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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…

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