Millions of people know “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” — also known as just “Playmate” — but very few folks today know much about the song.
The rhyme — which became the song’s lyrics — have been around a lot longer than the music itself. The tune we know as “Playmate” is actually from a song called “Iola,” composed and published by Charles Leslie Johnson sometime between 1904 and 1906.
A singer/songwriter/musician named Saxie Dowell has been credited with writing the song, but from what we were able to discover, he is most likely the one who first paired the old Victorian-era rhyme with the Johnson ditty. Since then “Playmates” has been recorded dozens of times by a wide variety of musical artists… and also sung thousands of times by kids on the playground.
Here is a collection of insights into the song from the past century, along with several variations on the theme — including the popular pre-WWII radio version and renditions of the song from other creative artists… plus a cover version by a celebrity that might surprise you.
Say, Say, Oh Playmate: The clapping game, demonstrated
No cellar door to slide down — and the rain barrel, also, died with the song that told of it (1910)
From The Kansas City Times via The Washington Post (July 17, 1910)
I don’t want to play in your yard, I don’t like you any more. You’ll be sorry when you see me Sliding down our cellar door; You can’t holler down our rain barrel. You can’t climb our apple tree; I don’t want to play in your yard If you won’t be good to me.
The song is dead. it was laid to rest a dozen years ago. Did the song cause the cellar door and rain barrel to die also, or did the passing of the door and barrel cause the death of the song? No one knows. At any rate, all three are dead.
Have you ever in 1910 heard a disgruntled Miss threatening her playmate, next door, by telling him that he couldn’t slide down the cellar door or holler down the rain barrel at her house? it wouldn’t have any effect on the offender now, you know, for the slanting cellar doors and the old oaken barrel under the spout at the corner of the house are things of the past. Perhaps you hadn’t missed the two things that were the delights of your playmate and yourself, years ago. Many people do not know that the cellar door and the rain barrel are antiquities.
“Every day we tell people who want them put on their houses that they are out-of-date,” said an architect yesterday afternoon. “Now, when we put outside steps into the cellar at all, we put an open ‘ramp’ of concrete around the opening with steps of solid concrete. A good drain in the bottom of the hole carries off all water… The slanting doors were bound to go. They were hard to handle, often being heavy, and frequently it was inconvenient for the woman of the house to go outside to gain access to the basement.”
“The old rain barrel is replaced by a concrete cistern, equipped with a charcoal filter, in which the water from the roof is purified before it passes into the cistern.
With the cellar door and the rain barrel gone, and now that the children are amusing themselves with other things, it is plain to be seen that the age is in need of another song, similar to the one quoted above. Why not something like this:
I don’t want to play on your lawn.
I will like you ne’er again;
I’ll tell papa not to take you
Out in our new aeroplane;
You can’t ride my Teddy wagon.
You can’t hear my dog say “Please”
I’ll not let you use my rollers
in the evening’s gentle breeze.
But she couldn’t come out and play
It was a rainy day
With tearful eye, she breathed a sigh
And I could hear her say
I’m sorry, playmate, I cannot play with you
My dolly’s got the flu, boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo
Hasn’t got no rain barrel, hasn’t got no cellar door
But we’ll be jolly friends forever more
Playmate, come out and play with me (1967)
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) – October 18, 1967
Evidence is at hand of an old song, as well as an old recitation, about the two little neighbor girls who slid down the cellar door, climbed the apple tree, hollered down the rain barrel, etc. We’ve already had a fragment of the recitation, now for a sampling of the song.
“I believe,” writes Mrs. Robert H. Singletary, Louisville, “that this song was introduced (it certainly was plugged!) between 1939 and 1945 by Kay Kyser on his radio show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge. I may not have every word just right, but I am sure this was the main message:
Playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three.
We’ll climb my apple tree,
Climb in my rain barrel,
Slide down my cellar door
And be jolly friends forever more.
Now she couldn’t come out to play, It was a rainy day. With tears and sighs I heard her cry, And this is what she said:
I’m sorry, playmate, I cannot play with you. My dolly’s got the flu, Boo-hoo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo. Can’t climb your rain barrel, Slide down your cellar door, But we’ll be friends forevermore.
An old version: “Playmates,” by Kay Keyser and his orchestra (1940)
When looking at the lyrics for the tong, the rain barrel line, in particular, seems to be subject to the most change over the years. Some variations we found include:
Look down my rain barrel
Shout down my rain barrel
Holler down our rain barrel
Cry down my rain barrel
Call down my rain barrel
Climb in my rain barrel
Slide down my rainbow
Getting ’50s retro: The Fontaine Sisters’ version of “Playmates” from 1955
“Say Say, Oh Playmate” – Ambre McLean
Here’s an interpretation of “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” by singer Ambre McLean, who has created a gorgeous multi-layered of the schoolyard classic by live looping each verse. (If you don’t know what that means, watch the video and you’ll see.)
Say, say, oh playmate: Basic lyrics
Say, say, oh playmate, Come out and play with me And bring your dollies three Climb up my apple tree
Shout down my rain barrel Slide down my cellar door And we’ll be jolly friends For ever more, more, shut the door