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Dan Jones, Rhyme Collector

February 5, 2014
by the gentle author

In anticipation of his new exhibition The Singing Playground which opens at Rich Mix this Thursday, 6th February, here is my profile of Dan Jones, Rhyme Collector extrordinaire

Dan Jones

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 1842, 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 subject 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 reminiscent of Breughel’s Children’s Games.

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. Some even protrude from behind the comfortable armchairs, which are 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 all the 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 was depicted in the tomb of a Pharoah 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 unaware. 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, 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.

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 his book Inky, Pinky, Ponky

Click on the image to enlarge Dan Jones’ painting of St Paul’s School Wellclose Sq, 1977

The Singing Playground an interactive work commissioned by The Museum of Childhood where you can to listen to Dan’s Nursery Rhyme recordings

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Dan Jones & Chris Kelly in the Playground

8 Responses leave one →
  1. February 5, 2014

    Wonderful tribute, thank you.

  2. Penelope Beaumont permalink
    February 5, 2014

    Now that is a book I would love to read. I have a copy of Iona &Peter Opies “T he Singing Game” published in the 1980′s. I t would be interesting to see how the songs and rhymes have been updated

  3. February 5, 2014

    Great work & story! Me as a Children’s Book Collector too, would love to visit Mr Dan Jones! Perhaps it would be possible next year. I am planning to travel to London & England then.

    Mr Jones does certainly know about the historic nursery rhymes of A.A.MILNE, which are very speshal! One of the most enjoyable:

    When I was one,
    I had just begun.
    When I was two,
    I was nearly new.
    When I was three,
    I was hardly me.
    When I was four,
    I was not much more.
    When I was five,
    I was just alive.
    But now I am six,
    I’m as clever as clever.
    So I think I’ll be six
    now and forever.

    Have a look at my site for more about all this!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

    PS: The online translation of my site is here:
    http://www.online-translator.com/siteTranslation/autolink/?direction=ge&template=General&sourceURL=http://www.achimthepooh.de/pages/frameset_2_pu_3.html

  4. February 5, 2014

    I recognise many rhymes from the painting. One we used to sing while playing two balls up against a wall in the 50s in my Brixton school was:
    Each peach pear plum,
    I spy Tom Thumb.
    Tom Thumb in the cellar,
    I spy Cinderella.
    Cinderella at the ball,
    I spy Henry Hall,
    Henry Hall in the stable,
    I spy Betty Grable.
    Betty Grable is a star,
    S T A R.

  5. February 5, 2014

    Good article, love the painting of St Paul’s especially – happy memories for me! Valerie

  6. February 5, 2014

    Oh my goodness! The painting is gorgeous, and following the singing playground links took me back 70 years – to my long-lost Scottish childhood. Thank you Dan Jones. I remember a very long version of the Jeely Pieces song; that, and Fitba’ Crazy were our favourites.

  7. Barbara permalink
    February 6, 2014

    I must visit, Thanks

  8. Victoria permalink
    February 8, 2014

    I love these paintings. Of further interest, and picking up on Penelope’s reference to the Opies’ work. University of Sheffield is working with the British Library, the BBC and others to bring together the largest international collection of children’s playground games and rhymes – including all the observations made by the Opies. It’s being turned into a huge digital resource for schools, and anyone with an interest in the area and includes sound files. More about the project can be found here: http://www.opieproject.group.shef.ac.uk

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