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Edgar Waters: 1925 - 2008

Edgar died on Thursday May 1st 2008


Edgar's contribution to the folk movement is considerable to say the least. Back in 1947 he and Stephen Murray-Smith edited a slim volume called 'Rebel Songs'.

In the mid 1950s he was in London researching and helping Alan Lomax complete his 'Folk Songs of North America'. Edgar also seems to have left some Australian songs in England as this Alan Lomax note on a 1959 Shirley Collins LP shows:

Dennis O'Reilly is an instance of the speed with which folk songs are travelling nowadays. It began its life as one of the many songs of the Irish immigrants to Australia. Mister Goodwin of Leichhardt, New South Wales, picked it up on the Nambucca River of NSW and, when he was 73 sang it for Cecil English and John Meredith. From them it passed into the repertoire of Edgar Waters, the Australian ballad collector, who brought it to England and taught it to Shirley Collins."

As editor for Wattle Records on his return to Australia Edgar worked with Wattle founder Peter Hamilton to publish the first field recordings of Australian Folk Songs ('Australian Traditional Singers' and Musicians and 'Australian Traditional Singers and Musicians of Victoria'), introducing such traditional singers as Sally Sloane, Simon McDonald, Duke Tritton and Catherine Peatey to the folk revival. Other recordings were of the Bushwhackers, led by John Meredith, the Rambleers and the folklorist and singer A.L.Lloyd who Edgar had met in London.

Wattle recordings also included Patrick Galvin's 'Irish Songs of Resistance', John Greenway's 'Workin' on a Building', 'The Art of the Digeridu', MacColl and Lloyd's 'Singing Sailors', 'Music of New Guinea' and a recording of Aboriginal singer/songwriter Dougie Young.

Edgar had a great influence on Gary Shearston's CBS recordings of bush songs especially 'The Springtime It Brings On The Shearing' and 'Bolters, Bushrangers And Duffers'. For a while Edgar had a weekly column in the Australian with artcles about the music he loved: folk and jazz. He was also a contributor to Wendy Lowenstein's long running magazine 'Australian Tradition'. In 1967 Edgar teamed up with the artist and publisher Rod Shaw to produce a beautiful desk diary depicting early Australian history through a selection of ballads for the National Trust of Australia.

In 1970 Edgar and his long time friend Ian Turner organised Bert Lloyd's revisit to Australia for the first time since 1934, on a lecture and singing tour. While here, he went back to the station near Condobolin (NSW) on which he had worked as a young man. An ABC crew made a half-hour film, "Ten Thousand Miles," of this visit, and his impressions of the changes which had occurred in country life.

From the 1980s Edgar spent many years helping consolidate the National Library of Australia Oral History and Folklore collections and in that time interviewed many folksingers and folklorists especially those who had been involved in the early years of the revival.

Edgar wrote the entries on 'Folk Song' and 'Folksong making in Australia' in 'The Oxford Companion To Australian Folklore' and more recently wrote the extensive notes for Martyn Wyndham-Read's Song Links double CD.

In 'Folksong making in Australia' Edgar described Australian folksong this way:

The biggest group of native Australian folksong texts was produced by bush workers. They took their models, their tunes, scraps of text from all kinds of sources. Two or three examples will have to do. The dialogue song known usually as 'The Banks of the Condamine', but some times as 'The Banks of Riverine' (i.e. the Riverina), has been collected from Victoria to the Northern Territory. The dialogue is between a woman and her lover, who is about to set off to a shearing shed or to a horsebreaking camp. It is made over from an Anglo-Scottish broadside ballad of the Napoleonic wars, 'The Banks of the Nile'. The setting has been transferred to Australia with astonishingly little alteration to the original. This is one of the songs mentioned by O'Rourke, cited earlier, as sung in the Gaeltacht, but it seems to have been a special favourite in the north-east of Scotland, and many of the tunes used for 'The Banks of the Condamine' have a Scottish sound about them.

One of the most widely sung of many shearers' songs, 'Click Go the Shears', borrows its tune and a little of its text from an American popular song of Civil War reference.

'The Drover's Dream', recorded in many versions from Victoria to northern Queensland, is set to the tune used for the Irish stage song 'Killaloe'; the same tune that Lance Lenton used for his song about Woolloomooloo The text of 'The Drover's Dream' also has something of a music-hall or minstrel-show style about it.

The speaking of verse seems to have been a kind of entertainment as popular with bush workers as the singing of songs. A few of the texts of the better-known bush balladists, notably Paterson and Lawson, were set to tunes by bush singers, and have been recorded from oral tradition Many bush workers wrote verse, as well as reciting it, and often had it published. 'Duke' Tritton, a singer and versifier recorded by Meredith in the 1950s, wrote a lot of verse, and a song called 'Shearing in the Bar'. This has been popular with urban singers of the 'folk song revival'. Tritton explained that he wrote the words, with a bit of help from his mates, and only later thought of setting a tune to the words. Thus, the style of the bush balladists came to influence bush songmaking. But the popularity of verse recitation probably helped to enfeeble the folksong tradition. The wider spread of the products of the music industry--aptly so-called--made possible by the electronic media have now killed it almost completely. For an introductory overview of the Australian-made folksong texts, and their tunes, the two volumes of Folk Songs of Australia should be supplemented by Snatches and Lays (2nd edn, 1973) and the publications of Ron Edwards, preferably The Big Book of Australian Folk Song (1976).

Aboriginal songs in English

Very little was recorded from English speaking Aboriginal singers in the 1950s and 1960s. An exception was the recording by an anthropologist, Jeremy Beckett, of songs written and sung by an Aboriginal itinerant worker, Dougie Young. A few of Dougie Young's songs were published on a gramophone record by Wattle Recordings in 1963 . One of Dougie Young's songs, 'The Land Where the Crow Flies Backward', was taken up by white singers of the folksong revival movement, but the Wattle recording soon went out of production. Collecting in the 1980s, especially work done in parts of New South Wales and in Brisbane by Chris Sullivan, shows a strong tradition of songs in English. Some parts of this tradition are rather unexpected. Aboriginal singers have preserved some songs carried from the British Isles that have not been recorded from white singers; for example, a version of an English broad side ballad known as 'The Indian Lass' (the 'Indian' in this case being Hawaiian). Aboriginal singers have also preserved Australian-made white song texts, such as 'The Old Bark Hut'. Most important of all are the songs made by the Aborigines and dealing specifically with Aboriginal life. Sullivan and others found some of Dougie Young's songs had been passed on to other Aboriginal singers. Sullivan also recorded songs about Aboriginal life written by other Aboriginal songmakers quite recently, but already passed into oral tradition. The style of these songs derives largely from acquaintance with the sound recordings of popular professional entertainers: the very thing that was helping to end folksong making by white Australians.

In April Edgar underwent heart surgery, from which he never fully recovered. He died in Nowra Hospital on May Day. Edgar is survived by his wife, Ann, his daughters, Kate and Tess, and granddaughter Ella Moon.

Mark Gregory

australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory