Thar’s a Bar!

by Bernie DeKoven on May 21, 2013

That's a Bar

These kids are demonstrating a game that for some reason has been promulgated for generations, mainly in youth organizations and camps. Here’s a description from a site called Boy Scout Trail:

Have everyone stand in line, shoulder touching shoulder.
Explain that we are going to complete the new Bear Warning training.

Tell everyone we need to crouch down so the bears can’t see us so good. Everyone should be crouching on their heels.

Leader takes his place to the far left of the line.
Leader: “Thar’s a Bar!”
Then, the leader tells the guy next to him to say, “Whar?”
Guy A: “Whar?”
Leader: “Over Thar!” (and points to the right with his left arm)
Leader: OK, now you need to pass the warning down the line. Go ahead.

A: “Thar’s a Bar!”
B: “Whar?”
A: “Over Thar!” (and points to the right with his left arm)

B: “Thar’s a Bar!”
C: “Whar?”
B: “Over Thar!” (and points to the right with his left arm)
… and so on to the end.

Everyone keeps their left arm extended.
Repeat the sequence, pointing to the left with the right arm.
Repeat again, pointing to the right with their left leg. Make sure they stick their leg far out – this is the important part.

For the final time,
Leader: “Thar’s a Bar!”
A: “Whar?”
Leader: “Over Thar!” (and pushes his shoulder into Guy A which should cause a domino effect of everyone falling down the line.)

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When I first learned the game, I didn’t like it. It, in a way, plays with the very trust you’re trying so hard to establish. It fools people. It makes people fall. And if you’re the leader, you make people fall. But I was curious about it, because it seemed so popular. So I tried it out with some kids. Before I told them, I said: “look, this is a silly game. You don’t have to play it. On the other hand, it might be fun, and if you want to try it, I’ll teach it to you, even though it’s really silly and it’s kind of, well, not nice.” So we played it. And everybody laughed. And then the kids wanted to play it again. Go figure.

Recently, fun correspondent Sheila Stone told me of another game very much like That’s a Bar, only called “Old Granny Wiggins is Dead” I guess it’s testimony to the perversity of play that such a game would be fun enough to be reinvented with a completely different narrative. It is described by Pearl Bates in the Foxfire 6 Book

You get as many players as you want sitting or standing in a circle. We usually sat outside in the grass. The the lead person says, “Old Granny Wiggins is dead.” And the next person says, “How’d she die?” And I say, “She died this way,” and I do something like wave my left hand up and down, and keep on waving it, and that next person has to start waving his or her hand the same way. I repeat the same sequence with every person in the circle until they are all waving the same hand. When we’ve come all the way around the circle and they’re all waving. I start a new round and add some motion this time like waving the other hand the same way. We go all the way around the circle until everyone is waving both hands, now. Then we used to add patting one foot and go all the way around, and then add patting the other foot, and then bobbing our heads. When everyone in the circle then is waving both hands and patting both feet and bobbing their heads, I give a signal and we all fall over dead on top of each other. We’d get a big laugh out of how we’d fall. We always did pretty much the same sequence with the hands and feet and head, but I guess you could add other signals like wagging a shoulder or something if you wanted to.

This says a lot for the popularity of this kind of silliness. And the durability. And the folklore of children’s games – how a game can get transmitted from one culture to another, its name changed, its theme changed, and still be the same game. It says something about fooling and getting fooled, about trust and kids. And it says even more for fun.


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