Friday, October 21, 2005

Glory glory hallelujah

It looks as if Wikipedia's entry on the schoolyard classic 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school' is going to survive a vote on its deletion. It's good to see that those who don't consider such matters worthy of encyclopedists' attention are outnumbered by those who do.

Personally, I find children's lore fascinating. Until very recently, kids didn't have the Internet; they've never had a voice in traditional media (sure, children's entertainment abounds, but it consists mainly of adults talking to children, not children talking to each other); they don't write down their playground chatter for future generations, and until the 20th century most scholars considered such things beneath their notice. Yet many schoolyard parodies, rhymes and sayings manage to spread from child to child throughout the English-speaking world. In
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (the book quoted at the bottom of this page), Peter and Iona Opie describe a striking example of this contagion from the 1930s:

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 hall. 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.

I did some work on the 'burning of the school' article after finding it via the votes-for-deletion page, but it still needs improvement. I'd particularly like to know when the song's existence was first recorded. I would guess that the parody appeared not long after the writing of the Battle Hymn itself -- and perhaps versions of it were being sung even earlier. Some children in Lincolnshire whom the Opies interviewed sang 'Glory, glory, hallelujah/Teacher hit me with a ruler' and identified this as a parody of the Battle Hymn's predecessor, 'John Brown's Body'.

(Chris had never heard of the song, however; seeing the lyrics to 'Mine eyes have seen the glory ...' on Wikipedia, he asked me, 'Who wrote this stuff, 50 Cent?')


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