Thursday 17 September 2020

Folk Songs of Australia and the men and women who sang them - Celebrating the centenary of John Meredith's birth. Script - Part 1

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Proposed Themed Presentation for 2020 National Folk Festival which was cancelled due to Covid19.  Part 1 by Dale Dengate

Link to  Part 2

FOLK SONGS OF AUSTRALIA and the men and women who sang them. This concert commemorates John Meredith, (1920-2001) who was a founder of the Bush Music Club. He was an innovative collector beginning his search for bush songs and traditional music of Australia In the 1950s; John continued collecting until the 1980s. John's friends Dale Dengate and Chris Woodland will present items collected from Duke Tritton, Sally Sloane and John Dengate with the assistance of Ralph Pride, Kerith Power & Molly Ellis.

Acknowledge the traditional owners of this land as did John Meredith in his book, written in 1988, about Moyengully, a tribal elder from Gundungurra, and about his people from the lands in the southern highlands acknowledging them as first peoples of this country.

Thanks to Helen, Tony Romeo, members of the BMC saplings and Youth Band who were to play two of Sally Sloane’s dance tunes: Jack’s Waltz and Annie Shaw’s Waltz. These were two of the hundreds of tunes collected by John Meredith from Sally Sloane. Sally learnt Jack’s Waltz from John Montford of Molong and Annie Shaw was a neighbor who played this tune on a piano when her boyfriend came to visit. He played the tune on his fiddle, but from early days, Sally always called it Annie Shaw’s Waltz.  Molly Jane Ellis, longtime folkie, led the waltzes, and had practised with Kerith and myself to sing Sally Sloane’s songs and support other singers.

The other musicians who were to perform in this Tribute to John Meredith, who was born a hundred years ago, in 1920 -

My old mate Chris Woodland whom I met in the 1960s at the BMC.

John Meredith, Virginia & Chris Woodland (Chris & Virginia Woodland Collection)

He will tell you about collecting with Merro, as John Meredith asked his friends to call him, and about Duke Tritton.    link to Chris's contributions 
Ralph Pride, who came into the BMC later in the 1960s after hearing Pete Seeger and Duke Tritton sing in 1963. At the BMC, he heard John Dengate singing a new song every week about current affairs, in traditional style, which later Merro recorded. Ralph created our Program/songbook and will sing a couple of Duke’s and John’s songs and share a few of his memories.

Ralph in his hut at Meadowbank Dam, Tas, 1966-67 (Pride family albums)

It was John D and my good fortune to share our slightly rebellious youth full of idealism, with Merro.

John & Dale, 1964 with Jamie Carlin & Frank Maher behind (Dale Dengate collection)

With my memory refreshed by Merro’s meticulous files in the NLA archives and a recording by Chris Woodland, who with his wife Virginia, shared our tradition of celebrating Merro’s birthdays in January, I am going to refer to the first and last stories he shared with us.

Page from the Meredith Collection, NLA (Dale Dengate)

Although most of you know of John Meredith’s contribution to Australian traditional music it would be true to say without his initiative today’s folk festivals would just be another music festival. When Merro started to look for and collect Australian folksongs, the impact of recorded music, much of it from USA, was having a strong impact on what was being listening to by the youth. Sally Sloane expressed this sentiment to Merro in the 1950s and 60s, saying most of her family were embarrassed by her songs and wanted to listen to what was on the wireless.

Collectors such as Meredith realized they were in a race against time and even death to find these people and their songs. There was little public awareness or money to fund these collecting and publishing ventures, but this did not deter him.

But let me share the story Merro told us on his 78th birthday, He read his biographical story called  'The Last Noel’ which I will share with you, so from now on the ‘I’ will refer to Merro.

I am no longer a Christian, but it was not always so. In my early days, I had a religious upbringing including becoming a Sunday school teacher and a leader in the young Anglican group. However, I enrolled in a correspondence course in chemistry and physics and became enthralled with scientific experiments such as Rutherford’s splitting the atom. I was able to increase my mathematical and science knowledge by borrowing books from the State library country lending service. As a result, I started to question the concept of a Christian god. Just before turning 21, I told my mother: I don’t believe in god,

She was horrified and lectured me non-stop. Eventually I agreed to accompany my mother to 6.30 AM Xmas church service. Then she said that I also had to play with my violin teacher at the Xmas eve carol service. When I arrived with my teacher we realized the organ was tuned a semi-tone lower, so had to hurriedly retune violins. As it was a hot night, the fans were tuned on which blew out the candles so we were unable to see the music. But we struggled steadfastly to the final hymn, which was ‘The First Noel’. I thought to myself: That is the Last Noel for me. As I came out of church my sister-in-law met me with ‘That was bloody awful! Take your fiddle home and get your squeeze box and come round to your brother’s place as he is putting on a nine gallon keg of beer.” It was a great night but I passed out on a bed covered by a white goat skin rug. It was not until a church bell awoke me that I realized I must hurry to join mother at church. She was not impressed with her disheveled son’s appearance at church, with white hairs over his navy herringbone suit She continued to lecture me over breakfast, and continued with dire warnings as I left on a long bike ride to explore Australia.

After pedaling over 100 miles, I had lunch with my other brother. Then I continued to an afternoon tea invitation.

Merro describes how he rode over the hills toward a lovely young school teacher who was staying at her mother’s place over the holidays. Margaret had a bowl of chilled water and towel ready to cool him after his long ride and a perfect afternoon tea set up. He even describes the little iced cup cakes and as he left the mother gave him a chaste hug and kiss on his cheek, but Margaret came out to the gate to see him on his way. She gave him a less chaste kiss. As he pedaled on his way with his romantic thoughts Margaret called: Take care and God bless.

Merro, as an atheist of twelve hours, realized he was head over heels in love with a devout Catholic girl. He ends with: I could see life ahead was going to have its problems. But that was another story…..

When Merro first set out in 1950s, with his heavy tape recorder there was no financial government support, but the wheels, of later support from NLA, had been put in motion.

In the late 1940s, the Assistant Librarian, Harold White began to lobby the PM Ben Chifley about oral history as a unique record which sustains a democratic purpose. In those days, Canberra was a small town and it was possible for White to meet the PM informally at Saturday afternoon teas and discuss the possibility of tape recording workers and other less official people about their experiences. Chifley warmed to this idea as a democratic way of recording history. In 1950s, when White became National Librarian, he was impressed by Oral history research projects in USA. However, it was not until 1963, that the National Library made the acquisition of Meredith’s folklore collection and White regarded it as the first great oral history formed collection that he ever bought for the National Library. It totaled more than 600 field recordings of poems, tales, customs, beliefs, forms of speech as well as music and songs all gathered from men and women around NSW. Although Merro retired for a while, in 1983, he decided to start a second phase and the Library started a new policy to fund long term folklore projects.

I am going to read an extract from a Report John Meredith wrote in 1955. It raised important issues to be addressed by the Bushwhackers Conference. This indicates Meredith’s philosophy at the time and the aims that influenced the BMC, and many arguments. Merro wrote:

During the first twelve months of their existence the Bushwhackers showed good development….and made good progress towards raising our work to a higher level such as performing to a very broad cross section of the community, broadcasting and recording.

During the past six months we have made no progress of any note… We have stagnated...we must decide today if we are going to be driven apart by the present weaknesses in the group/…

We must regard ourselves as in the spearhead of the battle for national cultural independence. Writers, playwrights all play a big role in this struggle, but we above all others must see that a song is a more powerful weapon and has a more lasting effect on the masses than a story, poem or play.

Some Bushwhackers don’t seem to realize this fully, the importance of the work they are doing and are inclined to treat performances as a bit of a joke – a chance to let off steam and to make big fellows of themselves before audiences/…

The aim of the Bushwhackers is not just to sing old songs for their own sake – a sort of sentimental dipping into the past, but are to:

1. Reclaim from oblivion Australian traditional songs as something national that can replace imported commercial music

2. To use these songs as basic material for folk music on a higher level such as classical composition, drama and ballet. Seamen, wharfies, factory workers and miners could be the focus of the songs.

3. To demonstrate to modern industrial workers how they can create their own folk culture, as part of the Aussie tradition with an extension into the city life of 1950s.

4. There is further instruction about the style of the traditional folk singers and to leave the harmonizing in choral arrangements to choirs such as the People’s choir.

 I thought Sally Sloane was an old lady when I first heard her singing and playing her fiddle or accordion – one of those Mezon Grand Organ models, at Bush Music Club Singabouts in 1960s.

But everything is relative. She had a very clear, high pitched voice. In fact, she had two singing voices depending whether the song might be considered an ‘old song’ which she had usually learnt from her mother, or a ‘stage song’ often learnt from her grand-mother, a trained singer who came as a free settler from Ireland, She learnt songs from others in her community and always gave acknowledgement to the singer, as did Merro.

The story of Merro collecting over 150 musical items from Sally is fascinating. Merro recalled his first meeting with Fred Sloane after the Bushwhackers had performed at Lithgow, NSW in 1954. Fred was a cocky fellow, who said: If you want old songs you ought to see my missus…she’ll sing them all night once she gets going. Merro was dubious, but Fred was not joking and Sally was able to sing and recall her repertoire over the many occasions that Merro visited with his heavy state-of-the-art for those days, tape recorder. Sally invariably sang as she washed up. When Merro asked her: What was that song? She couldn’t remember as like most women, she sang to accompany her work, but not about the work as shearers certainly have done.

Sally Sloan presiding over a birthday party, Lithgow c.1943. The photo was supplied by the guest at bottom right, next door neighbour Judy, who does not remember much about the day. (Judy O'Connor collection, 4/9/20)
The occasion was a birthday party for someone in Sally’s family. Our memories (and our parents comments) was that she was a cranky, difficult neighbour! I remember feeling pretty unhappy at being there and my sister was obviously not asked (which was not very neighbourly.)  As you can see from the photo – it was not a wildly festive affair! I think the older woman seated on the left was her mother. For some reason, I seem to remember that. I mention it because it is of more than passing interest because from what I gather, it was Sally’s mother who passed on all the Irish songs etc. that she has become famous for.

Photo of Granny Clegg, Sally's mother here apparently cropped from the same photo, one of the many photos in Valda Low's 2012 article Who is Sally Sloane? 

'It was like looking for a needle in a haystack’, I recall Merro saying when his book Frank, the Poet, co-researched with Rex Whalan, Librarian at State Library, came out, Well, it has been the opposite trying to edit all Merro’s material, the folk songs of Australia and the men and women who sang them.

John Meredith was a Renaissance man: a musician, writer, photographer, raconteur and a bon vivant.


Bookplate drawn by John Dengate (Dale, email 12/4/20)

He was interested in so much from propagating unusual plants to researching esoteric literature and folk lore from around the world. We can’t cover all this in our short hour, but hope to have whet your appetite to learn more.

Jan Fallding photos - gathering salad for lunch, & photographing wattle at Mount Annan

Viewing wattle bloom –
The hills, valleys and the roads,
All alight with gold!    
haiku written by Merro 17 August 1999 after the visit to Mount Annan,

R. Dale Dengate

Finale - 

The relevance of singing J.D’s Farewell and Adieu was that Merro enjoyed J.D’s protest songs and  anti-Joh with strong criticism, but No swearing, songs. He especially liked the use of traditional ‘Farewell’ songs including ‘Farewell and adieu to you Brisbane Ladies’ It is a fine example of parody and Ralph and I felt it had a great chorus to sing as the penultimate song.

Queensland Medley - Farewell to Joh.  Tune: Brisbane Ladies - Augathella Station

Farewell and adieu to the Premier of Queensland
Farewell and adieu and goodbye to Sir Joh
You useless old bastard, too long you have lasted
Now your mates have decided that you have to go.

Chorus - You ranted and roared at the reds and the greenies,
You ranted and roared at the black and the white;

You postured and strutted, just like Mussolini ...
Now your mates have betrayed you and that serves you right.

You pineapple vandal, they've snuffed out your candle,
Get back to your peanuts, you senile old sod;
Take Flo and her pumpkins, you great pair of bumpkins,
You can start playing lawn bowls and stop playing God.


You Lutheran pastor cum paw paw disaster
You Darling Downs despot, you Kingaroy clown
Get back to your tractor, you seventh rate actor
You pious, hypocritical, adjective noun.

Stick that up your jumper, you old Bible-thumper,
You second-rate Hitler, you goose-stepping goose;
The poisonous old cane toad's in gone-down-the-drain mode,
Like a dribble of Bundaberg sugar cane juice.


Tune changes to It's a Long Way to Tipperary

It's a long way to Cunnamulla, it's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Cunnamulla on the River Warrago.
I know there's been a gerrymander and I know it isn't fair.
But I have to rely on Cunnamulla, they vote for me there.
After some devastating serves to Joh B-J, John had just about run out of ‘Dengate expletives’ but ‘adjective noun’, with the innuendo of too terrible to say it, always gets a laugh. (email from Dale, 15/04/20)

to be followed by The Melbourne Medley

What does the Melbourne do on a cruise from Jervis Bay?
She sails on the briny blue with the Voyager in the way.
So it’s hard a-port for who’d’ve thought on a peaceful summer’s night.
A destroyer would sail and a carrier fail to give way on the right.

Oh, the weather was fair for a Boson’s chair so the Captain went for a ride.
He piped all hands to elastic bands as it loomed on the starboard side.
“A ship” cries he “It’s the enemy! Whatever shall I do?”
So they cut her in half just for a laugh, and drowned one third of the crew.

Box the compass, port the helm and all that nautical stuff.
The whistle blew and the Captain flew to the bridge in an awful huff,
Crying East by West is the course that’s best, so come on all you men.
There was great distress in the officer’s mess that night in the RAN.

So, sing with Pride of the suicide and cheer for the Commonwealth.
Who needs a war? There’s a wind off-shore, we’ll go and sink our-self.

HMAS Melbourne goes sailing the world,
With her radar antenna and her ensign unfurled.
Here is a fact that I’m sure will astound,
The Melbourne goes over what the others go ‘round.

And it’s duck for cover, quickly before she arrives,
Here comes the Melbourne my jolly brave tars,
So swim, swim for your lives.

There’s a man on the Melbourne and he gets double pay,
His job is to keep shouting “Out of the way”.
Sing ho for a carrier out on the blue,
If you get in their way they will cut you in two.

All you destroyers take warning by me,
Beware for the Melbourne is out on the sea.
Subs go below, planes above and it’s true,
Most ships go around but the Melbourne goes through.



Songbook cover 


Songbook contents


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