Australian Folk Songs
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Some recollections - Chris Kempster, February 2002©2002
[Photo: Dame Mary Gilmore and The Bushwhackers: Alex Hood, Harry Kay, Chris Kempster, Alan Scott, John Meredith, Cecil Grivas, Jack Barrie]
It was well into 1952 that John Meredith wrote saying he had these two new musical instruments that you could pick up and play almost instantly. He and some friends were having a party and I could come out and try them. This sounded wonderful. I'd been struggling, happily but slowly, with the guitar and John and I had spent some hilarious nights playing recorder together. And I've always reckoned it helps, whatever you're learning, if you can see someone else doing it, but so scarce were guitars, that, several times I'd heard blokes in road gangs yell out, "Hey, give us a tune on y' banjo, mate." I'd mutter (quietly), "It's not a bloody banjo, it's a bloody guitar." I'd had some help to get started from the wonderful Jeff Way and apart from him, and Barbara Lisyak from a distance, no other gut or nylon strung guitars had I seen. So then - musical instruments you could play sooo easily - wow!
The night came and there they were, the bush bass and the lagerphone - the "rabbiter's gift" John later called it. His brother had copied it from what he'd seen an old rabbiter playing at a Red Cross "Amateur Hour" concert in their home town of Holbrook. He also gave it the now famous name. John played the button accordion, Brian Loughlin had grabbed the lagerphone and wouldn't let go, Jack Barrie looked very much at home on the bush bass and I finally got my guitar in tune to accompany "A Starry Night for a Ramble" and many other tunes. A memorable night, but not quite the start of the Bushwhackers, as John, Brian and Jack had already played a couple of times earlier that year. In the next year or less came Harry Kay, Alex Hood, Cecil Grivas and Alan Scott, to make the full eight, of which just five now remain.
I'm sure we weren't anything special musically or technically, but we sang and played Aussie songs and music in a time when few knew anything of them and those who did declared them all "derivative". We must have been fulfilling some need as, from our first full performance at the Rivoli Hall, Hurstville, late '52, we got good receptions. We wore work boots and simple clothes to match, felt hats and a red handkerchief tied around the neck. When a British MP out here on a lecture tour wanted to hear Australian Folk music, the Dept of the Interior somehow got in touch with John and along we went to some very posh rooms above the Rural Bank in Martin Place. Heads turned and I think I remember some audible gasps as we thumped in carrying our gear. Brian introduced us, explaining that some people said there was no Australian Folk Music - only parodies, to imported tunes from Ireland or such. If so, said Brian, then we're all the same, everyone here, we're all from the same sources as the music and we're all parodies, the only Australians are the Aborigines. The audience hushed and listened and Cecil's voice rang good and true. I think what helped was that we didn't just sing songs, but sang of our culture, too long ignored. And a big part of this belief came from our Left wing backgrounds. The only place I'd heard Australian songs before this was at Eureka Youth League camps and meetings. I Don't remember John singing at the camps, but even then he was known for his knowledge of Australia - few knew, or cared, much about Aboriginal rock carvings, but John did. It was also at those camps that I first enjoyed The Irish Washerwoman and many other dances I was not to see again until the boom of the Bush Dances, over twenty years later.
The play "Reedy River" was put together by a similar bunch of Lefties in Melbourne New Theatre. They took a slab from Rigby's Romance and bits from Such is Life, gathered as many songs as they could find, nutted out a plot and Dick Diamond rounded the whole lot out and the finished play went on in early 1953. Included in the songs and central to the plot, set in the aftermath of the shearers' strike, were "1891", Helen Palmer's poem with Dee Jacobs (Doreen Bridges) music, and my 1949 setting of Lawson's "Reedy River", (for the romantic lead), and which had "travelled" there as a folk song. After the standard 6 to 8 weeks session the play was brought to the Sydney branch of New Theatre, and the Bushwhackers were invited to lend a hand with the songs. We, (John, Brian, Jack, Harry and myself), agreed to join the cast and, thoroughly entranced, I asked to be given a part. I've always suspected I was only accepted through being the composer of the title tune! Cecil was given the part of the swagman. At the first rehearsal I heard my line come up but, determined not to jump in too soon, gave it the dramatic pause it deserved. A voice from the back of the hall barged in wanting to know what happened to "What's that y' got there, Thomo - whose line is that?"
They ignored my wisdom and told me I had to jump in quick. They were bloody hard to satisfy, as next, despite my shouting, they reckoned they couldn't hear me! Still, with Stanislavski classes and hard work, I left a sort of "legacy" for later performances. I could still get both legs up behind my neck and balance on my hands, and, in the final Lazy Harries chorus, Brian and I did a sort of prance-bit where I used that flexible backbone to get up a fine bum waggle-walk - sometimes it even got applause and I have to say, was shamelessly copied in later performances.... nawww, I was honoured to have made at least some sort of contribution!
In the Melbourne production a small off-stage ensemble of concert instruments provided all the music. They played an overture, introduced and accompanied the songs, and played the dance tunes. In Sydney that format was modified, with us playing on-stage for some of the songs and the dances. With full houses for two and three nights a week, the play over-ran its time. Months went by and the off-stage ensemble, with other jobs beckoning that paid money, ceased to be and we played on-stage as a functional part of the play, for all of the songs and dances. The change remained. Would it have evolved that way anyway? - dunno!
New Theatre was branded, right or wrong, as a hot bed of Reds, and despite Reedy River being about the most successful amateur production of the time and breaking the record for the longest playing amateur show - continuous for nearly a year - only one brave reporter gave a, very scant, review of the play in the Press. The success was "underground". For months before opening, "Reedy River is coming", appeared in chalk and paint, rivalling the "Eternity" signs. People learnt the songs and came repeatedly to sing em. A woman wrote in to say she'd been twelve times and brought her dog to ten - we wondered if it sang too. We toured to far off places, there was a reception or two and there were Sunday afternoon parties that we'd travel to all herded into an open backed truck. It became a sub-culture for us and the original Reedy River Songbook featured our photographs. But New Theatre itself suffered as the play tied up just a few of its actors, leaving the bulk with no parts to play.
The study of Australian History, was/is mostly centred on governors, explorers - the "folk" tended to be absent. Lloyd's opening lines in "The Singing Englishman" describe this, quoting Bertolt Brecht:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Teachers increasingly have tackled this and the syllabus leads more to helping kids to picture the life of the ordinary people. I like to imagine the drama of the start of the shearing season, with, in today's numbers, over 100 000 men setting out with some sort of a swag, "on the wallaby", looking for work. Converting the 1891 numbers into today's figures that's how it comes out, but there was none of the flesh and blood of history in my school education.
One of the legacies of Reedy River is that it opened many hearts and minds to our Folk History - well, white history at least! - the Black story is emerging.
After an encouraging first year, with growing interest and I think sparked by the continuing success of Reedy River, John and Alan, plus Brian, with Edgar Waters and others in 1954, found their organisational skills. With the enthusiasm of Rod Shaw, of Edwards & Shaw, "Broadsides" appeared. The Bush Music Club was formed with us as the steady core, the basis was laid for other folk organisations and also some of the material was developed for the first magazine, "Singabout", Summer 1956. In the US, there were Sing Out nights - a great idea where singers, dancers and instrumentalists got together for an informal night of whatever happened. Through Jeff Way, we'd heard recordings of them and, in our version of it, we had some great Singabout nights with many more to follow.
For the first few years of the Bush Music Club nights we rented the same rooms as June Dally-Watkins (Deportment for young ladies). I was co-opted as M.C. and relentlessly dogged people to "do something" - sometimes we were a scant few! John Greenway's plea, (he was out here from the US on scholarship), that he'd "already sung last week" was ignored, "Well, you can sing again this week". Maybe this accounted for the adverse report he wrote when he got safely back! However, as I was saying about the problems of learning guitar in a near vacuum, he taught Alex Hood and me, just by demonstrating on his guitar, what we reckoned was about two years progress, in just a few nights. We saw and we did!
Merro was already involved in the hunt against time to find and record the Folk Artists and Keepers of Memories from past ages when no means of recording existed. He lugged about a big tape recorder and I was privileged to go with him to Mudgee a few times. Sadly I soon saw I wasn't cut out to be of value where fine details were involved such as a few words changed between one person's memory and another in pages of typing, but I helped with some transcriptions and got at least an insight into the mind of a collector. People trusted John and went out of their way to point him to new contacts - a special gift. He met people - many! He brought Duke Tritton to New Theatre to give the Reedy River cast a "feel" of what it was to be a shearer in 1892! I remember Hoop Iron Jack Lee and his brother singing songs and recording memories of the itinerant workers, when those massive numbers of men humped their blueys and followed the wallaby tracks in search of work, as in "Time Means Tucker"; memories, all too soon to be lost.
The concert for the centenary of Eureka stands out. I was given a song about a bloke arriving off a boat at the Quay in the middle of the Gold Rush. In the crowd he recognising a friend named "Joe". Unknowingly he called his friend by name only to be arrested and thrown into jail!* Halfway through I forgot the start of the next verse, and John and the others played through the tune while I, searching for inspiration, took off my hat and pretended to peer into it. By next time round and I'd remembered and all was well. Again, no mikes, but the Margaret St hall, (now deceased!), had special acoustics. We met Doc Evatt who seemed pleased to meet us and spoke with passion of Eureka. We met him again for Dame Mary Gilmore's 90th birthday - she tried to get hold of a very big cake he was "presenting" to her. She didn't know, but The Doc knew it was far too heavy for her and kept repeating ".... and I am holding the cake ...", throughout his speech. There were Lawson memorials at the statue in Hyde Park, concerts at the Lithgow Workers Club, Harry Kay's wedding, Wool Promotion Weeks at David Jones - we got paid for these and had a microphone too, unlike the Smith Family job in the wide open Showground, with hundreds of kids!
At Mudgee John had met a group in the Methodist church who were rejecting the old oppressive social strictures and welcomed us in our interest in Folk history. We took the train and gave a prepared thing on "The Dog" - just how many miles from Gundagai was it that the dog did "it" and, to cause so much strife, it mustve been a bloody sight more than just sitting on a tucker box.
There were recording sessions, (10 inch 78s), with Edgar Waters and, in the stone dungeons of his house, Peter Hamilton. Alan's clear voice got "The Drover's Dream" onto the charts in Queensland - 15 000 sales, I'm told. We did a pilot show for ABC pre-TV, and several nights for Radio Australia, and then - there was the film "3 in 1". Cec Holmes had directed a film version of Frank Hardy's depression story, "The Load of Wood". This was the show-piece to get money to add in two more segments, one in the 1890s mainly on Lawson's "The Union Buries its Dead", with the Bushwhackers, and a "modern" segment in the late 50's - three stories of mateship in one show.
The film set sure was something: the rail tracks for the camera, a fireplace that looked as if it had a fire in it the night before, the actors who could switch into characters in some outback pub. Someone called on "Longun" to "Give us Lazy Harries" and our bit began. Lazy Harries finished and Brian threw himself into "Click go the Shears" as only he could. By the time the hearse came back we were all a bit "drunk". I confess, at age twenty one, I'd never really been that way and had to imagine how I'd behave. Boy, I sure rolled out of that pub in fine style, hitchin' up me pants and ... well, maybe you've seen the film at the National Folk Festival at Easter! I was O.K. in other parts and the clip in the ABC History of Australian Films, late 1990s, was of one of my few spoken parts! Trudging behind a hearse in the summer heat out Bourke way, a foppish Englishman turned to me with, "Bless my soul, it must be 110 in the shade". I had to give him a withering look and say, "I wouldn't know mate, I aint IN the bloody shade". They made me say is about five different ways. I thought I'd fully exhausted every possible slant on it and, "OK, well, ..... keep that one"!
Though the film didn't have a slick commercial style, it was good and I've seen far lesser films get a prolonged showing where "3 in 1" didn't. The simple thing was/is that the theatres were, with only one or two exceptions, owned by a big few, and surprise! not Australian. We can all fill in the detail after that.
Time went on as it does, I heard Bert Lloyd's records of the songs he'd heard when he was here in the 1920s and 30s. They had such vitality in the presentation and accompaniment, (and I grew to really enjoy his singing). There were great new songs and Lloyd's versions of the words often had a better ring to them. We all looked for ways to enhance our presentation. I'd learnt a little of harmony at the League camps, Reedy River and the choir "Unity Singers" where Dee Jacobs, (Bridges), bashed us into shape, and I began to add some harmony in the chorus of our songs.
John had met the bushies who sang the songs and, for him, the Bushwhackers was a medium to pass them on as near as possible to the way he'd heard them. But the singers he'd met were all solo and unaccompanied - there were no "groups" out Bush, as far as we could tell. Harmony and arrangement, I felt, mainly grew out of continued group presentation to an audience. In the life of an itinerant worker, this was not a likely number! Smaller instruments like violins and concertinas were about, but who would lug a lagerphone or bush bass over those long tramps, and how often would an organised group repeatedly "present" songs? Our scene was already changed from the solo unaccompanied singer, we were possibly the first permanent bush band, and we had to reach a different audience. There were arguments, not fierce, but ultimately John decreed that all songs should be solo singer in the verse, all in unison on the choruses, and all the instruments playing ALL the time! Some formula, and silly, in hindsight. Maybe it was that we'd come to some sort of hiatus, maybe it was the desire of Alex, Harry, Cecil and myself, and Brian too, for more imagination in presentation, but, at a special meeting, (in 1957 by Alan's recollection), and out of the blue to me, John formally disbanded the group with the undertaking, which we all agreed to, that no other group should ever use the name "Bushwhackers".
Alex grabbed Harry and myself, and later with Barbara Lisyak and Denis Kevans, formed "The Rambleers", Cecil, with his brothers, formed "The Galahs", and, later, a re-constituted "Bushwhackers" did appear. I was a little surprised but felt, "Well, if anyone was entitled to, it's John!" - I could wear that, and I'm told the name wasn't kept for long.
There were judgements made and, though I felt I was treated with respect at Bush Music Club functions, there were dark mutterings, I'm told, of certain people who wanted to sing in harmony and destroy the Club! In some of the later Singabouts there was a letterhead mentioning The Bushwhackers, but of a later group, as four of us were excluded from the drawing. No great shakes and all a long time ago, but when Cornstalk, April 2001, carried a cover photo of the "Original Bushwhackers" but showing a different group, I felt it worth a mention. True, Jack, Brian, Alan and John were there, and I guess the aim was to distinguish this group from the electronic "Bushwackers", but they certainly aren't the original group and I'm sure Cornstalk will sort it all out.
What about the name, then? We heard, and with some pleasure at the time, of groups being formed with names such as, "The Moreton Bay Bushwhackers" or the "something or other Bushwhackers", and as Bob Bolton muses, "I tend to think that the late 1950s came very close to moving the term 'Bushwhackers Band' into public domain". Maybe time will tell.
There it is, something of our story. There's always more, of course - John's prodigious output of books, the collecting done by Alan and Alex, and I'm sure most groups have similar tales to tell. But thanks to John's insight and contacts and the energy and enthusiasm of its members, we were the first, and I believe we had at least a catalytic effect in the stimulation of so much that followed. Maybe also, like Reedy River, we happened along at the right time.
Chris Kempster, February, 2002, (with thanks to Bob Bolton for helpful suggestions and archival material).
* "Joe", after the Victorian governor Charles Joseph La Trobe, was the call on the goldfields warning that the police or traps were on a licence hunt. Illegal on the goldfields it's perhaps stretching it a bit to be arrested at the Quay in Sydney for calling out "Joe", but the call was well-known and this was part of the humour of the song.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory