Playground songs preserve a special kind of social history

I don’t think I would ever know how many days are in a month if I had learned this old nursery rhyme as a kid:

“Thirty days have September, April, June and November. All the others have 31, except February alone which has 28 clear days, and 29 every leap year. It’s not the easiest thing to learn but, once done, it’s there forever.

And I’m not sure I can count either, unless I’ve learned that one, two, three, O’Leary; four, five, six, O’Leary; seven, eight, nine, O’Leary; 10, O’Leary caught him… Although the dear man was apparently not an Irish pitcher – the word having been changed from the original ‘aliry’, a mid-14th century term meaning ‘crooked legs “.

I always enjoyed the Scottish version which said something like, “One, two, three, O’Leary, I saw Kate MacLeary, sitting on her bumbaleerie, eating chocolate biscuits.”

Which brings me to the wonderful children’s traditions of replacing okay words with mean words. “Bum” has always been a favorite. This, recorded by a young boy from Dundee in 1959: “No last night but the night before three black cats roar at the door. Donkey has whiskey, donkey rum, donkey has dishes on her buttocks.

The rhymes spread and recorded the news

Iona and Peter Opie have done a fantastic job for many years researching and recording children’s nursery rhymes all over Britain, and it is always a pleasure to delve into their books, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, published in 1959, and Children’s Games in Street. and Playground, from 1969. They tell a living social story.

The Opies themselves have always marveled at the way words, rhymes and news traveled, long before the internet arrived.

For example, at the time of the abdication in 1936, appeared this beautiful double line: “Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs Simpson’s pinched our king”, recorded throughout the country only a few days after the constitutional crisis had hit the headlines .

Will modern nursery rhymes share the news of the Queen’s passing? Photo by Yui Mok/PA Wire

What particularly interests me about these children’s rhymes, songs and games is how they reflect the social and political events of the time. Just as we are all connected to the World Wide Web today, news traveled fast in those days. One thing turned into another.

I wonder if the royal events of those days have already made their way into the (virtual) playground? “Thousands of people queuing to say goodbye to the Queen. God be with her, and farewell, in glory she will dwell.

‘My little man is a miner, he works at Ferryhill’

One of my favorite collections was made by Dr Robert Craig MacLagan, an Edinburgh surgeon who published The Games and Diversions of Argyleshire in 1901. He talks about several Gaelic games that have sadly disappeared nowadays.

I like when the local topography is used, so that Ardrishaig, for example, takes the place of London

These were simple games, in the sense that they used the natural materials at hand: blades of grass, pebbles, sticks, pebbles, etc., although some mention more “modern” means such as “a ball made of rubber “.

I like when the local topography is used, so that Ardrishaig, for example, replaces London: “Oh, why is Mary crying, crying, crying? Oh, why is Mary crying, on Ardrishaig pier?

A royal visit during recess at Hardgate, Aberdeen. Photo taken by Evening Express

And, just to show that the tabloid sensationalist news mixed with the advertisements of the day had as much impact then as they do today, they also had this Kintyre rhyme: “Jack the Ripper is dead and lying on his bed. He slit his throat with Sunlight soap. Jack the Ripper is dead.

They recount the social conditions with good humor. In Aberdeen, for example, children chanted: “My little man is a miner, he works at Ferryhill. He gets his pey on Setterday and buys half a gill. He goes to church on Sundays, half an hour late. He pulls the buttons off his shirt and puts them on the plate.

The last is the luckiest

Rhymes are fascinating because they are so universal: they consist of “nonsense” words that have a remarkable similarity wherever they are recorded.

In Aberdeen, for example, an 11-year-old girl chanted, “Eeny, meeny, macca, racca. Rae, rye, doma, anca. Chicca, racca, Old Tom Thumb,” while an 11-year-old girl in Wellington, New Zealand chanted, “Eeny, meeny, macka, racka. Rare, rye, domma nacka. Chicka Pocka, Ellie Focka. Om, pom-puss.

If you can’t run fast, you might win by jumping on one leg, or running backwards, or sideways, or rolling.

In Bergen, Norway, children jumped at this: “Ina mina maina mau. Katta lita bobbi sau. Diva noksa gau. Ina mina maina mau.

But, I think the best thing I learned from the Opies books is this: that kids are a lot less competitive than adults. Their games, while fierce, are designed so that everyone wins at some point. For example, if you can’t run fast, you could win by jumping on one leg, or running backwards, or sideways, or rolling.

Everyone has their chance. They even have a saying for it: “First is worst, second is next, last is luckiest.”

How lucky am I?


Angus Peter Campbell is an award-winning writer and actor from Uist

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[Playground chants preserve a special kind of social history]

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Dora W. Clawson