Luisa “Lulu” Gerstein is 27. She couldn’t strum a guitar when she started the Lampshades, but she could flip over a cup. She liked the chorus of an American folk song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” and she added some lyrics to goad her friends into joining her on a 10-day bike trip to Berlin.
“I’ve got a ticket for the long way ’round / Two bottles of whiskey for the way / And I sure would like some sweet company / And I’m leaving tomorrow, what d’ya say?”
Gerstein posted the no-frills video in 2009 on a lark. It became the band’s biggest hit. Three years later, the rhythm appeared in a Hollywood movie. Now children at Deal — and all
Web — are singing and banging down cups to her song.
Only it’s not really hers. She didn’t make up the Cups rhythm; she learned it in a percussion class. At school. Fifteen years ago.
“I just figured it was one of those things that everyone knew,” she said. “I had no idea. ”
(Since then, the band has changed its name to the Landshapes, in part to disassociate itself from the tune.)
So, who invented Cups?
No one really knows.
And it doesn’t matter. That’s just how clapping games are.
Gaunt, the professor and author of “The Games Black Girls Play,” said two truisms have emerged from her research. Like other products of our oral culture, hand games are almost impossible to trace to the source. And they are incredibly durable.
“They are the original social media,’’ Gaunt said. Hand games were originally passed from friend to friend on playgrounds and “go viral,” spreading from school to school and from state to state.
She points to “Miss Mary Mack,” the clapping and chanting game whose titular character dresses in black-black-black with silver buttons-buttons-buttons all down her back-back-back. That game, she discovered, can be found in most every English-speaking country. It is also more than 120 years old. In Ypsilanti, Mich., the rhyme is a little more bluesy; in New York, the pace is a little faster.
But the clapping pattern is the same — arm crossed over the chest, palms slapping the thighs and then a patty-cake clap. Games like Miss Mary Mack stay intact, Gaunt says, because they involve something called “embodied language.” Years after adults first played them, they remember the rhythm, which enables them to re-create the rest.
At a recent class at Cherokee Lane Elementary School in Adelphi, music teacher Emily Koons made an announcement after her fourth-graders diligently practiced F’s and D’s on their recorders.
“Let’s play Hambone!” she told them.
“Yea!” they responded, giggling.
The children slap their hands on their thighs so fast that they begin to blur. They make fish mouths and slap their cheeks, making a hollow sound. They clasp their hands as if they are about to pray, then move them back and forth and rub them together.
No one knew how to play the game — whose Southern roots extend to the days of slavery — until Koons taught them. She thought the game would help the class understand jazz improvisation, while preserving a fading part of American culture.
Afterward, they all started practicing in the school yard.
“It’s not that kids don’t want to play” hand games, Koons said. “They just need to be taught.”
A few weeks ago, a student came up to Koons and asked whether she knew any games with cups.
The craze is still going strong at Deal. Students recently learned a variation using the Robyn song “Call Your Girlfriend.”
For Neal, this means more noise in the cafeteria as hundreds of students flip Solo cups and sing.
“Stop! Stop!” Neal commanded a group of friends one recent day. “Do you realize you’re off rhythm? You realize that?”
The girls fell silent.
Neal smiled. “Try it again.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified the city where a bluesy regional variation of “Miss Mary Mack” can be found.