holds up years after recording.
Jazz wasn’t the only musical genre to take the call and response and integrate it into the musical tradition.
During the folk revival of the 1960s, call and response songs played a key role in protest songs, and the sixties were full of causes. They ran the gamut from civil rights to environmental protection.
Through them, singers used call-and-response to instill unity in their listeners the same way drill sergeants did out on military bases.
Written by David I Arkin and first recorded by Pete Seeger, Black and White is a musical commentary on the end of segregation.
As first recorded, Seeger structured the song as a call and response. He sang a verse, and an African child sang it back.
The pattern repeats until the final verses, where both signers come together, reflecting the new-won equality desegregation promised.
The civil rights movement wasn’t the only cause close to the heart of the folk revival. Protests against the ongoing Vietnam War were another dominant musical theme.
Down by the Riverside is not only the prime example of this but call and response technique in American folk music.
The song began as a spiritual but was first written down in 1918. The folk revival then reclaimed it and reworked it to suit their campaign for peace.
Rock Island Line by Kelly Pace and Group
No two people sing Rock Island Line the same way. Over the years versions have been sung by:
- The Weavers
- Johnny Cash
But the original Rock Island Line was a collaborative effort between John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter.
Whoever sings the song, two things remain constants. The first is the unlikely tale of a train that arrives at its final stop before departing. The second is its call-and-response style chorus.
Michael Row the Boat Ashore is another spiritual picked up by the folk revival, and Seeger in particular, and turned into a call and response.
A strong believer in the power of singing together, Seeger went into concerts not to perform but to get everyone singing for a cause.
Performing with The Weavers, Michael Row the Boat Ashore is the perfect encapsulation of this. The professional singers lead the verses, but the audience responds with the chorus.
Top Call and Response Songs, Conclusion
Call and response songs have a rich and fascinating place in musical history.
From early modern folk songs to the folk revival, many of these songs survive today as games and chants for children and soldiers.
But they still have much to teach us about change, morale, and teamwork. So, start singing.