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 2

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Proposed Themed Presentation for 2020 National Folk Festival which was cancelled due to Covid19.  Part 2 by Chris Woodland

Link to Part 1 

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 Kerith Power & Molly Ellis.


Merro at Donahoe cave, 1965 photo by Chris Woodland 

TRAVELLING and COLLECTING WITH MERRO, to be presented Easter Sunday 12 April 2020, National Folk Festival, EPIC Canberra.

I would prefer to deliver this casually in a lounge room or around a campfire, but time is very short. Far too short to discuss a multifaceted man such as Merro.

Before I say anything further, I would like to pay tribute to our mutual mate Rob Willis who travelled more kilometres collecting with Merro than anyone else.

So here we go!

My later travels with Merro began when I semi-retired in the early 1990s.

Places We Visited - See the Woodland collection for photos of some of these events

The Upper Deua River out from the picturesque old gold town of Araluen where we spent a few days in an old slab hut for a while. In the early ‘60s we had spent many times singing, reciting and playing in the old traditional Araluen Hotel.

Bourke Beyond. These are some of the places we camped and visited in this part of the world. Bourke, Milparinka, Tibooburra, Camerons Corner, up the Strzelecki Track to Innamincka where we camped near the Dig Tree. At that camp on the banks of Cooper Creek – near the Dig Tree - we celebrated Henry Lawson’s birthday in the colourful reflection of the coolabah-framed sunset in the Cooper Creek. While going up the Strzelecki Merro asked …

To continue: Noccundra, Thargomindah, Hungerford, where we photographed each other expectorating over the dog fence - the border - into first NSW then Queensland, as the whingeing oldtimer did in Lawson’s classic short story titled Hungerford. Down the Paroo to Wanaaring to stop over at Salt Lake Station. It was here that Merro, at the age of 73, did his first job in a shearing shed. For a few days he swept the board while I picked-up and penned the sheep. With only two shearers it was not too difficult a time. Merro was elated with the experience.

Overall, we had several visits to Salt Lake and Numbardi stations where I had once worked.

Will Ogilvie’s hut. Merro had tracked down where Ogilvie’s old hut had been moved to from its original site. This took us through floodwaters south of Bourke then to an isolated station on our last shared road trip up near the Queensland border between Enngonia and Yantabulla. That was his last collecting trip, though he had hung up his microphone a few years earlier.

People I introduced Merro to and whom we interviewed.

Ted Winter: - Poet, veteran cross-country skier.

Rafe Howard of the Hunter Valley: - Who started as a packhorse mailman to finish up as owner of a trucking company with 17 trucks. Rafe was also a prominent member of the Australian Stockhorse Association.

Alan Barton: - member of an outback pioneering family well known to me. We interviewed him before he completed his book Stranger on the Darling based on Henry Lawson’s experience at Bourke and beyond. Alan was very talkative – so much so that Merro went to sleep during my interview of Alan!

Jim Kiley: - Old time drover, who won the Heritage Award at Tamworth in 1985 with his song When the Big Mobs Came to Bourke. We didn’t tell Jim, but Merro and I didn’t think the tune suited the lyrics. I have always performed it as a poem. Jim and Merro died four days apart and I wrote a eulogy for both in the next edition of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame newspaper, for which Merro and I were constant contributors.

The First Australians I knew and we interviewed.

Billy Gray and his sister Joan: - Now deceased, were very dear friends of mine. I had previously interviewed Billy over three days when he was staying in Canberra with Virginia and me. Merro and I stayed with them at Orange where Joanie lived. Billy was also visiting his sister at the time when we did another short interview.

Jack Guttie: – Was born at a bore on Innamincka Station in about 1932. As a baby he was carried on camels as his mother was a pack camel drover. He told us of a fellow Aboriginal drover who had a largeish carpet python that wriggled up his trouser leg during a dinner camp. Also how he was with a droving plant that delivered cattle to Bourke from the Queensland channel country when he was only 12 years of age; and of his tactical escape from the police who tried to remove him from the plant – and his mother ‘s care – when getting back to the Queensland border.

Billy Reid: - A proud Kamilaroi man. He was probably the best egg carver in Australia, emu egg, that is. He was a renowned leaf player using the native fig leaf rather than the traditional gum leaf. His ability is beautifully demonstrated in the opening of the documentary Lousy Little Sixpence. Bill was also a singer and played Tex Morton style guitar when singing.

Evelyn Crawford - Billy Gray’s aunt, co-author of her fascinating book Over My Tracks. In our interview she detailed the pathetic plight of the First Nation peoples who were taken from their homes in the Corner Country in the 1930s and taken almost 600 km on trucks to Brewarrina. It was at Bree where we interviewed Aunty Evelyn in her home. Merro enjoyed her playing of the squeeze box.

Remember that all these stories, and more, are available from the Australian National Library’s Folklore and Oral History Department.

Chris Woodland, 5/3/20.


Memories of DUKE TRITTON,  for John Meredith's Centenary,  Easter Sunday 12 April 2020, National Folk Festival, EPIC Canberra. 
photo of Duke by John Meredith
One day in early 1955 folklorist John Meredith received an excited phone call from Nancy Keesing, author and poet with the Bulletin. Keesing said that she and Russell Ward were collecting the words of old bush songs and had received a letter from an old shearer of Cullenbone with the entire words to a song which had proved very elusive over the years – even in the 1890s Banjo Paterson could find no more than a few lines to this song, called Goorianawa. This old bushman also claimed to know the tune to the song. She sent John the words to Goorianawa and said that she had passed on details of John’s interest to this old shearer. Nancy Keesing told John the man’s name was Duke Tritton.

John was taking no chances with this “find” and decided to write to the Duke himself. The day he wrote the letter Duke appeared at his door. After preliminaries, Merro put the tape recorder on and recorded the Duke singing 18 songs, including Goorianawa, Travelling Down the Castlereagh, The Shores of Botany Bay, Harry Dale the Drover and others. Duke offered to sing some of his own compositions, but John Meredith was something of a purist at that stage and declined the offer. We have the late Alan Scott to thank for taking on that rewarding responsibility.

By the way, this is how Nancy Keesing described Duke when he walked into her office, “… all handsome, white-haired, sunbaked, six feet, sixty-seven years of him. His nickname was not for nothing.” [a crushing handshake!]

Before long the Duke was accompanying John on his field trips, often giving him valuable information regarding possible performers. He joined the Bush Music Club where he would perform at the workshop evenings and became active with the concert party of the club. Duke remained a member of the BMC until his death in 1965 in his 79th year, and that was 55 years ago.

Duke was born Harold Percy Croydon Tritton in 1886 at a farm in Five Dock, Sydney. As a child he was known as ‘Little Croy’. Like many families in those hard times the Trittons were battlers.

In 1905, at the age of 19, Duke and his mate Dutchy Bishop set out to become shearers. They crossed the Great Dividing Range and got some work burr cutting near Quirindi. Soon they were jumping the rattler and arrived at Gunnedah where he earned the hardest 34 bob ($3.40 cents) in his life in a boxing bout with an Aboriginal lad. The match was a draw. It was his boxing ability that gave young Croy the title of Duke. In the same town they went outside the Catholic church on the Sunday and sang Ave Maria and Mother Machree, then around to the Church of England where they sang Abide With Me and Lead Kindly Light. Duke was a multi-skilled person before the term was invented! He became an all-round bush worker.

They had many hardships on the track like being thrown off a rattler on the western plains and having to walk 24 miles before finding water.

They loaded wool bales onto a river boat at Walgett, composing songs like Send Her Down Hughie, singing outside churches, boxing and got their first shearing experience at a place called Charlton. It was in that vicinity that Duke wrote Shearing in a Bar.

We don’t have sufficient time to go through all Duke’s travels and experiences, so I will just say a couple of more incidents.

Duke married Dot in 1909 and he worked with her brothers in the Mudgee district fencing, clearing, rabbiting and ringbarking.

He met his idol Henry Lawson in Mudgee in 1912. There was a hiccup there as Lawson insisted that teetotal Duke have a beer. The bard seemed quite happy when Duke got a beer and sat there without touching it throughout their yarning.

When the First World War began Duke went to enlist and was rejected because he had “flat feet”. It was an insult to a man like Duke who had walked over much of New South Wales. When he attempted to enlist in World War Two he was told to “Go home and look after the grandkids Pop.”

During the so-called Great Depression in the ‘30s – after they had lost their house in Punchbowl, Sydney - he and Dot and his young family lived on a travelling stock reserve at Cullenbone.

[Details of this part of their lives here and their lives on the Sandy Hollow Line are detailed in Linda Mclean’s book “Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes”. Linda was one of Duke and Dot’s daughters; like her father a scribe and a rebel fighting for Democracy].

I first heard of Duke Tritton when I was on New Park station, just over the Queensland border from Barringun, in 1959. When the boss would finish reading the Bulletin (when it was still referred to as The Bushman’s Bible) he would give them to the two Aboriginal ringers to read. Billy Gray was only partially educated and old Murri Powell was born into a tribal community in about 1895, so they asked if I would read the serial that was running in the magazine which they were fascinated with.  I, too, became fascinated with this serialised story written by an old bushman by the name of Duke Tritton.

Just before Christmas that year the serial had run to its end and the publishers of the Bulletin made it available as a complete booklet with a soft cover. I was then on the Mole station on the Macquarie Marshes and sent away for a copy, which I received and still relish after all those years.

In 1963, along with a few others, we formed the Wild Colonial Days Society to re-enact the approaching centenary of several bushranger events. Our idea was to make Australian history better known as we felt our culture was being swamped by American films and television. 

Visiting artists would be invited to entertain our quickly growing membership at each monthly meeting. It was at one of these meetings when I first met the Duke when he came along with the Bush Music Club to provide us with some bush songs. 

Later that year I joined the BMC and had good talks with him, especially about the western stations that we were familiar with, either through experience or folklore. 

His book Time Means Tucker flows like honey and is a must-read for anyone interested in our earlier times. 

Chris Woodland 2020. This was never read at the tribute of course, as the National Folk Festival was cancelled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. 


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