Hambone, Hambone, Where You Been?


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. The following is a guest post by Brittany, a library assistant in the Children’s Department at Main. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

I often reflect on my past, and this Black History Month is no exception. I wonder if I’m different from the girl I was twenty-plus years ago. I know the answer is yes, but the question is why?

shakeitCheryl Warren Mattox (1950-2006) wrote a book that consumed my childhood, Shake It to the One That You Love the Best. Published in 1990 by a little known publisher, JTG of Nashville, Shake It to the One that You Love the Best contains twenty-six songs and lullabies that kids can sing along to. What’s special about this book is that the songs and lullabies come from African-American heritage. They come from my heritage and as a young African-American girl growing up in the South, that’s more than something special.

Around the age of eight, I sat with my great-grandmother one hot Kentucky day and pulled out Cheryl Warren Mattox’s book. It was given to me by someone in my family. I remember the cover vividly, its Kente cloth design, the words written on the cover and the three girls of my age that stared back. These girls were me. From the pink and white church dress worn by the girl in the middle, to the braids and barrettes that I’m sure were shaking from left to right. From what I can remember, some versions of the book came with a cassette. I remember mine having a small keyboard attached, the keys stained by marker or crayon or whatever art form I was into at the time.

When I pulled out the book and began to sing, to my surprise my great-grandmother already knew the words. What I failed to realize at the time was that the songs the author collected were songs innate to my great-grandmother.

Hambone, Hambone, where you been?
Round the world and back again…

My great-grandmother sang, patting her knee and rocking back and forth.

Hambone, Hambone, have you heard?
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockin’ bird…

She told me I was doing it wrong, (which I probably was). She knew this song, “Hambone.” Originally a dance known as the Pattin’ Juba, it was performed during gatherings on plantations.

I was no stranger to the other songs contained in the book. I had been singing “Down, Down Baby” and “Mary Mack” with my cousins for years.

Standing on our front porch, we stood in a circle and clapped our hands to the beat:

Down, down, baby, down by the rollercoaster
Sweet, sweet, baby, I’ll never let you go
Shimmy, shimmy, cocoa pop,
Shimmy shimmy, pow
Shimmy, shimmy, cocoa pop,
Shimmy, shimmy, pow.

Mary Mack had become not only part of our playtime, but part of our bodies. Our limbs knew how to move, this way and that, our hands knew the claps before our mouths could spit out the words:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons,
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother

For fifty cents, cents, cents
To see the elephant, elephant, elephant,
Jump over the fence, fence, fence

Years later, as I think about the words to the songs, it’s as if they never left.

He jumped so high, high, high
He touched the sky, sky, sky
And never came back, back, back
Til the fourth of July…

In her early years, Cheryl Warren Mattox received a Bachelor of Music from the University of Kansas, then a Master of Arts from San Francisco State University. She founded Warren-Mattox Productions, producing educational material that reflected African American culture.

Cheryl Warren Mattox was not alone in the creation of Shake It to the One that You Love the Best. Illustrators Varnette P. Honeywood and Brenda Joysmith also contributed to the childhood favorite.

Daughter of two elementary school teachers, Varnette P. Honeywood honed her artistic skills at the Chouinard Art Institute, currently known as the California Institute of the Arts. Her artwork offers positive views of the African American family. One portrait, entitled Malcolm, Marcus, Martin shows a father sitting with his two children as they flip through a red and green book. Hues of blue, yellow, brown and pink compose the portrait Adinkra Quilt Conjure Queens, Upon closer inspection, Honeywood utilized Adinkra symbols to layer the artwork.

Brenda Joysmith also contributed her artistic talents to Shake It to the One That You Love the Best. Her impressionistic artwork depicts life as it is. A child with yellow hair bows made of yarn stares over a fence in Open Gate. A group of girls sit in a chair, giggling over a doll in Doll Play. A father and grandparent teach a young boy how to play baseball in Developing a Winner. Joysmith’s work takes you back to the time that you were a child and makes you wish you had never left at all.

Twenty years ago, this book was my life. It was memorized, not by reading the words repeatedly, but by playing the hand games that corresponded with the songs. Twenty years later, this book is still my life. It’s the image of childhood that’s displayed on the cover, an image that brings back memories of my own childhood. Most importantly, it’s the words within that evoke not only feelings from years previous, but memories.

Hambone, Hambone, where you been?
Round the world and I’m going again…



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3 responses to “Hambone, Hambone, Where You Been?

  1. Beth

    Loved your post–books connecting us to our roots.

  2. Sheila

    Well done Brittany!

  3. J. Shepoard

    Thank you for this post. Cheryl was my Aunt. She was an incredible talent that we feel was taken too soon. I am glad to see her legacy lives on and I hope more little black kids learn the history of our music.

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