A woman named Liza asks a man named Henry to fetch a pail of water. Henry says he cannot because there’s a hole in the bucket. Liza, a practical woman, tells Henry to fix the hole. Henry asks what he is supposed to fix the hole with. Please click on the link here to see and hear the song sung by Odetta and Harry Belafonte before reading on.
As a verbal exchange, There’s a Hole in the Bucket is a deadlock situation where each of a series of processes is blocked because it awaits another resource. The song went around in a big circle only to come all the way back to where it started. The song’s situation is amusing, but most deadlocks are not, especially those where people finger-point and blame someone else for holding things up instead of doing something useful.
Scholars debate what the song is about
Post-Sesame Street scholars like to say the song is about how some learners are unable to overcome the difficulties of following instructions because they don’t have the skills needed to solve the problem. They lay the blame on Liza for not properly instructing Henry.
Historians and anthropologists say the song is about the lengths to which layabouts will go to avoid work
Layabouts are idlers, slackers and loafers, shiftless people who are physically able to work but don’t want to. They pretend they don’t know how to do something until the person asking them to perform a simple chore finally gives up, exasperated. World Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali used a version of this passive-aggressive behavior with his Rope-a-Dope strategy. Ali set a trap by leaning back against the ropes and appearing to be weak and tired so the other boxer would exhaust himself.
Liza and Henry
Odetta Holmes was a singer and guitarist who was called the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Odetta is remembered for her powerful performance of O Freedom at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.
- Bob Dylan said Odetta was the first to turn him on to folk singing. After hearing her, he traded his electric guitar and amplifier for a flat-top Gibson acoustic guitar and you know the rest.
- Joan Baez said Odetta was a goddess whose passion moved her.
- Carly Simon said when she met Odetta in Greenwich Village, she went weak in the knees.
Belafonte was a singer and songwriter from Jamaica
His most famous song was featured in the delightful dinner scene at the haunted house in the film Beetlejuice. Belafonte popularized calypso music for an international audience in 1956 with his breakthrough album, Calypso. He was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement who described his own grandfather as a “white Dutch Jew who drifted to the islands chasing gold and diamonds, but finding neither.” He and Sidney Poiter, both poor in New York City, would buy one ticket to local plays, trade places between acts, and fill each other in after.
I see how the deadlock situation from There’s a Hole in the Bucket plays out again and again in business and personal lives, don’t you?
Someone who has been assigned a task they don’t want to do devotes their energy to producing excuses one after another, no matter how lame, instead of getting the job done. They also point fingers of blame at others for causing the problem.
Here’s another whimsical folk song we can learn a lesson from
In I Knew an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, she swallowed a spider to catch the fly. The spider wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, so she swallowed a bird to catch the spider, a cat to catch the bird, and more.
This song also reminds me of what we all see too much of in our business and personal lives
We see the unintended consequences that multiply as one band-aid solution after another is applied until the whole thing finally falls apart and all is lost.
There’s a Hole in the Bucket was written by Pete Seeger, folk singer and political activist
Like many activists in the era of red-hunting, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Under oath, he said “I am not going to answer any questions as to my philosophical beliefs or religious beliefs or political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
Seeger wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, and the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, We Shall Overcome. The Byrds had a Billboard number one pop hit with their version of Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn in 1965. Most of the lyrics were taken from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes where Solomon, son of David, wrote about the human longing to find meaning and purpose.
Seeger lost his Harvard scholarship because he was more interested in politics and folk music than in bookish pursuits
In 1939, he became an assistant in the Archive of American Folk Songs at the Library of Congress and was assigned to the section on “Race” and “Hillbilly” music, the Library of Congress’ terms, not mine. “Race records” were what the white music industry called sound recordings “made by and for members of the Negro race.” When this term was deemed offensive, the industry changed the name to Rhythm and Blues.
Folk music of the 1960s was common ground to musicians of all races and ethnicities and protest songs of the 1930s and 1940s were revived to go alongside new ones. The earliest “protest songs” were about oppressed peoples, particularly the inhuman working conditions of the poor. The category came to mean any song associated with a movement for social change. In the early 1960s, that meant civil rights and Vietnam, too.
Key takeaways for executives and parents
- Don’t allow anyone to pass the buck or create a deadlock situation.
- Think problems though instead of reaching for quick solutions that in the long run do more harm than good.
Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in more detail and hear complicated subject matter explained in simple terms?
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