- The Opies on The Singing Game
Some compendia, annotated bibliographies, and dictionaries (Johnson's for instance) can be regarded as great literature, for they do all that great literature does: they deepen one's understanding of humanity, they emotionally involve, they inform by stimulating and extending the imagination.
Perhaps, more than any other book by the Opies, The Singing Game is more than a compendium of categories of folkgames that are sung to. Like Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the book includes the personal views of and preferences of the authors as well as evidence of astonishingly extensive research and erudition.
The reader is led to meditate on what he or she reads and so becomes part of the text. Many readers will recall their own unique experiences with these songs. I was instantly drawn into the book because the Opies chose to introduce it with "There's a lady on the mountain/Who she is I do not know." In the 1940s, I heard it chanted on the playground of a Black school in Ball's Hill, Virginia (a town that has been moved away to give room for high-rise apartments). I asked an eminent folklorist about it, the late Arthur Kyle Davis at the University of Virginia. He wrote me that he had traced it to the old ballad, "O no, John." Further, he said it was known to a colonial patriot, John Randolph, who in 1822, in his old age, wrote to a friend asking for all the words. It had been taught him, he said, "by a mulatto serving girl."
Not only in this instance did the Black culture preserve white culture, but it kept alive an archetype of a woman on a hilltop, an image found in the Goddess Fortuna on a hilltop in ancient Rome; Spenser's Sapience, high on the lap of God; Shakespeare's Lady Fortune in Timon of Athens; Donne's Truth on a hill, "craggie and steepe;" and Tennyson's Freedom "Alone on the heights." The Opies who go into it at length in their section on "Wedding Rings" find the song "as mysterious as a fairy tale" and the singer "Possessed of ancient authority."
The singing games collected by the Opies combine music, dance, and poetry. They bring to mind the Biblical accounts of the youthful dancers who sang the Psalms or those in the tales of Greece who wound their way up a hill in Athens to stand before the Temple of Dionysius as a chorus to introduce the first drama by Aeschylus.
Another beautiful rhyme is to be found in the category, "Mating." The Opies give the English and Scottish versions and it has been sung and skipped to in Belfast in 1973 during the Troubles, when another version was especially poignant:
The wind, the wind the wind blows highThe rain keeps tumbling from the sky.———thinks she'll dieIf she doesn't get a man with a roving eye.He is handsome, he is prettyHe is a lad from Belfast City.A knock at the door . . . a ring at the bell:Ah! my true love, are you well?
One of the most interesting parts of the text has to do with the Opie's vociferous insistence that "Ring a ring o' Roses" had nothing whatsoever to do with the Great Plague. As they acknowledge, many learned people now assume that it did. Both scientists and folklorists are among them. The game is discussed under the category, "The Downfall of the Ring," games in which the dancers all fall down at the end. The Opies hint that perhaps, rather than having descended from the red spots, and flowers to ward off illness—things associated with the Plague—the game descends from old May Game celebrations.
The Opies also attack the Plague theory in their Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes in a way which a reviewer of a book on the Plague, Charles Poore in The New York Times, finds "somewhat crusty." The fascinating thing about this disagreement—though the Opies certainly present strong arguments for...