Goin’ Down To Cairo

There are a few different stories about this song, but the one I tell my students goes something like this:

Through the Underground Railroad (which was neither a railroad, nor underground), slaves escaped to the “free states” in the north, or to Canada. Many of them travelled by water instead of on land, because it made them harder to track. The biggest body of water that led them North was the Mississippi River. When they got to the southern tip of Illinois, they were “free”. The first town they came to was Cairo.

I show them on a US map where all this is, and point out that even though it is spelled like the city in Egypt, it is actually pronounced “Kay-row” when we are talking about the Illinois town. We also discuss why they would want to “black their boots”, and who Liza Jane might be. We figure they would want to look nice so that other people in the North wouldn’t suspect they were slaves. Liza Jane, from what I’ve heard, is a mistress, or even a prostitute, but I don’t mention that part to the kids!!

Once we have learned the song and play party, I like to let the students write their own verse to the song, thinking about what it might be like to have been a slave escaping.

The full game is a little tricky, so I break it down into steps.  First, they sing the song and walk around in a circle.  Someone (a teacher or chosen student) calls out “Cairo!” at any time during the song, and everyone changes directions. Then we add the “grande right and left”. Students face a partner and hold right hands. They gently pull their partner’s hand and pass right shoulders, basically changing places with their partner, but standing back to back. Make sure they know to let go of their partner’s hand once they are standing side by side. Now they are face to face with a new partner, who they hold left hands with and do the same thing on the other side. If you are feeling adventurous, they can sing the song while doing the grande right and left, and add the changing directions when someone yells “Cairo!”


Goin’ down to Cairo, good bye and a-good bye.

Goin’ down to Cairo, good bye Liza Jane.

Black them boots and make them shine, good bye and a-good bye.

Black them boots and make them shine, good bye Liza Jane.

geographical origin: U.S. – Illinois

tone set: sfmrd l,s,

meter: 2/4

pedagogical uses: syn-co-pa, fa, composing, grande right and left


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s