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Wednesday, 10 August 2022

My Very First Mother Goose

In the small collection of items I put aside to blog about at some future time, is an obituary of Iona Opie, children’s folklorist, who died in 2017 aged 94. If this post interests you, you will enjoy her life story.

Her delightful book ‘My Very First Mother Goose’, an illustrated collection of nursery rhymes, gave us hours of fun when the children were little. Bedtime after bedtime, we would turn through the pages, pointing at the pictures, singing the rhymes we knew the tunes to, and reciting those we didn’t. Now in a box of books in the loft, it is definitely not one to be disposed of. 

Amongst my favourites to sing were:

         Polly put the kettle on
         Half a pound of tuppenny rice
         I had a little nut tree
         Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been
         Elsie Marley’s grown so fine, she won’t get up to feed the swine
         Dickory, dickery, dock
         Sing a song of sixpence
         Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle
         Ride a cock ‘oss to Banbury Cross
                 (we are certainly not going to sing ‘cross’ to rhyme with ‘horse’ in Yorkshire)
         Horsie, horsie, don’t you stop
         Boys and girls come out to play
         Jack and Jill
         Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake
         Down at the station early in the morning
         Wee Willie Winkie

We probably enjoyed it more than the children.

“I don’t like that Wink Willie Wee-Wee,” son J said one day.

Iona Opie, with her husband Peter, began collecting nursery rhymes during the war when, one day out walking in the countryside, the rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone,” came into her head. She wondered what it meant and where it had come from. Nursery rhymes had never been codified before. From scratch, they unearthed a rich vein of children’s rhymes, traditions and folklore that had been passed down through generations, which they sought to record before it was erased by the commodification of childhood.

As in “Ladybird, ladybird”, many hint at untold horrors. The Opies suggested this was uniquely British, “All part of being frightfully tough and not minding the weather; we’re nourished with this nonsense and it does us a lot of good.” 

With us, the rhymes took on a life of their own, with changed words and new verses. “Down at the station” acquired a second verse in a minor key:

         Grandson and -daughter1 wave goodbye to Grandma,
         She’s on the train, she’s on her way home,
         Ten minutes later a face at the window,
         “Hello, it’s me, I’m baaack2 again.

                 1 their actual names were used here
                 2 exaggerated southern accent

The odd thing about this is that it is not entirely true. Our extra verse refers to an incident that occurred before either of the children was born.

Grandma used to travel up from the South on the main line to Sheffield and then take a local train through Barnsley. She was appalled by the thought that any future grandchildren might grow up with Barnsley accents.

On this particular day, we saw her off home on the local train, but she returned an hour or so later and knocked on the window. What had happened is that, just outside our station where the line becomes single-track, the driver of the train coming in the opposite direction stopped to inform Grandma’s driver about a broken joint in the track which had allowed him to pass but would have derailed Grandma’s train. Grandma’s driver then had to wait for permission to reverse back to our station. 

How many of our traditional rhymes are similarly muddled?


 

Iona and Peter Opie (rhymes with ‘soapy’) published several other books, including ‘The Oxford Dictionary Of Nursery Rhymes’. We also bought ‘Here Comes Mother Goose’ which is in the same Walker Books series as ‘My Very First Mother Goose’, but most of the rhymes are unfamiliar to us.

32 comments:

  1. Iona and Peter Opie
    Both seemed rather dopey
    They recorded me singing
    A verse for a shilling
    Judging my voice to be ropey

    I had never heard of "Elsie Marley’s grown so fine, she won’t get up to feed the swine" but all the rest are familiar.

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    1. We fitted it to the tune of Bobby Shaftoe:
      Elsie Marley's grown so fine
      She won't get up to feed the swine
      But lies in bed 'til half past nine
      Lazy Elsie Marley

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    2. Tasker Dunham's gone to sea
      Leather boots up to his knee
      He'll be yours for a nominal fee
      Bonnie Tasker Dunham

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    3. That's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from the original Wee Willie Winkie.

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    4. Tasker Dunham's tall and slim
      Always dressed so neat and trim
      The ladies, they all look at him
      Bonnie Tasker Dunham

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    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    6. Just to let you know that I read this and I am fuming!

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    7. Hey, dude, I was only kidding...

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  2. They eventually published the definitive version as an Encyclopedia of Nursery Rhymes didn't they?

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    1. Not sure about that. There seems to be a set of recordings called something similar to that, but I thought the Oxford Dictionary was the definitive work.

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  3. Apologies for appearing as Anonymous. (Weaver)

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    1. I don't know why some people are having this 'anonymous' problem. As far as I know, my settings are right.

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  4. I was raised with all the old nursery rhymes too, collected in Volume 1 of "My Book House," an American publication first published in Chicago in 1937. The editor was Olive Beaupré Miller. We had the 1951 edition. I know all these details because I still have the book! (indeed, the full 12 volume set which retells stories and literature for children).

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    1. It sounds wonderful. Some selections as a blog post might be appropriate.

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  5. Here we go again - your blog is (so far) the only one that won't allow me to comment with my Google account; every time I choose that option, the page auto-refreshes and I am back as "Anonymous". Never mind, it's me, Meike (Meks/Librarian).

    Interesting that the ladybird nursery rhyme is known in your parts, too. It is by no means just the British who developed nursery rhymes actually referring to horrible things. The ladybird-one is called "Maikäfer flieg" in German, and it goes like this:

    Maikäfer flieg
    Der Vater ist im Krieg
    Die Mutter ist in Pommerland
    Pommerland ist abgebrannt
    Maikäfer flieg

    Roughly translating into
    Maybug fly
    Father is fighting in the war
    Mother is in Pommern (a region in Poland that used to be north-east Germany until the end of WWII)
    Pommern has burnt down
    Maybug fly

    So, it's all about the war, with dads being fighting soldiers and mums experiencing the horrors back home. Not exactly what little children should hear last thing before falling asleep. I much prefer your rhymes, adapted to fit your family.

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    1. I suspected the bit about being a British thing would be controversial.
      There are some horrible lines, such as "here comes a chopper to chop off your head". Others are merely critical, like "lazy Elsie Marley" and Little Boy Blue being "under a haycock fast asleep" when he is supposed to be looking after the sheep. I can live with that.

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  6. I can practically recite all those nursery rhymes (but always have difficulty with the word rhythms). I remember the Opie books, and how they collected the history. As Iona Opie says - we're nourished with this nonsense and it did a lot of good. But do we carry it on for our own grandchildren, or has the world moved on?

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    1. We hope to carry it on - the reason for keeping the book. They're great fun. In pat-a-cake we used to sing in "pat it and prick it and mark it with J", drawing a big J on J's chest, which he tried to avoid by squirming away.

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  7. I love the nursery rhymes. Just last week I was teaching Iris 'see-saw Marjory Daw'. I think recitation is a wonderfully fun way to exercise memorization. Occasionally, I will take the time to look up their background and almost always am a little horrified.

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    1. Yes, they hark back to events such as the plague ("all fall down").
      I used to know a lot about children's language development, and the kind of repetition and interaction with adults that nursery rhymes promote is very important. It's sad that when children are left on their own with screens.

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  8. Having grown up in the UK to a British mother, almost all those rhymes are familiar and certainly I sang/sing them to my own children and grandchildren (in US). They all particularly like Ride a cock ‘oss to Banbury Cross because I always placed them straddling my knees facing me, holding their hands and vigorously bouncing them up and down while singing the rhyme. When I get to the end of it, I would slide them down my leg to the floor to a prolonged shout of 'goes.' Which is always followed by them jumping up and shouting, "Again!" Exhausting (for me), but they love it. My knees...not so much.

    Interestingly, there was study in the UK (DOE) in 2019 that found over 300,000 toddlers (8% of those studied) have never been read a nursery rhyme by their parents. Sad .

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    1. Your Ride a Cock Horse sounds great fun.I haven't listed all the rhymes in the book, just my favourites. And there are loads of others. My M-i-L used to do the horsey bouncing with a song that started "Gallopy gallopy gallopy gallop her comes the galloping Major".
      The statistic at the end is sad. Parents and children are both missing out

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  9. I have the oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes - it is an excellent compendium. I rather like them too as sort of folk poems- though interestingly I find folk tales dull and over rated.

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    1. I think I know what you mean - there is something punchy and to the point about nursery rhymes, even though their meaning might not always be obvious.

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  10. Wink Willie Wee-Wee!! Hahahaha. Son J was clearly brilliant. :)
    We also had our fair share of Mother Goose rhymes over in these parts as well. It's funny, but I recall Dickory, Dickery...as Hickory, Dickery, Dock. Could we have had a slightly different rendering of the rhyme? Yes, I think so as we also sang: Patty-cake, patty-cake...and that makes very little sense now that I see it should have been 'pat-a-cake'.

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    1. Glad someone else likes our son's unintended twist to it. Dare I say that when he first said it I absolutely pissed myself! Yes, I remember it as "Hickory Dickory" but the book has "D- D-". I don't think that matters either way.
      Look up "pat a cake" by The Singing Dogs if you don't know it.

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  11. We didn't do nursery rhymes, I never even heard any until I went to school. My own kids didn't like them either, they preferred listening to the songs on the radio.

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    1. I can see why some might not like them. Probably the best reply is Iona Opie's - "we a nourished by this nonsense and it does us a lot of good."

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  12. F collected Nursery rhyme books over the years (possibly as some sort of psychological reaction to her brother destrying with an orange crayon a particularly treasured one that was always read from to her), but she never had that one. Someone did in recent years give her a volume which purported to be the 'story behind' or meaning of so many of the rhymes, and some alternative lines etc. Really interesting stuff and as far as most kids are concerned the more gruesome the better... choppers and all.

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    1. I can see why they would be interesting to collect, especially the illustrated ones.
      There seem to be different stories explaining the same nursery rhymes, which is why I wondered how muddled up they actually are. But, yes, many of them are gruesome - ring a ring a roses about the plague and so on.

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  13. all but "I had a little nut tree" and "horsie horsie don't you stop"... nice trip down memory lane!

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    1. I like those two too, especially the tunes. But what on earth is little nut tree about?

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