- Skipping Observed
Francelia Butler's new book on jump rope rhymes has been compared to a "treasure chest,"1 and the items collected are treasured indeed. Like a box of travel souvenirs, each of its 350 rhymes has its local story, and the adventure of its acquisition. Grouped thematically, the book presents rhymes from a variety of countries, mostly observed by the author herself. The image that stands out is of Dr. Butler encountering children on a country road in a foreign land, handing them ropes, and recording the poems that emerge. Unfortunately, the items inside the treasure chest are such fragmented bits, we come away with a greater sense of the global adventure than of the meaning of the artifact in its original context.
For a popular readership, the book is to be credited for its respectful tone and for its sensitivity to the complexities of children's lives. For a literary readership, it offers an interesting but stilted framework for thinking about children's rhymes. For a folkloric readership, the mere presentation of the poem texts is quite a tease. It is currently assumed that all folklore has its own text, texture, and context, to borrow Dundes's terms, and that the collector is obliged to record not only the script, but the essence of its performance. (Dundes, 1964; Ben-Amos, 1972; Hymes, 1975; Abrahams, 1976). For a folklore collection to be published in 1989 and not take the skipping performance into account, or at least refer to it as an important consideration, is to continue to equate an action to a two dimensional product. Much of the "meaning" is thereby lost in reduction and translation; this loss is especially poignant if the meaning behind the rhymes is of primary concern.
Dr. Butler's aim is clear, to show the "common yearning" among "children around the world," emphasizing the universal needs of peoples, rather than their differences. A noble, but difficult task, for cross cultural work requires comparing very small, detailed units of study. She briefly mentions the classic motif index by Thompson which categorizes universal [End Page 160] themes of international folk literature, yet the exactness of that work is not to be found here. The author also alludes to the work of the psychologist Bettelheim who sought universal Freudian meanings in fairy tales. But psychoanalytic opinion when used is sporadic and is imposed without detailed local analysis of the rhymes. Although Butler's claim is correct that hers is the only book to date that makes "an extensive international study of rhymes for skipping" (8), one wishes her study went one way or the other, classically analyzing motif types, as Dorson did in his collection, Folktales Told Around the World, or deeply exploring comparative meanings, as in the works of Sutton-Smith (1972; 1976a; 1976b). Instead we have a large random sample with bits of univocal explanation.
To the author's credit, she has touched upon an essential issue, the ritual nature of play and rhyme. Butler points, for example, to the nearly universal pattern of skipping faster when the words "vinegar" or "hot pepper" are chanted. But where does this come from, and what are the global frequencies and preferences? It would have been useful to invoke Freud's aid in the analysis of the sacredness of the jumping ritual itself. She writes that the "inability to get through a ritual successfully may actually be life threatening, at least to a child who is skipping" (176). A child who is asking the future for an answer through the divining power of the skipped rope, she notes, may want to redo the skip if unhappy with the ordained result, as in "rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief." But what is the nature of this power in a secular ritualized activity? The topic is raised, but again we are teased.
Butler frames the skipping rhymes genre in terms of three literary forms: the meditation, the drama, and the sonnet. The rhymes resemble meditations in that they frequently pose existential questions; they are dramatic in...