Australian Folk Songs

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The Irish Ballad in the Australian Bush (1946)

FROM a recent search for Australian ballads, one thing has emerged and that is that the Irish ballad of the last century had a most extensive and profound influence in the composition of the Australian ballads. Like their Irish prototypes, the tune has not very much importance. A ballad is sung for the purpose of telling a story. The result is that the words must be simple and clear, the message direct and the tune easy to lilt. It was meant to be a companion to the lonely bullock driver carrying wool or skins from the sheep station to the nearest town or port; to the groups of tired shearers as they sat around their camp fire after a hard day's clipping, or to the miner, after a day's digging, resting outside his tent. The tempo of the ballad, like the tempo of life, was an easy lilt, the humour droll. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the early balladists fitted their story to tunes they had brought with them from their homeland, or which had followed them out. For those of us who realise only too well that many of the so-called Irish songs of the last two generations are anything but Irish, either in authorship or background, some of these songs may not provide too happy a link, but it is there, for better or for worse, and it must be remembered that a similar state of affairs existed in Ireland itself during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and even, to some extent, down to the present day.


It is only natural that songs of the sheep stations and shearing sheds should occupy the greatest proportion of Australian ballads, for Australia, from its earliest days, has depended on wool as the backbone industry of the nation. The rough conditions under which even the station owners lived, the heat and scurry of the shearing sheds, the primitive food and the subsequent reaction when the shearers came to town after months of ihard work, have done more to mould an Australian philosophy of life than any other single factor. The shearers had a hard life, indeed.. They migrated from one station to another according to the season. They lived on "billy" tea and "damper," a sort of a scone made with flour and water and baked in the camp fire; they slept out in the open, rolling themselves up in their blankets. Shearing was hard work while it lasted. They were paid so much for every sheep they sheared, and there was intense rivalry between the "ringer" or fastest shearer, and the aspirants to the title. The heat and wool made the atmosphere of the shearing shed stifling. No wonder, then, that the moment the shearing was over, he made straight for the nearest township, where he could squander his cheque at the local "pub." One song after another tells the same story. Up till the present, one of my chief sources of these songs has been a man by the name of O'Neill, whose mother kept an hotel some miles out from one of the Victorian country towns. The shearers and the bullock drivers would camp on the paddock opposite to the hotel, and of an evening my friend, as a young boy, would go over to the men gathered around their camp fires and listen to them singing these songs. There was always a fair muster of them, for his mother was good to them in this way: instead of allowing them to spend the entire cheque in one session as the town hotels did, she would take their cheques when they arrived and ration the drink out to them day by day. Here are two verses sung to the tune of Ring the Bell Watchman, which sum up the life of the shearer:

Out on the board, the old shearer stands,
Grasping his shears in his long, bony hands,
Fixed are his eyes on the blue-bellied Jo,
Glory, if he gets him, won't he make the "ringer" go!
[Jo: A ewe with no wool on its stomach.]

Click go the shears, boys, click, click, click.
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick.
The "ringer" looks around and is beaten by a blow.
And curses the old snagger with the blue-bellied Jo.

Shearing is all over and we've all got our cheques
Roll up your swag, boys, we're off on the tracks,
The first pub we come to, it's there we'll have a spree,
And every one that comes along, it's "Come and drink with me."



The last, but by no means the least, type of worker con- cerned with the wool industry was the bullock driver, whose life and philosophy has been immortalised by Tom Collins in his Such is Life. The bullock teams carried the wool from the station to the nearest rail head or port. It was a hard, open life, always on the road, always faced with the problem of providing fodder for the team each night, in country where grass was scarce and precious. It was a constant battle of wits between the drovers and the station owners, who soon impounded any bullocks found overnight on their properties. Nor did the trouble" cease there: there was always the problem of harnessing the team each morning, and, worst of all, there were the many bogged roads that spelt disaster for the load. And when the dray sank to its axles in mud or marsh, I think you will agree that the drivers had good grounds for using the language which has made their ability in this direction proverbial. Here is a very famous song, in which the bullocky goes romantic:

Now the shearing is all over and the wool is coming down;
I mean to get a wife, my boys, when I go to town,
For everything has got a mate that brings itself to view,
From the little paddy-melon to the big kangaroo.


So roll up your bundle and let us make a push,
And I'll take you up the country and show you the bush;
I'll be bound such a chance you won't get another day,
So roll up and take possession of the Old Bullock Dray.

I'll teach you the whip, and the bullocks how to flog,
You'll be my off-sider when I'm fast in the bog,
Hitting out both left and right and every other way,
Making skin, blood and hair fly around the Bullock Dray.


Good beef and damper, of that you'll get enough.
When boiling in the bucket such a walloper of duff,
My mates they'll all dance and sing upon our wedding day
To the music of the bells around the Old Bullock Dray.


There'll be lots of picaninnies, you must remember that;
There'll be "Buck-jumping" Maggie and "Leather-belly" Pat;
There'll be "Stringy-bark" Peggy and "Green-eyed" Mike;
Yes, my colonial, as many as you like.


Now that I am married and have picaninnies three
No one lives so happy as my little wife and me;
She goes out hunting to wile away the day
While I take down the wool in the Old Bullock Dray.

The attitude to the family life and the list of children's names leaves no doubt, I should imagine, about the Irish blood running in the composer's veins.


Whether the thirst for gold stifled the spirit of balladry or the rush of the goldfields left little time for leisure or the transitory nature of the diggings caused them to sink into oblivion, the fact remains that there are few mining ballads that have been handed down. Any that are still remembered are in the nature of "strays." Strangely enough, it was the leaving the Ballarat goldfields for the "diggings" of West Australia that was responsible for someone sending me the following ballad describing the life on a farm at Bungaree. Bungaree is a very fertile farming district just outside Ballarat and was almost exclusively settled on by the Irish. Their descendants are still there to this day and many is the third or fourth generation Australian who has still strong traces of the Irish accent. There's no doubt about the nationality of the author of this song, The Cockies of Bungaree:

Come all ye jolly travellers that's out of work, just mind
To take a trip to Bungaree and plenty there you'll find;
Have a trial with the cockies there and just take it from me,
I'm certain sure you'll rue the day you first saw Bungaree.

And how I came this weary way I mean to let you know,
Being out of employment, I didn't know where to go;
I called at a Registry Office and there I did agree
To take a job of clearing for a cocky in Bungaree.

Well, on the Monday morning, to work I had to go,
My noble shouted out to me, "Get up, you're rather slow,
Take this pick and shovel, set to work and grub that tree";
"Oh, begob," says I, " 'tis nice and light, this work in Bungaree."

Well, on the Tuesday morning, it was the usual go,
He called me to breakfast before the cocks did crow,
The stars were shining gloriously and the moon was high, you see,
And I thought before the sun would rise, I'd die in Bungaree.

When I went to supper, the time was half-past nine,
And when I had it ate, sure I thought it was bed-time,
But the cocky came to me saying, with a merry laugh,
"I want you for an hour or two to cut a bit of chaff."

And while we are chaff-cutting, he says, "It's quite a spell."
"Oh, begob, it is," says I, "and it's I that knows it well";
We always were a-quarrelling, we never could agree,
So at last, I made up my mind to, leave old Bungaree.

So now my job is ended and I'm at liberty,
It's of the cocky's health and wealth I'm spending merrily,
I am no boasting fellow, no lies I ever told,
So if you will believe me now, it's the truth I did unfold.


No reference to the life of early Australia would be complete without some reference to the bushrangers. I have no intention here of going into the rights and wrongs of the Kelly Gang and other similar types but there is no doubt that they excited many a sympathetic balladist. There are ballad? about the Kellys, about Jack Donahoo, about Ben Hall, about John Gilbert and so on. Every bushranger has had his chronicler, and here is, perhaps, the most famous of these,

The Wild Colonial Boy:

'Tis of a wild colonial boy. Jack Dowling was his name,
Of poor but honest parents, he was born in Castlemaine;
He was his father's only hope, his mother's only joy,
And dearly did his parents love the Wild Colonial Boy.

So come, all my hearties, we'll roam the mountains high,
Together we will plunder, together we will die.
We'll wander over valleys and gallop over plains,
And we'll scorn to live in slavery, bound down by iron chains.

He was scarcely sixteen years of age when he left his father's home,
And through Australia's sunny clime a bushranger did roam,
He robbed those wealthy squatters, their stock he did destroy.
And a terror to Australia was the Wild Colonial Boy.

In 'sixty-one, this daring youth commenced his wild career
With a heart that knew no danger, no foeman did he fear;
He stuck the Beechworth mailcoach up, and robbed Judge McEvoy,
Who trembled and gave up his gold to the Wild Colonial Boy.

He bade the Judge "good morning" and told him to beware
That he never robbed a hearty chap that acted on the square;
And never to rob a mother of her only son and joy,
Or else you may turn outlaw like the Wild Colonial Boy.

One day as he was riding the mountain side along
A-listening to the little birds, their pleasant laughing song,
Three mounted troopers rode along, Kelly, Davis and Fitzroy,
Who swore that they would capture him, the Wild Colonial Boy.

"Surrender now, Jack Dowling, you see there's three to one,
Surrender in the Queen's name, you plund'ring outlaw son."
He drew his pistol from his belt and shook the little toy,
"I'll fight but not surrender," said the Wild Colonial Boy.

He fired at Trooper Kelly and brought him to the ground,
And in return from Davis, received a mortal wound,
All shattered through the jaw he lay, still firing at Fitzroy,
And that is how they captured him, the Wild Colonial Boy.

In Australia, this complete contempt for time was as rife. There is one song about the Kelly Gang sung to the tune of The Wearing of the Green, and there are nineteen verses to it. Although it is too long to quote, it would be a pity to pass over it altogether, as its ancestry, if not its author, could have come from only one country. The opening verse runs:

Oh, Paddy dear, and did you hear
The news that's going round,
On the head of bold Ned Kelly
They have placed two thousand pounds.
And on Steve Hart, Joe Byrne's and Dan,
Two thousand more they'd give,
But if the price was doubled, boys,
The Kelly Gang would live.

After describing some of the Kelly's exploits, the song goes on to tell the story of how they raided the town of Jerilderie. After capturing the troopers while they were all asleep they locked them in a cell and then proceeded to enjoy their stay in the town for several days. The song has this lovely description of the way they spent Sunday:

Next morning being Sunday morn,
Of course, they must be good,
They dressed themselves in trooper's clothes,
And Ned he chopped some wood.
No one there expected them
As troopers they did pass.
And Dan, the most religious one.
Took the trooper's wife to Mass.

And on this note let me conclude, for my research into the early ballads of Australia is by no means yet complete, but what I have gathered so far gives a sufficiently clear indication of the very strong influence that Irish balladry exercised on the earliest stirrings of the muse in Australia. The subsequent development of poetry in this country shows that the influence of Ireland did not cease with the ballad maker. In the poetry of Victor Daley, Chris. Brennan, Bernard O'Dowd and many others, it is most marked.



From the Melbourne journal the Advocate Magazine Wednesday 9 October 1946 p. 9.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory