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Songs that Stick: Es Buurebüebli

by Susi, 20 July 2020

When I was a little girl, in about 1969 or so, I spent a few memorable weeks on Orcas Island at a summer camp. There was a Swiss exchange student who worked that summer as a camp counselor, a young leader of even younger people, myself included. She was beautiful, tall and strong, and always smiling. Her English was pretty good, but far from perfect, and she didn’t let that get in her way. She reached out to everyone, told her stories, and never let language barriers get in the way.

While I was there, she taught us a song. “Us” meaning myself and the group of girls of the same age I was “camped” with. The song began with the words “Es Buurebüebli”, and it lilted on, with several verses and a rousing chorus with energetic movements stirred by its words. We sang and moved enthusiastically as the song called out for us to move: lean forward! lean backward! lean left! lean right! stand up! sit down! It was an epically popular song at camp that year.

I never forgot the melody, nor the movements, and even remembered most of the words, although they were in a language I did not understand at all, with subtleties of enunciation that don’t exist in English. I remembered. It never left me.

I’ve been singing that song, in my head, and out loud (as appropriate) for fifty years. I sing it when I’m hiking, sea kayaking, working outdoors, and at any other random time it comes to mind. All the while not knowing what the song means, whether I’m singing it right, or where exactly it came from and what it signifies to the people there. I still sing it.

I’ve wanted for decades to know the song I’ve probably been singing somewhat incorrectly, to find it, and align my earworm version of it with its accurate and authentic iterations. I sang it to Swiss and German friends I knew in Bali, but they shrugged their shoulders. And my Google searches, for lack of precise keywords and search terms, failed — partly because I had no idea how to spell the words I had been singing for half a century, or what dialect they came from.

Tonight I got it! I broke through and found after a bumbling search using all kinds of crazy terms and parameters — “Es Buurebüebli”. The song. And with some scraping and scanning and focus, I eventually found it in exactly the dialect, accent and form that I learned 50 years ago from a Swiss exchange student studying in Seattle. And here it is!

I still don’t know what the words mean (other than the “nach links, nach recht” and etc. parts). I would love to know more about this song, if any readers of this post happen to be Swiss and well-versed in folk traditions and their context.

The experience of re-finding an old song that has never left me, one that has become a perplexing mystery but a constant earworm, elicits a sense of jubilation. That’s surprising. And very cool.

There are memories we retain from childhood, from some of our most magic moments, that we can’t quite pin down, and can’t ascertain the lyrics or the melody or the person or the place. A feeling of painful nostalgia and loss arises. In the past, when people lived in enduring, small, local communities, the community had the knowledge and the lore. Now, we often feel detached and separated from songs and things and memories that are important, but have missing pieces. It’s time to feel grateful for Google, for the internet, for the possibility of tying loose threads of our lives to their meanings and significance. I, for one, do feel grateful for that.

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