Recurring Riffs #1: Stealing Candy From A Baby

Tom Hanks from Big

Introducing a new series here at TSSL, one that may as well be christened “Recurring Riffs”. In it, I’ll trace a chosen musical motif through as many of its incarnations as I can think of, starting with the earliest and ending with its most modern iteration. These will exist in a land separate from notions of copyright and plagiarism, instead concerning salient phrases or repeated figures which are not necessarily “copied”, and don’t really belong to anybody in particular, but which resurface from time to time in a broad array of recorded works for any number of untold reasons.

This will be a subject that naturally begs for reader participation, largely because there will no doubt be plenty of examples that either space or my own scope on the matter will limit me from covering. It is thus highly encouraged for you to take to the comments section and fill in any gaps that may arise. We’ll then add any pertinent examples to the post, soundclips and all, in an addendum section.

For the inauguratory post, we take things back to the playground.

The children’s sing-along clapping game, known as “Down Down Baby“, is one of those age-old passtime games that exists in many variations in its natural setting of the schoolyard. What might not be immediately apparent is its longevity as a theme used in the outside world.

Here’s a video from Sesame Street, featuring some kids learning the game:


And a quicker clip of children’s singer Laurie Berkner singing the song:

Laurie Berkner - "Down Down Baby" (1997)

Right off the bat, I’ll bet many of you who were at first uncertain have by now remembered where else this tune has surfaced, and so in that spirit let’s take a chronological look at a few places it’s been.

Starting with perhaps its earliest appearance in a hit song, Little Anthony‘s version injects some sexual tension into his use of the phrase in an ever-modulating chorus:

Little Anthony and the Imperials - "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop" (1959)

Tom Hanks Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop

Next, a version of “Down Down Baby” was used in a particularly memorable scene in the Tom Hanks movie Big, as the method by which Hanks’ grown-up character Josh convinces his friend Billy who he really is. In lieu of an available youtube clip, here’s the audio:

Tom Hanks - "Shimmy Shimmy Handshake" (1988)

This brings us to probably the most well known use of “Down Down Baby”, found in Nelly‘s debut hit single “Country Grammar“. I don’t know what it is about rappers using juvenile ditties for their hooks — from Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” to the bevy of hip-hop figures involved in reprising “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (a likely contender for a future Recurring Elements post) — but Nelly’s may well be the most successful attempt at “stealing candy from a baby” in such a fashion. It’s hard to imagine the song would have been such a hit without that irresistible melody and the delightful subversiveness of mixing the original lyrics with lines like “light it up and take a puff / pass it to me now”:

Nelly - "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)" (2000)

Finally, have a listen to one of Philly’s best bands incorporating the song into their sublime “Freedom Park”:

Marah - "Freedom Park (Intro)" (2004)
Marah - "Freedom Park (Chorus)" (2004)

Marah and Nelly


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22 Replies to “Recurring Riffs #1: Stealing Candy From A Baby”

  1. James

    I like this idea a lot. Another really interesting melody is the “Oriental riff”, featured in “Turning Japanese” and “Young Folks” and any number of Warner Brothers cartoons.

  2. Ben Post author

    Thanks James. Yeah, the Vapors! “Turning Japanese” is a great example of that riff. Bowie’s “China Girl” too. This would be a good one — parodies in the form of melodies & specific instruments used as shorthand to evoke the cultural “other”.

  3. Mark Adams

    Yes. Also, check out The Most Ripped Off Heavy Metal Riff and Who’s Riff is it (Nirvana, Killing Joke, The Damned, The Beatles)? on Youtube. For some reason Nickelback isn’t mentioned in the title of the latter and the Beatles riff sounds more like something by The Monkees (I’m A Believer?).

    1. Mark Adams

      I could be wrong about the Beatles riff, or at least I don’t think it’s I’m a Believer that sounds like it.

  4. Mark Adams

    These are a couple of short motifs, in scale degree numbers, that occur a lot, in different rhythms: 3 5 1 2 1, which appears in Every Time You Cry, Every Time You Go Away, Take My Breath Away, I will Follow Him and even the intro riff to Tears in Heaven. The second is: 5 4 3 5 1 2 3 1, which occurs in songs such as Glory, Glory, Hallelujah; Walk a Country Mile and others.

      1. Mark Adams

        While I’m on the subject, the riff from That Driving Beat (1999) sounds like that of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, which in itself is said to be taken from Nowhere to Run by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

  5. Mark Adams

    One more: 5 6 1 6 1 1, which appears in Better Man, Missing You (which has a couple of syllables over one of the notes) and My Sweet Lord (He’s So Fine is slightly different).

  6. Mark Adams

    A Celtic song by Herbert Hughes and William Butler Yeats titled Down by the Salley Gardens also uses the motif: 5 6 1 2 1, and sorry, I will follow Him and the intro riff to Tears in Heaven use 5 6 1 2 1, not 3 5 1 2 1.

  7. Mark Adams

    Another example of a juvenile ditty turning up (and this is by people other than rappers), sometimes possibly unintentionally is one we’ll call the na na na na na motif. I believe it came from nursery rhymes, but it may have come before. It can be found in the Round the Twist theme song, both F**kin’ Perfect and Are We All We Are? by P!nk and the verse of If it’s Love by Train.

        1. Mark Adams

          And Candy by Robbie Williams (2013). Also, his United (2005) sounds like I’ll Be There For You and the others.

    1. Mark Adams

      And for another juvenile ditty, part of What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong sounds like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, written by Mozart.

  8. Mark Adams

    Here’s another recurring riff, in Princess of China by Coldplay (2011), Low by Michael Paynter and The Art of Letting Go, off of Mariah Carey’s new album.

  9. Tin Ears

    The chorus of “Cupid Shuffle” (“Down, down, do your dance, do your dance”) is strongly reminiscent of “Down Down Baby”, probably on purpose.


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