John Meredith was born in 1920, in Holbrook, NSW and raised in modest circumstances.
His father was often away droving sheep -
"Out along the lower Darling River and on the Murrumbidgee,
down Balranald way where he was born".
|Click on pictures for full-screen image|
Memorial article by Bob Bolton on our website - see below for information from Rob Willis on Merros' accordions.
Drawing from Singabout (BMC archives)
His mother looked after John and six more on a small block with
"an old cow and a few chooks".
He remembers that she sang a little as she worked and she entertained the kids
with readings from Australian books and magazines such as the Bulletin.
Drawing from Singabout (BMC archives)
His father played the button accordion, an old and much patched
"Mezon Grand Organ" model he probably learned to play whilst away
droving and when he was at home he played the popular songs and dances of the Bush.
He also played the mouth organ, using a tin pannikin as a resonator or
playing the bones as he played on mouth organ.
He died when John was only nine years old, but many of his tunes stayed in John’s mind.
Mezon Grand Organ accordion owned by John McKinnon of Ecklin
who gave it to Merro, who later gave it to Rob Willis (Rob Willis photo)
John’s mother encouraged him to learn the button accordion at fourteen
with the promise of a brand new "Melba" model.
He learned to play from the locals as well as learning some tunes from the gramophone.
At seventeen or eighteen he began to assist with the playing at local dances
and later would play for the entire evening if no other musician was available.
John rode away from Holbrook on his pushbike after WWII, eventually riding down to Melbourne
and then as far as North Queensland, working at various bush jobs.
When he first settled in Sydney (around 1950) he was interested in international folksongs
but he also had a copy of Paterson’s "Old Bush Songs"
and started searching at the Mitchell Library to see if there were tunes for these.
Old Bush Songs, 1906 edition (Wikipedia commons)
He soon found this unsatisfactory due to vagueness of tune details and identity.
In 1953 he bought a Pecotape tape recorder (then very bulky, inconvenient and expensive)
after a friend told of an old shearer she knew who still sang the old bush songs.
After recording him, John sought out and found more informants around Sydney.
Ilustrated ad for Pecotape tape recorder, SA advertiser, 9th Sept 1953 - bottom right of page
In June 1953 John formed a performing group to present this material
with himself playing button accordion, Brian Loughlin introducing the Lagerphone
(now sine qua non for Bush Bands) which he and John had met up with in Holbrook
earlier that year and Jack Barrie playing the Bush Bass
(a tea chest against which a broom-handle is pivoted to control the tension of a stout string).
Later that year, they formed the nucleus of a band for the New Theatre’s Sydney production
of Dick Diamond’s play Reedy River, along with Chris Kempster and Harry Kay.
Bushwhackers in Sydney production of 'Reedy River' (BMC Archives)
This group changed from the Heathcote Bushwhackers to The Bushwhackers,
the band which launched the performing revival of Bush Music and inspired a myriad imitators.
To contain and train them a club was formed: The Bush Music Club.
John was also involved in the Australian Folklore Society,
aimed to be the study and collecting arm of Australian folklore,
but by 1958 this had merged in function and reality with the Bush Music Club,
which performed, collected, published and promoted from under the one hat.
The Bushwhackers made records for Wattle Records (1955 to 1957)
and their Bush Songs helped keep the wolf from Wattle’s door for a few years.
(Their 78 rpm recording of The Drover’s Dream, with Alan Scott singing,
sold 20,000 copies in 1956!)
The Drover’s Dream,(BMC archives)
John shared collected material and contacts with Nancy Keesing
(who, with Douglas Stewart, greatly expanded Paterson’s Old Bush Songs
and published Australian Bush Ballads)
and with Russell Ward who published The Australian Legend in 1958
as a doctoral thesis. Both relationships proved rewarding on both sides.
Australian Bush Ballads, 1955 edition
In the latter part of the 1950s, John spent all his weekends and spare cash in collecting -
mostly west of the Blue Mountains, under difficult conditions.
The isolation which saved these songs from mass media influence also fought against him.
The Meredith Collection, held by the National Library, contains over 1,000 items
and their preservation is a monument to John’s endeavours, perseverance and skill.
Within the Bush Music Club John was a mover and innovator.
He was the driving force of The Bushwhackers, 1953 - 1957,
doing three or four engagements a week as well as radio performances.
He was M.C. of the Club and closely involved in the Australian Folklore Society.
During the week he sought out old-timers around the city
and at weekends he lugged his 20 kg recorder west of the mountains to rural hamlets -
where he often had to first arrange a supply of 240 volt a.c. before even starting to record!
He was (1956 - 1961) Editor of Singabout,
the only regular publication for Australian Folklore in those days.
He had the ideas which led to the Club’s first two books Songs From The Kelly Country
and Songs From Lawson.
He encouraged the formation of similar groups in other states
and the bush music clubs of those states made valuable contributions to our folklore.
The Bushwhackers was the archetype of all Bush Bands.
All current Bush Bands interpret their model, including the well known Bush/Rock group
that approximated their name.
From the 1960s, John increasingly concentrated on writing books.
Folksongs of Australia and the men and women who sang them, volume 1
is one of the major works of the Australian canon and the second volume,
published by the University of NSW in 1987 continues John’s excellent work.
His many other books have covered a wide area of Australian lore, language, personalities and events,
while John’s collecting and writing work is a model for a whole generation of folklorists.
John’s contribution to Australian folk lore, heritage and tradition
was recognised by an Order of Australia Medal in 1987
(for which much of the original version of this item comprised the citation)
and, in 1992, he was made a Companion of this Order.
John Meredith opened our eyes to the unsuspected wealth of real Australian tradition
and heritage that has never been recognised or embraced by the authorities.
Along the way he taught all the newer collectors what there was,
how to find it and how to collect it - and taught the rest of us how to sing and play it.
John’s other legacy (besides the great body of song, music and folk lore
now lodged with the National Library of Australia) is the dedicated body of collectors
that are carrying on the work he started.
They will miss him, we will miss him but we are all grateful for a lifetime of dedicated work.
|John Meredith,||Folk Songs Of Australia,||(1st Edition), Ure Smith,||pp. 13 - 20.|
|Alan Scott,||Mulga Wire #14, Aug. 1979,|| Let’s Hear It For Merro,||pp. 5 & 6.|
|John Meredith,||Mulga Wire #17, Feb. 1980,||In The Beginning..........||pp. 5 - 10.|
|Alan Scott,||Mulga Wire #22, Dec. 1980,||The Bushwhackers, part 1,||pp. 3 & 4.|
|Alan Scott,||Mulga Wire #23, Feb. 1981,||The Bushwhackers, part 2,||pp. 4 & 5.|
|Alan Scott,||Mulga Wire #24, Apr. 1981,||The Bushwhackers, part 3,||pp. 3 & 4.|
email from Rob Willis - 9th April 2013
Image taken in Holbrook Museum of John playing ‘Pop Craythorn’s
Accordion’ similar to one that John played in early days.
Rob Willis photo
Pop Craythorn was
a local musician who had a large impact on Merro’s music as he let
him play the extras at dances and sit in with him when he was a kid.
Meredith played this accordion on numerous occasions at dances. So this
one of the first. A friend of John's in the Hunter has the Hohner that
he used in the Bushwhackers and early days.
father’s Mezon was held together with gum and was very battered according to
John. So it would not have survived.
pictured (in the main article above) is mine and is similar to John’s father's. It was given to me by
Merro as a gift – he had been given it by John McKinnon of Ecklin. His
comment on many occasions was "I have had my enjoyment with this so I give it to
you to enjoy – when you have finished pass it on to someone else" Many treasures
were given to me with this comment. John also gave Sally Sloane a couple of
accordions that Merro and I are playing are our ‘travelling’ accordions that we
took on many field trips. Busilachio in the key of C. Both were
obtained from people we recorded – mine from Jack Smith of Forbes (grey) his
(red) from Ollie Moore of Swan Hill. I still have mine with the original case
and a Holbrook sticker pasted on it.
Rob Willis photo
I have in
my private collection the book he wrote about his bicycle trip complete with
photos – no accordion there.
He did not
have an accordion when he went to Melbourne but after coming back to Sydney and
going to EYL camps in Springwood where they sang – yes sang the tunes to dances
(the beginnings of what is known as bush dance) he purchased a “squeaky little
Italian accordion” which he may have used in the early Bushwhackers as
Hood always said they had to sing high. Then came the Hohner that's now in the Hunter.
above information from my various sporadic field recordings of John and our
lengthy discussions while on the track.