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More Than a Life
Book review by Tony Smith [Trad & Now]
It may be a cliche but - More Than a Life is difficult to put down.
In the field of Australian folklore collection, especially in New South Wales John Meredith (1920-2001) was a giant, pioneer and icon. Keith McKenry pays tribute to Meredith's achievements without ignoring the personal costs resulting from singleminded devotion to a field that was unacknowledged until Meredith ploughed and sowed it.
Meredith had a difficult childhood in Holbrook. He worked after school to help sustain the family and despite being a likely dux, left school when long trousers became mandatory. He lost a kidney and endured months of hospitalisation and was an avid reader. His first book purchase was Old Bush Songs -- verse collected by Banjo Paterson.
He worked in a pharmacy despite lacking qualifications and became interested in photography and radios. Choosing a scientific way of life he abandoned religion. He was principled about this, shunning Christmas celebrations, supporting euthanasia and determined to end his own life before becoming a burden.
Meredith embraced self-sufficiency, corresponded regularly with Grass Roots magazine and toiled on 'Walden' his bush block at Balmoral in the Southern Highlands. He did not marry and revealed his sexual identity only late in life. Meredith attempted to work around Australia by bicycle, going first to Shepparton then Red Cliffs picking fruit.
He returned to Holbrook to mind Harrison's Pharmacy. He was not qualified, but he 'did have a white coat'. While Meredith's income mostly came from employment in pharmaceutical companies, such work was a means to an end. His 'real vocation lay in his ... role as the pre-eminent field collector of Australian folklore'.
Meredith visited Canberra and viewed bushranger exhibits at Collector. He stopped at the memorial to poet Henry Kendall near Gosford, picked pineapples near Brisbane then worked at Atherton, hoping to buy a camel for further explorations. Finding the work hard he wrote a poem 'The Cornpicker's Lament'.
Meredith, at 28 had to choose between Sydney and the Bush, and Sydney won. Meredith worked at Elliott & Australian Drug P/L as a counter hand. He joined the Eureka Youth League and at a Springwood camp met lifelong friend Brian Loughlin. He boarded in Petersham with fellow Communists, sold Tribune and as Treasurer of the local branch, inevitably attracted the attention of security agencies.
At weekends he enjoyed the cultural life of the Art Gallery, Museum, the Botanical Gardens and the Domain. He concocted cocktails at work and bought an accordion from Palings. In a communal house in Clovelly, Meredith sang from the Palmer/ Sutherland folio of Old Australian Bush Ballads. This stirred his interest in 'Australian bush ballads as singing material'.
When he discovered Aboriginal rock carvings near Gosford, Walkabout magazine published an article in which he attributed joint authorship to Brian. McKenry says that this established a pattern 'even where the original research and/or the writing of text was almost solely his own work'.
Meredith joined both the blueblood Royal Philharmonic Society Choir and the leftist Peoples Choir which later became the Unity Choir using Peter Seeger's songbook. These were turbulent times with the Menzies Government attempting to dissolve the Communist Party. Cultural organisations such as the New Theatre were considered suspect.
The formation of the Council for Defence of Australian Culture meant that forever afterwards, nationalism was associated with the Australian left. Emphasising Australian identity seemed like disloyalty to Britain. Meredith began a music transcription course and persuaded friend Eric Burnett to buy a bush block at Heathcote.
He was in robust good health for a change but was rushed to hospital as his appendix was about to burst. Meredith's neighbour Jack Barrie held 'Australian nights'. Jack, John and Brian donned false whiskers and sang as the Heathcote Bushwhackers with bush bass, lagerphone and accordion. Their instruments, uniform and repertoire 'Click Go the Shears' and 'Botany Bay’ represented the 'birth of the bush band genre',
Harry Kay soon joined on harmonica but Meredith hesitated over Chris Kempster's guitar. McKenry notes an 'inherent conceptual tension' between the Bushwhackers being a novelty act and presenting neglected bush culture. The quintet established a tradition of unpaid performances. Meredith set the tone for the band with his accordion. Typically one member sang the verses while the others joined the chorus in unison.
Meredith searched for more songs at the State Library. Librarian Edgar Waters introduced him to Russell Ward and Nancy Keesing who had similar interests. Fortuitously, Hilda Lane (William's niece) introduced Meredith to Jack Lee. Lee performed 'Backblocks Shearer' while Meredith transcribed, a process so slow that Meredith borrowed a tape recorder for a return visit. Lee gave him a good contact in fiddler Joe Cashmere.
Meredith recorded 16 songs and 27 tunes that Cashmere knew by ear. Meredith bought his own Pecotape recorder which cost half a year's wages. He declared himself 'a song collector, to his dying day he had no interest in song analysis'. Unfortunately McKenry does not enlarge on this distinction.
Further opportunities came with the New Theatre's 1953 production of 'Reedy River' set around the 1891 Queensland shearers' strike. The Bushwhackers needed to sing their signature tune 'Click Go the Shears' but were worried about copyright. The story of how Meredith got around this problem contrasts with his later prickliness about others not acknowledging his collections. McKenry says that 'Meredith would carry the deception with him to the grave'.
Audience members brought stories backstage. Contacts included Frank Bristow and Jack Luscombe, veterans of the 1891 strike. Queenslander Alan Scott and Gay Terry were enthused and listened to Meredith's recordings. Scott returned to Bundaberg determined to collect local material. In 1954 both the Australian Folklore Society and the Bush Music Club came into being. Keesing introduced Meredith to Ina Popplewell of Darlington. Ina had no power so they went to the home of a friend who had 'the electricity' where Meredith recorded some 19 songs and three recitations.
Meredith was becoming more selective in his collecting. He was interested not in parlour songs or music hall but 'bush songs and to a lesser degree bush tunes and recitations'. The first edition of the AFS journal Speewa, the 'first periodical in the field of Aust folklore' included an article by Meredith on Jack Lee. Meredith embarked on a collecting tour of the Upper Murray to record in Khancoban and Beechworth.
In September 1954 the Bushwhackers discontinued their involvement in 'Reedy River', effectively ending the ten month season. In only two years Meredith collected some 300 items from 50 sources after a 'standing start'. There was no manual on how to go about song collecting. When the Bushwhackers performed for the Miners' Federation in Lithgow, Meredith met the remarkable Sally Sloane, from whom he recorded another 150 songs and tunes.
The 1950s were hugely productive for Meredith. Unfortunately, frustration lay ahead. Meredith wanted his collection to be preserved but was reluctant to let the ABC copy his tapes, fearing that they might be used without acknowledgement. He was perhaps less concerned for his own credit than that of the informants who had supplied the material.
Following protracted negotiations however, the National Library moved into the area and its invaluable Oral History collection was started. Further problems arose over the use of Australian material by some overseas folklorists.
An American Academic John Greenway joined enthusiastically in local activities and copied Meredith's collection of recordings. Greenway offended Meredith in several ways. First, when returning to a USA dominated by McCarthyism he wrote that Australian folk music was dominated by communists. Secondly, he claimed that he himself had collected the material Meredith had allowed him to copy. Thirdly, he lionised the Englishman A.L. Lloyd as a collector of Australian folk songs.
Meredith was not impressed. During the 1960s general folk revival overseas artists threatened to swamp the market and distract locals from the folklore Meredith loved. Yet not all of Meredith's frustrations arose offshore. When he decided to write with Victorian Hugh Anderson the book The Folk Songs of Australia and the Men and Women Who Made Them Meredith received a six month Commonwealth of Australia Literary Fund Fellowship.
Meredith worked feverishly, sending Anderson some ten tunes per week, but the pressure told and he suffered a heart attack. This caused him to announce his retirement from collecting. He made his own digitalis from foxgloves to treat his heart, but he grew impatient with Anderson. As editor of the Bush Music Club magazine Singabout, Meredith's ideas developed.
He had set policies about which records and books to review. Initially, he would be critical of publications that worked only from secondary sources and he gave a negative review of Victorian Ron Edwards' Overlander Songbook. Eventually he decided to endorse songs which were collected here but whose origins were exotic. On first meeting Duke Tritton Meredith recorded the old shearer's traditional repertoire but shunned the Duke's own compositions.
His attitude changed however and Singabout published works by Tritton, Merv Lilley and John Dengate. Meredith described the magazine as 'traditional in style but contemporary in theme'. As McKenry's Bibliography shows, Meredith wrote plays, poems and a novel and took photographs and made films. As a musician he participated in some of the earliest recordings of traditional music by Wattle Records although his influence over style diminished after the Bushwhackers disbanded.
Wattle's LP 'Australian Traditional Singers and Musicians' included many of Meredith's sources such as Sally Sloane and Duke Tritton. Unfortunately, just one track was from Meredith's original recordings. The others had been rerecorded in the studio. Meredith passed the mantle to younger collectors.
He resumed collecting and obviously got on well with Peter Ellis on trips to WA and Victoria's Nariel Creek and with Rob Willis and David DeSanti, all of whom became prolific collectors. Meredith was immensely proud to be recognised with an Order of Australia medal in the Australia Day honours list.
Meredith refused to attend festivals. When the National Library wanted to launch his book of photographs Real Folk during the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Meredith made it clear that he would attend a Library event but not the Festival. In the same year, Keith McKenry organised a special concert on the theme of Meredith's collecting, the subject refused to attend, although he later heard a recording and was very impressed.
By organising Meredith's story into chronological order McKenry enables the reader to see how the central character developed. While Meredith is obviously the focus of More Than A Life, many of the musicians, collectors, writers, researchers and bureaucrats who were active in Australian folk music in the second half of the twentieth century have walk-on parts.
Their interactions might have been of varying warmth and productivity, but this book is a splendid introduction to their careers as well. Keith McKenry has produced a remarkable biography. His research has been extraordinarily thorough. The end notes show that he scrutinised Meredith's own writings, some of which were confidential until after the subject's death, correspondence and a mass of secondary sources.
Most appropriately McKenry listened to Meredith's recorded material and conducted extensive interviews himself. His writing style is clear and entertaining and the chronological arrangement of the material makes it accessible to the general reader. The strongest chapters are those where he sets the social and political background and shows how broader issues, such as the 'Petrov Affair' influenced cultural values.
If at times McKenry points to personal characteristics of Meredith that might seem negative, he writes with compassion, fairness and understanding. John Meredith could not have wished for a better biographer than Keith McKenry.
Many thanks to Tony Smith and Cec Bucilo for permission to republish this review. You can buy the book from the Trad & Now bookshop:
Trad & Now
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory