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The Singing Game by Iona and Peter Opie, photographs by Father Damian Webb OSB (Oxford: $21.95; 521 pp., illustrated)

November 03, 1985|Peter F. Neumeyer | Neumeyer has published four children's books and teaches at San Diego State University. and

\o7 There's a lady on the mountain,

Who she is I do not know,

All she wants is gold and silver,

All she wants is a nice young man.

Open the gates and let me through!

Now I can show you black and blue,

So open the gates and let me through!

Kneel down, lord,

Kiss the ground, lord,

Stand up, lord.

Open the gates and let me through,

Now I can show you black and blue;

Here's my black and here's my blue,

So open the gates and let me through!


This is a "singing game" song heard from a small child "informant" in Bloomsbury in 1974.

The fact that this song for a child's game is also a beautiful poem suggesting more than it denotes, pregnant with mystery and with sexuality, bespeaking in every turn and measure a rich and ancient lineage, make clear the potential and the profundity of Iona and Peter Opie's splendid collection of "singing games."

The "Singing Game" is no mere catalogue of songs that children sing to games they play. On almost every page of the Opies' volume we see that song and dance are literally prehistoric, derived in their earliest forms from ceremonials, traceable at very least to Attic sources, perpetuated against opposition from the church in the Middle Ages, suppressed by Puritans of every ilk and rediscovered periodically from the Romantic Age to our own time. From scrupulous historical researches and exhaustively documented contemporary sources the Opies have drawn the songs, games and dances, which it takes a 33-page index merely to list.

The earliest reference to dance cited by the Opies is to a 3,500-year-old Cretan statue of four male figures in a Ring Dance. And with this statue, reproduced in one of the book's 30 illustrations, the Opies--the primary English-language chroniclers of lore and language and games of children--make clear at the outset that the roots for the singing games described in this volume lie deep in the explorations and exultations by which our race has ever sought to get a handle on the inexpressible. The songs and their accompanying games burst forth irrepressibly and anarchically as incarnations of exuberance everywhere, at all times, and now primarily among children--and, according to the Opies, mainly among girls, ages 9 to 12. Strong songs and games drive out the weaker ones; hibernating ones awake, often in places distant from their origins. The children, as the proverb states, "pick up words as pigeons pease, and utter them again as God shall please."

Iona and Peter Opie together, as a team, long ago won respect for their exemplary anthologizing of children's verse and of nursery rhymes. In 1959 appeared their rich, readable and vastly entertaining "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren," with chapters on subjects such as "Riddles," "Nicknames and Epithets" and "Pranks" (such as "Door Knocking and Bell Ringing"). The material was so voluminous and so rich in history and implication that it was followed in 1968 by a volume on "Children's Games in Street and Playground," with chapters on "Chasing," "Catching," "Seeking," "Daring" and so forth. Theoretically (only) the present volume on "the singing game" could have been a chapter in the book on games of street and playground, but for the fact that, again, the material was so prodigious in quantity and so deep in historical roots and in myth and mystery, that this second volume was born. Sadly, it had to be completed by Iona Opie alone, after her husband's death in 1982. A third volume on "games needing equipment" is, or was, projected. All of the games in all of the volumes are distinguished by the fact that these are not games that adults teach to children or feel that children ought to play--in short, they do not represent an adult vision of childhood--but that, rather, they are gems of what the Opies call the "child-to-child complex"--games that children, ages about 6 to 12, play of their own accord when out of doors and usually out of sight.

The work of the Opies stands as a monument to the poetry and the vitality and the irrepressibility of Homo ludens . Because its scrupulous historicity is matched by its readability and its joyous specimens, the book is a model of scholarship. And because its subject is children, it is a book of hope. In a dark season.

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