Australian Folk Songs

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Saving Our Folk Songs (1952)

From Our Melbourne Correspondent

Possibly because of the visit of Burl Ives, America's best known folk singer, Australians are taking increasing interest in their own early folk songs, which reflect the rougher and tougher life of the settlements, the shearing sheds and the fields.

If these songs are ever sung again it will probably be because of the work of an eminent Roman Catholic musician, the Rev. Dr. Percy Jones of Melbourne who has been collecting them for 10 years Dr. Jones says that most of the pioneering songs are parodies on well known English, Irish, or Scottish but he has 20 which he regards as words and melody of early Australian origin. These include "The Wild Colonial Boy"—once banned for a time in Victoria on the ground that it was likely to promote rioting. He will be glad to pass these on to Burl Ives, who is said he is interested in Australian songs. Dr.Jones has had to fit his interest in the work into a busy life as Vice-Director of the Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music, and as conductor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne.

He is the first Australian to receive the doctorate of Sacred Music Magna Cum Laude, in the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Rome. His interests abroad included the the music of the British Isles, and this in turn stimulated his interest in Australian folk songs, Over 10 years ago he expressed publicly his fears that the early songs would be forgotten--because the people who knew them would be dead--he got an unexpected pile of letters.

Dr. Jones visited all the correspondents near Melbourne and set down in music the songs they sang. In other cases he arranged for friends to do the scores. He spent, many hours with Mr. W. J. O'Neill, a retired Public servant, who, as a boy, had learnt folk songs at the camp fires of drovers outside Bendigo. Mr. O'Neill would sing a folk song over and over while Dr. Jones wrote down the tune. Then Dr. Jones would sing it back until Mr. O'Neill was satisfied he had scored it accurately. Now Dr. Jones has many folders containing the words and music of Australian folk songs. One day he hopes to get time to write a standard work on the subject.

Dr. Jones says the early Australian songs fall into two main categories. Many were simply sung to tunes in vogue in the British Isles, others were original melodies which were more interesting because they reflected the life of the pioneers. Mostly the Australians were reminiscent of the simpler "Come All Ye" type of song popular in Ireland. Melodically, they were generally more limited in range, but they had an ease about them that made them ideal for the untrained singers. With a lilt that carried a story, they were written for the "bullocky," with a slow team and long road ahead: for the campfire after a heavy day in the stifling shearing shed: or for the lonely boundary-rider.

"Wild Rover No More" was an example

Oh, I've been a wild rover
this many a year,
And I've spent all my
money on whisky and beer.
Now I'm returning with gold in great store,
And I never shall play the wild rover no more.

No, no, never, never no more,
I never shall play the wild rover no more.

Dr. Jones said it was strange that he had not encountered one folk song about the wheat industry. They all concerned shearers, boundary riders, teamsters, gold miners and bushrangers. Most seemed to have their origins in the Riverina, Northern Victoria and Queensland, "The Wild Colonial Boy," a song about a bushranger, is now becoming better known in Australia, as it was in the early days. It was sometimes sung to the tune of "The Wearing of the Green."

The song begins:

He was a wild colonial boy,
Jack Dowling was his name,
Brought up by honest parents
Who lived in Castlemaine.

Dr. Jones said it had been disputed whether the Castlemaine named was in Ireland or Victoria. Among others Dr. Jones is certain are true Australian folk songs are: "The Stockmen's Last Bed," "Old Bullock Dray," "Song of Ned Kelly," "On the Banks of the Condamine," "Gumtree Canoe." "The Irish Chinee Boy, "The Station Cook," and "Across the Western Plains."

Dr Jones said a study of folk songs was essential for modern music students. The authorities in Australia should take steps to get on record the words and tunes of Australian folk songs before the old people who knew something at least of them died out.

Dr. Jones said he was not including "Hill-billy" songs in his studies. They were not authentic early Australian words or tunes, although, sometimes, very pleasant.


From the Sydney newspaper The Sunday Herald 25 May 1952 p. 9.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory