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Nevertheless, something about this culture obviously seemed worth recording to Opie as she conducted her fieldwork. In the act of researching, her ambivalence is revealed starkly in a moment from 1970 in Ordsall, Salford. Two girls ask if they can sing a pop song, and she replies ‘I’d rather not hear a pop song – it’s not what I’m collecting, you see’. She immediately relents, however, and records performances of ‘Big Spender’ and ‘One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, Rock’ (C898/39). In spite of the concern about ephemerality, and perhaps the kind of cultural distinction one might expect of researchers of the Opies’ social class and generation, there is a sense that these performances were evidence of children’s perennial appropriation and transformation of adult popular culture. The existence of these recordings offers the researcher a rich resource with which to explore the relationship between the media and the playground. Perhaps Gary Glitter’s, ‘I Love You, Love Me Love’, enjoyed only a brief spell of popularity and the children at Coram Fields soon stopped singing Lena Zavaroni’s hit, but the frequency with which these songs appear suggests that they represent something more than an ephemeral enthusiasm.
Something of the same sense was evident in our ethnographic studies. Certainly the hybridizing of contemporary media texts and what we have referred to as residual or sedimented texts is clear. At the same time, however, the mediascape (Appadurai, 1996) of children in the twenty-first century is different from that of the 1970s in certain ways; though there are also similarities. Both groups of children enjoyed pop songs, listened to them on TV, radio and film, and learnt to perform them. Both generations enjoyed TV talent shows.
However, in the interval the rise of the music video and MTV has taken place, and the variety of media platforms on which children might access this material has expanded considerably, allowing for more intensive, varied and repeated listening to vocal performances and viewing dance routines. A good example is the reference to viewing Michael Jackson videos with her cousins made by a girl in the London school, in an interview about influences on her own playground dance routines (Burn & Bishop, 2013).
Television show theme tunes and advertisement jingles also make their way onto the recordings. Of particular popularity is ‘The Wombles’ theme tune, from the 1970’s children’s animated television series, based on the series of books by Elizabeth Beresford. When interviewing schoolgirls from Nottingham in June, 1977, the children discuss with Opie various singing games that they play, including I’m a Little Dutch Girl. One of the girls then suggests that they sing the song that ‘Michaela learnt us’ and they begin to sing ‘The Wombles’ theme tune. What is interesting is that the children do not mention that this is from the television and explain that ‘Michaela made it up, it’s ever so good’. In another instance, when interviewing children in Hampshire, Opie records a small group of children performing a television jingle for fruit pastilles. They sing: ‘put them pastilles round Ma, put them pastilles round, pastille-picking Mama, pass those pastilles round’. (C89804-02). Again, this song appears in and amongst the other traditional playground songs and that it is borrowed from the television is not mentioned by the schoolgirls; indeed, it appears to be of little significance to them. Opie is clearly interested in what they know of the provenance of the song, asking if it comes from the TV, to which one of them replies ‘Yeah’, and another ‘It’s an advert’. Opie asks twice if they know who made the pastilles, clearly looking for Rowntrees, but they do not respond to this.
Finally, in Boughton and Salford, November 1970, when performing the widespread clapping song When Susie Was a Baby, a group of schoolgirls chant the line: ‘when Susie was a Saint, a Saint Susie was’ before beginning to sing the theme tune from the popular 1960s television show ‘The Saint’, aired between 1962 and 1969. Based on the novels of Leslie Charteris, the show followed the life of adventurer Simon Templar, played by Roger Moore. This kind of media reference is of the type that Bishop et al (2007) term onomastic allusion, here accomplished by a noun-phrase (‘a Saint’) easily inserted into the sequence, as ‘a highly flexible unit which can be adapted by lexical substitution on a slot-and-filler basis’ (Lennon, 2004: 166). In this case, ‘Saint’ does not scan, as two syllables are required for th emetre; so two notes are slurred by the girls over the single syllable. However, interestingly, the word ‘Saint’ is insufficiently specific to function alone as the allusion, needing to be disambiguated by the melody of the theme tune. This is, then, multimodal onomastic allusion, pleasurable in its avoidance of the obvious citation of Simon Templar’s name.
This example is indicative of the significant function that different media fulfil within play culture and raises questions which relate to themes addressed throughout this book. One of these is the way in which apparently settled traditional texts are subject to what the Opies called the processes of ‘wear and repair’ (Opie & Opie, 1959: 7). Here, the interweaving of TV character and theme tune into a flexible sequence (itself subject to many variations, as the Opies and others documented), along with the witty alignment of the Saint with a moment in between Susie’s death and appearance as a ghost, demonstrates the process of oral composition which other researchers have noted as a feature of playculture (eg Marsh, 2006), while at the same time seamlessly welding together elements from oral culture and media culture.
The fact that the children often claim to be unaware of the media origins, or uninterested in them, is a frequently-found pattern, and it is found in the ethnographic studies for this project (see, for example, Bishop and Curtis, 2001). While it suggests that the dominant concern of the children is the cultural moment rather than its backstory, it also serves to blur the apparently secure boundary between orally transmitted lore and play derived from children’s media cultures. The ethnographic studies in our project contain examples of media-derived texts taught by one child to others, so that the process of transmission is identical to that of oral tradition. How to distinguish between a folksong and a performance of media culture in these contexts becomes an impossible question; better to acknowledge the merging of the two cultures and their movement through the micro-histories of children’s improvisatory play.
This process also raises the question addressed elsewhere in this book of the agency of childhood. While these children are the inheritors of oral transmission and consumers of media texts, this instance and many others demonstrates their ability to transform the cultural resources they acquire, producing something new each time, determined by their interests, aspirations, and tastes and preferences. This kind of agency, while it is expressive of social identities and interests, is often also referred to as a form of creativity – an idea returned to below in the context of the variations found in the Opie archive.
Variation and its social context The process of selection needed to produce a collection like The Singing Game inevitably narrowed the representation of variation, even producing something of an effect of standardization of songs and games. The recordings demonstrate that the variations of language, music and to some extent action are much greater than The Singing Game was able to show. There are instances, for example, in which a particular well-known song is sung to an entirely different tune from that often heard and from that recorded in The Singing Game.3 The Opies admit in the Preface to The Singing Game: ‘we have given more than one tune in the few cases in which there are several well-established tunes for the same game, but we have not given all variants’ (Opie & Opie, 1985: vii). Though there is a brief comment in the Preface on the music, its effect is to generalize and homogenize; their interests lay more with linguistic and prosodic variation and transformation.
However, melodic variations are evident in the recordings. One striking example of this is heard when a child, recently moved to a school in Liss, in 1974, sings her version of The version published in the Singing Game was recorded in Stepney, London, in 1976 (C898/29).
The words of the recording correspond exactly to the published version; though the tune does not, quite. Perhaps Michael Hurd’s transcription was based on another tape (there are many instances of this song in the collection); or perhaps it is a composite derived from several.
Under the Bram Bush (C898/23)4. Her school friends have already sung their version and this follows the familiar rhyme recorded by the Opies in The Singing Game. The children seem reluctant to let the ‘new’ girl sing her version and Iona notes that the girl has trouble trying to persuade her friends to sing it with her. Eventually, when she does sing, the tune and rhythm are entirely different from that previously heard. This episode suggests two ideas. Firstly, that variation is, as suggested above, greater than can be easily represented in collections; and greater than is sometimes suggested in academic analysis emphasizing the limited repertoire
of clapping game tunes. Curtis suggests, for example:
have an extensive repertoire of movements, actions and songs in their games. A closer examination, however, reveals that they build a wide variety of games from a small number of hand movements and snatches of melody. (Curtis, 2004: 421) Secondly, that the social process of transmission is complex. Certainly, the movement of children between schools (as in this case), regions and countries is a factor in the intertextual borrowings, mergers and mash-ups - to use an expression typically applied to the combinatory bricolage of contemporary online culture (eg Ito, 2011) -which characterize playground rhymes and tunes. However, the temptation to celebrate such transmission as smooth, collaborative and communal is given pause by the kind of resistance found in this example, where a new and different version of the song is treated as an alien invasion, rejected in favour of familiar orthodoxy, representative of settled patterns of friendship reluctant to be disturbed.
Another variation of Under the Bram Bush is sung by children from St Clements School, Salford, November 1970 (C898/38). This tune is reminiscent of the song Down by This recording is not online, as it is an off-air recording of a BBC broadcast. It can be listened to locally at the British Library.
the Riverside; a popular gospel song widely employed as an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Here, then, the words of the rhyme, their origins in late 19th/early 20th century popular song (cf Opie & Opie, 1985: 452-3), embellished with a playground interest in adult love and procreation, are complemented by music filtering through from global protest culture – though of course there is no evidence of the children’s awareness of such a meaning.
The following notation attempts to demonstrate these markedly different tunes and rhythms. The three lines represent the most commonly-found Under the Bram Bush tune (Michael Hurd’s transcription in The Singing Game), the one recorded in Salford, 1970, and
the one recorded in Liss, Hampshire, 1974:
The first point to note, perhaps, is that almost nothing is known of the origins of the Singing Game version of the tune published in The Singing Game. While the Opies spend a page and a half on the history of the words and their origins in Harry and Harriet Harndin’s 1895 song ‘A Cannibal King’ and Cole and Johnson’s 1902 song ‘Under the Bamboo Tree’ (parodied by T.S. Eliot in ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, as a matter of interest), they say nothing about the tune. Certainly it bears no resemblance to the tunes of either the Harndin song or the Cole and Johnson song.
The resemblance of the Salford tune to ‘Down by the Riverside’ has already been noted. The Liss tune is elusive, but is reminiscent of stirring film theme tunes of the time: the rhythm and melody of the four-note sequence which repeats in bars 3, 5, and 11, for example, resembles a sequence in Elmer Bernstein’s 1960 theme music for The Magnificent Seven. It also resembles ‘Under the Speading Chestnut Tree’, which, though it may derive from a traditional English dance tune (Gilchrist, 1940), has been much anthologized in campfire song manuals and more recently, websites.
Alongside these markedly different tunes, we also hear variations that borrow from other songs. For example, when recording children performing Under the Bram Bush in London’s American School, the children concatenate the usual tune with the song ‘Row, Row Your Boat’ (C898/02). The girl performing sings: ‘and when we’re married, we’ll raise a family, of forty children, all in a row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, tip your teacher over board and see how loud she screams, ah!’ This is followed by two other girls singing ‘A Sailor Went to Sea, sea, sea’, and then questions from Opie about where they learned the songs. A voice resembling that of the girl who performed ‘Under the Bram Bush’ (an English accent with a slight trace of American) tells of learning it in Boston, Massachusetts. There is no other information, but it is worth noting that ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ is a traditional nursery rhyme with a likely American origin. The Roud Folk Song Index has three versions: two recorded in Nova Scotia in 1949 (S250614) and 1951 (S270014), and one text version from Canada from the 1970s (S276030). It is widely anthologized for summer camps, Scouts and Guides, and incorporated in children’s TV programmes such as Sesame Street. It adds, then, a local element (albeit a continent wide) to the mix of elements in this version.