I have not used this with my students yet, but have seen and heard the testimony of many music teachers who have. Due to its popularity on Facebook groups and the like, I thought I would dive in and see what the inner workings of this song are about.
Suggested Grade Levels: Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, 4th grade
One of the earliest mentions of this song came from Dorothy Scarborough’s book On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs (p. 139). Scarborough noted that many children’s game-songs had their origins in old English repertoire and that they were adapted to fit the needs of the children playing them. In this case, the lyrics “my lady” were more than likely replaced with “some lady” by the children how played the game.
As mentioned in the title of the book, this particular song was collected from African-American children. Although the book was published in 1925, it was recorded that the song had been learned prior to that year. There is no exact mention of when the song was learned.
Due to the timing of the book’s publication, the population from which the song was collected, and the fact that slavery was not abolished until the end of 1865, it is likely that this song-game was played by either enslaved children or their descendants. Enslaved children and their families were not allowed the luxury of materials such as toys, so they had to improvise for play and entertainment. Closet Key provided a game where they could hide a commonplace object, such as a key, and use it as a play item in a searching game.
Option 1: Children begin in a circle. One student sits in the middle with their eyes closed while another secretly hides the key in a classmate’s hand. With their eyes still closed, the student in the center sings “Who has the key?” (sol mi la sol mi), and the student who has it responds by singing “I have the key” (same melody). The student in the center opens their eyes and has three chances to guess who is holding the key.
Option 2: Children begin in a circle. One student sits in the middle with their eyes closed while another hides the key somewhere in the classroom. Once it is hidden, the rest of the children sing Closet Key to assist the student in the middle of the circle in finding the key. Their voices will grow louder as the student gets closer and quieter as the student gets further away. (See children playing this version of the game in the video below.)
–Good song for isolating “mi re do”
–“Re” isolation and identification
–Practicing crescendo, decrescendo, forte, and piano dynamics
–Good song for short beat activities
–BAG song for beginning recorder; excellent way to practice the skip from G to B and moving fingers quickly
–Curlyhairmusicclass. (2017, January 6). Closet key singing game [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5BRniGbt8U
–Holy Names University. (n.d.). Closet key, the. Kodály Center: The American Folk Song Collection. https://kodaly.hnu.edu/song.cfm?id=676
–Powell, A. (2014, June 28). Similarities between the African American singing game “the closet key” & the Nicaraguan singing game “mayaya las im key”. Pancocojams. http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/06/similarities-between-african-american.html#:~:text=However%2C%20the%20further%20development%20of,%2DNicaraguans%20from%20Bluefield%2C%20Nicaragua.
–(R. Grimsby, personal communication, March 5, 2021).
–Scarborough, D. (1925). On the trail of negro folk-songs. Harvard University Press. http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/negro/folk-songs%20-%200239.htm