Sunday, 22 February 2015

Word travels fast (with and without Twitter)

Iona and Peter Opie’s classic The lore and language of schoolchildren (1959) reminds us that a world before social media was still a world of near-instantaneous communication within social groups, especially when the scurrilous was concerned:

A notorious instance of the transmission of scurrilous verses occurred in 1936 at the time of the Abdication. The word-of-mouth rhymes which then gained currency were of a kind which could not possibly, at that time, have been printed, broadcast, or even repeated in the music halls. One verse, in particular, made up one can only wonder by whom,

Hark the Herald Angels sing,
Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king,

was on juvenile lips not only in London, but as far away as Chichester in the south, and Liverpool and Oldham in the north. News that there was a constitutional crisis did not become public property until around 25 November of that year, and the king abdicated on 10 December. Yet at a school Christmas party in Swansea given before the end of term, Christmas 1936, when the tune played happened to be ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, a mistress found herself having to restrain her small children from singing this lyric, known to all of them, which cannot have been composed much more than three weeks previously. Many an advertising executive with a six-figure budget at his disposal might envy such crowd penetration. Similarly, the ultra juvenile verse,

Temptation, temptation, temptation,
Dick Barton went down to the station,
Blondie was there
All naked and bare,
Temptation, temptation, temptation,

wherever it may have originated, was reported to us in quick succession as rife among children in Kirkcaldy in January 1952, as known to children in Swansea in January 1952, and it reached children in Alton [Hampshire] in February 1952. These three places are up to 400 miles apart; yet an instance of even more distant transmission can be cited. At the beginning of 1956 ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ was launched on the radio. It was especially intended to appeal to children, and quickly reached the top of the adult hit parade. But the official words of the ballad, beginning,

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free,

were very small beer compared with the word-of-mouth stanzas which rapidly won approval in juvenile society. One composition, beginning ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas”, was collected in Perth in April 1956 in Alton, Battersea, Great Bookham, Reading, and Scarborough in July 1956, in Kent in August 1956, and in Swansea in September 1956. Another parody sung by schoolgirls in Swansea in September 1956, appeared to have local associations:

Born on a table top in Joe’s Café,
Dirtiest place in the U.S.A.
Polished off his father when he was only three,
Polished off his mother with D.D.T.
    Davy, Davy Crockett,
    King of the Wild Frontier.

The teacher who sent this verse remarked that Joe’s Café was a popular Swansea establishment near the beach. Subsequently, however, we had news of the verse being current in Brentwood, Hornchurch, Reading, Upminster, and Woolwich, all naming ‘Joe’s Café’. But unknown to any of our home observers, and before the official Davy Crockett song had reached Britain, an Australian correspondent, writing 3 January 1956, had reported that the following ditty was ‘sweeping the schools’ in Sydney:

Reared on a paddle-pop in Joe’s café,
The dirtiest dump in the U.S.A.,
Poisoned his mother with D.D.T.
And shot his father with a ·303.
    Davy, Davy Crockett,
    The man who is no good.

It seems that the schoolchild underground also employs trans-world couriers.

(pp. 6–7)

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