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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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Children: Mi-chelle (boom-ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom)

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you clap your hands under your legs, that’s twice, under each leg, as it were – um, then you’ve got ‘the boy’s got the muscles’, you’re sort of clenching your fists, like that, showing your biceps, you’ve got the muscles! (laughs). ‘Teacher’s got the brain’.... ‘teacher’s got the brains’, you point at your head, um, then, um, ‘girl’s got the sex, you sort of raise your skirt up at the side and show your legs, and then, ‘what more can you say’, you get down on one knee and pray! I’ve never heard that one before.

–  –  –

Not only does this careful attention to detail show the folklorist and ethnographer, it shows an attention to the physical modes of expressive movement. In general, then, while in the published work linguistic form and content, variation and change are explicit preoccupations, a good deal of attention is given to physical modes of play in the recordings.

Music, by contrast, is notated but rarely commented on either in the recordings or The Singing Game.

If we include in the picture her research collaborations, we see, as well as the musical collaboration of Michael Hurd, the ethnographic contribution of Damian Webb, not just as an illustrator, but as a complementary researcher, documenting the visual landscape of children’s games which we can only imagine as we listen to the Opies’ sound recordings.

In certain ways, then, Iona Opie’s work foreshadows future developments in the documenting and interpretation of the lives of children. In its cultural politics and its rejection of developmental approaches to childhood, it anticipates the theories of agency, culture and play elaborated by the new sociology of childhood, though its celebration of vernacular artistry bears little resemblance to sociology. Innovations which are genuinely pioneering can be heard in the audio recordings: the deferral to children’s knowledge, the delicate probing of cultural context and practice, the attention to action, movement and social function as well as the formal properties of language.

In the next section, we will look at three areas of content which the archive reveals, and which are not to be found in the publications.


In the light of the account given generally in The Singing Game, we might assume that this animated culture was one in which tradition thrived, familiar melodies persisted and scatological rhymes were shunned in favour of loud and wholesome renditions of A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea. Indeed, Opie describes the children represented here as a distant reflection of the ‘young people of the Middle ages’ in their singing games, games that boast one hundred and fifty years worth of history, and mild-mannered ‘buffoonery’ (Opie & Opie, 1985: 31).

An obvious question about the archive is whether it reveals broadly the same picture?

Or does it demonstrate that the Opies captured something more, material that they recognised to be of significance yet due to the purposes of their own research, did not include in The Singing Game? Ultimately, the researcher may ask: what, if anything from these recordings, has gone unheard? In the remainder of this chapter, we will consider three areas of content that are under-represented in the published work, and which offer an expanded view of play cultures, along with the different challenges for us as we contemplate the play spaces of the early twenty-first century. The first of these areas relates to a central question of our project, how children’s play cultures relate to their media cultures (see Burn, chapter 1 of this volume; and Willett, chapter 5). The second explores the question of variation, using specific examples from the archive. The third looks at scatological and transgressive material from the collection.

The marriage of oral tradition and media cultures Throughout The Singing Game, the Opies document instances in which references to children’s experience of popular media appear. For example, we read that in Scarborough, two girls performing the song Sunny Side Up include a reference to ‘Larry Grayson’ who presented the British television show of the 1970s, ‘Shut That Door!’ The authors also provide a short list of pop songs that girls throughout the country used as clapping songs; and

in the section ‘Impersonations and Dance Routines’ they cite three contemporary songs:

Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’; ‘Save your Kisses for Me’, by the Brotherhood of Man;

and ‘Just One More Dance’, by Esther and Abi Ofarim (Opie & Opie, 1985: 414). However, the songs and performances included as full transcriptions constitute a quite specific category. Some do indeed derive from popular cultural and media sources: but ones predating this generation of children by a considerable margin. In the chapter in The Singing Game entitled ‘Impersonations and Dance Routines’, for example, the songs and performances included are all adaptations and transformations of older popular songs: ‘She Wears Red Feathers’ from 1952 (Opie & Opie 1985: 425); ‘Sunny Side Up’ from 1929 (Opie & Opie 1985: 429); The ‘Tennessee WigWalk’ from 1953 (Opie & Opie 1985: 432).

Meanwhile, performances of the hits of the 1970s are omitted. The Opies explain this

selection explicitly:

The song-dances in this section are the exception to the rule. They have taken root in oral tradition, and often words and movement have grown over the years. (Opie &

–  –  –

Their focus, then, where it included media-derived material, was on texts which had stood the test of time, overcome the ephemerality which they saw as characteristic of media culture, and had become subject to the processes of oral transmission over decades which might seem to characterise folkloric material.

By contrast, the range of material in the archive is striking. Again, the fundamental purpose of these interviews was to capture traditional singing games; not to document the children’s popular media cultures. Nevertheless, the recordings demonstrate clearly that Iona Opie did take the time to capture, often in some detail, many instances in which children refer to their engagement with contemporary media. She asks them about their television viewing, finding Scooby-Doo, Blue Peter, Secret Squirrel and Adam Ant at Alton, Hampshire (C898.01); their favourite pop songs and singers, finding a tribute to the 1970s Scottish boyband the Bay City Rollers, sung to the tune of ‘This Old Man’, in Manchester (C898/69), asking children in Liss if they know the Bay City Rollers (C898/62), and recording children in Poole, Dorset singing the Bay City Rollers’ 1975 hit ‘Give a Little Love’ (C898/80); and films, finding a game based on Chitty-Chity-Bang-Bang in Bedford (C898/09). An example of her interest in media culture can be found in a discussion with a group of boys in Liss, Hampshire (her own village) about the popular 1970s US television series Kung Fu (C898/22). She asks why the programme is considered dangerous, who the central character, Caine is, how he moves and fights, and why. Later in the recording she discovers that the boys also exchange Kung Fu trading cards, and that these have been banned by the school.

Particularly notable is the number of pop songs heard on the recordings. When asking the children what their favourite singing or clapping games are, girls often suggest a song that is topping the charts at that time. However, this distinction between songs from media cultures and those from the traditional stock of playground and street songs is not made by the children. In that moment, the song is firmly a part of their culture.

A good example is contained in an interview with children in Coram Fields, a public park and playground in London’s Bloomsbury, in July 1974 (C989/26). Iona Opie asks a group of girls if they have any singing games that they enjoy playing. Having sung the oftenheard singing game When the War Was Over and Josephine was Dead, the girls excitedly ask if their friend can sing ‘Mama’, and one of them reassures the interviewer: ‘she does sing that in the school playground’, in fact she stands on the bench and sings it to ‘all the people’. The girl then begins to perform Lena Zavaroni’s Mama, He’s Making Eyes at Me, and the other girls join in on the chorus. The song, (words by Sidney Clare, music by Con Conrad) was first published in 1921, and was recorded by many artists before Zavaroni. It is a good example of the complex cultural histories of popular music, accompanied by even more complex oral hinterlands of fan performance, including playground routines. How do we know, then, that it is Zavaroni’s performance which these girls are adapting? In fact, their rendition is quite an accurate presentation of Zavaroni’s hit record, which opens with a single introductory “Mama!”, followed by a descending scale in the accompaniment. The girls mimic this closely, the soloist singing the song, the others singing the accompaniment in between lines, in chorus.

Having sung this the girls then move on to sing the skipping game Salt, Vinegar, Mustard, Cider. The fact that ‘Mama’ had won Zavaroni the TV talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ is not mentioned, nor the fact the song was released as a record in 1974. Instead, it appears in and amongst their regular singing and skipping songs. Nevertheless, as indicated above, it does clearly adapt the cultural resources of Zavaroni’s hit record, and these continue through the performance: the use of a characteristic vocal break, of exaggerated vibrato, of the choral representations of the accompaniment and “shoo-wop” section. This engagement with media culture can be seen under Bishop et al’s category of mimesis (2006). However, as Bishop et al emphasise, it is important to note that mimesis here is a more complex affair than simply copying. It involves a claim to particular forms of cultural capital; it involves complex forms of musical mastery, including accurate rendition of difficult intervals in the melody, syncopation, modulation (the girls accurately produce the key change midway through the ‘shoo-wop’ section), and the production of a powerful vocal style. As Marsh argues (2008), these features suggest a musical sophistication considerably greater than orthodox systems of music education allow for. However, the other important factor here is context. The song has become appropriated by these girls, incorporated into their repertoire, and used to delineate cultural roles – soloist and chorus. Similar performances were noted in the contemporary playground we studied in this project. In chapter 5 of this volume, Willett considers performances of pop songs in terms of performativity, where the stylistic nature of the rendition also has the social function of performing aspects of identity, group membership, and shared cultural affiliation.

Another example appears in an interview in the London Borough of Dulwich, in May 1976 (C898/27), in which Iona asks a group of girls what songs they use when ‘Chinese Skipping’ (also known as ‘American skipping’, ‘Elastics’ and ‘Dutch skipping’). One of the girls asks Opie: ‘can I sing a song?’ and the children begin to perform Gary Glitter’s, I Love You, Love Me Love (Glitter/Leander, 1973). Although the children are not skipping to this song, some can be heard playing ‘Chinese skipping’ in the background. Having sung this, one of the schoolgirls then prompts her friend: ‘Georgie, that Mamma Mia one’ and the children launch into an enthusiastic rendition of Abba’s Mamma Mia.

Traditional singing games and the ‘new’ pop songs therefore appear to co-exist contentedly alongside one another. It is also clear, if we consider the recent data gathered in today’s playgrounds during our project, that the pop song references are not always as ephemeral as the Opies suggested. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’ has returned, this time prompted by the film musical; while references to pop stars of longstanding celebrity such as Michael Jackson suggest a popular cultural tradition of some longevity (Willett, chapter 5, this volume; Bishop and Burn, forthcoming).

While the archive includes this rich range of performances directly drawing on children’s engagement with the pop hits of the time, the selection made for the section of The Singing Game entitled ‘Performance’ largely omits contemporary pop songs, as we have seen, and instead includes performances of songs at some historical distance from the children. These songs have worked their way into children’s play cultures by circuitous routes from their origins in pre- and post-war film, musical and stage, appearing in the playground decades later, their provenance completely opaque to children of the 1970s. By contrast, the provenance of songs by Gary Glitter, Abba, The Bay City Rollers and Lena Zavaroni would have been transparent to these children, and part of their media cultures, even if the purposes and qualities of their immediate use overrode such provenance. The selection for publication, then, exemplifies the Opies’ concern that immediate media culture, while important and vital, was somehow less durable than songs and games which seemed more folkloric.

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