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“Let’s spin it”

April 8, 2010

Bess Lomax Hawes and Bob Eberlein’s 1968 documentary film Pizza Pizza Daddy-O is one of many early folklore films that has captivated me from the time I first saw it.  Only 18 minutes long, it depicts a group of African-American girls, aged roughly 7 to 10 years old, playing clapping and rhyming games on a playground.  Thanks to the good people at Folkstreams, it’s available streaming in its entirety here.

A disembodied (presumably Euro-American) voice gives a brief introduction, but overall, very little contextual information is offered.  The voice returns periodically to make the kind of statements that make modern ethnographers cringe, but for the most part, the film consists solely of the girls demonstrating the games.  All “text” and no “context” makes it a difficult film to analyze, since we don’t hear what the games mean from the girls themselves.  Not only does that approach reek of salvage folklore, it reinforces an oppressive system in which Euro-Americans determine the meaning of cultural practices that do not belong to them.  Even worse, without the filmmaker’s presence in the film, their positionality can only be inferred, obscuring the lines of authority.

So, like most (all?) ethnographies, it’s problematic.  But I find it somewhat hypnotic as well.  In an infinite universe, I like to imagine myself doing a follow-up film in which I manage to find these women, and they actually want to talk to me, and I find out what the games meant to them and what the documentary experience with Hawes was like.  There is one scene in particular that I’ve watched over and over again, wishing for a time machine to appear so I can go back in time and see it in real life.  Around 10 minutes, 50 seconds, the film cuts to a close-up on a girl leading a call-and-answer chant.  According to the film guide, the girl leading the chant had approached Hawes and asked to lead the next game (the only girl to do so).  Hawes had agreed, but when the girls begin the game, it becomes clear that the leader is “doing it wrong”.  One girl is particularly outspoken about the leader’s mistake, but another girl steps in and silences her.  The leader begins again, saying the chant the same way she did the first time.  This time, another girl (wearing a sweater) quietly says “that’s wrong”.  The rest of the group immediately turns on her and when the leader begins to cry, the girl in the sweater is shoved a number of times.  The film guide explains that girl the in the sweater was new to the school, and had apparently not caught on to “the tacit signals by which the players decided to support their leader even though she was wrong”.  It’s a pretty simple explanation for what appears to be a pretty complex interaction, and I’ve always wanted to know more.

Despite the narrator’s suggestion that these games were limited to African-American communities, they’re remarkably similar to the games I played with my friends in elementary school.  I presented a lecture on Pizza Pizza earlier this year, and almost all of the 130 students were familiar with this kind of play.  While the formations and rhythms were similar, I was particularly struck by how similar the content is.  Both the songs I sang and the songs in Pizza Pizza discuss the raw intimate details of life: sex, illness, birth, death, relationships, identity.  I think the structure of the games made it a safe environment in which to talk about things that we weren’t really ready to talk about yet.  The “Miss Susie” song, which is peppered with half-said curse words and innuendo, is a great example.   A quick Google search confirms that even some of the specific songs from the time of Pizza Pizza are remembered:

I’m taking a Video Fieldwork course this term, and the final project is to create a ten minute film.  I’ve been revisiting Pizza Pizza in preparation, and I think the main lesson I’ve come away with is that asking about what we should be asking about is more important than any of our own ideas.  To me, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O is a reminder of how much it is possible to learn from seemingly casual encounters, and of how easy it is to miss the most important information in the midst of collecting.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    April 19, 2010 4:18 am

    You are such a good writer…………This is really a great way for you to show all of us what you are doing. Keep up the good work…….Love, Dad

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