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Dan Jones, Rhyme Collector

April 17, 2010
by the gentle author

This is the amiable Dan Jones who has lived down in Cable St since 1967 and has made it his business to collect children’s rhymes, both here and all over the world since 1948. Dan has many hundreds in transcripts and recordings that are slowly yet inevitably converging into a book of around a thousand rhymes that he has been working on for some years entitled “The Singing Playground” which will be his magnum opus. He explained that the litany of classic nursery rhymes which adults teach children have barely altered since James Halliwell’s collection” The Nursery Rhymes of England” of 1840, when they were already old. In contrast, the rhymes composed and passed on by children are constantly changing and it is these that form the mass of Dan’s study.

When you enter the bright red front door of his house in Cable St, you can barely get through the passage because of a huge mural painted by Dan of the playground of St Paul’s School, Wellclose Sq, that is about ten feet tall and twenty feet long. Painted on wooden panels, it is suspended from the wall and jutting forward, which puts you directly at the eye level of many of the children in the painting and, thus confronted,  you see that all the figures are surrounded by rhymes. The effect is magical and one name comes into your mind, the name is “Breughel.”

As well as collecting rhymes, Dan is a painter who creates affectionately observed murals of children in school playgrounds, all painted in rich natural hues and with such levity and appreciation for the exuberant idiosyncrasy of childhood that I was immediately beguiled. I have always loved the joyful sound of the children playing in the school playground that I can hear from my house, but Dan has found a method to explore and celebrate the specific quality of this intriguing secret world through his scholarship and paintings.

Once you get past the mural, you find yourself in the parlour lined with more paintings and  some even protruding from behind the row of comfortable armchairs, arranged in a horseshoe, like an old-fashioned doctor’s surgery, indicating that Dan lives a very sociable existence – and that this room has been the location for innumerable happy gatherings over the last forty years he and his wife Denise have lived here. There are bookshelves brimming over with all manner of books devoted to art and social history, and children’s books on the coffee table for the amusement of Dan’s grandchildren who wander in and out as we are talking.

Rhymes spill out of Dan Jones endlessly and I could have sat all day hearing the fascinating stories of the origins of familiar examples and all their remarkable different versions over time and in different languages. Dan has a paradoxical quality of seeming both young and old at the same time. While displaying a fine white beard and resembling a patriarch in a painting by William Blake, he also possesses the gentle nature and spontaneous enthusiasm of youth. I can understand why children choose to line up in the playground to tell Dan their rhymes, as they do when he arrives in schools, and why old people too, when Dan puts on them on the spot asking “What rhymes do you remember from your youth?”, would summon whole canons of verse from the depths of their memories for him.

The heartening news from the playground that Dan has to report is that the culture of rhymes is alive and kicking, in spite of the multimedia distractions of the modern age. The endless process of repetition and reinvention goes on with ceaseless vigour. Most rhymes accompany action and melody, which means that while the words may change, other elements – especially the melodies - can remain constant over centuries or across continents in different languages and cultures, tracing the historical movements of peoples.

Perhaps the most astounding example Dan gave me was Ching, chang, choller (paper, scissors and stone), a game used to select a random winner or loser, which is depicted in the tomb of Pharoah Akhoron four thousand years ago and of which there are versions recorded in Ancient Rome, China, Japan, Mongolia, Chile, Korea,Hungary, Sweden, Italy, France and USA –  Dan recorded it being played at Columbia Road Primary School. By contrast, I was especially delighted to Learn that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was written by Jane and Ann Taylor in Islington in 1806 and to discover the Bengali version recently recorded by Dan at Bangabandhu School in Bethnal Green. “Chichmic chicmic koray/ Aka shetay tara/ Dolte deco akha chete/ Masto boro hera/ Chichmic chichmic  koray/Aka shetay tara.”

Sometimes, there is a plangent history to a rhyme, of which the children who sing it are innocent. Dan has traced the path of stone-passing games that were carried by slave children in the eighteenth century from West Africa to the Caribbean and then, two centuries later, brought to London by immigrants from the West Indies. Meanwhile, new rhymes constantly arise, as Dan explained, “Some burst forth just in one particular school playground to blossom like a spring flower for a few weeks and then vanish completely.”

Living in Spitalfields, surrounded by old buildings and layers of history, I am always fascinated to consider who has been here before. You have read the tales of the past I have collected from old people, but Dan’s work reveals an awe-inspiring historical continuum of much greater age. There is a compelling poetry to the notion that the oldest thing here could be the elusive and apparently ephemeral games and rhymes that the children are playing in the playground. I love the idea that these joyful rhymes which are mostly carried and passed on by girls between the ages of eight and twelve – marginal to the formal culture of society – have survived, outliving everything else, wars and migration of people notwithstanding.

If you click here you can go to a vast interactive painting by Dan commissioned by The Museum of Childhood entitled “The Singing Playground” where you can to listen to recordings he made of all the different rhymes in the picture.

Dan’s wife Denise and his children, Davey, Polly and Sam walk in the foreground of his painting of Christ Church School, Brick Lane in 1982, as reproduced in “Inky, Pinky, Ponky”, a book of playground rhymes.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. April 17, 2010

    Well, I hope that you know by now that I have become a regular reader of your posts. Each of them is a delight, and offers a view into a particular scale of life that is not often championed.

    Thank you so much for this post about Dan Jones, whom I would never, never have otherwise known. I so look forward to discovering all the possibilities of that interactive painting.

    Please do let Mr Jones know how much I appreciate all that he has been doing, the rhyme collecting and the painting, and the connecting of many generations.

    Best wishes.

  2. Jane permalink
    April 17, 2010

    Dear Gentle Author
    Your posts are a joy to read and this is one of my favourites yet!

  3. Joan permalink
    April 18, 2010

    My kids are lucky enough to be at East End schools where more than 40 languages are spoken. And having gone to a Stepney school myself in the 1960s and 70s I remember being taught by schoolfriends various terms of abuse in West Indian patois. My kids and I have stood infront of Dan’s ‘Singing Playground’ identifying the rhymes. I’ve seen my three introduce all sorts of variants to rock, scissors, paper over the years. The current one (perhaps Dr Who inspired) and just this minute explained to me by my ten year old is ‘Aliens, spaceship, teatime’. Evidently tea time beats alien because even aliens have to have their tea.

    Dan’s education work with amnesty international is really inspiring. I heard him on the late lamented Radio 4 children’s programme ‘Go 4 It’ taking children through a role play of what it was like to have to run in fear from your country. Unfortunately that programme is no longer available on line but you can get a flavour of the work from a filmed interview with Dan at:

    http://www.lgfl.net/lgfl/leas/tower-hamlets/accounts/THe%20Grid/thhec/web/global%20webquests/research%20rights%20issues/structured%20webquest/Daninterview/

    I really envy you, gentle author, for having met him.

  4. April 20, 2010

    These wonderful paintings remind me of the childrens TV animation of the 1970s “Mr Benn” !

  5. Simon permalink
    October 21, 2010

    I have been aware of Dan’s work for just over a year and his interactive painting at the Museum of Childhood is fantastic!

    Eagerly awaiting Dan’s book ‘The Singing Playground’…….

  6. sharon permalink
    March 22, 2011

    amazing,whilst searching up nursery rhymes on th internet i come across dan jones again.I lived in cable street as a child and my parents helped organise the E1 festival with dan in the early 1970s. my mother still has his painting on her wall.must find out if I can get the book here in New Zealand

  7. James Thatcher permalink
    February 25, 2012

    To Sharon.. here is a link to the E1 Festival filmed in the early 197o’s… I believe that the ‘Because I like it’ poetry in the documentary was spoken by Sharon Finn. You will see many an old face, including Dan Jones, Fred Hayman, John Pellow, Big Rose Galea, all including others, who actually organised the Festival … ‘I Hope You Like It’ :) .
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nxgsvLXKmA

  8. Edward Kirkhope permalink
    January 27, 2013

    Hello Mr Jones, I was delighted to come across your site whilst I was looking for artwork by Pearl Binder, your mother. I look forward to reading your rhymes and you art.

    I hope you wont mind me saying that your father had a very profound effect upon me. I found him to be a most kind and thoughtful man who took great pride in his children and grandchildren. I was a Nurse at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in 1987-1989 when your father was very first unwell. I was chosen to be his Nurse and I recall having wonderful conversations about Law, Nuremburg and many other topics. I was due to start my degree in law the following year and the encouragement he gave to me I recall to this day. I am now a Lecturer in Law (Medical & Human Rights). Am I right in saying that you were a Social Worker in London?. His autobiography ‘In my time’ I have read several times over. Where on the web could I see your mothers artwork?. I hope you don’t mind me reminiscing about your father. I did very briefly meet your mother too. My very best wishes to you and I will keep an eye on this site.

    Regards,

    Ed Kirkhope

  9. Dimitri Roussopoulos permalink
    July 16, 2014

    Dear Dan,

    I want to see you. How ? I will be in London in October.

  10. Robert Lang permalink
    April 9, 2015

    Mr Jones
    My Grandfather knew your parents a long time back, sadly my mother passed away and among her things we the family have found a book wriitten by your mother and also some pictures and hand drawn Christmas cards all signed and with personal messages from both your parents.
    My Grandfather used to be a chef at Greys Inn I believe that is where they met.

    I am curious would you be interested in seeing them or copies of them?

  11. Rebecca permalink
    January 10, 2017

    Hello, Mr. Jones

    Your work is absolutely wonderful.

    My cousin’s cousin’s parents’ shop is featured in one of your incredible paintings, and he’d love to get in touch.

    Do you have an email, please?

    Many thanks,

    Rebecca

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