Australian Folk Songs
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This interview was published in Overland in 1970
Mark Gregory, an Australian folk-singer, recorded this interview with the famous British folk-singer and folklorist, A. L. Lloyd. in London in December 1969. Bert Lloyd learned his first folk songs as a young immigrant in Western New South Wales about forty years ago. From this experience, and from his later acquaintance (in a practical way) with whaling and other work songs, he developed a general interest in folklore studies. He has made many records and published several books of and about folk songs, and is today perhaps the most distinguished folklorist in the English-speaking world. He recently revisited Australia, for the first time since 1934, on a lecture and singing tour. While here, he went back to the station near Condobolin (N.S.W.) on which he had worked as a young man. An A.B.C. crew made a half-hour film, "Ten Thousand Miles," of this visit, and his impressions of the changes which had occurred in country life.
A. L. LLOYD folklore and Australia
When did you first go to Australia?
It must have been 1924 or '25 or thereabouts. What happened was that my parents and my two sisters had died, and nobody knew what to do with me. I was still at school, so they thought that the best thing to do was to ship me abroad, particularly as the family had mostly died of TB, which was a common thing to die of in those days. Perhaps they thought it would be safer, as well a conveniently solving the problem. My father had been a devoted ex-serviceman, so the people in whose care I was left went to the British Legion, and they arranged a sort of assisted passage for me to Australia. So off I went with a whole mob of kids, sent out by the Salvation Army and various other charity organisations.
When we arrived in Sydney, we were herded together, and a mob of cockies had their pick of us as cheap pommy labor. As assisted migrants, we were more or less doomed to work in cocky country, because bush workers generally don't much like cockying. They thought it was good enough for the poms but not good enough for the native sons, so it was rather handy for the cockies to have a regular supply of underprivileged poms.
I got employed by a cocky in the Cowra district first of all. But I was a bit fortunate in so far as, to make up for my other deficiencies, I had a fairly sharp ear and a natural tendency to imitate; so, quite involuntarily, I acquired an Australian accent within a few months. When I'd finished with this cocky in Cowra, I fell ill and I had to go into hospital. When I was better-the cocky in the meantime had filled my place-I went to the Labor Exchange. Fortunately, they took me for an Australian, so it wasn't difficult for me to get jobs on bigger stations.
I went to work on a station not far from Cootamundra - Bethungra was the mailing address. Actually, it was about fourteen miles from Bethungra; there was a boy used to ride the mail out twice a week from the Bethungra P.O. After I finished there, I went to work on a station called Bogandillon, about twenty miles from Condobolin; and then I went further west to a station near White Cliffs.
I left Australia in 1934. Not that I had any quarrel with the country but, by the time I was eighteen or so, there were so many things that I was inquisitive about - books and pictures and music and such. I could acquaint myself with these; it wasn't difficult to educate yourself in the bush. The Sydney Public Library, at that time had an arrangement whereby they sent people in the bush a sizeable catalog arid you could pick your books out non-fiction books, a dozen at a time - and they paid the postage one way and you paid the postage back. That was a godsend, because the catalog was a very decent one, and in the bush you had any amount of time for reading. There wasn't much else to do in the evening. I was able to read books about pictures and about music.
I already had quite a reasonable view of the modern music of the time, even of composers like Bartok, without ever having heard a note of it, just on the strength of the books. And the same with painting; I was going by black and white illustrations in the books, but still I had some acquaintance with modern painting as well as with. classical painting through the books. Then, too, although by modern standards gramophone records cost the earth - I remember HMV Red Label, the twelve inch, records, cost I0/6; there was only eight minutes music on them, and I0/6 in those days was an awful lot of money - still, as I hadn't had much to spend it on, I used to buy gramophone records too. Mostly on spec, out of the catalog. Some titles seemed very attractive - "L'Apres Midi d'un Faune", an absolutely irresistible title; I felt sure it must be smashing music even though I didn't know what was in store. Stravinsky, I understood, was an interesting modern composer, and just at that time the "Firebird" was issued. And I understood Mozart was a melodious composer, so I thought that he should be within my reach. HMV had just issued a cheap set on Plum Label, their cheap label - three records of the G Minor Symphony, the 40th. So I sent for that and found sure enough that I could grasp it; it was very charming music, too. And then there was g publicity for a Bach record conducted by Stokowski - the D Minor Cantata and Fugue, arranged for orchestra. Looking back, it seems very flashy, but it had big publicity, and I thought - well, I ought to try Bach, even though I'd heard that he was rather difficult and severe. So I got this Bach thing. It wasn't difficult and severe at all: it was very exciting - flashy, but exciting. So there it was. I was educating myself.
The only trouble was that I was a bit short of conversation, because my fellow station hands were not really interested in the same things that I was, and when you're young you're a bit intolerant. You don't adapt yourself so easily as when you're older and mellower. In consequence, I found that I got impatient because their interests were different from mine. Actually, their interests were very interesting ones. The only thing was that they were mostly connected with work and with bush techniques. By the end of the day, when we ?d ridden home, I wanted to exercise my mind on more fanciful things than merino sheep or the peculiar nature of the stock horses and so on. So I thought, well, I'll leave this country and try somewhere else, and around 1934 or '35 I left Australia and went to Africa. I'd had several years' experience with merino sheep, and they were just starting with merinos in the Transvaal. so I knew I could get a decent job there. But the country was so horrible I only stayed there just over a year. I preferred to face unemployment in Europe, rather than stay there any longer.
How did you become interested in learning the songs that you heard in the bush?
Simply because my fellow station hands - particularly the shearers coining through-had a sizeable repertory of songs. Indeed, wherever I was, in the relatively densely populated parts of the bush like the country round Cootamundra, or in the less populated country like that round Condobolin, or in the parts barely populated at all, like the back country around White Cliffs, I found that station hands and shearers did a lot of singing. A great many of the songs caught my fancy, and I wanted to learn them. They amused me; some of them struck me by their poetry, some struck me by their tune, and I began to write them down. Not at all as a collecting thing - at that time, I'd never heard of the business of folk song collecting. That was a piece of sophisticated information that I only acquired later. So it was entirely to suit myself that I used to write the songs down in exercise books.
At that time I couldn't write music, so I used to memorise the melodies as best I could. I must have had many lapses of memory, and a complete absence of discipline, because I wasn't concerned as a folklorist. I was concerned mainly to take the songs into my own cultural baggage. What with lapses of memory, the tendency to tinker with the stuff, and also the fact that when you've been singing a song for a long time, you find the song has undergone a lot of involuntary changes as well as the voluntary ones, I'm sure that the songs I learned in the bush now emerge melodically (much more than textually) fairly different from what I originally learned.
For instance, the "Lime Juice Tub". That was a song I learned by just listening to it when I was rouseabouting, on this station near Bethungra. We had a mob of shearers come through one day -it must have been 1926, I suppose. One of them was a short, squat, slit-eyed, extremely cheerful bald-headed shearer named Turnbull. He used to sing all the time he was working. His repertory wasn't large, and I suppose it was about a three weeks' shearing in the sheds, so Turnbull ran through his repertory several times while I was there. So, without having him dictate the songs to me, I picked them up fairly easily. "Lime Juice Tub' was one of the songs that he sung. I memorised the words and more or less memorised the tune, but I didn't think a great deal about the Song until rather later. Then, when I came back to Europe, I used to sing it now and then. I was never sure to what extent I had reconstructed that melody. However, I put a version of it - I imagined that it was reasonably close to what Turnbull had sung - on a record for an American company, Riverside, around 1954. And since then the song has appeared in sundry publications identical with the way I sang it on the record. As I say, I had grave doubts about - if you like to use a big word - its authenticity, because I have a feeling that I only remembered rather vaguely what Turnbull sang. But there it is, this song has cropped up several times both on record and in print - sometimes, with the accreditation, "Collected from" this, that and the other geyser, in rather remote parts of the bush where I doubt if the American records had ever seeped. That's one of the oddities. Now it seems to be accepted as the standard version. John Meredith recorded a version, too, but the old boy from whom he recorded it hadn't much of a tune for it. Perhaps he was not the kind of singer who carries a tune well. He sang it as a rather featureless recitative, whereas in the version I vaguely remember, the melody was very distinct and rather compelling. I rather like to think in some way that it is to a certain extent my composition, because I'm rather fond of it; but how much is Turnbull's and how much is mine, I don't know. Anyway, it's now accepted as standard. That's one of the hazards of folklore, I guess. And I suppose, even if it is a reconstructed version, what difference is there between that and the folk process in the classical sense? - because there was I, a bush worker, learning the song orally, and it is understood that it is one of the processes of folklore that songs undergo transformation in the course of oral transmission. Certainly my alterations to the song, if any, were involuntary, made while I was a bush worker and not while I was a conscious folklorist, so it would be very difficult to say this is a piece of spurious folklore.
What criterion did you use for choosing the songs you wrote down?
The simple criterion of attractiveness. I had no special interest in songs for their social or folkloric content. I was oblivious of that while I was in Australia. I was attracted to the songs for their poetic vividness, or for some special quality of melody; but also, of course, as the collection began to get larger, I began to collect songs rather as one collects stamps. Simply, another song to bung in the old book. So, already I was becoming what you might call a collector, but without taking it seriously as folk song collectors do.
Were any of these songs associated with specific kinds of work? Under what conditions were they sung?
I suppose a great proportion of those which attracted me were the ones connected directly with the work of station hands, of drovers and of shearers. Particularly those categories. I didn't come across many songs of swaggies. A few bushranger songs which were interesting to me because often they're rather swift in poetry and rather exciting. But generally it was the occupational songs that interested me most. Rather by chance I suppose; it is probably the case that these were the strongest part of the Australian repertory anyway, the part that produced the most natural poetry and often the best tunes, too.
Shearing time was the time when the most singing went on. It was likely to happen any time during the day; the lads would sing snatches of anything - of pop songs, the "My Blue Heaven" type. "My Blue Heaven" was on the go then, I remember. Or hymns or popular operatic arias, anything like that. The lads would have a big jumble of stuff in their repertory. Sentimental parlor ballads, "Just Before the Battle, Mother" kind. A certain number of Australian songs and ballads, too, but the only time they were sung all through, more or less as a calculated performance, was very occasionally - in the evenings, on the verandah of the men's barracks on the stations. Sometimes we'd arrange something. Yes, sometimes of an evening on the verandah we'd have something almost approaching a formal sing-song. Occasionally there would be an instrumentalist, or two among us. Of course, the population inclined to be a very shifting one, because the fellows got bored rather easily - if you're on the station for six months, you're the oldest inhabitant; so we were always getting new fellows, some of whom might bring new songs, and occasionally we might get a fellow who played an instrument - that would help to stimulate the organisation of a sing-song. They weren't very formal, but the lads would run through a few items of their repertoire. Not only on the verandah; sometimes around the table in the room that we'd use as a kitchen, a leisure room, a common room, in the barracks. We'd just run round the table two or three times; might produce eighteen songs or so in an evening.
As far as instruments were concerned, we had from time to time fiddlers, jews harp players, mouth organ players. I don't remember us ever having a concertina player, although it was quite a familiar instrument in the bush at that time. Melodion - we had a melodion player once. One was always hearing of concertina players, but I certainly never heard of anybody playing the guitar at that time, although one or two of the lads coming from Victoria would talk about guitar players, but mostly Germans. German saddlers, cockies and so on. They seemed to use guitar - probably for German language songs, I guess. A banjo I never saw in the bush; I suspect that by that time, the late twenties, early thirties, it may have been less common than it had been a bit earlier. I have a feeling that the banjo may have come to Australia and passed into bush use partly as a consequence of the success of minstrel shows during the nineteenth century, and then perhaps gradually diminished in use. Again, I couldn't be sure, because I can only go by direct experience. I wasn't an investigator of bush music. But certainly fiddle music, mouth organ music, jews' harp music and melodion music I was acquainted with. I heard of one or two vernacular bush instruments like the tea-chest bass, the fence-wire triangle. But again, I never encountered that fence-wire triangle. It may be a Queensland specialty. The tub bass, too. I never saw or heard a tub bass at all until the skiffle days in London.
What about the lager-phone?
The lager-phone - it may have existed here and there, particularly perhaps on the fringes of bush towns rather than in the bush itself, because on the edge of the towns you get small instrumental ensembles which you never got in the bush simply because there were hardly ever enough players together to form an ensemble. It was all solo playing.
Further west, between Condobolin and White Cliffs, there was quite a lot of gum leaf playing. In those days in the bush, at football matches in small bush towns. if there were many Aboriginals near. the Aboriginal gum leaf band would be a feature; they'd trudge all the way round the pitch, before the game and during, half-time. Playing pops mostly - hardly ever a note of Australian music, never Aboriginal music. Mostly standard jazz numbers out of the Paul Whiteman repertory, adapted for gum leaf purposes. "Tea for Two" was a great gum leaf production number, I remember. Very mournful, it sounded.
Which were the most common songs that you heard?
"One-Eyed Reilly", that was very common in the shearing sheds. It's seemingly very good to shear to. "Click go the Shears" quite often. Ben Hall songs - there were quite a number of songs about Ben Hall, especially in the country between Parkes, Forbes and Condobolin. That seemed to be a good area for diffusion of Ben Hall ballads. Kelly songs were not common - one or two Kelly ballads, mostly to different tunes from those the folk-song revival people are now acquainted with, but they were generally better tunes.
I'm disappointed in many respects with the melodies that are now attached to a great many of what are considered standard bush songs, because I've the feeling that in the twenties and thirties the standard of melodies was rather higher. When the collectors came onto the scene in the early 1950s too many of the good singers were no longer available; consequently, quite a number of more or less broken singers, singers who weren't so adept at carrying a tune, were recorded, and their versions passed as standard. But another factor may be this: the outback generally was probably much richer in songs than the coastal areas, and much of the recent collecting has been done in cockie country which doesn't produce, on the whole, such good versions of the songs either for poetry or for melody as those which might be obtained from further outback. The cocky territory, the coastal territory, is in closer contact with town music, with printed music that may partly account for it. The further outback you go, the more the fellows are thrown back on their own resources. Rather than taking ready made models they have to create their own; so, quite often, you get more surprises and more secrets in the melody and poetry from further outback. Most of the collecting has been done rather late in the day. It was already late in the day in my time, I guess, and bush music had got rather too close to conventional popular music - old time Music Hall and Hillbilly, anything between those two poles.
There is a theory that the singers had a kind of ownership agreement about the songs, that they "owned" their songs and would not allow other people to sing them while they were present. Did you find that at all?
I think that only applied, for example, in small bush towns or settlements where there were four or five singers who lived there practically all their lives and who appeared at sing-songs, and everybody associated certain songs with them. On the stations that didn't apply, because the population was too floating. A fellow arrived on the station; he worked there for maybe six months and then he'd be off somewhere else; he wasn't there long enough to establish "ownership" of a song. Very likely he knew songs that the others didn't; they were "his" in the sense that nobody else had learned them on that particular station, but even so ther was no suggestion of proprietary rights, either formally or out of politeness.
Did you look up any of the songs in printed sources?
Yes. Rather late I bought - in Condobolin, I suppose - a copy of Banjo Paterson's "Old Bush Songs". But that was later on, shortly before I left Australia, and I found there versions of several songs that I'd known, which I'd acquired and which were in my exercise books. Some of them were very close to the Paterson versions and may well have been learned from print. The first edition of "Old Bush Songs" was published in 1905; I think there were seven editions between then and 1930. There's quite a good chance that several of the songs I heard were learned from print or adapted as a result of what the Americans call "exposure" to Paterson's printed set. I've never seen Paterson's book in the hands of bush workers - apart from myself - although since I was able to buy it in Condobolin, it must have been very easily available by, say, 1930. So, while I never encountered it as a bit of essential bush furniture, there must have been quite a lot of copies floating around the bush, and a lot of people must have learned songs from it.
How has the collection of folk songs in Australia compared with that in England and the United States, for instance?
What has happened in Australia is that the songs have been collected piecemeal, a sort of vacuum cleaner operation, and not always a very thorough bit of vacuum cleaning at that. Except from good vacuum cleaners like John Meredith, who absorbed a lot of songs even from a relatively limited territory. If Meredith had had the chance to go further outback, I think he would have added considerably to the interesting songs that he did get. But generally speaking, all the collectors merely collected songs. The big difference between the Australian collectors and collectors in Europe and to a certain extent in the United States is that the activity in Australia is limited to collecting, whereas in other countries of course collecting has been much more systematic, it is only considered as the first part of the operation. The important part for modern collectors happens after you've got the stuff on tape - the business of analysing, of arriving at the background of it, of investigating precisely what the song is about. What its relation is to other parallel folk songs, what the relation of the melody is to other, sometimes quite remotely related, melody families, and so on. The really folkloric work has still not been done in Australia. One or two people have shown considerable curiosity of a scientific kind - especially Edgar Waters, who is probably the best commentator on Australia folk song so far. But, on the whole, commentary on Australian folk song is very weak. Scientifically, the study of Australian folklore is at a very primitive level; I suppose that's the big difference.
In North America, of course, there's been an enormous lot of collecting for collecting's sake, and the level of commentary is not always very high. American folklorists often have an inflated notion of how good they are. They're quite often, by European standards, especially East European, still like 19th century romantic folklorists rather than modern scientific folklorists. Folklore is a complicated matter. It is a relatively new study which is only just beginning to become a science proper; but the more scientific folklore becomes, the more we find that its frame extends beyond a consideration of the poetics, of the structure of the poetry, of the structure of the melodies. Not even the beginnings of formal folklore analysis has been done in Australia so far.
Even more importantly, the frame of folklore nowadays has been enlarged to include sociology, psychology, this, that and the other. No attempt has been made so far to relate Australian folk song to the psychology of bush workers. Indeed, precious little attempt has been made to arrive at what the psychology of bush workers was.
Incidentally, it seems to me that a particularly sadly neglected area has been the collection of folktales. In my time, the bush tale was in a much better condition than the bush song. There was more occasions for the telling of bush tales than for the singing of bush songs. There were always certain inhibitions attached to singing - except in the shearing sheds, where it was presumed that there was no audience, where the bloke was just singing to keep himself going. Singing for an audience in more or less formal circumstances on a station tended to be a little embarrassing, even for a good performer. I don't suppose that applied so much in township singabouts and pub singabouts, but we never got much of that because, being stuck out on the stations, we seldom heard other singing than what was done on the verandah or in the kitchen.
But tales - there was any amount of opportunity for tales. We used to tell tales to each other while we were mustering, or on similar jobs. Riding along, rather slowly once the mob was together, moving from one paddock to another, or to the shearing shed or the railway yards. We would often ride together instead of being spread out, it the mob was moving comfortably, and we would spend hours in yarning, telling strings of anecdotes with sometimes quite complicated stories, lasting a quarter of an hour or more. But I never see those yarns in Australian folklore collections. There are one or two publications which have skeletal tales, short anecdotes, like some of the publications of Bill Wannan, for example, which are very flavorsome and very characteristically Australian; but the kind of tales we used to swop were considerable, sometimes almost epic, enlargements of that sort of thing, and so more interesting. It may be that one or two collectors, like Alan Marshall for example, have manuscripts of this kind; I have the feeling that he is the kind of collector who must have bumped into the longer tales that we used to tell. Again, the territory over which most of the Australian collectors have worked may have something to do with this. In that part of the country where the properties are much smaller, in cocky country for example, you didn't find those long tales. There were any number of anecdotes, often very funny, but not the long tales - perhaps partly because time seldom hangs on the cocky's hands, in the way that it does on the outback stockman's.
What used to happen often was, because we were bored and most of us had little to read or to fill our minds with beyond talk, somebody would tell an anecdote, and that would stick in our heads, and perhaps three or four such anecdotes would begin to form a little cluster; and, lying in your bunk, you'd think it over and make an extended story with several narrative threads to it just simply by putting anecdotes together and giving them an overall form. So that from, say, three two-minute stories, you'd make a ten or twelve-minute story simply by embedding them in a kind of cocoon of nonsense, and you'd trot it out as an extended tale. That used to happen over and over again.
There were quite a number of Speewa stories on the go, for example, especially in Western New South Wales. I suspect that Queensland is probably the great place for Speewa tales, but there were a lot in Western New South Wales too, and of course they're ideal for stringing together. You can make 'a big fairy tale by putting a number of Speewa tales together and establishing a single character for them. Well, there is already a whole cast, a whole pantheon of Speewa characters. What with Uncle Harry and Crooked Mick and all the others, they're sort of god-like figures; it's easy to attach specific adventures to them, according to their characters. That used to happen with us, and the telling of tales was certainly a livelier pursuit than the singing of songs.
I never tried to write tales down in order to remember them. I always reckoned that I would recall them and re-create them. I used to fancy myself as a re-creator of tales; of course, an enormous lot of them have quite naturally dropped out of my head. But I still like to recall quite a number of the kind of tales that we used to tell. Those that I have in my head I have not as objects of received folklore, but as objects of reconstructed folklore. That is, I still tell many of them, but I don't tell them in the form that I got them.
How are Australian tunes related to other bodies of folk music?
The tradition of native Australian songs being a relatively recent one, the tunes are as a rule of relatively recent character. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are entirely devoid of quite archaic elements of folklore, as we realise now. Characteristically, a great many of the tunes attached to native Australian balladry are of a 'Come All Ye' type; ABBA, 6/8: tunes which are sometimes modal without the singers knowing it. We presume that the 'Come All Ye' type of melody began to evolve in the Irish towns and cities towards the end of the 18th. century on a previously existing base. Some of them were probably modernisations, formalisations, of quite old Gaelic tunes; but this ABBA, 6/8 form began to evolve, we think, as a street-song type in late 18th century Ireland, and it's very easily memorable because, once you've got the first two lines of the song, you've got the whole song melodically, since it is generally ABBA, and the run of these songs is very simple. It's a kind of song style that had enormous influence in Scotland, and in the United States, especially in the North-east among fishermen and forestry workers, and in Australia. I suppose the convicts from Ireland, from Scotland, and perhaps from England too, because it became a common form in England, were already bringing out 'Come All Ye' tunes in the very first transports. And still more must have come with subsequent settlers. I should imagine that, by the 1850s, the standard Australian song type was of the 'Come All Ye' type; and of course American miners were likely to bring that sort of thing onto the goldfields, as well as the miners from Britain.
Station hands' songs, bush-ranger ballads, a good proportion of songs of bullockies and such people, droving songs-those were more likely than not to be attached to that sort of tune. Some of the melodies were of Irish origin, some of them perhaps Scots, some probably of English origin, but with these 'Come All Ye's' - it's terribly difficult to disentangle what's Irish, what's Scottish, what's English about them. They mostly sound pretty Irish; and I should think as far as one single folklore influence is concerned, the thumb-print of Ireland is heaviest on Australian songs. The Influence of Scotland - especially of that kind of Scottish song that's caught midway between folk song and parlor song - is also very considerable. The influence of English folk song proper is not nearly so strong in Australia - perhaps because English folk song proper was already a bit antiquated, a bit old-fashioned, compared with those new-fangled Irish folk-style melodies, and the semi-folklore Scots melodies. I suppose that the cause was that in England there was still a pretty wide gulf between the popular music of the towns and the strictly traditional music of the villages; whereas, in Ireland and Scotland, there was constant interplay between town music and country music, and in consequence by the nineteenth century that sort of hybrid melody didn't seem so very archaic as the peasant melody of England. It was much more acceptable to people whose backgrounds were mixed - partly urban, partly rural; as a popular vernacular form it was much more acceptable than English folk song proper which, to people brought up on more or less conventional or pop commercial music, is inclined to sound pretty weird. Whereas this 'Come All Ye' kind of melody, even if it's modal, or even if it's pentatonic, doesn't sound strange to ears that are tuned to conventional music.
I suppose it would have been mainly townspeople or semi-urban people who came to Australia?
I suppose so, although I imagine that the migration of country people was fairly considerable too. But still and all, once the rustic English settler arrived in Australia, he would find that his life was so different and his working ways and his psychology so altered that the folk songs he'd brought with him would no longer match his life so clearly; whereas that was certainly less so with Scottish and Irish settlers. Irish settlers from Gaelic districts would find of course that it was a big jolt. They would have to abandon their Gaelic language repertory, but it wouldn't be hard for them to absorb this new-fangled 'Come All Ye' kind of song because their own home repertory has been the foundation, the basis, for that.
What general qualities appear in Australian songs that distinguish them from other English language songs?
That's easier to describe by text than by melody. The big difference between the Australian native song and the British native song is that a high proportion of the Australian songs deal with the working ways and the outlook peculiar to Australia. The first thing you notice, for instance, in the body of Australian songs is the shortage of lyrical songs, particularly of lyrical songs involving women, and even more noticeably, songs that are put into a woman's mouth. There are very few Australian folk songs proper, bush songs, in which the woman is the subject rather than the object of the song. Women's songs are in short supply because women were in short supply, of course. The outback bush worker would lead pretty much a hermit's life. As far as his working week was concerned, if he was lucky and the station wasn't too far from a township, he might get into the township over the week-end. More often he would get in once a month. That's what mostly used to happen to us - we used to ride into town once a month to have our hair cut. We'd ride in, say, at Saturday dinner time, and ride back overnight on Sunday night to be in the horse yard by Monday morning for our orders.
So, partly because lyrical contact with women was not so frequent, the appearance of women in lyrical context in the songs is also infrequent. The preoccupations are mostly with working techniques, and with misadventures, especially comic misadventures, in the course of work. Boasts - there are quite a lot of bush boasting songs, some of which one had the feeling are intended rather to bolster confidence than as skiting. Bush workers, faced with emptiness, with that great nothingness, were inclined to feel that they were at the mercy of something that they didn't quite understand. And that shows in quite a lot of the songs - a certain loneliness, a certain emptiness. The character of many Australian songs lies in their featurelessness; and that's a very peculiar character that does take on a specific artistic quality. Quite of ten in the outback, when I began to read plays of Chekhov, long before I ever saw them, they seemed to me awfully like bush life, somehow. People were so bored and listless, and a whole quality would arise from that boredom, from having exhausted all conversation long, long ago, and having nothing to say to each other and very little happening in the course of the day. I think that is reflected rather strongly in certain Australian songs.
Are there any significant similarities between the bush workers' songs and the songs of other itinerants like the American cowboys or the seafarers?
Well, the first thing you notice about Australian songs as distinct from native American songs - and when I say native American songs I mean the songs that aren't derived from the British repertory at all but which evolved on the spot as lumberjack songs, cowboy songs, and so on - is how unsentimental the Australian songs are compared with the American ones. Things like the 'Dying Stockman' are rather rare in Australia. The majority of the native Australian songs are tougher, more objective, much more ironic than sentimental; whereas the American lumberjack and cowboy songs often become a sentimental wallow. The result of that is of course the Country and Western thing, which is the last refuge of Victorian sentimentalism. The native Australian song is much more ironic, much more sardonic than the American one. It's interesting that it should be so. One might have thought that the circumstances of the Australian bush worker were somehow psychologically closer to the circumstances of the American back-country worker than shows in the songs, but of course we know that, in fact, the Australian cattle country is very different from - was very different from - what the wild west of the American cattle country was, and that, for instance, it simply is no use for film makers to go to Australia to film the bush in terms of the American West. The two don't match at all. They do it because they don't know any better; they think that it must be the same despite all the evidence; but in fact anybody who has ever worked in the bush knows that it really is very different. Even different mythologically. I mean, we know that the presentation of the American West on the movies is mythology. They not only didn't think like that, they didn't even dress like that. And, of course, Australians invent their own mythology. The picture of Ned Kelly in the public mind is very different from the photograph of Kelly. But both the social-historical facts and the mythology in Australia are different from the fact and fiction of American western life. And the songs are really more different than one might have expected them to be on the face of it. Generally speaking, Australian bush songs tend to dwell more on aspects of actual work in hand than the American ones do. One would really need to put a corpus of Australian song against a corpus of American song to arrive at a proper comparison, but I have the feeling that more important songs in Australia deal with working technique than is the case with important country songs in America.
The shearing songs especially?
Some of them are very detailed, and were considered important. That is, many singers knew them, and they crop up in quite widely differing variants. An important aspect of a song's vitality is to what extent it exists in variant forms. A really vital song will be collected in innumerable forms. A song that's less vital - fewer versions of it will turn up. Fewer singers will have it in their heads. And when they do carry it, it may turn up in identical shape from one to another. That is, no singer has really been sufficiently excited by the song to apply his own fantasy to it. What happens in folk song is that it alters and takes on variant forms either through lapse of memory or through creative singers being sufficiently excited by it to alter it and make it their own. And, when you get a song that exists in a great many coherent variations, where it's been remade with affection, as it were, you can reckon that a number of singers must have considered it of considerable importance or they wouldn't have bothered to remake it.
Do you see any significance at all in the kind of non - Australian songs - say the truly British or truly Irish songs - which have been collected in Australia from people like Sally Sloane and Simon Macdonald?
No special significance. Most of the British songs in the repertory of those two singers are the standard pieces that were likely to be in the repertory of country singers in England or the more closely settled parts of Ireland. That is, most of them are of the broadside kind rather than of the sort whose circulation seems to have been almost entirely oral. Most of them are more or less modern in character, 19th century rather than earlier. Few of them are big finds as far as the deep folklore of England, Scotland or Ireland is concerned. They are representative of a latter day traditional repertory, but beyond that not of special significance. It's quite interesting that a singer like Sally Sloane has such a large repertory of songs and so few native Australian songs among that repertory, but that probably is due to a factor that I mentioned before, namely the shortage of specifically women's songs in the native Australian repertory. Most of them are masculine songs - some extremely masculine, and women may be amused by the songs but can't or don't wish to identify with them so closely that they want to learn them and reproduce them. Sally would conceivably be a little embarrassed at singing a song in which she appears in the character of a shearer. Still more of a drover.
Can you say anything about the relation of printed folk material like Paterson's "Old Bush Songs" and Stewart and Keesing's collection and the material collected in the field?
Most of the material collected in the field has been collected very late, so it's merely an extension of the kind of thing that Paterson collected. Stewart and Keesing's work is made up of material that appeared in print in cheap songsters during the 19th century, or material identical with or parallel to Paterson's. The recent Stewart and Keesing collection could not have influenced revival singers; but, as I mentioned before, I'm quite sure that Paterson's "Old Bush Songs", between 1905 and the early 1930s, must have had a considerable influence on bush singers; it was usually found in small bush townships in the stationers' shops, next door to cheap editions of "The Sentimental Bloke". Those were sometimes the only two books you could get - oh, and Steele Rudd's books. Because even Lawson's work was not so well known in the bush as the Steele Rudd stories or the "Sentimental Bloke".
Could you say something about other folk material that could be collected?
Yes, folklore studies should no longer be limited to what's called spiritual folklore, that is the song and the tale and the folk speech, proverb, metaphor and so on, all of which is important. One or two people like Bill Wannan have done rather well with things like proverbs, metaphors, vernacular similes and so on, although much more needs doing there and it's a great field for folklore research.
But besides all that there is the recording of oral history from old timers - old timers' accounts of events, their recollections, which quite often take the form themselves of tales and which quite often only have a slender basis in fact because memory lapses have been filled in with imaginative detail. Indeed this may apply to bush workers particularly, because, owing to the nature of their occupation, they are inclined to be more ruminative and to turn things over and over in their mind. Recollections roll round one's head like a snowball and begin to attract all sort of elements which don't really belong to them but which fill the reminiscence up and make it more vivid, so that the accounts one may get from old-time shearers of shearers' strikes, for example, may be filled in with anecdotes from here and there which the blokes themselves have come to believe really happened at that time, even though they didn't. The collection of oral history belongs partly to the world of folk tale. It's up to the scientific folklorists to sort out fact from reconstruction. Anyway, that's a very important aspect of folklore too. The folk riddle - it's very much neglected in Australia, too; but all of those things belong to the realm of spiritual folklore.
Quite apart from that, it seems to me that material folklore of the bush is possibly something that is neglected too. Now, the study of material folklore always impinges a bit on the study of ethnography. And it may well be that this study of Australian material folklore has been carried out much more fully than I realise. I have not come across serious studies of this sort but that may simply be a gap in my education. Still, one of these days I would like to see in the Australian cities a big ex of bush. This exhibition could well show first of all the spread of pastoral civilisation in Australia with pictures by amateur bush artists, for example, of bush life. Also some pictures by serious professional painters of bush life. Illustrations from bush calendars. Carvings made by bush workers, some of whom were good wood carvers. A collection of old time bush songsters should of course be part of the spread of bush civilisation; then, too, working gear, all manner of portable equipment, of the people who worked sheep and cattle, illustrations of methods of catching sheep, of throwing cattle, general stockyard techniques. The bush knife and its use as a castrator, hoof-parer, this, that and the other. Ways of signalling used by bush workers, calling to each other. After all, Australia used to be famous for bush signals. "Coo-ee" was the great Australian hallmark sound at one time - a signature tune - although I must say I never heard anybody cooeeing in the bush, but perhaps I wasn't in the right part of the bush for it. Anyway, forms of signal used from one bush worker to another. The kinds of sounds, cries used for mustering and for general stockyard work. Whistle signals to cattle dogs, sheep dogs, etc. The whole business of the sheep dog as a breed and the cattle dog as a breed, and the working techniques of sheep and cattle dogs, that's all part of it too. The horse - very important, the folklore of the horse - with tales of particularly knowing horses. Sayings about horses. We used to say, of very clever stock ponies, "I reckon that pony was sired from the second strand of a five-wire fence". Which is in itself a sidelight on a number of aspects of bush psychology.
Harness gear. Forms of saddle which are specifically Australian. Stirrup patterns, kinds of bridles, bridle bits (many of them have their own specific names, barcoo bits for example). Stock whips, the construction of stock whips. Various ways of cracking stock whips with the names attached to the various ways - "Queensland Flash", "Canandra Popper" and other such ways of inducing single or multiple cracks by various gestures, overarm, underarm, fore and aft and so on. General equipment like branding irons and brand shapes. Earmarks and earmarking gear. Sheep marking stampers. Pack saddles and pack harness and the pack horses, a separate folklore of the pack horse as distinct from the stock pony. Bush domestic equipment. Quart pots, pint pots. Different shapes of billies. Different kinds of home-made spoons, fork substitutes. The various sorts of shelter constructed for themselves by drovers and such. Various types of shelter for sheep. Various types of yard construction for both sheep and cattle. Shearing techniques. Very important crafts relating to bush life. I mentioned wood carving. Whip plaiting. As an extension of whip plaiting, we have a great many different ways of making crackers. For example, poppers for whips, made of various materials. Some liked horse-hair poppers, some liked string poppers. One or two fancy people liked cat-gut poppers, though they're a bit hard on cattle, you can cut them a bit deep with a cat-gut popper. You make poppers of different shapes-plaited, twisted - and of different proportions. Sundry carved utensils. Bush beliefs; fortune telling books that circulated almost entirely in the bush usually had in the back various rather folkloric ways of treating sheep illnesses. Quite unscientific often, but still an interesting sidelight on pastoral folklore.
Different forms of musical instruments particularly associated with the bush, including things like the fence wire triangle, the jews' harp and the other instruments we've mentioned. Bushmen's clothes at different times of history. The introduction, spread and diffusion of concertina leggings, for example, is quite interesting. Where you find concertina leggings and where you don't. And when they were introduced and when they became popular. Quite Interesting for example, is the latecoming of the broad-brimmed hat, the American cowboy style hat. In my day in the bush, even in the hottest, driest parts of the bush, you only wore something with a brim the size of an ordinary trilby. You didn't wear those fancy five-gallon hats that now seem to have become quite common - first of all in Queensland, incidentally, then spreading into New South Wales, but they're an American importation. Conceivably their diffusion corresponds with the diffusion of Country and Western music; I wouldn't be surprised.
All these things are aspects of folklore, and are well worth considering; they are "folk life" studies as well as folklore studies, and to my mind any Australian university worth the name should have a department devoted to that kind of investigation.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory