Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The play party, a preplanned traditional dance without instruments, was a recreational activity of teenagers and young adults that was once common across the Great Plains and the entire United States. People attending play parties played singing and action games such as "musical chairs" and many other games in volving male-female interactions, emphasizing socialization and interpersonal relationships rather than competition, while they shared refreshments and conversation.

Early folklorists, including Ben Botkin, Vance Randolf, and L. D. Ames, analyzed the play party and concluded that it flourished in Anglo-American culture on the western frontier because of the repressive influence of the puritan ethic, especially its opposition to musical instruments. As early as 1949, folklorists began to challenge this widely accepted description by noting that the lack of instruments at the play party might well have been caused simply by a shortage of instruments. Ben Botkin further maintains that the songs of the play party came to the Great Plains with the cattle drives through Texas and Oklahoma, two states where the parties were very popular. He also made the point that despite the play party's Anglo-American origins, African Americans and Native Americans participated in them as well, particularly in the Southern Great Plains. A 1972 article based on field interviews conducted in the mid-1960s concluded that the play party probably existed across America, persisted after the passage of the frontier, experienced revivals that often included instruments, created a complex poetic, and lived on as a substantial contribution to American children's games and folk music. Since that time, however, it seems that the tradition of the play party has faded.

Keith Cunningham Northern Arizona University

Ames, L. D. "The Missouri Play Party." Journal of American Folklore 24 (1911): 295-318.

Cunningham, Keith. "Another Look at the Play Party." Affword 2 (1972): 12-23.

Randolf, Vance. "The Ozark Play-Party." Journal of American Folklore 42 (1929): 201-32.

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