Come Butter Come

Come Butter Come recording starts at 2:00.

Bearers of history

In 1940, Irene Williams met with Ruby and John Lomax to describe her early years in slavery. In an audio recording, she recalls church services and sings a beautiful rendition of “Keep Your Lamp A Trimmed and Burning.” This is a piece I’ve had my middle school choir perform several times over the years. How powerful for them to hear it directly from a woman who survived slavery! Then, almost as an afterthought, Irene remembers “Little Emma,” the baby’s nurse: “After the baby was tucked in bed [she] was often called into the kitchen to do the churning. And this is the song that she sang to the milk.” The butter song has a strong, steady beat, and its tone-set makes it suitable for students’ earliest musical experiences. Emma was probably singing just because she was a musical individual, not because she intended to create a worldwide hit. But she inspired Irene Williams, and now students can hear her, sing her song, and keep her music alive. It’s a powerful example that all of us, as artistic beings, are continually creating our own cultural histories and carrying forward the voices of others in our communities.

Voices of the Past

Irene Williams is featured in the Library of Congress digital collection Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Story. She shares several songs, including Drink Water and Jay Bird Singing featured on this website. Ask students to consider what we can learn from hearing from former slaves, rather than just about them. What voices should be preserved in our present-day world? What can students do to ensure their voices are heard and shared?

Hands-on Learning

Consider having your students try making butter. This activity can help your students empathize with Emma and understand the function of a steady beat. How might Emma have felt as she sang? How did the steady beat help Emma complete her job? What other jobs require a steady beat, which might encourage someone to sing a work song? Making butter is a real-life science experiment; look for cross-curricular opportunities for students to learn about states of matter, historic cooking practices, and other topics.

Musical Adaptation and Improvisation

This melody has a stream-of-consciousness feel as the words drift around a few central melodic ideas. Consider teaching measures 18-25 as the central melody, followed by measures 26-30 as a related phrase. Especially if singing the song while making butter, the number of repetitions will invite the students to begin experimenting with variations on the melody, much as Irene performed in the recording. Consider having each student sing solo while he or she takes a turn shaking the jar, allowing more freedom for individual variation around the theme.