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«Laura Jopson, Andrew Burn, Jonathan Robinson In Burn, A and Richards, C (eds) (forthcoming 2012) Children’s games in the new media age: Childlore, ...»

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Chapter 2

The Opie Recordings: What’s Left to be Heard?

Laura Jopson, Andrew Burn, Jonathan Robinson

In Burn, A and Richards, C (eds) (forthcoming 2012) Children’s games in the new media

age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. Farnham: Ashgate

In 1985, Peter and Iona Opie published the third of their works relating to the play of

schoolchildren: The Singing Game. Peter Opie had died before it could be completed; Iona

Opie wrote the Preface, Introduction, and what text remained to be completed1 after the editing of the transcripts and commentary she and Peter had built up over the years, and she had organized in the elaborate filing system now archived at the Bodleian Library. An ambitious exposition, their work surveyed children’s singing games across the UK, including clapping games as a subset, and explored individual verbal texts, variations and histories. A landmark contribution to the subject area of children’s folklore, much of the book’s material drew on a large collection of audio recordings made mostly by Iona Opie from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. This collection was deposited with the British Library Sound Archive in 1998 and is now entitled ‘The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs’ (BL shelfmark: C898). It has been digitised and made available by the British Library as part of the project which the present volume describes. Offering a geographically and chronologically diverse collection of songs, the collection brings to life the material that fills the pages of The Singing Game. The audio archive consists of 85 open reel and cassette tapes recorded by Iona between 1969 and 1983, and. It is now fully catalogued and available online as streamed audio to the public at large.

She writes: ‘In the event, he died before the book was finished. I wrote the Preface, Introduction, and the remainder of the text.’ Letter to Julia Bishop, 2012 However, the collection’s significance lies not simply in the chance to sample the songs included in The Singing Game. As this chapter will show, there is still much left to be heard in the Opie collection which has never been published. Themes such as the role of play in the inclusion and exclusion of children on the playground; the role of the media in children’s play; the question of transmission of games and songs; and the appearance and function of scatological and transgressive songs and rhymes during playtime, resonate throughout this archive of recordings.

This chapter will explore these themes in the light of recent research in childhood studies emphasising the agency of children’s culture (eg James, 1993; Quortrup, 2009); the importance of children’s media cultures in their play (eg Buckingham, 2000; 2007), and the form and function of children’s folklore (eg Bishop & Curtis, 2001; Grugeon, 1988).

–  –  –

Before attending to the contents of the archive, we will consider what it reveals about the Opies’ approach to research and how this has determined the shape and extent of the collection.

The Singing Game (1985), while based partly on surveys completed for The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), also includes a different kind of field research. The Opies conducted the surveys largely with the help of teachers. They took the form of a written questionnaire and the children wrote their replies which the teacher forwarded to the Opies (who might then correspond and ask for more details or clarifications). The fieldwork for the Singing Game, by contrast, involved the use of sound recording technology and Iona Opie collected much of it at firsthand, travelling the country in search of her material, sometimes accompanied by fellow collectors of children’s games such as Father Damian Webb and Berit Østberg. Interestingly, there is little indication from the recordings that Peter Opie accompanied Iona on these visits. On a few recordings in the archive, particularly those from the London area, Iona Opie makes reference to the fact that she is accompanied by her Norwegian friend who is presumably Berit Østberg, mentioned in the preface to The Singing Game. Opie explains that Østberg is also a collector of children’s games and songs in Norway, though little else is said about her. Father Damian Webb can also be heard on a set of recordings from St Benedict’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Garforth, Yorkshire where he taught (C898/12). He is heard discussing with the schoolchildren their singing games and songs and commenting on these with Opie. Webb was a Benedictine monk and folklorist, whose approach to the collection of children’s games was facilitated by sophisticated audiorecording and photographic equipment. His substantial archives of photographs and audio recordings were given to the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford on his death. Several of his photographs are used as illustrations in The Singing Game; and a selection is also used on the British Library website developed during our project (Figure 1). Digital copies of the sound recordings are available at the British Library as the ‘Damian Webb/Pitt Rivers Museum Children’s Games and Songs’ (BL shelfmark: C1431).

FIGURE 2.1 – Boys Playing Marbles, April 1968, England, Leyland.

Fr Damian Webb. By kind permission of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Iona Opie collected traditional singing games and other songs from a range of childhood haunts including school playgrounds and council estates, inner city recreational grounds and country villages, including her own village of Liss in Hampshire, which provided the material for her sustained investigation of play presented in The People in the Playground (Opie, 1994. The locations are widely distributed, covering the West Country, the Midlands, the Welsh borders, the North-west, Yorkshire, Scotland and various sites in London. She writes of her efforts to complete the geographical picture of children’s play


It was only when we failed to find a contact in some corner of Great Britain, or in some offshore island, that I went off on an expedition with a tape-recorder: to Cape Wrath in the left-hand top corner of Scotland, to the Land’s End in Cornwall, to the westerly tip of Wales, and to the Isle of Wight. For the last of our books on school lore, The Singing Game, I also made special forays into the places where the older lore flourishes best, the depths of the cities, and there I found games like “There comes a Jew a-riding” which were believed to have quite died out. (Opie, I, 1988).

The interviews and performances were collected on open-reel tapes and cassettes. The medium of each recording can be found by searching the British Library catalogue which

provides the details. Opie writes self-deprecatingly of the technology in a personal letter:

Peter didn’t even use a typewriter, and I made the playground recordings on a 12guinea tape-recorder from Selfridges, with 3-inch tapes – nice little machine it was.

–  –  –

When meeting with the children, Opie ensured that these were not formal or prescriptive interviews, but relaxed discussions amongst small friendship groups of children as they played and sung. Often letting the children hold the microphone or experiment with the recording device, Iona appears a welcome member of these gangs, casually discussing with the children songs and games, boyfriends and enemies. In this sense, her research method is characteristically ethnographic, featuring what today’s qualitative methodology textbooks call semi-structured interviewing techniques, focus groups, and attention to discursive interplay between participants and to their cultural context. She speaks in an interview of being pleasantly surprised when Lore and Language was reviewed by Edmund Leach, who wrote ‘the Opies have arrived as anthropologists’, saying that they had never seen themselves in this way2. Yet clearly Opie’s method in her fieldwork went far beyond acquiring narrow focus on textual corpus, andthe recordings reveal how extensive her interest was in the cultural sources and contexts of the children’s play. In this respect, she was in the vanguard of contemporary developments in folklore studies, which by the 1980s had an academic presence in the UK, at Leeds, Sheffield, and School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Folklore studies in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was also influenced by the European ‘folk life studies’ and by ‘folkloristics’ in North America, as well as developments in British social anthropology. The Opies would have been aware of these developments and were attendees at the Folklore Society centenary conference in 1978 which attracted innovative researchers from Europe and North America (Newall, 1980).

Cathy Courtney Interview with Iona Opie, ‘Cathy Courtney Oral History Collection’, British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue, shelfmark C968/139/01-03.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that she elicits lengthy accounts of children’s cultural practices, such as a boy’s account of his interest in girlfriends in London’s Coram Fields (C898/26); children’s descriptions of their play in the country and park in Alton, Hampshire, and of their television viewing (C898/01); children’s favourite sweets and crisp flavours in Stepney Green, London (C898/29); problems encountered by children in Chelsea, London, when adults disapprove of their ball games (C898/67).

The result of this intensely detailed research is a collection of recordings that add to the Opies’ published evidence of a distinct and fiercely guarded play culture. In a period in which social commentators and scholars alike were bewailing its apparent death, Iona Opie countered that this tradition was in fact ‘a truly living one’. (Opie & Opie, 1998: vii).

Three questions may be posed about this extraordinarily sustained research process.

One concerns the nature of the research collaboration. Since Iona Opie conducted a good deal of the research independently of her husband, it may be that conventional assumptions about their partnership need to be re-evaluated, and her own distinctive role given a greater prominence. At the same time, her collaborations with Østberg and Webb could be considered in more detail. Webb, for example, was clearly more than just the provider of photographs illustrating the Opie publications, but a skilled researcher in his own right, whose approach to what today is seen as visual ethnography both complements and contrasts with Opie’s greater reliance on language and audio recording.

Another question is about the theoretical basis of the research, its profound beliefs about childhood and culture. In this respect, the architects of the new sociology of childhood regard the Opies as pioneers, to be seen as predecessors of the approaches to childhood studies they advocate, with an insistence on the agency of the child and the self-sufficiency of children’s play cultures (James, Jenks and Prout, 1998; Corsaro, 2009). At the same time, James, Jenks and Prout label the Opies’ approach ‘the tribal child’, suggesting it displays an anthropological view which locates children’s culture as exotic and alien, productively signaling its autonomy, but in danger of romanticizing its nature and functions. To carry forward this question, the archive might be expected to reveal something of the ethnographic method: what is included, how it is treated, what kinds of interrogation are evident, what kinds of proto-interpretation might be implied.

A third, methodological, question might be leveled at the nature of the data Opie collected, and how it was captured, transcribed, notated. As noted above, her methods relied on field notes and analogue audio recording. The photographic illustrations for The Singing Game were provided by Damian Webb. The tunes for the songs, meanwhile, were transcribed

and notated by a friend, Michael Hurd, of whom she writes:

–  –  –

was composing choral works for children, published by OUP. I knew I should print the singing game tunes. He lived just up the road, so he could take some of the tapes and write out the tunes …It was just my luck that he was already a friend. (Letter to

–  –  –

The question here, then, relates to the communicative modes which make up playground games, which of these are recognized and captured, and what prominence is accorded to them. Unsurprisingly, particularly in view of the scholarly tradition of folklore studies in which the Opies are most obviously located, considerable prominence is given to the words: the mode of language. Opie can often be heard in the archive recordings asking children to repeat the words of the songs. We know from interpretive work in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and The Singing Game that scholarly attention to historical variation and poetic form is a preoccupation of the Opies’ approach, albeit balanced by scrupulous attention to the immediate cultural context in which children disown any knowledge of the history or origins of their games and songs. She is also interested in the tunes, although she does not ask the children about variants of the tunes, or about alternative tunes. In the published work, there is less explicit attention to musical variation than to linguistic variation.

The other modes at work can be seen, in terms of multimodality theory, as communicative work such as gesture, action, gaze, proxemics (eg Finnegan, 2002; Bishop and Burn, 2013). Some of these are not, of course, noted by Opie, though her folklorist antennae are keenly directed at the actions specific to particular games, and these are noted in careful detail in The Singing Game. Again, she can be heard in the recording asking children to describe these movements. An example is a sequence of movements briefly described in

The Singing Game in relation to a song that begins ‘Crackerjack, Crackerjack’:

… sung twice while the children in the circle bumped their hips into each other, and ended with the pantomime ‘The boys have got the muscles’ (everyone flexes their biceps’), the teacher’s got the pay’ (‘stretch out hands’), ‘The girls have got the sexy legs’ (lift skirt showing off leg’), ‘Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!’ (‘jump up and down’).

–  –  –

In the recordings, this sequence is noted at the playground in London’s Coram Fields

in relation to a song beginning Michelle, Michelle:

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