Behind the Meaning of the Partner-Swapping Square Dance Song “Skip to My Lou”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

For anyone who has gone square-dancing, the sights and sounds, melodies, and rhythms quickly become apparent. The activity is odd and fun, joyous and a bit hokey.

But most of all, the practice requires a specific type of soundtrack. Enter: “Skip to My Lou.”

In order to understand the fundamentals of square dancing, it’s important to understand the fundamentals and meaning of the songs that produce its score. So, let’s do just that.

Let’s go behind the meaning of the song, shall we?

Origins

The origins of “Skip to My Lou” and its meaning go all the way back to the 1840s. It’s what’s known in square dancing circles as a “partner-stealing” song and dance.

According to the poet and Abraham Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg, “Skip to My Lou” was a song popular at parties in southern Indiana. While there are many verses that have been associated with the song, some common refrains include, “I’ll get her back in spite of you,” “Gone again, what shall I do” and “I’ll get another girl sweeter than you.”

In a time when partnership was prized and also aided by a little harmless flirting, the partner-stealing ode was a welcome bit of fun.

The “Skip to My Lou” Dance

The dance associated with the song begins with a number of couples. They match up, touching hands and skipping around a ring. Traditionally, a lone young man stands in the center of the moving partner circles and sings the song, beginning, “Lost my partner, what’ll I do?”

Then things get a little more interesting.

The fella in the center begins to decide which girl he’d like to dance with, continuing his singing, “I’ll get another one just like you!” When he reaches out for the hand of his chosen lass, the girl’s partner moves to the center of the ring, taking the first’s place.

All of a sudden, young men are becoming acquainted with other young ladies and vice-versa. That is the meaning and the importance of the song and dance. It puts smiles on all who choose to enjoy the action.

Hidden Historical Connections

Writer S. Frederick Starr has suggested that the song “Skip to My Lou” originally came from the Creole folksong, “Lolotte Pov’piti Lolotte.” The two songs bear a strong resemblance. And the word “lou” in the title and the song’s refrain comes from the Scottish word for “love.”

In Popular Culture

The song, “Skip to My Lou,” was featured in the popular 1944 movie Meet Me In St. Louis and is also sung in the 1951 movie Across the Wide Missouri, starring famed actor Clark Gable. In 1956, Ken Curtis uses the song to serenade Vera Miles in the Western movie The Searchers.

Other big-name musicians, including Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, have recorded versions of the track. Today, the song is a popular number to sing by kids in the classroom or in musical settings.

In 2010, the Jamaican dancehall artist Serene released a version of the track, titled, “Skip to My Luu,” and in 2009, RDX released a dancehall reggae version, called, “Skip.”

Various Verses

Throughout history, there have been myriad verses added as part of the song.

Traditionally, it begins:

Lost my partner
What’ll I do?
Lost my partner
What’ll I do?
Lost my partner
What’ll I do?
Skip to my lou, my darlin’

Skip, skip, skip to my Lou
Skip, skip, skip to my Lou
Skip, skip, skip to my Lou
Skip to my Lou, my darlin’

But there are a number of variations, too, many of them with silly, fun meanings, including:

  • Fly in the buttermilk, shoo, fly, shoo.
  • There’s a little red wagon, paint it blue.
  • I’ll get another, as pretty as you.
  • Can’t get a red bird, jay bird’ll do.
  • Cat’s in the cream jar, ooh, ooh, ooh.
  • Off to Texas, two by two.
  • Cows in the pasture two by two!
  • Found my partner love is true!

So sing whatever versions you like best. The meaning expressed is up to you,

Below, check out three versions of the popular song, including the rendition from the film, Meet Me In St. Louis, as well as one from a children’s music classroom.

Photo by Gettyimages.com

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