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.



  1. Remember as if yesterday the brilliance of Reedy River in New Theatre, Castlereagh st Sydney. Head-changing stuff.
    Still have some 78s of the Wattle releases, plus the Wattle ballad films set.

  2. thanks for your memories, guest.

    You might be interested in these posts -
    1. The Bushwhackers - Australian Bush Songs, Wattle Recordings, 1957
    2. - a compilation of all articles mentioning New Theatre & Reedy River

    New Theatre has a very interesting history site -

    A book about Sydney's New Theatre is being launched this week -
    The New Theatre – the people, plays and politics behind Australia’s radical theatre, ed. by Lisa Miller - complete list of all Wattle releases