Sunday 28 February 2016

Extracts from Singabout - the early songwriters - Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) & Merv Lilley (1919-2016 )

Click on pictures for full-screen image

The Bush Music Club published many new songs & poems in Singabout, Journal of Australian Folk Song between 1956 and 1967. This series lists the works of these songwriters and poets and provides biographical information where possible.

 Interview with Merv Lilley by Alex & Annette Hood, held in the National Library
  • Alex Hood talks about Merv's songs, published by the Bush Music Club; a misunderstanding with John Meredith; how he met Dorothy Hewett; meeting Zoe O'Leary from "Realist Writers"; advice given about how to write; meeting Dorothy in Melbourne when she wrote "Bobbin Up"; being regarded as a "Revisionist"; the Australasian Book Society; being asked by Dorothy to go to Perth to learn to write poetry; communicating through John Meredith.
  • Merv Lilley is a well known writer of prose and verse. His connections with progressive left wing artists and writers, along with his years of experience working around the country as a farm labourer, cane cutter, station hand, seaman and professional boxer have given his writings an authentic and penetrating quality, which show him to be a true chronicler of his life and times. His working partnership with Dorothy Hewett forged a common concern and love for the Australia of the working people. He has been very active in writers' organisations and many of his poems have been set to music and are part of many singers' repertoires.


VIDEOS - A Lyrical Afternoon at Varuna, The Writers' House Katoomba, In celebration of the life and work of Norman Talbot, Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley was held on the 15th September 2012.

A Celebration of the Life and Work of Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002)
A Celebration of the Life and Work of Merv Lilley by his daughter
Wikipedia article on Dorothy Hewett 

Dorothy Hewett with seashell (photo courtesy of Rozanna Lilley) 
 An unbridled rage to live Dorothy Hewett: poet, playwright, novelist and bohemian, 1923 - 2002. Obit - Sydney Morning Herald
Rozanna Lilley's album of family photos on Flickr

Merv Lilley & Dorothy Hewett (photo courtesy of Rozanna Lilley)
Biography of Merv Lilley on The Vulgar Press website

Merv Lilley, age 96 years (photo courtesy of Rozanna Lilley)

Obit by Patrick Cornish, The West Australian, 28th September 2016

Eulogy by Rozanna Lilley


Dorothy Hewett

Ballad of Norman Brown by Dorothy Hewett  (tune - the Collier Laddie), Singabout 2(3)

From Jennie Richards, former BMC member, August 2020

I've just been reading December 1957 Singabout on the blog & hadn't realised that Dorothy Hewitt's poem about Norman Brown was published so early. Have I told you that Norman Brown was my first cousin once removed? Norman's mother Laura, and my maternal grandmother Edith, were sisters. My mother was only 5 when Norman died; my middle name is Grace after Norman's sister Dorothy Grace Kidd (Laura had Norman when she was 17 and unmarried, she later married Albert Kidd and they had Dorothy Grace) who died at 15.

Mum often spoke of both Norman and Gracie - Dorothy Grace seems to have been called Gracie - I think she was close to Auntie Laura. Poor Laura; in her mid 40s she had lost both of her children young and in sad circumstances. I don't remember Laura, she died when I had just turned one.

There's always a family story behind every tragedy, even one that makes the history books.

First time I realised that was in December 1979; I had just put Doug to bed and caught the tail end of a story on ABC news about miners marching to a memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Norman's death. I rang them and they read out the full story to me, and that's when it hit me - that this was bigger than just a story which had come down in my family.

The first time Kevin and I went to a BMC night ... would have been in about the mid 80s ... Margaret Walters sang that song, I had never known of it. I introduced myself and told of my connection, which they found interesting.

It's an odd feeling - difficult to describe - that something in your family you have grown up knowing about is considered "history", in fact a very important part of labour history, as it's the only time police have fired on demonstrating workers in Australia. Before we left Sydney we saw an exhibition called "Policing the Depression" at the Police and Justice Museum near Circular Quay; part of it was devoted to the industrial trouble on the Hunter Valley coalfields in the 1920s, including Norman's death.

Jennie also sings Graham Seal's The country knows the rest, another song about Norman Brown.


Merv Lilley  (8 songs)

Singabout 1(1), p.7

Cane Killed Abel
by Merv Lilley    Music: Chris Kempster, Singabout 1(1)

We Gave A Fair Go by Merv Lilley, another version of his popular Ho - Give a Go. Singabout 1(1)

The Bushwhackers
singing Ho Give A Fair Go at the first Singabout night, 1955

Left to right - Harry Kay (mouth organ), Brian Loughlin (lagerphone), Alec Hood, Jack Barrie, with John Meredith (accordion) behind Alec. 
Singabout 1(1), p.5, published January 1956.

The first Singabout night was held sometime between October & early December 1955 on a very rainy night (source - December 1955 Newsletter)

The Farmer up a Tree
by Merv Lilley (tune Jimmy Riddle) Singabout 1(1)

Bound for Darling Harbour
by Merv Lilley, Singabout 1(1)

Eight Bells by Merv Lilly   (tune - Ring the Bell, watchman), Singabout 1(2)

The Rona's Last Trip by Merv Lilley   Music: John Arcot, Singabout 1(4)

Definitely Barred by Merv Lilley, Singabout 3(1)

Farewell Snowy Lamb - words, Merv Lilley, (tune - The Dying Stockman), Singabout 3(2)

Mulga Wire, no. 153, Singabout insert, 4 pages, October 2002.



  1. It's just wonderful to know of these old songs,to a new chum like myself.I'd like to hear them.Any recordings available?

    1. Micheal, some songs have been recorded, & I've contacted the family to see if they know of recordings of the others.

      The 3 traditional tunes used could be found in tune books, or online. John Arcott's is unlikely to be found online, but a musician could play it & Chris Kempster's tunes for you.

      Ballad of Norman Brown
      Recorded by John Thompson
      Recorded by Tony Suttor, 1974 - MP3 of LP Men of the Earth, 1974. John Thompson's blog has recordings of 365 Australian songs.

      Cane killed Abel music by Chris Kempster (Google has lots of biblical references!)

      Give a Fair Go
      Mark Gregory's Folkstream website has a complete listing of Wattle Recordings, but record A4 The Bushwhackers - Give a Fair Go/Rabbiter might not have been issued

      The Farmer up a Tree (traditional tune Jimmy Riddle)

      Bound for Darling Harbour (Roaring Forties CD, Life of Brine, 2009

      Eight Bells (tune Ring the bell watchman)

      The Rona's Last Trip (music by John Arcott)

      Farewell Snowy Lamb (tune The Dying Stockman)

  2. Bunch of songs I've never heard. But apart from Cane Killed Abel does not include any of the best, the ones I have been singing round the country for 55 years Merv Lilley, music Bill Berry.

    Birchgrove Park, Anti Fouling Roll, Pickup Shed
    or the better Berry tune for Sailor Home From the Sea

    Joe Flood, stepson.

  3. Thanks, Joe, when I was looking for recordings I used the list of songs/poems BMC had published.

    I'd appreciate a list of all Merv's songs. I've found 3 songs on Dominic Berry's youtube page 'Big Cane on the Burdekin', 'Sugar Park' & 'Birchgrove Park' as well as your mother's 'Sailor home from the sea'

  4. Hm looks like he was getting them published as early as 1955. Interesting.

  5. he was one of our early members

  6. To a new chum to bush music ,like myself ,it's good to receive your website history.Alas ,no sound of those tunes is a downer. I hope to hear them soon. Thanks.

  7. adding tunes is not something I can do as I don't know them but other groups have posted many tunes!
    Bush Traditions is BMC's youngest sibling (est. 2006) -
    Victorian Folk Music Club was established in 1959 as Bush Music Club Victoria -
    if you are in Sydney come along to our Monday night workshops