ON A DOUBLE-SIDED transcription disc (BBC catalogue number 873132) are four tracks with some of the oldest surviving field recordings of children’s singing games in Britain.
Three are from Millwall in east London and the fourth is from Wandsworth. The Millwall tracks reproduced here were all recorded on 17 June 1938.
In each track a woman speaks to the children and asks them to describe the actions which go with the singing game being recorded. She isn’t named in any of the BBC Archive catalogue entries.
First, a girl explains what happens when The Muffin Man is sung. The catalogue entry summarises the actions:
Stand in a ring; one person chooses a partner, to whom he sets with “wooden soldier” steps. The two dance round ring till end of song, then they each choose a partner, these four each choose partners, and so on.
The Muffin Man is listed in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Singing Game where they trace its earliest literary reference to the 1820 manuscript addition Douce Adds 134(8) no. 3, held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The words given for it in 1820 are the same as those sung in 1938.
The second track records the children singing and playing Dusty Bluebells. The catalogue entry describes what happens:
Stand in a ring; hold hands high. One girl goes in & out arches; at certain moment stand behind one of those in ring, tip-taps her on back and she follows first girl in and out of arches, and so on until a large line of children go in and out of diminishing number of arches.
Neither The Muffin Man (despite its mention of Drury Lane) nor Dusty Bluebells are examples of an exclusively local children’s culture. The BBC Archive catalogue lists an early undated recording of The Muffin Man from Windermere in Cumbria, while Dusty Bluebells was known to Belfast children in the early 1970s, as documented in David Hammond’s short film of the same name.
The final Millwall recording is of Lucy Locket, which involves a mixture of turn-taking and scramble competition to a song using the same tune as Yankee Doodle Dandy. Iona and Peter Opie found an early reference to it from 1842 compiled by James Halliwell-Phillipps in his Nursery Rhymes of England.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.