“Charlie Over the Ocean” is an echo song that I love using to assess students’ ability to match pitch and use their singing voices. It also works really nicely to develop solo singing confidence and independence. When we start the game, I always ask my students who wants to be the song leader.
I love this song because my students love it. It’s fun and works on so many key musical components for my littlest ones!
Suggested Grade Levels: Kindergarten, 1st grade
All of the sources I used referred back to Harold Courlander, a white anthropologist, as the one who originally documented this Alabama singing game in the 1950’s. He recorded a group of African-American school children singing it. You can hear part of that recording here.
In different versions of the song, different animals are being caught. I learned it as “Charlie caught a big fish,” but other versions, including the original, have Charlie catching blackbirds and blackfish. One of my sources commented on these deviations, mentioning that they think the children Courlander recorded specifically used the word “black” as an allusion to racial references. It is possible that this song has been “whitewashed” by people who are uncomfortable with sounding insensitive or even racist by using the term “black” for labeling the bird and fish. As far as I am aware, this is just speculation on behalf of one person. It may be true or it may not be true. Either way, I wanted to add this note to the history section because it is important to consider the original context of the song versus what is taught and sang by children today.
While there are many different ways to play this game, I am going to focus on the original version recorded by Courlander and the contemporary version played by my own students.
Courlander Original: This is a drop-the-handkerchief type of game. The leader (or soloist) moves around the outside of a circle created by the rest of the children. As the leader sings, the rest of the group echos them. At the end of the song, the leader puts a small object, such as a stone, in the hand of a person standing in the circle. That person tries to catch the leader. If they fail, they are the new leader. If they succeed, the older leader must go around again.
Contemporary Student Version: The children make a circle and one person is “Charlie,” or the leader. “Charlie” goes around the circle, singing the song while the other students echo. Upon the conclusion of the song, “Charlie” lightly taps a student on the head and they must try to catch them. To ensure that as many students get a turn as possible, the student who was tapped on the head becomes the new “Charlie” regardless if they caught the original or not. To spice things up, we will sing the student’s name in place of Charlie. (Example: Alex over the ocean…)
–Great for assessing pitch matching
–Great to build soloist confidence
–Good practice for echo singing
–Identification of low “sol” and “la”
–Wonderful game to play quickly during the last few minutes of class
–Courlander, H. (1955). Charlie over the ocean [Song]. On Negro folk music of Alabama, Vol. 6: Ring game songs and othersI [Album]. Folkways Records.
–Courlander, H. (1963). Negro folk music, U.S.A. (pp. 159-160). Columbia University Press.
–Holy Names University (n.d.). Charlie over the ocean. Kodály Center: The American Folk Song Collection. http://kodaly.hnu.edu/song.cfm?id=685
–Powell, A. (2013, August 13). Charlie over the ocean (children’s game song). Pancocojams. http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/search?q=charlie+over+the+ocean
–Singing Games. (2018, February 1). Charlie over the ocean [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BKnEQ5F7Gk