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Life’s Greatest Hits

The Singing Game

by Iona Opie and Peter Opie
Oxford University Press, 521 pp., $24.95

To look steadily and seriously at some aspect of life that most people would dismiss as trivial or tiresome takes both courage and a kind of genius. The British folklorists Iona and Peter Opie have always had both. When they began collecting and studying children’s songs and games during World War II, this material was of interest mainly to antiquarians and playground directors. They were only sixteen and twenty-one respectively, and neither of them had been to a university. For a time they and their three children were so poor that they sometimes ate nettles from their town park in Hampshire.

The Opies’ first major work, the now classic Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), established them as authorities in their field. It suggested that even the most seemingly meaningless verses might have roots in the distant past, or preserve almost-forgotten events and customs. It was followed by several other compilations, including The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse (1973) and The Classic Fairy Tales (1974). But the Opies’ most important and original achievement has been in the folklore of childhood, beginning with The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959). It was followed by Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969). The present volume, The Singing Game, is the third in the series; it was completed by Iona Opie alone after the tragically early death of her husband in 1982. A future volume, on “games needing equipment,” is projected.

For over forty years the Opies were indefatigable collectors of children’s rhymes and games and beliefs, as well as tireless investigators into the related folklore of other times and places. (According to The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Mrs. Opie was principally responsible for the fieldwork and research, and Mr. Opie for the actual writing of the books.) In The Singing Game, they not only cite verses sung by English children last year, but refer knowledgeably and almost casually within the same few pages to a 3500-year-old clay statuette from Crete, the Iliad, and medieval saints’ legends. In tracing the origins of nearly 150 singing games they draw upon history, anthropology, archaeology, literature, popular culture, and art.

The Opies’ discussion of “London Bridge,” for example, is illuminated by a reproduction of Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgment, which shows a group of saints and angels playing what looks like the same game. Other associations of “London Bridge,” however, are less heavenly. As the Opies point out, the game traditionally ends with a watchman being set to guard the bridge, after which it remains standing. They connect this with an ancient and sinister tradition:

It has long been thought sensible to propitiate the river with a sacrifice, a human life if possible…. A foundation sacrifice of human bones and the bones of cattle and sheep was found beneath an arch of Old Blackfriars Bridge, built 1760–8; and as recently as 1939 an engineer constructing a bridge in Assam was brought a live month-old baby to build into the foundations (“My Indian workmen were most enthusiastic”).

Other striking connections with the past appear in The Singing Game. In 1962, for instance, little girls in the north of England were observed dancing clockwise around another child who then invited one of them to join her in the center of the ring. While they danced, they sang:

Rosy apple, lemon and a pear,
A bunch of roses she shall wear.

The pattern of this game, apparently, is similar to one portrayed in a fifteenth-century illustration from the Roman de la Rose (reproduced by the Opies). The principal difference is that in the 1490 version the players are young men and women, and the girl in the center is offering a wreath rather than a bunch of roses to her chosen lover.

Most singing games cannot be traced back this far; but a great many preserve fragments of ballads and popular songs from earlier centuries. Others memorialize past events and persons:

King William was King James’s son,
All the royal races run;
Upon his breast he wore a star,
And it was called the sign of war.

So I chanted in a playground fifty years ago, long before I had ever heard of the Stuart kings or William of Orange (the British version cited by the Opies is slightly different). The game, it seems, is still current on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, new heroes and heroines—including Diana Dors and Popeye the Sailor—have appeared in new games, or revisions of old ones.

For the last hundred years or more, according to the Opies, singing games have been played mainly by seven- to nine-year-old girls, with older and younger children, and an occasional boy, now and then joining in. They are thus a contemporary instance of a phenomenon more common in the past, during the many centuries when men monopolized the written word, and when a separate oral literature of tales, songs, legends, and charms was handed on from generation to generation largely by uneducated women.

Given this history, it isn’t surprising that some of the games in this collection express a mild scorn for men, or their expectations:

Silly old man, he walks alone,
He wants a wife and he can’t get one.

What’s for dinner luv,
What’s for dinner, luv, farewell?
…Bread and butter and beetles,
And you shall have some.

A number of the games act out a drama in which suitors come seeking a bride and are repeatedly refused. It’s only fair to say, however, that they always succeed in the end, and that they occasionally refuse the brides offered them—once, notably, in a verse that suggests disillusion with the current Self-magazine type:

They are all too black and brawny,
They sit in the sun uncloudy,
With golden chains around their necks,
They are too black and brawny.

As these examples suggest, it isn’t necessary to be a folklorist or a school-teacher to find this book fascinating. For one thing, as the Opies say, “the older singing games have the sound of poetry.” Among my favorites, some are romantic:

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,
The rain comes scattering down the sky.
She is handsome, she is pretty,
She is the girl of the golden city.

Others are dramatic, even melodramatic:

Round apples, round apples,
By night and by day,
There stands a valley
In yonder haze.
There stands Moira Rogers
With a knife in her hand,
You dare not touch her
Or else she’ll be hanged.

Writers over the years have often recognized the power of these old songs and games, and used them to considerable effect. The Opies mention many examples; a striking one that they do not include occurs in L.P. Hartley’s ghost story, “A Visitor from Down Under.” Its hero, Victor Rumbold, who has made a fortune in Australia by dubious means, has just arrived in London. He is pursued, as it turns out, by the ghost or corpse of someone who is from “down under” in a more sinister sense: James Hagbeard, whom he has murdered. Hagbeard makes his presence known through a singing game heard over the radio on a children’s program:

The chant throbbed into a war-cry….

Who will you have for your Nuts and May? On a cold and frosty morning?

They would have Victor Rumbold for Nuts and May, Victor Rumbold, Victor Rumbold: and from the vindictiveness in their voices they might have meant to have had his blood, too.

And who will you send to fetch him away… On a cold and frosty morning?

Like a clarion call, a shout of defiance, came the reply:

We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away….

What makes this effective is the shudder we feel at the juxtaposition of innocent childhood play with adult wickedness and revenge from beyond the grave. The connection of “Nuts and May,” according to the Opies, with medieval May games and mock marriage-by-capture, gives the verses an additionally uneasy resonance.

This book includes the authentic tunes for most of the games, transcribed in all cases from tapes made in the field, and many attractive illustrations, not only of games from the past, but of contemporary children at play. Also remarkable is the Opies’ lively, unassuming style, and their general good humor toward other scholars in their field. Only once, in the essay on “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” known in this country more often as “Ring around the Rosy,” is there a note of comic asperity. They remark that “the game has been tainted by a legend that the song is a relic of the Great Plague of 1665…. This story has obtained such circulation in recent years that it can itself be said to be epidemic…and we ourselves have had to listen so often to this interpretation that we are reluctant to go out of the house.”

American readers who know these games may regret that a British version is always presented as the standard one. I sang “Sally, Sally Waters, sitting in a saucer” (not, for God’s sake, “sprinkle in the pan”), and like the Opies’ child informants I am convinced that this is the only correct text. I can hardly regret, however, their unfamiliarity with Midwestern botany. It occurs in the essay on “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” where the Opies write: “Thomas Hardy (born Bockhampton, 1840) knew the game as ‘All around the gooseberry bush’; T.S. Eliot (born St. Louis, 1888) seems to have known it as ‘Here we go round the prickly pear.”‘ The vision of children in St. Louis in the 1890s, including a small and solemn Tommy Eliot, dancing around an imaginary cactus, is something I would have been sorry to miss.

The persistence of a traditional art form that depends on children for its transmission has been a source of anxiety to scholars for well over a hundred years. In 1852, a correspondent in Notes and Queries claimed that “National Schools are fast sweeping away all charms, fairies, folk lore, and old village sports and pastimes.” Later writers assumed that urbanization, and then radio or television, would have the same disastrous effect. Yet, as the Opies say, “whenever a game seems finally to have disappeared it is found again, usually in the depths of a city.”

Why have these apparently rather meaningless verses and movements survived so long, and why are they so widely distributed? It is certainly not because of adult encouragement. Those authorities who over the years have taken any notice of the games have most often tended to deplore them, usually on Puritanical grounds, as (earlier) sacrilegious or (later) a waste of time. Others have tried, without success, to “improve” on them. The Opies relate how at the beginning of this century well-meaning educators attempted to introduce “invented games either reflecting everyday life…or encouraging a sympathy with nature or the fairy world…. Many were suffocatingly sentimental, with the word ‘little’ much used.” As they report with evident satisfaction, “None of these games took root in oral tradition; they were too self-conscious and insipid.” In any doubtful case, the Opies prefer children as authorities to scholars or educators. An authentic singing game, in their view, is one that can be proved to have been played spontaneously.

As Iona and Peter Opie are careful to point out, though we can discover parallels, we can never know whether a specific singing game is literally descended from the seasonal festivals, courtship and mating practices, ritual combats, or magical rites of the past. But to watch children engaged in these games today—or, even better, to remember playing them—is certainly rather like witnessing—or recalling—the performance of a ritual. The hypnotic repetition of the traditional chants, the repetitive circling and bowing, the insistence on getting the words “right” noted by collectors—all suggest this.

I cannot help but think therefore that, simple as they seem, these games may also have a ritual or symbolic meaning. In them, I suspect, even though the players could not articulate it, important dramas are enacted, and significant information about the world is conveyed.

Take a simple example, the game known as “Oranges and Lemons” (“Oranges and Lemons, say the bells of St. Clemen’s…” etc.). Here two children face each other and form an arch with their raised hands so that the others may pass through. At the end of the final verse—

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

—they lower their arms and catch someone who is then taken aside and asked in a whisper to choose either “oranges” or “lemons”; in this way sides are formed for a final and violent tug of war. Watching this game reminds me that the moment in which we are forced to declare our loyalties often arrives abruptly, that we make these choices blindly, and that we are often fatally bound by them. Not such a bad thing to learn between the ages of seven and nine.