Setting aside the controversy over how badly the Irish language was treated through English oppression and the inevitable loss that comes with emigration, I first heard this song as Buttermilk Hill. There is a fantastic discussion of the Folk Process as it relates to this song in John Cowan’s 2005 blog post, Recycled Knowledge. Looking back and realising that the ‘bibble in the boo’ gibberish I was sold as a child, was actually the trampled remains of someone else’s language, makes me both sad and angry. However, I set this aside for the purpose of this post.
Buttermilk Hill was a song taught to me by the school music teacher in year 7. I was only twelve at the time and had just moved from a different school. I cannot remember the name of this vibrant woman, who belted out Little Boxes and I wish I was a Fishy in the Sea with such enthusiasm that most of the class ended up doing their best to sing along.
In addition to singing sessions with each class, this teacher also ran the choir. During one of the weekly class music sessions she asked if anyone wanted to be in the choir, and said they could sing a verse of one of the songs on their own. This was obviously before the days of mass participation and minimal public scrutiny of talent.
As an insecure twelve year old, in a new school and in front of the whole class, this seemed an unreasonably high hurdle to set for joining a school choir. I put my hand up, drawing a few sniggers from my male classmates, and said I would sing a verse of Buttermilk Hill.
In that instance of fear and excitement, I found my voice. I’m not sure if something still left in this song called to an Irish heritage in me that wanted a way out, or if it could have been any old melody, but it was a pivotal moment for me. Through the subsequent 28 years I have always found a way to be in a choir, sing at a cafe or music festival or even just post folk videos to YouTube. It also means I have had the pleasure of singing all five of my children to sleep (or not sleep, as the case may be).
More than just being about the singing, this simple act of stepping over fear of what others might think of my voice, has been critical to many other choices in life. Making a bold presentation at a job interview, asking the stupid questions at university, taking a shot at a beautiful woman despite my knees shaking, all of these seem to have had something in common with the decision to sing.
I don’t know what happened to this ilk of music teacher, or what happened to the Australian school music curriculum. From a distance it seems to be about mass rock dance events, mass participation and very little true love for the joy of singing. I am grateful for the experience I had, and the good that it continued to do throughout my life.