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Penguin Book of Australian Ballads: reviewed by A.D. Hope (1964)

The Canberra Times Saturday 24 October 1964.

SlXTY years ago, when Banjo Paterson published his collection of The Old Bush Songs, Composed and Sung in the Bushranging, Digging and Overlanding Days, there was so little interest in the subject that, he explained, he had been at pains to rescue some of the popular verse of the country then dying out. Peterson was apparently mistaken. "It was a period", says Professor Ward, "when the Australian bush ballad flourished as never before."

Certainly it has flourished ever since. Paterson's book went into seven editions in the next twenty-five years, the ama- teur collector of bush songs gave place to the trained professional folk-lorist, the popular taste became a highbrow cult, and a half-humorous class consciousness became a solemn parade of the bush-ballads and convict songs as the genuine literature of the people, the workers, the only real Australians. In short, the bush ballads be- came respectable and a great deal of high-powered nonsense was generated in the process. Professor Russel Ward was one of the first to put the nonsense down. His book. The Australian Legend, published six Years ago, was the first really scholarly work on the subject. It established the facts and laid down sensible lines for criticism. It cleared away the absurd literary claims of the leftists and the chauvinists and at the same time gave a nasty jolt to the sort of academic or national snobbery that thought them not worth serious attention. Ward wrote as an historian and his work followed on the two large and well-edited collections by Stewart Keesing, Australian Bush Ballads and Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times, which for the first time made the main body of Australian popular poetry available. Since then their work has been followed up by the folklore expert, Dr. Edgar Waters. It is not too much to say that the Wild Colonial Boy has become academically respectable and that Clancy of the Overflow now writes theses with his thumbnail dipped in tar. Professor Ward's collection of Australian ballads and popu- lar verse represents the next move, the exportation of a national commodity. If it takes on they may soon be singing Waltzing Matilda in Omsk and Valparaiso. At any rate it deserves to take on.

It is an amusing, colorful and thoroughly characteristic collection, not only of traditional ballads and folk song, hut of all the kinds of verse that stem from this core of popular poetry or were connected with it in attitude or spirit. As the editor says. "I have not hesitated to include much non-narrative verse of a popular sort. Indeed a more accurately descriptive title might have been the Penguin Book of Australian Popular Verse". This book is divided into eight sections. The first contains remnants of the convict era, not only convict and bushranger songs and ballads but extracts from contemporary verse comment and satire. The second section contains verse of the gold-field days and the era of later bushrangers and bush settlers. Then follow sections of literary ballads of the later half of nineteenth century and some of the traditional bush ballads that go with them; next the bush ballads of Lawson, Paterson, E. J. Brady, at the end of the century, which arise from the earlier. A section of what the editor describes as town-ballads follow. This includes at least one Australian writer in the genuine street ballad tradition, Percy the Poet, who flourished unknown to fame about thirty years ago. Finally there is a section of ordinary poems by present-day Australian poets which either continue, or are influenced by the tradition of popular Australian verse, such as Douglas Stewart's The Man from Adaminaby, Geoffrey Dutton's Wool-Shed Dance. The whole is followed by a handy vocabulary of Australian terms, many of which now need to he explained to Australians as well as to foreigners. It is preceded by an admirable preface which debunks the pretensions of the purists and fanatics in balladry and makes a good case for regarding the whole collection as genuinely

representative of a distinctively Australian manner, attitude or stance. I hesitate to say spirit or ethos because Professor Ward makes only the most modest of claims. I think they are justified, or at least unexceptionable, at a time when no one is likely any more to take what is merely distinctively Australian for what is Australian as a whole. The composition of the whole book puts the ballads in their proper perspective as something which contributed an essential ingredient, as well as serving to acclimatise English poetry to a new country. With out making undue claims, it shows popular verse tradition as a genuinely poetic tradition. 'Frank the Poet,' one of our earliest bards and a lively one, might he speaking for the whole tradition, as the currency songs enter the academic heaven, in the following lines from The Convict's Tour of Hell:

"Peter," the Son said, "Let Frank in.
For he is truly purged from sin;
Altho' in convict costume drest Here shall he be a welcome guest!
Enoch! Go you with him to Job,
And put on him a silken robe. Saint Paul! Go to the flock straightway,
And kill a calf or two today. Tell Abraham, and likewise Abel,
In haste to lay the banquet table,
For we will make a grand repast.
Since Frank the Poet has come at last."

No doubt Frank the Poet little dreamed that one day professors would be editing him and the world enjoying the national flavour of the tradi- tion he began.

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF AUSTRALIAN BALLADS. Edited and introduced by Russel Ward. Penguin Books 1964. Price 9/6.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory