Thursday 18 October 2012

In The Beginning … The formation and early history of the Bush Music Club, by John Meredith

Click on pictures for full-screen image

note - date appears to be a typo/lapse of memory as other sources give 1952 for the formation of the Heathcote Bushwhackers - index to Keith McKenry's biography of John Meredith which was created using John Meredith's archives in the National Library, Chris Kempster's recollections, Ballad of the Heathcote Bushwhackers,
Reunion of the surviving Bushwhackers - 50th Anniversary Reunion of The Bushwhackers, National Folk Festival 2002

Jack's surname was Barrie, but both surnames are used in early sources.

It all started with the formation of The Heathcote Bushwhackers. In June 1953 a literary and musical evening held a Jack Barry’s house at Heathcote was to have an “Australian Night” - something unique in those days when our own culture appeared in danger of being engulfed in the flood of second-rate canned American music. Jack, Brian Loughlin and I got together with button accordion and two of our recent discoveries; a tea chest bass and a lagerphone.

Brian Loughlin's lagerphone (BMC Archives)

We stuck on false whiskers, dressed rough and gave out with our entire repertoire; Click Go The Shears, Botany Bay and Nine Miles From Gundagai. In spite of my whiskers falling off, or maybe because of them, we were an immediate success - as a comedy act! Chris Kempster joined us after that performance and then Harry Kay.

We were invited to perform our bracket of three numbers at a
Tribune concert organised by the Australian Communist Party, at the Hurstville Rivoli Theatre. We were a sensation! The audience shouted, stamped and clapped for more and wouldn’t shut up. And we didn’t know any more. Eventually we went back and did Botany Bay again and invited them to join in on the choruses.

The idea of a group playing traditional instruments and singing Australian songs, straight and not in choral arrangements, was novel and soon we could not cope with the engagements that came rolling in. The following year we supplied the songs and music for four or five historical radio features written for the ABC by Nancy Keesing. We were joined by Alan Scott, Cec Grivas and later by Alec Hood. One day Brian Loughlin told me that someone had suggested that we form some sort of a club and after many bright and not so bright ideas for a name we fixed on The Bush Music Club.

Recently, while going through an old scrapbook, I came across the
programme for what was probably Sydney’s first Folk Music Concert. Arranged by Lilli Williams it was presented at History House, then in Young St., on Wednesday 24th November 1954, by Leonard Theile and Patricia Martin...and The Bushwhackers Band. The first item after interval was How Many Miles To Gundagai?, described in the programme as “A bush operetta in one act, based on the controversy around the Dog on the Tuckerbox, using traditional ballads and ballads of the late 19th century, arranged by John Meredith”. 

Leonard Teale (born Thiele) 

We Bushwhackers were quite ambitious in those days and to celebrate the world premiere of the work we published a little eight page booklet. On the last page of this leaflet there appeared the first advertisement for the inaugural meeting of The Bush Music Club: 


We have been approached by many singers and instrumentalists who wished to join the “Bushwhackers”, but we consider that the optimum number for an ensemble such as ours is six. We have been refusing engagements at the rate of three or four a week for several months, not because we want to, but simply for the reasons that we need time to rehearse, we have to work for our living and because we have to get some sleep occasionally.
We don’t like disappointing people so we have decided to form a club, where in return for a nominal membership fee we will give away our secrets. The “Bushwhackers” will help you to learn the accordeon, harmonica, bones, bush bass, lager phone and lots more. We will provide the words and music of our songs and show you how we sing them.
The inaugural meeting and first rehearsal of the BUSH MUSIC CLUB will take place at the Realist Theatrette, 1st Floor, 188 George Street, on Thursday October 14th, at 7 p.m. sharp. Further details may be had from John Meredith, 5 Henry Street, Lewisham, or from any of the “Bushwhackers”. 


If you have read the foregoing closely, you will have observed that the Bush Music Club had been going for about five weeks before the History House Concert took place. This was because the concert had twice been postponed, firstly because of a double booking of the auditorium and secondly because of a radio commitment by Thiele. Our booklet had been prepared in time for the first planned date.

The inaugural meeting was like all other inaugural meetings; we all talked and argued a lot, elected a committee of office bearers, sang a few songs and went home, feeling that we had done a good job. I went along confidently to the second gathering, expecting an overflow house. Three of us turned up! Everyone else sent along excuses of Union meetings, influenza, hay-fever, teething babies etcetera. For that memorable second meeting there was myself, Tom Durst and Kenna Rushbrook.

For a while we made music with accordion, fiddle and mandolin and thought it sounded quite pretty. So did somebody else! On another floor in the Ironworkers Building was the recently formed Trade Union Club - a licenced club, but which in accordance with existing liquor laws closed at 6.00 PM. A drunken woman came looking for grog and blundered into our recital. We ushered her out but she was back again within five minutes. After several repeats of this performance, we locked our door on the inside. It was a glass panelled door and on her return the frustrated and thirsty lady smashed the glass in her desperation, then fled down the stairs, hotly pursued by Tom Durst, who caught and escorted her to the caretaker where reparations were effected

Our numbers soon increased. The Club took over the publication of Bushwhacker Broadsides from the band and then decided to publish its own journal. 

Bushwhacker's Ballad no. 8 (BMC Archives)

Again great discussion for, a name. Finally our secretary, Karen Winter came up with Singabout, inspired by the geographical magazine Walkabout. We decided to hold a concert/folk dance night to raise money for the publication of our magazine and it was called a Singabout Night. Our quarters in the Realist Theatrette became a bit cramped and but still only a small space for dancing...and one big problem. 

We shared use of the studio with the June Dally-Watkins Modelling Agency and Academy. They had an evening class which was supposed to end about fifteen minutes before we arrived. But rarely did. The crisis came one night when the Dally-Watkins lady organised her end-of-year graduation parade on our club night without consulting anyone. After a heated argument as to who was going to have occupancy that night, we hit on a compromise. The girls would model and while they were having their dozen or so changes we would perform, entertaining the models’ parents and friends with brackets of numbers lasting for 15 or 20 minutes.

It went off well, for we were entertained by all the young lovelies pussy-footing down the catwalk modelling swimwear, then sports gear, followed by formals, cocktail gowns etc. and finally, in a crash-hot finale; formal evening gowns. This is where we nearly wrecked the show. I’ve forgotten her name, but I can still remember the beautiful girl who made her stunning entrance, to the Dally-Watkins running commentary. The dress was black, backless and strapless; one of those creations that defy the laws of gravity. Dally-Watkins was just commenting that this was not the dress for every girl, that you must have the necessary physical attributes to support the thing...rhubarb, rhubarb..., when Jack Barry arrived, late as usual. He’d come straight from work, in his khaki overalls, with sports coats over the top, tea chest bass on shoulder. He walked in the door just as the mannequin had completed her walk and was doing her twirly bit, and just stood there, his jaw dropped and his eyes popping out like a lobster’s. Loughlin let out a guffaw and we followed suit. In a minute the whole audience roared with laughter, while the poor girl, who couldn’t see Jack, was visibly shaken and obviously thought something had come undone or fallen down which shouldn’t have. But Dally-Watkins, with her usual aplomb, broke off her resume; escorted Jack to his place and sent her pupil pussy-footing on her victorious, graduating way.

Soon after this episode we gave the Dally-Watkins best and moved to the Seamens’ Hall at the Quay end of Pitt St. Here there was a large floor, where we not only had plenty of room for cavorting about learning old bush dances, but it was large enough for our Singabout Nights as well. But alas, progress - nay, let’s call it development - was hard on our heels and the premises were marked down for demolition.

One of our members belonged to the Esperanto Society - he used to translate our songs into Esperanto - and he arranged for us to rent the Society’s rooms one night a week. These were at Milson’s Point, under the approaches to the Harbour Bridge. We had some wonderful time there and I feel that this and the ensuing period were when the B.M.C. really established itself.

Magazine was being published regularly, we had brought out a series of six Ned Kelly Broadsides, then bound them into a book and finally republished it in a smaller format. Here it was that we held our competition for the best setting of a Lawson poem, won by Gay Scott with her still-popular The Roaring Days to the tune of Ten Thousand Miles Away.

Alas, the bogey was still treading at our heels. Trams were abolished and replaced by buses. The old bridge tramlines were taken up and two more lanes made available to the motor car god, erection of toll gates for which meant the demolition of our rented clubrooms.

Our new home was with the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and a cosy home it was too. We had our own locker in the corner, a convenient kitchen and the room with its numerous portraits of Australian writers created a really nice atmosphere. Our close association with the writers at this period brought us into touch with a lot of people we would not otherwise have met. They invited us to perform at their functions and sometimes one of their members would address us. It was at Milsons Point that Duke Tritton first began attending club nights and during the next few years was to become a big influence on our performing styles.

Alan Scott recording Duke Tritton (John Meredith photo - BMC Archives)

Happiness cannot endure; to paraphrase Andrew Marvell

"At our backs we alwaies hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near"

Yes, the friendly wrecker came knocking on the door, so it was a matter of rolling up our swags once more. This time we followed the Fellowship of Australian Writers when they moved in with the Australasian Book Society. At this time we brought out the
Singabout Songster, consisting of the edited texts of a hundred of our most popular songs. 

During this period, in my opinion at any rate, both the singing and the instrumental music developed to quite a high standard. Under the MC’ship of Chris Woodland the programmes took on a new interest.

Pewter mug given to Chris Woodland when he left Sydney, 1967  (Chris Woodland photo)

I remember the Clarence St. days also as a time when John Dengate developed his wonderful facility for writing topical and, to some people, shockingly irreverent songs. It was also the era when Beer and Cheese nights grew into a sort of wine and banquet night!

John Dengate, Singabout v.6, n.1, 1966   (BMC Archives)

And it was just at this time when, with the publication of Folk Songs of Australia, I decided to devote all my spare time - to the exclusion of Bush Music Club activities - to my research on Frank The Poet and on the Kelly ballads; a step which I have not regretted, but which did deprive me of taking any further part in the activities and development of our club.

72xxxx John Meredith presents (then unpublished) material from his researches of Frank the Poet - Francis McNamara at PACT folk in 1972  (Bob Bolton photo)

Perhaps some younger member can finish off this record by supplying details of the Burwood and Marrickville periods. Perhaps also, some other older members might set aright any errors or lapses of memory which might be obvious in this rough outline of our history.

Mulga Wire No. 17, February 1980, pp.5-10


Sunday 14 October 2012

The Bushwhackers, by Alan Scott.

Click on pictures for full-screen image

A three-part article in Mulga Wire, 1980-81 (citation below)

When Jack Lang published his memoirs at the age of ninety a reviewer pointed out that we had to take his word for what had happened; there was no one else left who had lived through the events. I don’t want to wait that long to describe the beginning of the Bush Music Club, but others may recall things differently. I remember clearly my first involvement with what led to the formation of the Club. Early in 1954 I was in Sydney to attend a Youth Conference and one Saturday night Gay Terry and Lorna Lovell took me to see a musical play called Reedy River. I was enthralled and when it was over I clapped and cheered and howled for more. So did the rest of the audience.

      1.  Reedy River (BMC Archives)

I was already part of the embryo folk song revival. I had sung with a group organised by John Manifold in Brisbane and was friendly with Ron Edwards at the time he and Manifold produced the first of the Bandicoot Ballads. I even knew some of the songs in Reedy River, but I’d never heard them sung in the lively, robust, vigorous and genuine way they were presented that night. After the applause for the last encore, when the audience was persuaded to shuffle out of the stuffy hall, I talked my way backstage on the strength of my acquaintance with two of the cast members; Brian Loughlin and Harry Kay. I knew Harry from Youth Camps in Queensland and I was introduced to Brian outside a milk bar in Brisbane by his brother Kevin.

Kev and I were talking on the footpath when Brian came dancing out humming the Cossack Dance from the Nutcracker Suite and clicking his heels in the air. (This was the same milk bar where Kevin and a mate, being broke, once asked for a glass of water and two straws. It says a lot for the Loughlin personality that they got it!)

Well, Brian showed me the Lagerphone and introduced me to the Bushwhackers, who played and sang in Reedy River and performed separately as a group. 

2.  Brian O'Loughlin's Lagerphone 1956 (BMC Archives)

One of them, John Meredith, invited me to his place to hear the tape recordings he had made. So, to John’s rooms at Lewisham, Gay and I went next day. I took memories of Reedy River and the singers on John’s tapes back to Bundaberg where I was then living; then I went looking for singers and musicians.

Your Uncle Raleigh used to play the tin whistle,” my mother told me, but Uncle Raleigh was dead. “Your Uncle Will used to play the squeeze box,” Mum said, so I went to see Uncle Will. He got his accordeon off the top of the wardrobe, where the hornets had built mud nests on it, but he had suffered a stroke and couldn’t pump the bellows. Mum could remember her brothers beefing out The Wild Colonial Boy on the front verandah when she was a girl but didn’t recall words or tune; so I had to come to Sydney for the Bush Music.

Arriving in late July, I contacted Merro and became a twenty four year old groupie, turning up wherever the ‘Whackers’ were performing. They soon got tired of looking at me in the audience and asked me to sing on stage with them. Once I went to a party instead of a Bushwhacker engagement and the next time I saw Merro (I remember it was in a pub) he talked very seriously about the dedication of the Band and their self imposed discipline. It looked pretty bad, he said, when someone went off to a party instead of turning up at a performance. At length it penetrated my dim brain that I was part of the Band. A Bushwhacker! And I hadn’t even noticed!

3.  Bushwhackers, photo taken by John Meredith (BMC Archives)
 (Part Two: Picking up where Alan Scott unexpectedly discovered that he was a dedicated member of his dream group ; The Bushwhackers.)

Not the least part of the dedication John spoke of consisted of performing unpaid.
We claimed only travelling expenses. Fees for engagements went into funds. We dressed in what we thought shearers and bush workers would have worn in the 1890’s and Jack Barrie, who played the tea chest bass, so looked the part that he is one of the few people I know who got applause before he even started singing. Cec Grivas had what I thought was the best voice and Alex Hood played the bones.

4.  Jack Barrie (BMC Archives)

 Harry Kay played the mouth organ, which he liked to call the harmonica, and Chris Kempster played the guitar. Brian Loughlin played the lagerphone and did the spruiking. His introductions were entertaining and sounded spontaneous but were the result of much study of the material. He gave as much thought to playing the lagerphone as Chris did to the guitar and both searched for the most effective accompaniment for each song.

5.  Brian Loughlin, 1957 (BMC Archives)

John Meredith played the accordeon and provided the solid melodic base for the group. He was the Bush Musician personified. We had a campaign to change his presentation. Gradually he changed from staring at one spot until he got to the stage when he could smile and eventually sing as he played!

While I was learning to play the tin whistle (made easier by the fact that I’d played the fife at school) I played the nose flute. If you don’t know what that instrument is you are fortunate. We called it the steel handkerchief and it was hardly the best choice for someone like me with a deviated septum and chronic rhinitis. I was glad when I could lay it away and play whistle full time.

6.  Alan playing nose flute (BMC Archives)

 Such was the cast of characters. We all had some stage experience and developed “bits of business” and interplay of character that became whole hearted in the little play How Many Miles To Gundagai? in which Tom Durst joined us to play the fiddle as the Dog. The group was a synthesis of Australian folk styles. No group like it had existed before but it was authentic in that the instruments and the material were traditional.

We were extremely popular. I have tapes of some of our radio features and they don’t sound much at all but there was no doubt about the enthusiasm of our audiences. They shouted for more.

Being in the Bushwhackers was a good way for a newcomer like me to get to know Sydney. We played for a kindergarten at Chippendale; P. & C. Associations at Caringbah, Terrey Hills and Narrabeen; a Blacksmiths’ Union Smoko at Bondi Junction; at Como to celebrate Lawson’s birthday where pupils from the local school put on a play. We played at Lawson’s statue in the Domain and got our picture on page one of the Sydney Morning Herald. 

7.  Bushwhackers playing at Lawson's Statue, Botanic Gardens Sydney (BMC Archives)

 We played at the Tribune picnic in Royal National Park and the police stopped us playing from the back of a truck in Ashfield because we had no permit. We were publicising a local performance of Reedy River which New Theatre revived in 1955. We were in it of course.
We went to Pagewood for four days of boring inactivity and a couple of hours’ work in the film Three In One.

The ‘rushes’ of this showed us capering round on a small bright viewing screen without sound. We looked so good the director decided to use Chris and Brian further in the film. We played in false whiskers to thousands of kids at the Showground for the Smith Family. The kids wanted to tear our beards off and we got our picture in the Herald again. We played at an RSL dance at Dee Why, where I saw my first poker machine.

8.  Bushwhackers at the Showground for The Smith Family (BMC Archives)


(Part Three: In which Alan Scott finds playing with his dream band is very hard work.)

This is an indication of the workload we carried. I wonder now how we coped! We held down our normal wages jobs, performed all over the place, participated in the Folk-lore Society and the Bush Music Club and were enthusiastic members of the Communist Party with all the political activity involved in that. To those BMC members who might object, a quarter of a century on, to eight young communists helping to found their Club I can only say that’s the way it was. You can’t change history. In retrospect, assisting in the birth of the Club may have been our most important action. 

All of us, bar Brian, were bachelors. Alex, Harry and I got married in the next couple of years. In some ways the girls must have felt they had wed the group, not just a husband. The close association and shared experiences had brought the sort of comradeship enjoyed by a touring football team or the cast of a play.

We went for a night cruise round Sydney Harbour with the Peking Opera Company. I remember Merro telling an interpreter how we collected songs from old people when we went away on country trips. This was translated to their Comrade Manager and we waited for the reply. The interpreter said that the Opera Company, too, did that. For six months every year they visited the countryside collecting material and rehearsing it, then six months performing. Thinking of our forty hour week jobs and our crowded itinerary we could only marvel.

During Wool Week we were employed by David Jones to play for customers in their different stores. The illustration that appears on the BMC letterhead originated then as a newspaper ad. for DJ’s. 

We visited some country towns for different functions. We went down a coal mine at Lithgow and broadcast live over the radio station there where I forgot the words to Drover’s Dream We saw the Hunter River in full flood at Newcastle, put on a concert in Mudgee Town Hall and saw the remains of the Lawson Cottage at Eurunderee.

The Bushwhackers were notably untemperamental but by 1957 our constant association, instead of wearing away our differences, was working to sharpen them. Not all of us realised this or how often Brian’s diplomacy was exercised to smooth things over. A perennial point of difference was the question of singing in harmony. The advocates of this saw it as a way of making our renditions more musically attractive and reviving our (by now) sometimes jaded performances. The majority rejected it but the idea kept coming up with unwelcome persistence. This was a time, too, of turmoil in the Communist Party - there was only one in those days! I remember Brian being asked, “Are you for Kruschev or Stalin?” and his classic reply, “I’m for Marx!”.

The climax came when John resigned. I believe this was not because of personal, ideological or musical problems but because he could not cope with all his other activities and be a Bushwhacker too. So the six remaining members forgathered at Loughlin’s house in Rozelle to thrash things out. The big question was; would we continue as a group or not? The vote was three for and three against. Alex, Harry and Chris continued for a short time as The Three Bushwhackers but soon changed their name to The Rambleers.

So ended the archetype Bush Band. There was no group like it before but there have been many since, singing much the same songs in much the same way. I once boasted to an Irishman that the ‘Whackers had played for every possible function. “Have you ever played at a wake?” he asked. When Brian died most of us turned up to play at his wake. My vague hope that we might one day get together for one final performance died then too.

Part 1, Mulga Wire #22, Dec. 1980, pp. 3 & 4.
Part 2, Mulga Wire #23, Feb. 1981, pp 4 & 5.
Part 3, Mulga Wire #24, Apr. 1981, pp. 3 & 4.