Australian Folk Songs

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Songs The Pioneers Sang (1954)

Catholic Weekly 11 February 1954 pp. 12-13.

Songs The Pioneers Sang
Lonely, and in the midst of hardship, convict
and free settler set their troubles to music

IN the rush and bustle of modern life most Australians had forgoten the songs of their ancestors, the pioneers who came from lands afar to tame the wilderness and win a continent. But a priest and a troubadour have set them singing again of the olden days when the nation was young and a new way of life was building.

Australia is only now showing a resurgence of interest in her own folk songs, for little had been done until recently in unearthing her rich wealth, but now the early songs are riding the crest of a wave of popularity that promises to be no mere ephemeral craze. Two men haye had much to do with this. These two men -- one a priest, the other a troubadour; one an Australian, the other an American -- were born with a love in their hearts for people and for the songs they sing. That the two should meet was, perhaps, inevitable.

Dr. Percy Jones, a Catholic priest, Director of Music for the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Vice-Director of the Melbourne University Conservatorium, has for long years been gathering and preserving songs and melodies of Australia's pioneering days.

Burl Ives, a wandering minstrel at large in the mid-twentieth century, gathers songs as a rolling stone is said to gather no moss. His troubadour's trail brought him from his native America to Australia and Percy Jones.

It followed, naturally, that Ives should sing songs garnered by Jones. Australia heard them, is singing them, and calling for more. "Why not?" said Dr. Jones, in his book-music-piano-record-record-player-clustered office at the Conservatorium. "They are good songs to sing." He agrees they are not great music or great literature, but they come from the heart of the people and have a place there.

For philologists and historians who are not satisfied that a song should be just a good song to sing, Dr. Jones agrees that folk songs also have other values, in some of which he is not in the least interested. He does, however, point out that they are educational for adults as well as children.

As an illustration he offers an old shearing song he discovered, and which, he says, tells the whole story of shearing:

Out on the board the old shearer stands,
Grasping the shears in his thin, bony hands;
Fixed is his case on a bare-bellied yow,
Glory, if he gets her, won't he make the ringer go!

With this rhythmic chorus after each verse:

Click go the shears, boys, click, click, click!
Wide is his blow and his hand moves quick;
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,
And curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yow.

Some other verses are:

In the middle of the floor, in his cane- bottomed chair,
Sits the boss of the board, with his eyes everywhere;
Notes well each fleece as it comes to the screen,
Paying strict attention if it's taken off clean.

The tar boy is there, waiting in demand,
With his blackened tarpot and his tarry hand;
Sees one old sheep with a cut upon its back,
Hears what he's waiting for, "Tar here, Jack!"

Shearing is all over, and we've all got our cheques,
Roll up your swag, for we're off on the tracks;
The first pub we come to, it's there we'll have a spree,
And everyone that comes alone, it's "Come and drink with me!"

Down by the bar the old shearer stands,
Grasping his class in his thin, bony hands;
Fixed is his gaze on a green-painted keg,
Glory, he'll get down on it, ere he stirs a peg!

There we leave him standing, shouting for all hands,
Whilst all around him, every shouter stands;
His eyes are on the cask, which is now lowering fast;
He works hard, he drinks hard, and, goes to hell at last!

The tune is that of the English religious song, "Ring the Bell, Watchman!" It is a good rollicking song, and gives a hearty and readily appreciated picture of the shearing shed, shearers, and, to a slight extent, their professional jargon.

The "board" is the floor of the shearing shed, a "bare-bellied yow" is a ewe without wool on the belly (quicker to shear, and therefore eagerly sought by the shearers), the ringer is the recognised champion of the shed, a "blow" is the stroke with which the shears are wielded, and the tarboy's task is to apply a dab of tar to cuts on the sheep.

Shearers then, as now, were paid at a rate for each sheep shorn, hence the monetary incentive to keep as near to the ringer's tally as possible. The ringer of a shed always enjoyed great personal prestige, and it was therefore a matter of no small honor to beat him or to come very close to his tally.

These songs were not written for the concert hall. They were for people to sing; to while away the starlit hours after a hard day's work in the stifling heat of the shearing shed; for the "bullocky" with a long and lonely road ahead and a slow team to drive; for the boundary rider with weeks of no company but his own; for the stockman night-riding a mob of edgy cattle.

Many of Australia's folk songs are closely related to work. Australian stockmen, as American cowboys, have always been great singers, and for the same reason. When a mob of cattle becomes restless -- sometimes even the cracking of a twig may send them stampeding -- a familiar human voice, especially if singing, has a soothing and settling effect on them. Hence the custom of singing to the cattle after they have been camped down for the night -- and for the stockman's and cowboy's repertoire of songs with interminable verses.

THE old ballads were handed down by word of mouth, and tunes and words were often changed to suit locality, personal preference, or circumstance. They were sung around campfires, or on the track, or around bullock drivers' camps, as men went about their work or travelled the land in quest of it, which was especially so in the case of shearers and othar itinerant workers who had, perforce, to follow the seasons.

The songs themselves, Dr. Jones points out, are mainly in the tradition of those of the British Isles, whence came the majority of the early settlers. In many cases the tunes were those already well known.

Many of these songs, unfortunately, have already been lost, but men like "Banjo" Paterson, Will Lawson, and Frank Reed ("Bill Bowyang") have done much to preserve them from ob- livion. Now to add to their work and take it still further have come such ardent enthusiasts as Dr. Jones, on the musical side, and Russel Ward, on the historical side.

Ward has for long been a folk song enthusiast, and at present is doing research on them at the National University, Canberra, on a scholarship in history. His interest is more academic and literary than that of Dr. Jones, but his work will not only help preserve old songs, but should give greater understanding of Australian history and, perhaps, even salvage some of the richness of the language of the past, for he is meticulous in tracking down the varying versions of the old songs, with old words and phrases now passed from popular speech.

Many of the old songs are reminiscent of the simple type of song popular in Ireland, such as the "Come all Ye." Melodically, they are not as rich as their prototypes, but they excel in rhythmic lilt, and have an ease that makes them ideal for singers, as Burl Ives proves.

How old are they?

They began in the convict days, and continued from there. The early convict songs reflect their thoughts and feelings, often with sardonic humor or a bold and brassy lack of repentance; some times with cocky cheeriness in the face of adversity, but often, too, with a sullen, bitter determination for revenge.

The Botany Bay songs illustrate this:

I was brought up in London Town, a place I know so well;
Brought up by honest parents, the truth to you I'll tell.
Brought up by honest parents, and reared most carefully,
Till I a roving lad became, which proved my destiny.

Taken was my character, and I was sent to jail:
My father tried to save me, but nothing would prevail,
Till at the Court of Sessions, I heard the Judge to say,
"The Jury's found you guilty, boy, and you're going to Botany Bay."

I saw my aged father there, while standing at the Bar,
Likewise my aged mother, who tore her long, grey hair;
While tearing at her long grey locks, these words I heard her say,
"O son! O son! What have you done, that you're going to Botany Bay?"

There is a girl in London Town, her name I know full well,
And if ever I gain my liberty, along with her I'll dwell,
And if ever I gain my liberty, I'll forsake all other girls,
I'll forsake all evil company, my boys, and adieu to New South Wales.

The remorse and homesickness of that is in strong contrast to:

Farewell to Old England for ever,
Farewell to our rum culls as well,
Farewell to the well-known Old Bailey,
Where I used for to cut such a swell.

Singing toor-a-lie, oor-a-lie-addity,
Singing toor-a-lie, oor-a-lie-aye,
Singing toor-a-lie, oor-a-lie-addity,
For we're going to Botany Bay.

T'aint leaving Old England we cares about,
T'aint cause we misspells what we knows,
But because all of us light-fingered gentry
Gets around wiv a log on our toes.

There's the captain as is our commander,
There's the bo'sun and all the ship's crew,
There's the first and the second class passengers
Knows what we poor convicts goes through.

Now all you young dukes and duchesses,
Take warning from what I do say;
Mind all is yer own what yer toucheses,
Or you'll find us in Botany Bay.

These, however, were the songs of the exiles. Homesickness was perhaps their keynote, no matter how disguised or enwrapped with humor or venom, as for instance:

O, listen for a moment, lads, and hear me tell my tale;
How o'er the sea from England's shore I was compelled to sail.
The jury says, "He's guilty, sir," and says the judge, says he,
"For life, Jim Jones, I'm sending you across the stormy sea.
And take my tip before you ship to join the iron gang,
Don't be too gay at Botany Bay or else you'll surely hang;
Or else you'll hang," he says, says he, "and after that, Jim Jones,
High up upon the gallows tree, the crows will pick your bones.
You'll have no chance for mischief then; remember what I say.
They'll flog the poachin' out of you, out there at Botany Bay."
The winds blew high upon the sea, and the pirates came along,
But the soldiers of our convict ship were full five hundred strong;
They opened fire and somehow drove that pirate ship away,
I'd have rather joined that pirate ship than have come to Botany Bay.
We toil and toil, and, when we die, must fill dishonored graves,
But bye and bye I'll break my chains: Into the bush I'll go,
And join the brave bushrangers, Jack Donohoo and Co.
And some dark night when everything is silent in the town,
I'll kill the tyrants one and all, and shoot the floggers down;
I'll give the law a little shock; remember what I say,
They'll yet regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

AND many of them of Jim Jones' mettle did join the bushrangers, giving rise, among other things, to still more songs.

The Bold Jack Donohoo, mentioned by Jim Jones, was one such. Donohoo was born in Castlemaine, Ireland, and at the ago of 16 was sent to Australia as a convict in the ship Ann and Amelia, arriving in 1825. He worked in an ironed gang until taking to the bush with two other bolters, Walmesley and Webber. He soon had a company of about a dozen other desperadoes, who ranged the Nepean and Hawkesbury districts. A cave near Bringelly, in the Nepean district, is still known locally as "the bushrangers' cave."

Donohoo reigned over his domain for several years, until in an encounter with a group of "horse police" and settlers he was shot dead.

The "Sydney Gazette," a journal long since gone out of existence, reporting the encounter and its outcome, said that Donohoo took off his hat, waved it three times, and cried, "Come on, you cowardly rascals! We are ready for you if there's a dozen of you!" It is possible, of course, that Donohoo's actual words may have been somewhat less formal, but in the ballad that sang of his deeds, he says:

"Resign to you, you cowardly dogs! A thing I'll never do,
For I'll fight this night with all my might," cried bold Jack Donohoo.
"I'd rather roam these hills and dales, like wolf or kangaroo,
Than work one hour for government," cried bold Jack Donohoo.

THIS ballad became so popular around bush grog shanties and the tough Rocks area of Sydney Town that it was banned by the authorities. However, the wild colonial boy songs then came to the fore, and in most of these the hero's name always begins with the initials J.D. -- Jim Doolan, Jack Duggan, Jack Dowling, to mention but three. The tunes vary also. It is sung to the tune of "The Lincolnshire Poacher," "The Wearing of the Green," and a completely different one altogether by the Irish singer, Delia Murphy. Dr. Jones has yet a different tune.

Dr. Jones prefers a version about Jack Dowling, who, he says, was a Victorian boy; as the song says, he did "stick up" the Beechworth mail coach and rob a judge. In the song, the judge's name is McEvoy, and Dr. Jones says it was a name very similar to that, and that the family is still extant in Victoria.

The following version, in which the hero's name is Jack Donohoo, is one that appealed to Russel Ward:

There was a wild colonial boy Jack Donohoo by name,
Of poor but honest parents, he was born in Castlemaine,
He was his father's dearest hope, his mother's pride and joy,
O, fondly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.

So ride with me, my hearties, we'll cross the mountains high,
Together we will plunder, together we will die.
We'll wander through the valleys and gallop o'er the plains,
For we scorn to live in slavery, bound down with iron chains.

He was scarcely sixteen years of age when he left his father's home,
A convict to Australia, across the seas to roam.
They put him in the iron gang, in the government employ,
But ne'er an iron on earth could hold the wild colonial boy.

And when they sentenced him to hang, to end his wild career,
With a loud shout of defiance, bold Donohoo broke clear,
He robbed the wealthy silvertails, their stock he did destroy,
But no trooper in the land could catch the wild colonial boy.

One day when he was cruising near the broad Nepean's side,
From out the thick Bringelly bush, the horse police did ride.
"Die or resign, Jack Donohoo!" they shouted in their joy.
"I'll fight this night with all my might," cried the wild colonial boy.

Thus he fought six rounds with the horse police, before the fatal ball,
Which pierced his heart and made him start, caused Donohoo to fall.
And then he closed his mournful eyes, his pistol an empty toy,
Crying, "Parents, dear, O say a prayer, for the wild colonial boy."

A THIRD-GENERATION Australian, Dr. Jones was born in Geelong, Victoria, 39 years ago, of a musical family, and has devoted his life to music, which he considers, with the other arts, is essential to human beings if they are to live full and satisfactory lives. This accounts for his interest in folk songs, because they are not the kind of songs that are accepted passively by passive audiences, but are sung by people among themselves. His interest in Australian folk songs goes back to when he was living in Ireland about 15 years ago, and noted a resurgence there of interest in old Gaelic songs. When he returned to Australia he found a developing interest in folk songs there, too, but the songs being sung were mostly from other lands.

They were good songs, he said, but he thought that if Australians were going to sing folk songs, they might as well sing their own. Since then he has been in quest of them, garnering them from many and varied sources.

Dr. Jones now uses a wire recorder to capture from old people the songs of yesteryear. He found it was too slow to take down the words and music while the old singers sang and resang them. It was also tiring to both, for taking down a long song often proved a day's work.

One elderly man, whose store of songs was rich, died before they could all be committed to paper. He was about 80, and his recollections went back to his childhood, when his parents kept a hotel near Bendigo, and he, then about 10, used to spend much time in a nearby bullock drivers' camp, and learned the songs the bullockies sang.

And the bullockies were songsters indeed; even their profanity is reputed to have reached lyrical heights, and as yarn spinners they were hard to beat. They were rough and tough; they had to be, for theirs was a hard and lonely life. Their songs give a clue to it, as in "The Old Bullock Dray":

Oh, the shearing is all over, and the wool is coming down,
And I mean to get a wife, boys, when I go up to town;
Everything that has two legs represents itself in view,
From the little paddy melon to the bucking kangaroo.

So It's roll up yoar blankets and let's make a push,
I'll take you up Use country and show you the bush;
I'll be bound such a chance you won't get another day.
So come and take possesion of my old bullock dray.

Now I've saved up a rood cheque I mean to buy a team.
And when I get a wife boys, I'll be all serene;
For calling at the depot, they say there's no delay,
To get an offsider for the old bullock dray.

Oh, we'll live like fighting cocks, for good living I'm your man,
We'll have leather Jacks, Johnny cakes, and fritters in the pan.
Or if you'd like some fish, then some I'll catch you soon,
For we'll bob for barramundies round the banks of a lagoon.

Oh, yes, of beef and damper I take care we have enough,
And we'll boil in the bucket such a whopper of a duff,
And all our friends will dance to the honor of the day,
To the music of the bells around the old bullock dray.

Now we'll stop all immigration, we won't need it any more;
We'll be having young natives, twins by the score,
And I wonder what the devil Jack Robertson would say,
If he saw us promenading round the old bullock dray.

The reign of the bullockies was a period of real pioneering and development in - Australia. As in this song, the odour of convictism was gone, or at least had faded considerably, as had the homesick ness and yearning for lands across the sea. Songs like 'The Old Bullock Dray' were about a home land and a people who belonged in it.

The 'depot' to which the song refers was an establishment in which 'unmarried female mig rants' went on arrival and whence they went either to work or matrimony. Jack Robertson (later Sir John) was a prominent politician of the day. Paddy melons are very small creatures like tiny kangaroos. Damper, johnny cakes and the like are a type of camp bread, made mainly from flour and water and cooked in the ashes of the fire. The 'duff' is a plum pudding, tied in a cloth and boiled. An 'offsider' walked on the off side of the team and assisted the driver by plying whip and tongue from that position. The term is still widely used in Australia, and means a helper or assistant.

Although Australia has no mighty rivers, the Murray was big enough for paddle-wheel steamers, and some songs tell of the days when they were a common sight. The following is one of the songs recorded by Burl ives, and which both he and Dr. Jones, who resurrected it, particularly enjoy So does everyone else who hears it.

I sing of a captain who's well known to fame,
A naval commander. Bill Jinks was his name.
Who sailed where the Murray's clear waters do flow.
Did this freshwater shellback, with his yo-heave-a-yo!

To the port of Warunyah his vessel was bound.
When night came upon him, and darkness was round.
No glitter on the water its clear light did throw,
But the vessel aped onwards with his yo-heave-a-yo!

'O captain!, O captain! let's make for the shore!
For the winds they do race and the waves they do roar.'
'Nay, nay,' said the captain, 'though the fierce winds may blow,
I will stick by my ship with a yo-heave-a-yo!'

'O captain! O captain! The waves sweep the deck.
O captain! O captain! We'll soon be a wreck.
To the river's daft bosom each seaman will so.'
But the captain laughed loudly with a yo-heave-a-yo!

'Farewell to our maidens, the girls we adore,
Farewell to our friends, we shall see them no more.'
The crew shrieked with terror; the captain he swore.
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.

WHEREVER the shearer, the drover, the bullocky, the stockman, or even the old 'sundowner' wont, his dog wont along too. In fact, early songs often had no other audience than the Ringer's attentive dog, a creature inseparable from any busbtaan, and with whom they are much given to conversing.

The bush workers were independent characters, at home in the bush and accustomed to getting their living from it. They and their dogs followed 'the tracks' from one station to another. The dog was their companion, and he held a place in their songs as well as their conversations, as:

Me and my dog have tramped together, in cold weather and hot.
Me and my dog don't care whether we get any work or not.

A less accommodating creature, however, was the dog whose exploit is now commemorated by a larger-than-life statue on the road to Gundagai. This song, like 'The Wild Colonial Boy,' has many versions, perhaps the best known being that by the late Jack Moses. The following version, however, is one unearthed by Russel Ward:

I'm used to punchin' bullock teams across the hills and plains,
I've teamed outback this forty year in blazin' droughts and rains,
I've lived a heap of troubles down, without a bloomin' lie,
But I can't forret what happened me, nine miles from Gundagai.

'Twas gettin' dark, the team got bogged, the axle snapped in two,
I lorst me matches and me pipe, so what was I to do?
Rain came on, 'twas bitter cold, and hungry, too. Was I,
And the dog, he sat in the tucker box, nine miles from Gundagai.

I can forrive the blinkln' team, I can forgive the rain,
I can forgive the dark and cold, I can forgive the pain;
I can forrive me rotten luck, but hang me till I die!
I carn't forgive that plurry dog, nine miles from Gundagai.

THE early songs of the convict era were, reasonably enough, strongly tinged with social protest, but it was mostly protest against conditions elsewhere that had caused them to be sent to 'cursed New South Wales,' and the continuation of 'the system' and all that had come with it is that 'colony of durance vile.' But as time went by and the proportion of Australian-born people increased, and at last preponderated, the attitude towards the country changed. These people were, for the most part, every wlilt as hostile to the tyrannical 'system' as the 'old lags,' but not towards the country; it was their homeland, either by birth or by adoption, and their songs show the developing feeling for it .'is their home. While Bold Jack Donohoo preferred to live 'like wolf or kangaroo' in the inhospitable place rather than return to tho ironed gang or tho gallows, one of the subsequent wild colonial boys took to the bush simply because he liked it, and the song tells how he rode along enjoying the wild birds' 'cheerful song.'

However, it is obvious that his attitude to the country was very different from that of Donohoo, although he held the "Traps" or "Jerry Hoppers" (police) and "Lobsters" (British Redcoats) in no higher esteem.

The more law-abiding sections of the 'natives' were no loss inclined to voice social protest in their songs than the wild colonial boys, as, for example, in 'The Old Bark Hut.' which tells graphically of the hardship and social injustice suffered by the bush-workers of the day. A few of its interminable verses (there are 30 in some versions) set the feeling:

Oh, my name in Hob the Swagman, before you all I stand.
And I've had many ups and downs while travelling throurh the land.
I once was well-to-do, boys, but now I am stumped up,
And I'm forced to go on rations, in an old bark hut.

Ten pounds of flour, ten pounds of beef, some sugar and some tea.
That's all they give to a hungry man, until the Seventh Day,
If you don't be mighty sparing you'll go with a hungry gut,
For that's one of the great misfortunes, in an old bark hut.

The bucket you boll your beef in has to carry water, too.
And they'll say you're getting mighty flash, if you should ask for two.
I've a billy and a pint pot, and a broken-handled cup.
And they all adorn the table in the old bark hut.

Faith, the table is not made of wood, as many you have seen.
For if I had one half so good, I'd think myself serene:
'Tis only an old sheet of bark--God knows when it was cut
It was blown from off the rafters of the old bark hut.

And of furniture there's no such thing, 'twas never in the place,
Except the stool I sit upon, and that's an old gin case.
It does us for a safe as well, but you must keep it shut.
Or the fleas would make It canter round the old bark hut.

In the winter time, preserve us all, to live in there's a treat.
Especially when It's raining hard and blowing wind and sleet;
The rain comes down the chimney, and your meat is black with soot,
That's a substitute for pepper in an old bark hut.

I've seen the rain come in this hut, just like a perfect flood.
Especially through the great big hole, where once the table stood;
There's not a blessed spot, me boys where you can lay your nut.
But the rain is sure to find you, in the old bark hut.

So beside the fire I make me bed, and there I lay me down,
And think myself as happy as the king that wears a crown;
But as you're dozing off to sleep a flea will wake you up.
Which makes you curse the vermin in the old bark hut.

As Dr. Jones contends and Burl Ives' recordings prove, they are good songs to sing. They are part of a rich pioneering tradition, and an integral part of Australian his- tory and way of life, to which Russel Ward's researches can testify, and on which they throw much light.

In addition to those that Ives has recorded, Dr. Jones has pub- lished many others, and hopes to have still more available soon. Meanwhile, the quest for still others goes on--and of course, folk songs are still coming into existence. Some will die. Some will live.

A very modern one that Russel Ward found was being sung by an eight-year-old schoolgirl, and con- cerned the breakdown of the famous racehorse, Bernborough, now a sire in America. She wrote out all she could remember of it for him under the title, 'Brake Down of Burn Burrow.' That is the stuff of which folk songs have always been made.


Although unattributed in this important article, the words given for Jim Jones At Botany Bay are almost identical to the set published in Charles McAlister's 'Old Pioneering Days in the Sunny South' published in 1907. See Jim Jones in this collection.

From the Catholic Weekly 11 February 1954 pp. 12-13.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory