Monday 5 November 2012

Let’s Hear It For Merro! by Alan Scott, Mulga Wire No. 14 August 1979

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Recently I was trying to write down a tune I remembered and couldn’t decide what time signature it should have. I knew it was in the same time as the tune we played for The Flying Pieman. That dance was called The Flying Scotsman till John Meredith re-named it when he introduced it to the Bush Music Club. I found the tune in the Complete Book of Australian Folklore  for the dance Thady You Gander. While searching in that book I found “The Victorian Folk Music Club uses the following combination of tunes: Kelvin Grove; Muckin’ O’ Geordie’s Byre; Bonnie, Bonnie Banks Of Loch Lomond.”

And I thought, “Yes, the V.F.M.C. may use that combination of tunes but it was John Meredith who worked out that they would fit the dance, with the option of repeating the last line of Loch Lomond if the set was a bit slow.”

I got to thinking, then, of all the things the Folk movement in Australia owes to Merro. In the early Bushwhacker Band days when our audiences asked, “Where can we learn these songs?” it was John who proposed we form the Bush Music Club and became our first M.C. The Bushwhackers were as busy then as any Bush Band these days, with three or four performances a week, rehearsals and radio broadcasts and John was the driving force in that group. He was busy in the Folklore Society and in library research at the same time as he continued searching for and recording folksingers and musicians.

You might think, on reading his Folksongs of Australia, that he was lucky to find so many valuable informants but it required dedication, perseverance and sheer physical endurance. His tape recorder, unlike today’s transistorised models, weighed about thirty pounds and he relied mostly on public transport. I recall going with him to the flatlands of Maroubra one Saturday afternoon when we had a quarter mile hike from the tram to the singer’s home, I carried the recorder The cool sea breeze blew sand in our faces and my arms were stretched longer by the time we got there. After a couple of hours we went back to the tram and that night performed with the rest of the Bushwhackers over on the other side of Sydney.

Folksongs of Australia is John’s outstanding achievement but he did things many people are unaware of, ie finding the music given in title only for Plains of Emu, Where’s Your Licence and Ned Kelly’s Farewell To Greta. He altered the words in Banjo Patterson’s Bushman’s Song from: “Eight or ten dashed Chinamen” to the more acceptable “Eight or ten non-union men” and when he set Henry Lawson’s A Word to Texas Jack to a traditional tune, he changed Lawson’s words too. When he recorded The Bullockies’ Ball it was short of two lines so he wrote a couple that fit so well that I, who know they were added, have difficulty distinguishing them. He searched out the music that was given as the tune for Jim Jones At Botany Bay and, I suspect, added two lines to complete an unfinished verse.

The idea of Singabout magazine was his and he was its first editor with all the work that such a venture entailed. He conceived the Ned Kelly seventy-fifth anniversary song book and supplied traditional tunes for those songs that lacked them. 

When he had the idea for the Lawson Songbook he contacted the composers of the music used, arranged for Dame Mary Gilmore to write the introduction and asked Clem Millward to illustrate it.

He by no means held aloof from the mundane work that had to be done in the Club. I remember the working bees at his home making hundreds of crepe paper waratahs used to decorate the B.M.C. float in the Waratah Festival procession. Merro went out to the circus to hire an elephant for us and would have done but it was too late to get a council permit. So we used a horse drawn dray instead and gave the waratahs away to the crowds at the end of the procession.

This immersion in Australiana and Bush Music did not destroy his perspective. He was and remains, an enthusiastic expert, not a fanatic. So let’s hear it for Merro, Australian folk music probably owes more to him than to any other individual.

Alan Scott.

Mulga Wire No. 14 August 1979


Bob Bolton's comments after scanning this article

* Hmm…I had a good look at my reference copy of Bill Scott’s “Complete Book of Australian Folk Lore” (Ure Smith, Sydney 1976) … and I can’t find that quote at all. I don’t think there was any ‘second edition’ … so Alan may have been looking at some other comprehensive ( … but Victorian-biased … ) book of Australian Folklore

I also checked various versions of the Ron Edwards’ Big Book of Australian Folk Song … and I did find this on page 765 of my on-line (10 volumes) version. The reference to the renaming of “The Flying Scotsman” to “The Flying Pieman” – by Noreen Grunseit is what I have always believed … but a smart idea is a smart idea … and lots of people get credited with primacy of the same idea … depending upon ‘by whom’ and ‘whereabouts?’

(Tune ; The Flying Dutchman)
1. ‘Twas the close of a heavy drinking bout on port and sherry cape.
2. (Dance tune)
1. Noted by Warren Fahey in The Colonial Magazine 1869, the tune being given as The Flying Dutchman.
2. Collected and arranged by John Meredith from Herb Gimbert, Sydney, no date given. 
*Folk Songs of Australia Vol. 1, page 157 1967; reprinted *Australian Tradition 30/14 Dec 1972 with title THADY YOU GANDER or THE IRISH TROT; *Australian Tradition 34 June 1974, notes on p.29, tune on p.52.

In Tradition No. 34, Shirley Andrews explains:
“One member of the Bush Music Club, Noreen Grunseit, adapted a Scottish dance called The Flying Scotsman for dancing by other club members. They altered the name to ‘The Flying Pieman’ to give it an Australian name as this was the name of an eccentric character in early Sydney. The tune used is an untitled Irish jig tune collected from Herb Gimbert by John Meredith”.

*Take Your Partners 56 1976; *Bush Dance 20-21 1984; *Collector’s Choice Vol.2 49 1987.
It will be seen that versions 1 and 2 have nothing in common, the title FLYING PIEMAN in version 2 being a modern addition, the title being given to an old tune.

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