Saturday 27 January 2018

Article in "People" magazine 11th January 1956

Click on pictures for full-screen image


A group of youngsters on the track of
dinkum Australian folk songs is still busily …

AUSTRALIAN idiom, as used by the ordinary man, the shearer, the drover or the motor mechanic, is rich and earthy and quite different from the vernacular of other English-speaking countries. It is highly imaginative. The old-time bullocky, piling expletive on expletive as he harangued his straining team, demonstrated this quality.
The vigor and inventiveness of Australian expression is revealed, in the bush ballads and yarns, passed down from generation to generation. In one improper, but well-known ballad, the somewhat tarnished hero shows typical verbal resource. Asked if he is prepared to lead a life of idleness and sin, he replies, "My silver-mounted, nickel-plated, flamin' oath, I would."
The same characteristically Australian tang pervades this description of Bullocky Bill, in another old ballad from the eastern Riverina.
A better, poor old beggar
Never cracked an honest crust;
A tougher, poor old beggar
Never drug a whip through dust.
Old songs recorded
Humorous exaggeration is another quality in the folk songs and stories of Australia. It is the essence of the tale about the cow cocky who was trying to impress the prospective buyer of a cow'
"Is she a good rnilker? Cripes, if you stripped her two front teats, she'd tip over backwards."
A few people still sing the old songs and spin the old yarns, but the number grows smaller each year The Australian Folk Lore Society is anxious to gather in this traditional material as quickly as possible — before it is forgotten. Some elderly people, who, gave the society items two years ago have died. Their voices, singing the songs they learned in their youth, are preserved, on tape recordings.
John Meredith, secretary of the society, recalls an attempt to collect songs about Ned Kelly from a Mrs. Barrie, of Beechworth, Victoria, a descendant of Aaron Sherritt, boyhood friend of the bushranger. (Dan Kelly later shot him as a police informer). "We sent her a letter," he says, "but it came back stamped 'addressee deceased.' I went to Beechworth and Mrs. Barrie's four daughters told me their mother had sung many ballads about Ned Kelly. No-one could remember the words."
Ballads inspired poets
Since the Folk Lore Society was formed in Sydney in 1953 it has recorded on tape nearly 600 folk songs and tunes from Sydney, Newcastle and Lithgow.
Mrs. Sloane, of Toronto, NSW, (formerly of Lithgow) gave the society 70 old bush songs and Irish ballads, sung into the outback. Mrs. Sloane says that the midwife at her birth was a sister of Ben Hall, the bushranger.

Meredith and two other Sydney men, librarian Edgar Walters (now in England) and PMG technician Jeffrey Way, were chiefly responsible for founding the society. Meredith is also leader of the Bushwhackers Band, a small group which specialises in bush songs.
A lanky, soft-spoken man, Meredith first heard traditional Australian songs during his youth in Holbrook, NSW. His father, a shearer and station hand, taught him to play them, on a button accordion. At 24 he gave up his job as a chemist's dispenser and went to Melbourne. Later he spent a year cycling through Victoria, NSW and Queensland, "getting to know the country." He has worked as a hop-picker, corn-picker, fruit-picker, rabbiter and snake-catcher (at Bigga, NSW, for Sydney and Melbourne zoos). Now 35, he is a drug counter hand.
Meredith has filled several spring-back files with material on Australian folk songs, tunes and stories. He points out that folk song has provided inspiration for writers Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Tom Collins, and composers like Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Australian Percy Grainger.
Professional ballad singers, such as American Burl Ives, have spent years collecting folk songs. So have men like American poet Carl Sandburg and British politician Kenneth Younger, who visited Australia recently. The Bushwhackers Band played several bush songs for Younger.
The folk song is of ethnological, as well as literary interest, fore through it can be traced the movement of peoples. The melodies of many Australian songs were brought from Ireland by early settlers. Other Australian songs originated in England, Wales, Scotland, Germany and America.
"Whisky in the jar"
There's Whisky in the Jar, one of the songs collected by the society, is a good example of those of Irish derivation. It goes:
As I was a-crossin' the Abercrombie Mountains,
I met Sir Frederick Pottinger, and his money he was countin'.
I first drew me blunderbuss and then I drew me sabre,
Sayin', "Stand and deliver, O! for I'm your bold decayver."
With my mush-a-ring-a-dah
There's whisky in the jar!
The Wild Colonial Boy, probably the best known of all the Australian folk songs, is sung also in America, Canada, Nova Scotia and Ireland. In one American version, the hero is called the Wild Colloina Boy. Although the action is placed in Australia the song has American lines referring to "riding on the prairie" and "listening to the mocking birds".
Meredith believes the ballad originated in Australia and was taken abroad later, perhaps by gold miners. But it may have come from Ireland. In all versions the Wild Colonial Boy was born in Castlemaine. Whether this is Castlemaine in Ireland or Castlemaine in Victoria is not clear. Cottages in both towns are pointed out as the birthplace of the Colonial Boy.


Meredith knows 20 Australian versions and says there may be more. The usual tune is an old Irish air. But it is also sung to The Wearing of the Green, and Rise Up Now, Willie Riley.
It is doubtful whether The Wild Colonial Boy is an original song. Meredith believes it is derived from an earlier ballad, Bold Jack Donahue. Donahue was a real person, an Irish convict, transported to Australia in 1825 at 18. He escaped and turned bushranger, operating between Five Islands (now Wollongong) on the coast and the New Country (now Bathurst district) inland. He was shot dead by soldiers and mounted police near Bringelly, NSW, in September, 1830. Bold Jack Donahue resembles The Wild Colonial Boy in several details. Both have been sung to the same tunes and in some versions the Wild Colonial Boy is called Jack Donahue. In every version Meredith has seen, the name of the wild colonial has the same initials as Jack Donahue — J.D. In some he is called Jack Doolan and in others Jack Davis (Nova Scotia), Jack Dollard and Jack Dulan (America), Jack Dowling and Jack Dubbin (Ireland), Jack Dowlin (Canada) and Jack Donovan. "That string of JD's suggests something more than mere coincidence," comments Meredith.
But why should Bold Jack Donahue be turned into The Wild Colonial Boy? Meredith believes a footnote in the Historical Records of Australia provides a clue. The footnote records that the singing of Bold Jack Donahue was once banned because it incited contempt of the law. "I think people got around the ban," says Meredith, "by changing Jack Donahue into the Colonial Boy."
The late Cecil Sharp, an authority on British folk songs, contended that folk songs were written initially by individuals, but were changed, sometimes almost beyond recognition, in passing from one person to another.
Bushranger ballad
People who took up the songs changed parts, sometimes because they did nor like them and sometimes because they had mistaken the original words. In time the songs became community expressions. This process can be soon in an Australian ballad about the bushranger Frank Gardiner. One version, given to the society' by Mrs. I. Popplewell, of Darlington, Sydney, says:
And as for Johnny Gilbert,
Near Ben along was found.
Another version, found in Brisbane Public Library by Mrs Nancy Keesing, gives:
And as for Johnny Gilbert,
Near Benalong was found.
This was taken to mean that Gilbert was found near the spot where Ben Hall had died. Then Meredith checked up. Gilbert was actually killed at Binalang, 100 miles from Forbes, where Hall died. "This seems a typical case of a song changing through someone mistaking the words," says Meredith.
Sometimes new folk songs are created by parodying old ones. Meredith says that Click Go The Shears, an Australian shearers' song revived by the Bushwhackers, is a parody of an American Civil War song, Ring The Bell Watchman. The first two lines of the Australian song are:
Out on the boards the old shearer stands,
Grasping the shears in his thin, bony hands.
They bear an obvious resemblance to those of the American ballad:
High in the belfry the old sexton stands,
Grasping the rope in his thin, bony hands.
Waltzing Matilda, the famous Patterson ballad which has become almost a national anthem, is now believed to be derived from The Bold Fusilier, an 18th century English song, whose verses end, "Who'll come a-soldiering for Marlborough with me." An elderly Lithgow man told Meredith that his father learned The Bold Fusilier as a boy in the Monaro district of NSW, where Patterson grew up. "Patterson may have learned the song as a child" says Meredith, "and unconsciously borrowed from it when writing Waltzing Matilda."
Meredith also questions whether Jack Moses' well-known poem Nine Miles From Gundagai is entirely original. He suggests it may have been inspired by Bullocky Bill, a bush ballad traced back to 1859, the year before Moses' birth. The last verses of Bullocky Bill are:
His team got bogged on the Five Mile Creek.
Bill lashed and swore and cried,
"If Nobbie don't get me out of this
I'll tan his bloody hide."
But Nobbie strained and broke the yoke
And poked out the leader's eye,
Then the dog sat on the tucker box
Five miles from Gundagai.
Hatred of oppression
In contrast to the rustic ballads, which are concerned mainly with things prosaic, are the many songs about the Australian bushrangers. These are more inclined to philosophise and often express hatred of oppression and love of liberty. The chorus of some versions of The Wild Colonial Boy, and Bold Jack Donahue, is a good illustration. It goes:
Then come all my hearties! We'll roam the mountains high;
Together we will plunder — together we will die!
We'll wander over valleys and gallop over plains.
For we scorn to live in slavery, bound down with iron chains.

Gallant Peter Clarke takes a look at the other side of the picture. The ballad tells how Peter Clarke (a real person), shot by a bushranger, strangled his assailant in his death grip. Mrs. Barbara Lisyak, assistant secretary of the society, is a grand-niece of Peter Clarke. Her mother has a family notebook in which there is a graphic description of the murder of Clarke by the bushranger Harry Wilson.
One of the quaintest of Australian folk songs is The Dead Horse. This is a seaman's song about a ceremony they used to perform at sea. At one time it was common for seamen to draw a month's advance of wages while in Port. For a month after they returned to sea they received no money. During this period they were said to be "riding the dead horse". At the end of the month they celebrated their release from penury by "burying the dead horse." Tossing overboard a cork model horse, they sang:
I say old man, your horse is dead;
We say so, and we hope so;
I say old man, your horse is dead,
Poor old man!
The Drover's Dream, collected by the society from "Mac" McCulloch, of Lithgow. is interesting because it mentions some of the instruments used in the old bush bands:
Then three frogs from off the swamp,
Where the atmosphere is damp,
Came in and sat themselves down on some stones.
They then unrolled their swags
And produced from out their bags
The violin, the banjo and the bones.
The bones, specially cured bullock's ribs about 6in long, are used in the Bushwhackers Band. Alec Hood, the bones player, gets his ribs from a Kings Cross butcher, who now displays a sign describing himself as "supplier of bones to the Bushwhackers Band."
The Bushwhackers have two other bizarre instruments, the lagerphone and the bush bass. The lagerphone, a broomstick and crosspiece studded with beer bottle tops, produces a jingling sound, something like that of a big tamborine, when shaken.

Turkish crescent
Meredith says the lagerphone has been traced back to 14th century Turkey. The Turks of that period played a similar instrument — the Turkish crescent or jingle, a short staff; with a crescent crosspiece and a pagoda-shaped top. Bells hung from the points of the crescent and the corners of the pagoda and the staff was studded with tarnborine jingles. The Turkish crescent was taken to England, where it became known as Jingling Johnny. In the 18th century it was used in army pipe and drum bands. Meredith believes Jingling Johnny was brought to Australia in the early days of settlement and was converted into the lagerphone by bush musicians who were unable to obtain the proper jingles.
The bush bass is an empty tea chest with a stick in the centre and a sash cord, wire or bass string strung from the top of the stick to the edge of the chest. When plucked it makes a deep, resonant sound. Meredith believes the bush bass was originally a seaman's instrument. New Guinea natives have a similar instrument, made from a four-gallon drum.
The Bushwhackers Band wants to wean Australians away from imported pop music and draw them back to the folk music of their own country. Despite the different tempo of life today, says Meredith, "people still enjoy listening to the old bush tunes." The few examples of contemporary folk song unearthed by the Folk Lore Society include a ballad about Les Darcy, set to the tune of Way Down Tennessee, and some other ditties set to pop tunes.
"Half the good folk song's came from shearers and bullockies," says Meredith. "They sang to entertain themselves. Now the truck driver gets entertainment from a radio in his dashboard, and the shearers, also, carry radios around with them. But there are signs that a new type of folk lore is growing up around some of the modern mechanical workers. The tales about long-distance truck drivers have reached almost legendary proportions and one day may form the basis of new folk songs."
Caption 3: The Bushwhackers Band want to bring Australians back to their own national folk music. From left: Chris Kempster, leader John Meredith, Harry Kay (mouth organ) Alec Hood (bones), Alan Scott (tin whistle), Jack Barrie (bush bass), Cec Grieves (lagerphone).

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