Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


21. Children’s rhymes and folklore


Andy Arleo


The contribution of technology


The availability of audio-visual recording technology since the 1960s has allowed researchers to describe and analyse the performance of children’s folklore in much greater detail than before, and to investigate the interaction of speech, movement and music within the overall context of play. Films, such as Bess Lomax Hawes and Robert Eberlein’s 1969 documentary on African-American singing games, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O, capture ‘the details and nuances of the games’ and put the texts in perspective, ‘as verbal expressions of bodily forms’ (Beresin 1999: 77). Furthermore, films or videos can be checked and rechecked ‘long after the fieldwork is over, in slow motion and in fast forward, with sound on and sound off, to see things not possible in the quick blur of the moment’ (77). A more recent illustration of the value of such resources is Ann Beresin’s study of videotaped performances of Double Dutch jump rope by third-through-fifth-grade girls in an urban, public, working-class and racially integrated Pennsylvania school yard (Beresin 1999). The transcription of the actual video footage of different variants of jump rope found in this playground include a diagram representing the position of the rope and the players as well as a description of actions, vocalisations and other events (such as the ringing of the bell), all linked to a precise timescale. This allows Beresin to analyse the performance in detail, in some cases second by second, thus identifying variations in the game and the language related to the game as well as examples of direct and indirect instruction. At the same time, a second camera provided macro footage of the school yard, presenting an overview of larger-scale patterns.

Many other studies of children’s folklore involving the use of recording technology have been published in recent years. Ethnomusicologist Kathryn Marsh recorded and analysed over 600 examples of children’s playground singing game performances (predominantly clapping games) among five- to twelve-year-old children in Sydney, Australia between 1990 and 1996 (Marsh 2001). Her transcriptions include not only the text and music, but also rhythmic notation of the handclapping patterns and other actions, such as the imitation of the pelvic thrusts of popular singer Michael Jackson used in a parodic singing game. Marsh notes that the media, classroom practices and the interaction of immigrant groups combine in many playgrounds around the world to transmit game elements from one culture to another, but that within this apparent unity lies constant diversity. In her study of children’s folklore collected in the Rhone-Alpes region of France, linguist Carole Chauvin-Payan used special software to analyse the synchronisation of gestures with text and music; she also developed a detailed iconic code to represent the gestures used by children in their games.

Other forms of technology have been utilised to analyse specific performances of children’s rhymes. In an experimental study based on an acoustic analysis, Arleo and Flament (1988) contrasted two types of performance of the famous French counting-out rhyme ‘Une Poule sur un mur’ (also studied by Cornulier 1985). The text of the rhyme was first read aloud by the children individually, like a story; it was then performed together as a counting-out rhyme, with the appropriate gestures. The results of the study showed great divergence between the narrative version and the counting-out version. The latter was performed at a slower tempo, perhaps due to the influence of the gestures, with fewer pauses and a more regular rhythm. The counting-out version also ended with a well-known melodic cliche found in many French children’s rhymes, corresponding roughly to the first, second and fifth degrees of the diatonic scale (C, D, G, C).