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Trains of Treasure
Poems Songs and Music of the Railways
Review by Mark Gregory

Railways seem to run right through the art of the industrial era as surely as the iron road spanned the continents themselves. This CD celebrates the poems and songs that sprang from Australia's railways over a period of 162 years.

"My sole address at present is a battlefield in France
If it's ever going to alter there is only just a chance
To dodge the "Jerry" rifles and the shrapnel flying around
I've burrowed like a bunny to a funkhole in the ground
The floor is just a puddle and the roof lets in the damp
I wish I was in Aussie where the Sleeper Cutters' camp"

Most of the 31 poems and songs on this CD come from railway workers, while some come from our famous poets. Francis MacNamara, the convict poet, Henry Lawson, himself for a time a Sydney railway worker, Will Lawson, John Manifold. Two outstanding modern day poets, John Dengate and Denis Kevans, present the poems along with a couple of their own. A cast of many singers sing the songs.

"Yes, the second class were waiting in the days of serf and prince
And the second class are waiting - they've been waiting ever since
There are gardens in the background, and the line is bare and drear,
Yet they wait beneath the signboard, sneering "Second Class wait here"

The songs and poems have been culled from a much larger collection of writing, photographs drawings and cartoons that railway worker Brian Dunnett brought together for the Combined Railway Cultural Exhibition Committee in the early 1980's, a time when some government money was available for Art in Working Life events of all kinds.

"Janet Oakden, Janet Oakden
You should be very proud
With the odds stacked against you
Your spirit was not cowed"
PIP JAMES (1976)

Railways were made giant in two industrial revolutions, steam and electric, and rational economists (as distinct from economic rationalists) still see in rail a solution to our transport problems as we enter the computer revolution. The loyalty of railway workers to their industry and its future has always been evident. It certainly made the railways an ideal breeding ground for in-group folklore.

"If you talk of locomotives and would like to know the star
Step up here on the footplate for a trip to Waratah
Oh, I drive the finest engine - I can prove the statement true
They've neither man nor engine equals me and Twenty-two"

Railways in Australia nurtured particularly Labor politicians. NSW Premier Bob Carr's father worked at the Eveleigh Workshops in Redfern, a place where over 30 State and Federal members of parliament began their working lives and careers. Railways were at times at the cutting edge of industry and provide through apprenticeships much of the training of a skilled workforce for public and private sector alike. Railway workers were, of course, a big part of the union movement.

"Well the Navvy has demanded a shorter working week
And an increase in his wages, and made the bosses squeak
About the mighty big deficit, and revenue being light
But these excuses do not help the Fettler in his plight"
ANON (1939)

These songs and poems come from railway worker newspapers, union journals like "Railway Union Gazette" and "The Railway and Tramway Officers' Gazette", agitational publications like "Magnet" and "Eveleigh News" as well as the field recordings and collections of folklorists.

"What deed can you account for, To gain admission here?"
"Why I worked at Eveleigh Loco, until my dying year"
The gate swung open sharp, as St. Peter touched the bell
"Come in" he said "and take a harp, you've had enough of Hell"
ANON (1954)

Trains of Treasure CD is available for $20, plus $5.00 post and packaging, from:
Rail, Tram and Bus Union
83 Renwick St
Redfern NSW 2016
Phone: 02 9310 3966


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory