Two of our granddaughters stayed overnight with us a few days ago. For some reason we started singing “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza” and we were surprised that the youngest, who had just turned six, knew every single verse.
So we sang it over and over with all sorts of exaggerated emphasis in Liza’s verses as she becomes more exasperated with her hopeless Henry.
It was only after the grand-kids left that I thought about the problem of fixing a bucket with a hole in it, and it suddenly dawned on me that the kids probably didn’t have a clue about how you could mend a bucket with a straw. After all, buckets are plastic and straws have holes in them to suck up liquid. It just doesn’t make sense to the younger generation.
But buckets haven’t always been plastic consumables that cost about 0.1% of an average weekly salary.
Going back to my parents’ and grandparents’ days, buckets were zinc-plated steel. Going back further when my ancestors arrived in Australia they were wooden, often made using the same techniques as barrels. I’m guessing they would usually have been a small barrel cut in half with a rope handle added to each half, making two buckets.
At that time in such a dry climate, fetching the water from the creek, spring or well was crucial to the survival of the crops and the family. Buckets were hard to come by, expensive and certainly not a disposable item. A hole in the bucket was a family emergency, and had to be fixed quickly.
The song suggests a straw could be used to mend a hole. This probably refers to wheat straw, which expands when wet. So by stuffing sufficient straw into the hole, cutting of the excess on either side and then wetting the straw the leak could be slowed or stopped.
Next in the song comes the problem of sharpening the axe to cut the straw. This introduces a second concept that is foreign to our grand-kids. Specially selected stones were used for sharpening knives and axes. The stone is rubbed backwards and forwards along the cutting edge. Wetting the stone improved its efficiency by lubricating it and carrying the swarf away.
Getting back to the song, if you search the Internet you’ll find some people suggesting it should not be taken too literally. There are even some suggestions for alternate strategies that could have been used by Henry, including:
- Leaving the straw untrimmed in the bucket until the first bucket of water is fetched to wet the stone.
- Carrying the axe and the stone to the well and working there where water is plentiful.
Nevertheless the song is an intriguing insight into the very different way of life and values of our ancestors, and a reminder about how rapidly life and language changes and meanings can be lost.
It’s even more amazing that the old folk song lives on in our youngest generation, bringing to our home great joy with our grand-kids. I’m looking forward to embellishing the song next time they’re here.
Here is the original Belafonte and Odetta version of the song copied from my parents original vinyl record album, one of the first they ever owned. Click anywhere on the image to start playing.
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Here is a kids’ video of the song.