Australian Folk Songs

songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home

Australian Review of 'The Singing Englishman' (1948)

Waltzing Matilda as we hear it today is a caricature. Originally a species of lament, to-day it is a jolly march. Its history is typical of many folksongs. Forget how it sounded when the army bands played it. Forget the gramophone record ot Peter Dawson's jaunty performance with its tasty orchestral ornaments. Remember that no swagman marches, however jolly he feels. He strolls, or just plods. So put one hand over your ear, take the tune high and slow, and examine its shape.


IT begins not briskly, but with an ominous drooping line. The tune reaches its climax, its highest note, the tonic above, only to retire at once, by way of the nearest and least bold interval in the scale, the semitone. Nineteenth-century textbooks of musical composition warn song writers against the semitone interval at this point of the scale, as wanting in definition, character spirit. Downward, it sounds weak and uncertain when sung by any voice except one of mechanical precision. Unless the song writer takes certain precautions neither taken nor apparently, desired here, the interval is a natural wail. Then the last line merely restates an earlier one: after all the commotion, it advances bravely halfway up the scale, only to withdraw to a base abandoned long since. Taken at something less than marching tempo, all this is very expressive of the spirit of the words: l the illusion of freedom; the little gain; the usurper, mean and vindictive; the escape by the only road--better death than slavery. And still to the sound of the dolorous tune goes the rallying cry, for next time: Who'll come a-waltzing ?

Waltzing Matilda stems from a once-flourishing stock of poaching songs. Some of these are recorded in "The Singing Englishman: An Introduction to Folksong," by A. L. Lloyd (London: Workers' Music Association). This fascinating half crown's worth contains the words, and tunes of little-known folksongs and the little-known counterparts of familiar matter. The historical backgrounding is particularly vivid. The poaching songs were an accompaniment of the last stages of inclusure, when big landowners converted the common lands from supporting the varied stock and crops of the village folk to their own large-scale projects. The cheerful opening words of "Waltzing Matilda" are typical. The only song in "The Singing Englishman" with any reference to

Australia begins, "Come all you gallant poaching boys that ramble free from care." It ends, "Then I wake up broken-hearted upon Van Diemen's Land." On sea shanties, Mr. Lloyd writes: "We have charming accounts of the manliness and dignity of toil aboard the sailing ships, and of the beauty of the ships themselves, by writers who made their reputation by that sort of thing and worked so hard that to this day the Cutty Sark is the symbol of something clean and fine and adventurous to many city clerks and middle-aged citizens who have led limited lives. "But sailors did not sing 'Rule, Britannia,' 'Hearts of Oak,' 'Ben Backstay' or Tom Bowling.' More typical was 'Leave Her, Johnny,' in which 'The grub was bad, the wages low.' Or 'Blow the Man Down,' where blow-means strike, the usual means of guidance on the notorious Black Ball line."

As late as the 19th century folk-songs were being sung, and even composed, which turned on pride in work, shearers' songs, ploughboys' songs, carters' songs, millers' songs. One ploughboy song with all the marks of spontaneous ; folk origin is recent enough to mention bicycles. But away from country life the tempo of the job left no room for old working songs. Mr. Lloyd writes: "Any radio-amplified Music-while-you-work tune fits better into the life of a Bradford mill hand than a spinning song like 'Tweedle, Tweedle Twine O.' " As for sea-shanties to day: "I have heard whaler men singing on deck and down below, but I never heard them ising much else but 'Boohoo, You've Got Me Crying for. You.' " Mr. Lloyd traces the history of English folksongs for over 500 years. In Norman and Plantagenet times the songs of the people and the songs of the lords were much the same. "But from the 13th century," he writes, "another kind of song became commoner, and these were not about the clatter of arms and the triumphs of earls. They were more likely to be about blackbirds and the western wind and women with common names like Alysoun or Joan, and their strength and genuineness of passion can be felt even to-day."

In the age of undivided Christendom, the people evolved their lay songs about religious themes in a spirit which would be taken by some Church people to-day as an outright challenge. But real dissent, of ten arising from social and economic discontent, was represented in a body of folk songs of witchcraft or of magical or pre-Christian origin. There were ancient totemic songs like "The King of the Birds." Christian and Pagan themes overlap in counting-folksongs like "Green Grow the Rushes O," and "The Twelve Apostles." Mr. Lloyd parallels the latter with a well-known Eastern European religious chant: Another Eastern chant resembles, often word for word, our very old jingle about the dog that wouldn't get over the stile. On remote kinships: "You know a song common in Somerset, say, or Derbyshire, and then you find it or something nearly identical sung in Telemark in Norway, or in Poitou or the uplands behind Turin. A Buriat Mongol celebrating the founding of a hunters' co-operative sounds very like a Hebridean who is glad the harvest is over. Sometimes this is because the tune is imported. Sometimes the tunes have a common origin. Some times it is because both are in one of the old diatonic modes, the forerunners of our modern scales." And sometimes, I might add, it may be because similar human feelings may prompt similar vocal responses without any historical connection. As to that, it dawns on me that "Waltzing Matilda" is a variation, compara tively simple, quite close-fitting, almost conventional, upon "Nearer My God to Thee," Lowell Mason's well-known tune. Obviously the two melodies could be sung together with magnificent effect. Perhaps our Australian balladist did this deliberately. Perhaps it was the spontaneous result of a certain likeness, on different levels, between the aspirations of the English verses and the Australian ballad, namely: Times are hard but we hope for better.
                         --J.M. in the "Age".


From the Worker Monday 18 October 1948 p. 15.

The Singing Englishman was published in 1944, and was on sale in Verity Hewitt's Bookshop on Canberra in 1946. Could the author J.M. be the Australian folklorist John Manifold? He, like Lloyd , was an early member of the Workers' Music Association in England.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory