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Obituary: John Meredith, AM
Folk Song Collector
Born Holbrook, NSW 17 January 1920
Died Albury, NSW 16 February 2001
In 1952, Hilda Lane, daughter of the firebrand William Lane, assisted an old man, blind and tapping his way, down the steps of North Sydney railway station. The old man was Jack Lee, "Hoopiron" to his friends. Hilda discovered that Hoopiron knew some old bush songs, songs of a sort supposedly lost to living memory. She invited two fellow members of Sydney's People's Choir over to her flat to meet him. One of these Choir members was John Meredith. Thus began Meredith's journey of discovery of Australian folk song, a journey which was to last nearly fifty years and yield for Australia a priceless heritage few imagined, and many denied, existed.
Meredith was thirty two years old. Growing up in rural NSW, he was nine when his father died leaving his mother to raise seven kids on the widow's pension. He left school at fourteen, but contracted a kidney disease which landed him in hospital for over a year. Slowly recovering his health, he traveled Eastern Australia, from Melbourne to Cairns, by pushbike, picking up work where he could. In the late 1940s he landed in Sydney, joined the Eureka Youth League and the Communist Party, and moved into a communal house in Clovelly. The monthly sing-songs there led him to the People's Choir.
That afternoon in Hilda Lane's flat, Hoopiron sang several songs, including the delightful Widgegoeera Joe.
Hurrah, me boys, my shears are set,
I feel both fit and well;
Tomorrow you°ll find me at my pen
When the gaffer rings the bell.
With Hayden's patent thumb guards fixed
And both my blades pulled back;
Tomorrow I go with my sardine blow
For a century or the sack!
It took the best part of the afternoon for Meredith and Chris Kempster, the other Choir member, to transcribe a single verse and chorus. Realising what a marathon task transcription was, Meredith had the idea of using a tape recording machine, a technological marvel only recently available in Australia. Next week, with a borrowed machine, he recorded Hoopiron's entire repertoire.
He discovered, too, that Hoopiron was not alone. His brother Colin also knew material, as did a friend, Charlie Griffith. They put him onto a mate, Joe Cashmere, and Joe in turn suggested others. Before long an entire network of sparkling old singers, musicians and reciters in Sydney and its hinterland had been uncovered. Here was a hidden heritage indeed!
Meredith sold his beloved camera to raise the deposit on a Pecotape recorder. The first model produced in Australia, it weighed over twenty kilograms and cost him three months° wages. A roll of tape cost half a week's wages, so every second of tape counted!
He made the acquaintance of others who shared his interest in bush songs. They included Edgar Waters at the State Library, Russel Ward (collecting material for the thesis later published as The Australian Legend) and Nancy Keesing (working with Douglas Stewart on Australian Bush Ballads and an expanded edition of Paterson's Old Bush Songs). They willingly shared information and contacts, and having a tape recorder Meredith was often at the centre of activity.
Recognising the songs needed to be heard, he established with friends Brian Loughlin and Jack Barrie a small performing ensemble, The Bushwhackers. The group was an immediate hit, and when in 1954 the Sydney New Theatre staged Dick Diamond's Reedy River, the Bushwhackers were in the cast. Among the songs they sang were Widgegoeera Joe and another Meredith had collected, Click Go the Shears. They also introduced the lagerphone (a rattling marriage of broomstick and bottle tops) and bush bass (tea chest, broomstick and string). The bush band genre was born with the Bushwhackers and Reedy River.
Around this time a young Queenslander, Alan Scott, joined the Bushwhackers. Meredith and Scott became lifelong friends, Scott more than most being able to handle John's sometimes obstinate and cantankerous manner, in matters of performance style especially.
In 1954, Meredith became Secretary of the newly-established Australian Folklore Society, with Scott its President. Then, to avoid the Bushwhackers bursting at the seams, the Sydney Bush Music Club was formed. Meredith edited many of its publications, including the pioneering magazine Singabout, in which many songs he collected were published.
In 1955, Peter Hamilton's Wattle Recording company issued its first disc, Alan Scott and the Bushwhackers singing The Drover's Dream. The first Australian folk ´hit°, it sold over 20 000 copies.
Meredith spent ever spare weekend in the field, collecting many hundreds of songs, tunes and recitations from a seeming never-ending supply of informants. Among them were some of the finest traditional singers recorded anywhere in the world, people like Duke Tritton and Sally Sloane.
He did not ´collect and run°. Often he would return to a district, or to an individual or family, a number of times, becoming a family friend and ´uncle° to the children. And each visit was likely to yield new treasures as dormant songs or tunes emerged from people's memory. Indeed, so often did Sally Sloane contact John saying she had remembered yet more pieces that at one stage he made the journey up to Lithgow, and later Teralba, every second month.
Other field collectors active in the 1950s and early 1960s included John Manifold, Bill Scott, Bob Michell and Ron Edwards in Queensland, Percy Jones, Norm O°Connor and Maryjean Officer in Victoria, and in NSW Jeff Way and Alan Scott. However the songs only Meredith collected, or which he collected first, form the core of the Australian folk song canon. They include such standards as With My Swag on My Shoulder, The Shearer's Dream, The Shores of Botany Bay, The Ryebuck Shearer, Take Me Down the Harbour, Sixteen Thousand Miles from Home, Another Fall of Rain, Ten Thousand Miles Away, Castles in the Air, The Bullockies Ball, The Union Boy, Rocking the Cradle, The Wonderful Crocodile, Ye Sons of Australia, On the Steps of the Dole Office Door, Bold Jack Donahoe, The Death of Ben Hall, Humping Old Bluey, The Black Velvet Band and Navvy on the Line.
In 1960 Meredith received a grant of 500 pounds from the Australian Literature Fund, to prepare a book based on his field recordings. Two years later, combining working on the book with his other interests and working for a living, he suffered a heart attack. Forced to scale back dramatically his activities, he ceased collecting and sold his original field recordings to the National Library, asking only the equivalent of the cost of his tapes and train and bus fares. There they remain, a national treasure.
The book, Folk Songs of Australia, and the man and women who sang them, appeared in 1967. It remains the most important volume of the Australian folk revival.
In the late 1970s the pharmaceutical factory where he worked closed down, and Meredith took a golden handshake. Moving to a small property in Sydney's Southern Highlands, he wrote extensively on Australian folklore and social history. Among his many published works are books on Jack Donahue, Ned Kelly, Frank the Poet, the Cooee March, Duke Tritton, Australian rhyming slang ("Learn to Talk Old Jack Lang") and, most recently, Will Ogilvie.
In 1981 Meredith visited Gulgong and by happenchance heard Mrs Rita Baker whistle a schottische. This rekindled the old fire, and after a break of nearly two decades he returned to collecting. He traveled now wider afield, to Victoria and Tasmania, aided by the National Library and a new generation of collectors including Rob Willis, Chris Sullivan and Kevin Bradley. This work culminated in the publication in 1987 of a second volume of Folk Songs of Australia. A third, drawing on his later work, sadly has not yet appeared in book form.
The National Library also mounted a major exhibition of his photographs, Real Folk, and published the photographs in a handsome book.
Meredith finally received public recognition for his work in 1986, receiving the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to folksong and folklore. In 1992 his award was raised one rung, and he was made a Member of the Order. While John welcomed the Awards, they do scant justice to the significance of his work. No individual has made a greater contribution to the recording of our heritage and, arguably, to our understanding of Australian tradition.
Late in life, tiring of the traffic noise outside his beloved Rose Cottage at Thirlmere, he moved back to Holbrook, the town where he was born. Sadly, his health deteriorated and on 16 February he died peacefully, after battling leukemia and pneumonia. He was in his eighty-second year.
A bachelor to the end, John is survived by two sisters, an extended family, many friends, and a nation that owes him a profound debt of gratitude. As the title of his yet-to-be-published autobiography has it, it was More Than a Life (and That's Just the Half of It).Note
Many thanks to Keith McKenry for this article a shortened version of which appeared in Sydney Morning Herald. Keith, a folklorist and poet, was a friend of John Meredith.
Contact Keith on 61-02-6247 9656,
or by email at FangedWombat@Bigpond.com
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory