Australian Folk Songs

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Australian Folk Songs (1956)

Dr. John Greenway Addresses Fairfield Rotarians

It is amazing how many folk songs Australia has. Already visiting American Dr. John Greenway has collected 500, and says he is only half-way.

A very likeable, easy-going, pleasant-voiced American, Dr. John Greenway is a Doctor of Philosophy and assistant Professor of English at the University of Denver. He is visiting Australia under the Fulbright Scholarship Research to the University of Sydney, for the study of Australian folk songs.

A most impressionable young man, John Greenway strummed his banjo as he recounted some of his experiences whilst collecting folk songs and data about them in Eastern Australia.

It is astonishing how much research is made into the origin of any folk song. First of all Dr. Greenway and his counterparts carry out exhaustive research in the district from when the song originated. Then they make detaled investigation of every word in the song, and its meaning. They really go to town to find out whether the folk song is a tune from England, Ireland or some other country, with words set to the tune to suit that particular area. He said that genuine folk songs mostly originated from people, unsophisticated culturally, who had very little contact with the outside world.

Dr. Greenway said much research had thrown doubt on the origin of many popular ideas as to who wrote some folk songs and where they really came from. He had already collected three versions of Banjo Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda." He said the tune was very similar to that of a tune from England which had been banned. How few Australians knew that "Matilda" meant "swag", as did the word "bluey".

His wide research revealed that our folk songs were basically of English theme, whilst those of America heavily emphasised Old Ireland, with Negro rhythm keeping them forever alive.

The speaker had a marvellous memory, and in lilting fashion he sang numerous folk songs such as "Wild Colonial Boy," which he said was similar to "Bold John Donoghue."

"The American influence on the Australian hill-billy is overpowering, and really only poor American cow songs are being copied."

Dr. Greenway said that he could not trace a definite origin to the familiar song "The Dog Sat on the Tucker Box nine miles from Gundagai." The most popular thought is that a swaggie died there and he was found with his dog sitting on his tucker box. Dr. Greenway sang his own version of the origin of the tune of the song mentioned, which he said came from the very good song of "Lazy Harry." which said "We camped at Lazy Harry's five miles from Boonatree, on the road to Gundagai."

John said he discovered many songs about the old goldfield days, the best of which was "Bold John Donoghue. He was surprised to find so many songs about bushrangers.

"You had an awfu! lot of them for such a small country," said John. He instanced the song of "Ned Kelly" as the most widely known on bushranging days. He said the stories of those early days were very humorous, especially when some tried to make gallant men of the bushrangers, saying they only robbed the rich and not the poor. After all, it was not much good robbing the poor, who were not worth robbing, anyhow.

What a great swing there was to the American folk song "The Cat Came Back." It had about 24 verses to it, and John added a couple of his own to give more colour to the song.

The speaker said that John Meredith, of the Bushwackers' Club, was the best known authority on Australian folk songs. Meredith had collected over 1000 such songs and published quite a number in book form. If you are interested, John's address is 47 Chelsea Street, Redfern.

It was certainly an entirely new slant on our country and the Rotarians were very much indebted to Dr. John Greenway for an entertaining address. Having heard this colourful American student, we can recommend to the people Dr. John Greenway's session on folk songs over Station 2BL every Wednesday night, at 9 p.m. for the next two weeks.

Dr. Greenway will visit Central Australia for literature and in- formation on anthropology of the Australian aborigine. He said that the original folk songs of aborigines should be found among the Central Australian tribes, rather than those on the more civilised eastern coast of Australia. Afterwards he will visit the Barrier Reef area.

"The Biz" Newspaper Wednesday, August 1, 1956


From the Sydney newspaper The Biz 1 Aug 1956 p. 18.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory