Call and Response

April 19, 2023

Few kinds of songs have the rich and varied history as the “call and response.” From African-American spirituals, to beloved children’s songs, the concept of one line of music echoing the one before has been popular for ages. I love the call and response because it keeps everyone engaged—listening, coming in on cue, having a musical conversation. For the convict gangs toiling on the roads, a call and response set a rhythm for their efforts, and (I’m sure) helped pass the endless, grueling hours. In the military service, call-and-response (especially shouted responses) kept morale high on long marches. In spirituals, members of the gospel choir would interact, and underscore the beauty and power of the words. Little ones singing “Frère Jacques” and “Down By the Bay” repeat the previous line, which adds to the fun of the music. 

Sheridan told me recently about a Bird ID app called Merlin. You record birdsongs, and the name of the bird singing comes up on your phone. I was awake at 4:45 AM (as always), but this time I opened the window, and taped the symphony of sounds in our yard. Thanks to Merlin, I could identify the chorus—cardinal, American robin, white-throated sparrow, Carolina wren. It sounded for all the world as if the birds were listening to one another, and chirping a response (and that response would in turn cause the next bird to trill, and on on.) 

As a mom and Nana, I’m always looking for “entertaining” ways to give (loving) reminders, er, orders to my kiddos. If I used “call and response,” instead of grumbling and grousing, maybe they would actually answer! Better yet, maybe they’d actually do what they’re being asked! I can just imagine…

To Military Cadence ("I Don't Know But I've Been Told")

I don’t know but I’ve been told (I don’t know but I’ve been told)

Eat before your food gets cold (eat before your food gets cold)

All chew (all chew)!

All chew (all chew)!

 Or…(to "Banana Boat Song")

 Day-o, Mom say day-o

Daylight come and we wanna go school

Day-o, Mom say day-o

Daylight come and we wanna go school

Even…(to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore")

Put your laundry in the wash 

It’s so sti-n-ky

Put your laundry in the wash

It’s so sti-n-ky

Of course, this tuneful trick could become obnoxious. My tone-deaf dad used to “sing” us out of bed in the mornings. A miserable time was had by all, and we’d get up just to shut him up. 

"Annoying" is not my goal; rather, my hope is that “call-and-response” would engender a true, cheery esprit-de-corps in the household. Both Aiden and Peter have really nice voices and can often be heard singing while playing Legos. Maybe they could make up their own ditties! 

Example… (to Military Cadence "Everywhere We Go")

Every afternoon (every afternoon)

Nana always let us (Nana always lets us)

Watch some TV (watch some TV)

All the TV (all the TV)

On second thought, never mind.


    I am an author (of five books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a retired director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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