Australian Folk Songs
songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home
Songs From The Old Man Plain: Russel Ward (1953)
"HERALD" SATURDAY MAGAZINE
Songs From The Old Man Plain
By RUSSEL WARD
The author of this article, Russel Ward, is at present working on
a scholarship at the Australian National University, tracing the
relationship between Australian folk-ballads and our social history.
"None of that 'Mr. Lee' stuff, sonny," the old man said as we shook hands. "I was never 'Mr. Lee.' Hoop-iron Jacky, they call me."
Jack Lee is 77 and has been blind for many years. He lives with his sister in one of Sydney's western suburbs. Although there is little to distinguish his home from the other houses in the street, Hoop-Iron Jacky really belongs to another time and place.
He was born on the Old Man Plain in 1876, at Booligal, on the lower Lachlan. As a young man he worked on stations scattered all over the Riverina and beyond. His conversation brings to life the vanished era of, bul- lockies, shearers, stockmen and sundowners—the Australia immortalised by Joseph Furphy in "Such Is Life."
"You had lo make your own fun then," he says. "No picture shows or wireless - or concerts either, unless, you made them for yourselves."
He remembers many of the old bush ballads collected and published by Banjo Paterson in 1905 - and others that Paterson missed.
"But I've forgotten a lot more," he laments. "I remember one time I was working at Nimidgee, out from Mount Hope, I sang four songs every night for a fortnight, and never sang the same one twice.
"Everyone used to sing. One chap would sing the verses and the whole mob would come in on the coalbox (chorus). One night we kept going till 2 o'clock in the morning, and anyone who went to his bunk would be pulled out again when his turn came around.
"I remember a bloke called Bill Tully was shearing there. He made up a song that was very popular. It was called 'The Backblock Shearer'." And the old Riverina man sang it to the tune of "The Wearing o' the Green":
I'm only a back-block shearer, as easily can be seen,
I've shorn in most of the famous sheds on the plains of the Riverine:
I've shorn in most of the famous sheds, I've saw big tallies done,
But somehow or other, I can't tell why, I never became a gun.
Hurrah, my boys, my shears are set, I feel both fit and well:
To-morrow 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,
To-morrow I go, with a sardine blow, for the century or the sack!
I asked him to stop at this point for a translation. He was tolerant of my ignorance and explained that "gaffer" was one of many nicknames for the boss of the shed. A "blow" was a single stroke of the shears, and "sardine blow" was a cramped, nibbling style of shearing. "The bloke was a mug, you see." Then he continued:
I've opened up the wind-pipe straight, I've opened behind the ear;
I've practised all the possible styles in which a man can shear.
I've studied all the cuts and drives of the famous men I've met,
But I've never succeeded in plastering up them three little figures yet.
As the boss walked down this morning, I saw him stare at me,
For I'd mastered Moran's great shoulder-cut, as he could plainly see.
But I've another surprise for him that will give his nerves a shock;
To-morrow I'll show him I'll have mastered Pierce's rangtang block.
The singer broke off to explain that, of course, "block" should be "blow," but Bill Tully had made it "block" for the sake of the rhyme. Then he finished the song with another stanza, and all that he could remember of the last one:
And if I succeed as I expect to do, next year. I intend to shear
At the Wagga Demonstration, that's held there every year:
And there I'll lower the colours, the colours of Mitchell and Co.;
Instead of Deeming, you will hear of Widgeegoweera Joe.
'Twas in the old shed at Coorong where first I flashed a blade,
But now the years have vanished along with the cheques that I've made . . .
Mitchell, it seems, was a famous big-gun shearer, and Deeming a notorious murderer who cemented the bodies of his wife and four children into the floor of his house in England. He murdered another wife in Melbourne, and had reached the stage of buying the cement for the third in Sydney, when he was arrested and hanged in May, 1892.
I asked Jack Lee if he knew any Kelly songs. They were once very popular, he said, but he could, recall only fragments. "We used to call them 'treason songs,' " he explained. "You weren't allowed to sing them in a public place. Or convict songs. One chap I knew was fined, but I wasn't. When the police told me to stop, I stopped. . . . I don't remember them much now.
"But I recommend you to see my old mate, Joe Cashmere - Mr. Joseph Cashmere, of Sylvania. He may remember some songs that I've forgotten."
AND he did. Mr. Cashmere, who used to write for the "Albury Banner," and later for such papers as the "Bulletin" and the "Worker," is another Booligal boy. He is 81.
He began by recounting a true story to illustrate how much singing and versifying used to be an accepted part of daily life on the western plains.
Paddy the Flat and Scotty the Wrinkler were humping their blueys across the Old Man Plain near Hay (he said). It was mid-summer. Both were well-known characters in the Riverina and along the Darling, at the turn of the century, Scotty being a remittance man much reduced by drink.
The mailman came along in his buggy, and they asked him for a ride to the nearest pub; but there was room for only one passenger. They were thinking of tossing for it, when it was suggested that each man should produce some extempore verses. The mailman was to be judge and give a ride to the winner.
On the hill there stands a mill,
If it's not gone, it'll be there still.
Paddy won with:
Please, Mr. Mailman, don't be unkind
Pick up poor Paddy and leave Scotty behind!
Joe Cashmere confirmed his mate's story of "treason songs." He also declared that an indigenous bush dance was once banned by the police. "We used to call it The Bullock Drivers' Schottische'," he said. "I often saw it stopped in woolshed or township dances. They used to say it was vulgar." He chuckled. "I don't know what they'd have said about some of these modern dances."
Once at Booligal he saw a policeman stop a man who was singing a convict-song. "There were only three places on the Old Man Plain, they used to say, Hay, Hell and Booligal; but Booligal was the worst." He recalled only a few lines:
Blow ye winds, high ho,
A-roving I shall go:
I'll stay no more on English shore
To hear your music play.
I'm off by the morning train
to cross the Old Man Plain,
I'm taking a trip in Government ship
Ten thousand miles away!
This song has been recorded elsewhere in variant versions, but another convict ballad, of which Mr. Cashmere could remember only eight lines, is less well- known:
It was early one morning before the break of day,
There came a cruel turn-key and unto us did say:
"Rise up you seven convicts, I warn you one and a'
It is to-day you sail away from Caledonia."
Farewell unto my sweetheart, she said to me good-bye,
She said to me "Good-bye, my man," as in the cell I lie,
"No more we'll roam together, down the old Bromula,
The rolling seas divide us from Caledonia."
Scores of such cautionary convict-ballads were sung and peddled as broadsides in the cities of Britain during the first half of the 19th century, but it is particularly interesting to find this one surviving among outback bush workers 50 or 60 years later.
Taken with the reports of these two survivors from a past age it suggests, perhaps, that the influence of the convict tradition on our national ethos was more persistent than is usually supposed.
From the Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 12 September 1953 p. 9.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory