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Bare Belled Ewe -- ABC Landline (2014)

PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: Along with Waltzing Matilda, Click Go the Shears is one of Australia's most recognisable folk songs. But new research has uncovered a much earlier version of the song under a totally different name. The discovery also puts the ballad at the heart of the national shearers' strike, which changed the shearing industry and wool production forever.

Sean Murphy reports.

(Musicians perform Click Go the Shears)

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: It's one of Australia's most popular folk songs, but this version, performed by Jason and Chloe Roweth in the historic Errowanbang Woolshed in the central west of NSW, has only recently been rediscovered.

(Musicians perform Click Go the Shears)

MARK GREGORY, HISTORIAN: It's one of the most important discoveries I've made, I think, in terms of my work in Australian folk song. To hear it sung the way that Chloe and Jason recorded it recently, it just conjures up that time even more than the very popular version that's been sung ever since 1952.

SEAN MURPHY: Mark Gregory found the lyrics in the National Archives as part of a doctoral thesis on songs and poetry linked to the Australian labour movement. It was published as the Bare Bellied Ewe in Victoria's Bacchus Marsh Express in late 1891. This is more than half a century before the song became popular in the 1950s, when American entertainer Burl Ives toured Australia and sang a version put together with bits and pieces of the original song.

MARK GREGORY: The first time most Australians would have heard the song was actually in 1952 sung with an American accent. So its popularity stems from that date, really, in many ways. Although there were shearers who knew it, so, it was known. And it was always known as a song sung to an American Civil War tune or song called Ring the Bell Watchman.

SEAN MURPHY: The published date of Mark Gregory's discovery is significant because it places the song at a time when Queensland shearers almost caused a civil war. The great shearers' strike of 1891 spread into NSW and Victoria and was the biggest workers' revolt of its time.

ROSS FITZGERALD, HISTORIAN: The industry of shearing was pivotal, but also the clash between the shearers and the squatters and the station owners who were trying to decrease the pay of shearers and were trying to break the nexus of the union movement in shearing. Absolutely paramount to Australian history and Australian culture. And it's hard for us now to realise just how central shearing was to Australian society, the Australian economy and also to Australian culture.

SEAN MURPHY: Historian Ross Fitzgerald says the shearers' strike of 1891 and another strike three years later were the genesis of the Australian Labor Party.

ROSS FITZGERALD: And it's interesting that the defeat of the shearers in 1891 and 1894 led the labour movement in Queensland to move away from direct action into parliamentary representation via the Labor Party in Queensland.

SEAN MURPHY: But for powered blades with wide combs and some back support, shearing doesn't appear to have changed much since the days the Bare Bellied Ewe was first sung as a workers' ballad. Today shearers still get paid per sheep and men like Clint Warner can shear more than 300 on a good day.

How much of a toll does it take on your body physically?

CLINT WARNER, SHEARER: You've got to keep fairly fit, you've got to look after yourself a bit. Don't get on the grog all the time and playing up. You'd knock yourself around, it'll hurt you.

SEAN MURPHY: You've been in the business 30 years; what sort of changes have you seen?

CLINT WARNER: Hasn't been a great deal of changes. The wide comb come in when I started. That was a good thing. And then there's backpackers are roustaboutin' these days, more of them, not many Aussie roustabouts rousing. That's about all the changes I've seen.

SEAN MURPHY: At Glenlothian near Bingara in NSW, the shed hands are all European backpackers on working holiday visas. If they work for more than 88 days in a rural industry, they get an extra 12 months on their visas. And for some, such as 20-year-old Marlin Lorge from Sweden, they can earn as much as $400 a day.

MARLIN LORGE, WOOL PRESSER: I don't really think about the money most of the time because I enjoy the work. I like the fact that we're working as a team all the time and that we're kind of like a family working, and also, it's physical, like, you get fit.

SEAN MURPHY: Shearing contractor Mick Taylor started the trend of hiring backpackers because he couldn't find suitable local staff anymore.

MICK TAYLOR, SHEARING CONTRACTOR: Well, the disadvantage is you've got to train them so we have a very good technique where we train them in a very short period of time. And then the advantage is they're just good, clean-living, respectable people that are there to work and work hard. And like I said, we're not being able to source them from our own population because they're going to university too early and, yeah, they're just good, smart workers and we were one of the pioneers of it and I think it's going from strength to strength. Like, people are having to use them to get this work done in the shearing sheds or on farm because of the lack of labour supply which has been swallowed up by the mining industry.

SEAN MURPHY: It's a welcome change for Edna Abre, who has spent most of her years as a shearers' cook feeding men.

EDNA ABRE, SHEARERS' COOK: Before, sometimes there was only one or two - two of us in the team and now it's nice to see some of the girls, you know, the girls will talk to you and everything else, yep.

SEAN MURPHY: A bit more civilised, is it?

EDNA ABRE: Oh, a lot.

MICK TAYLOR: Well it has been greatly civilising because with the lack of young people over the years, when you were too slow to be a good shearer, you went on to be a wool roller or a shed hand, you know, whatever, and maybe they were too old to do that and some cases the wool suffered immensely because of it. With the young, fit people in the team, they seem to be able to handle wool more efficiently and are there to do their job, you know, efficiently, without any problems.


From the Victorian newspaper the Bacchus Marsh Express 5 December p. 7.

See Bare Belled Ewe in this collection.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory