The folk process

I got curious about a song half-remembered from my childhood and spent a few hours tracking it down. It makes a marvelous example of the folk process at work, as well as what happens to Irish when the Americans (even those of Irish or Scots-Irish descent) get a hold of it.

The original song is "Shule Aroon", and the first verse and chorus look like this:

I would I were on yonder hill
'Tis there I'd sit and cry my fill,
And every tear would turn a mill,
Is go dtéidh tú, a mhuirnín, slán!
Siúl, siúl, siúl, a rúin!
Siúl go socair, agus siúl go ciúin,
Siúl go dtí an doras agus éalaigh liom,
Is go dtéidh tú, a mhuirnín, slán!

On arrival in the colonies, the song split into two versions. The better-known one shed its Irish altogether, acquired a Revolutionary War motif, and became:

Here I sit on Buttermilk Hill,
Who should blame me cry my fill?
And every tear would work a mill,
Johnny has gone for a soldier.

Buttermilk Hill is in Westchester County, New York; supposedly dairy cattle were hidden there during the Revolution to protect them from raiders from either side. The tune changed too, but all versions can be sung to all tunes, so I ignore this.

But in the southern U.S., where there were lots of Irish and Scots-Irish people, the Irish was retained in singing but its meaning was forgotten and its phonetics garbled. This version was collected in Arkansas in 1958, when I was busily being born:

Well, I wish I was on yonders hill
There I'd set and cry my fill
Every drop would turn a mill
Ish come bibble ahly-boo-so-real.
First time I saw spilly-bolly-eel
Ish come bibble ahly-boo-so-real.

Not too much later, I learned the "Buttermilk Hill" version but with the following chorus:

Shool, shool, shool a rool,
Shool a rack-a-shack, shool-a-barbecue,
When I saw my Sally-baba-yeel,
Come bibble in the boo-shy laurie.

And so over the past 200+ years, Irish has slowly turned to complete gibberish.... Ghu only knows what will happen to the song if Americans keep singing it for the next 200 years!

Update: The Irish means roughly "Go, go, go, my love / Go quietly and go peacefully / Go to the door and fly away from me / And may you go safely, my darling."


Patrick from Sydney said...

I was glad to find this page. We have just had a TV program here in Sydney Aust about Bloomsday and Joyce's allusions to music. One of the songs performed was Shule Aroon. My wife and I used to sing a choral version and the program brought back memories. I didn't know the origin of the song. The vserion we sang was one of your "Irish ... turned to complete gibberish" versions, but pretty and moving nevertheless!!

Art said...

Isn't this also "I sold my hat, I sold my coat, to buy my wife a pretty brown goat" (or flat boat) I always thought it was Yiddish! hehehe Sang this song in grade school - have always loved it. Touched a chord with me. Thought I had some distant Jewish past, but have loads of Scots-Irish in me . .. Ah well.

Dreena M. Tischler said...

As a Peter Paul & Mary fan, I rocked my babies to their version of the song and now sing my foster children to sleep with it. I have run it by a lot of my Scottish and Welsh friends who recognized the tune but not the gibberish. I am so pleased to have read this lovely explanation and it just endears the song to me even more. It is just so the beauty of the folk song to morph over time.

Rand Tenor said...

So my guess is that whomever wrote the American lyrics was from Westchester County, New York or knew of Buttermilk Hill and thought it would rhyme well. It may have been a protected area for dairy farmers so women were safe there. So perhaps it all fit.