Australian Folk Songs
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As he jogged along the dusty, heat-crusted West Darling track, he presented the appearance of a Don Quixote, on a Rozinante of a horse; a tall lean, bony figure slouching on a lean bony nag. Six teet three if an inch he was; angularly built loose limbed, with very long and thin legs encased in very worn moleskin trousers, which had long since seen their best days, a thin trunk covered with a grey flannel shirt, short to the elbows, revealing long. bony sinewy arms. He wore a broad rimmed battered felt hat, fringed with a dusty, green-colored fly net. His face was lean, seamed and burnt a nut brown from the sun and the hot winds, and covered with a brick red scraggy beard, spattered with greying hairs, and stained with tobacco juice.
He was blue eyed this Don Quixote figure, loose mouthed and withal jolly in appearance, despite his attenuation, and he sat with lazy ease in the saddle. His Rozinante of a nag was a flea-bitten grey of mature age with exposed hip bones, prominent ribs a long bony barrel which, when he smacked it with his short-handled whip, sounded hollow; an apology for a tail, which made frequent and futile efforts to sweep away the tormenting flies, that bothered its hide, and a drooping, bony Roman-nosed head. In addition to the frowsy patched saddle and bridle, the poverty stricken, patriarchal nag carried, strapped to the saddle, a frowsy blue blanket a tucker bag, and a blackened billy, and around its neck a water bag.
They appeared to us out of the heat haze, as we lounged on the verandah of the station homestead, sending up a cloud of dust in their wake, as they pounded through the sand dunes, the blackened billy making a dull, hollow sound against the bony barrel of the nag, even when they were far off. It was high noon on a midsummer day, with the glass registering 110 in what little shade the mulgas provided, and the sun wns heating down pitilessly on the iron roofs of the homestead. Across the plains, heat hazed, willy-willys were formed by the gusty, hot wind, and sent twisting and whirling to the sand dunes. Waves of heat rose up the dusty, arid plains.
But the picturesque rider seemed little perturbed by the heat or the dust, aud his chargcr seemed beyond any perturbation by anything. The man was singing sitting easily in the saddle, jolted by Rozinante's irregular jog trot. His capacious loose lipped mouth was opened wide, and strange, mournful sounds were issuing from it. Sounds, however, which were not altogether unmelodious. As he drew nearer we caught the drift of his song--
It's all for me grog, me Jolly, jolly grog,
It's ah for me beer and terbaccer;
I spent all me tin in the shanty drinking gin,
Now across the western plains I must wander.
Butt Hingston, head stockman, stirred in his canvas chair and took the end of a cigarette, from which he derived his nickname, from his mouth. "Sounds familiar that song, although I ain't heard it fer a long time. I'm jiggered, too, if it ain't old Harry Ness-- Sunset Harry, of the Lower Darling." "So 'tis, and he's still got the old flea-bitten grey, and still singing the old songs," added Sam Lang, the horse- breaker. "I ain't seen him for a ten year, Listen !" The mournful dirge was borne to us by the hot wind--
I'm crook in the head, for I haven't been to bed
Since I first touched this shanty with me plunder;
I see centipedes an' snakes, an' I'm full 'er aches and shakes,
So I'd better make a push out over yonder.
It's ah for me grog, me Jolly, jolly grog,
It's ah for me beer and terbaccer;
I spent all me tin in the shanty drinkin' gin,
Now across the western plains I must wander.
"He's been a wanderer all right. I ain't seen him in many years," said Butt. "The last time I seen him was near Wentworth, an' I think it was that song he was singin'?" Sam chimed in. "Yes, he used ter 'ave a mouth organ an' a jew's harp, 'member ? Many's the night he's kep' us entertained in musterin' camps and shearin' sheds, singin' the old songs." Again the voice came to us. By this time the rider and the nag had reached the homestead stockyard--
Then hang the jolly grog, thc hocussed chanty grog, 'The beer that's loaded with terbaccer; Graftin' humor I am in, an' I'll stick the peg right in, An' settle once more down ter yakker.
Sam grinned. "Not old Sunset Harry. the words of the song might be all right; But I never knew old Sunset to do any work." Butt grinned back. "We'll see. Here he is now."
Sunset Harry pulled up his flea-bitten nag at the edge of the verandah, with a loud "Who-oh ! Hello everybody. To you all," sweeping his broad-brimmed hat off ! a blackenned head of hair, almost to the ground. "Can I put up for the night ?"
"Where are you bound for ?" I asked.
"Travelling through ?"
He swept the horizon with his hat in a comprehensive manner.
"Just ridin' through, boss--ridin' west by north to the Queensland border, out to one of Jimmy Tyson's runs."
"Are you looking for work ? Introduce yourself."
He dismounted slowly, and clanked over to the verandah. He quizzed us shrewdly before replying. "No, boss, I'm not lookin' for work. My name ? . . . . Harry Ness, at your service, known from Went- worth to Bourke. from Gundagai to Shoeburra, an' from White Cliffs to Walgett as Sunset Harry, the singin' troubadier."
"An' where have you been all these years since I saw you last, Sunset ?" asked Butt with a broad grin.
The "Troubadier" searched him, a puzzled expression on his leather-like features. Then a light spread over his face "Why if it ain't Butt Hingston, and Sam Lang, too .... the best horse in the west. By gum, boys, Sunset Harry is glad to see you again. Let me grip your hands."
"By gum," he kept repeating, as he wrung their hands. "By gum, me old shed mates, Butt an' Sam. An' you see I've still got old Lass," pointing to the flea-bitten nag who was leaning against a verandah post, asleep. "She's a great horse, but a bit poor just now. The grass isn't too good this summer, even the saltbush is failin'. We've just come across from the opal fields at White Cliffs.'' "Let her run in the paddock a while,' Sam said, and we'll get you something, to eat and drink." "Righto," he grinned. "By gum, I'm glad to meet yer." As led the nag away he again broke into, song--
The earth rolls on through empty space, its journey's never done,
It's entered for a starry rave throughout the Kingdom Come;
An' as I am a bit of earth, I follow it because--
Ter prove I am a rolling stone, an' never gather moss,
I am a ramble-eer, a rollicking ramble-eer,
I'm a rovin' rake of poverty, an' a son uv a gun fer beer.
"An' where have you been been all these years?" asked Butt when Sunset Harry returned whistling the refrain of his ramble-eer ditty. "just pottering about. Here, there an' everywhere. By gum, though, Butt, I've had a experience ! I'll never forget it. When I met you last I've been; 'avin a bad time. You know work an' me ain't regular pals. I like to be out on the plains with Lass, and a full tucker bag; water hag, and the wind blowin' in me face and actin' as me orchestra
I beef out the shed and musterin' days. 'An I never was very much of a la- dies man. You knowin' that'll be surprised to know that seven year ago I clean done my block on a woman. I got 'it so hard I even got a job, I was down the Mt. Arrowsmith hills, prospectin' a bit, just fossicking about, when I ends up one day at the Arrowsmith homestead. They had a female cook an ample woman--a Widder with a takin' way. I fell 'ead over 'eels in love with her; even took to composin' songs about her beauty an' bulk.
Well, I asked her to marry me. She promised if I'd get a job. The boss wanted a rouseabout, and I took the job, an' we got spliced. By gum, what a woman she were ! Made me shave every day an' clcan me boots before I came into the house, an' made me put on a clean shirt three times a week. I wouldn't 'ave minded that so much, only she objcctcd to me singin'. Said me songs was vulgar, and used ter buckle up every time I sung Jack Donahoo, or Flash Jack of Gundagai, or any of the old shed songs.
Well, you know me art means a lot to me. It's saved me from work for years. I stood it for a long time, but when she smashed me mouth organ, and made me wear boiled collars on a 'ot day, an' started to learn me songs like The Last Rose of Summer, which ain't suited to me brand of voice, I bucked. We 'ad a terrible row, an' I cleared, out. That were five year ago, an' I been dodgin' her ever since. An' I think I've got her beat now. I ain't seen her fer--"
He stopped short and gasped. We looked at him, puzzled to know the rea- son for, thc interruption. We followed thc direction of his startled eyes, and found them fixed on the plump face of our plump cook, who had just come on to the verandah carrying a cup of tea and a plate of scones. She was gazing back at him open-mouthed, astonishment written all over her face. For a brief moment, that seemed, an eternity, they gazed at each other. Then, as the hefty female made a move, Sunset Harry leaped to., his feet--
"By gum !" he cried. "Me wife !" With a bound he cleared the verandah, just in time to avoid the clutch of the cook, who had dropped the tea and the plate of sconce and lurched across at him. His long legs pounded through the melon bed in front of the homestead, and he disappeared round the corner of the house, just as Butt grasped thc angry woman, who was muttering, "That wife deserting villain here !" and struggling to get loose.
Five seconds later we heard the blackened billy making a hollow sound against thc bony, barrel of the Rozinante of a nag, and we saw the lean pair ambling out of the homestead paddock gate towards the sand hills, travelling in thu direction of,the Queensland border. The cook struggled to net away from But's embrace. "Come here, Harry," she shrilled after the retreating figures. Harry turned in the saddle. "By gum, no," he cried back, as he dug his heels into thc nag's ribs. And as the horse and the rider disappeared in the heat haze the mournful strains of his voice came back to us on thc dust-laden air--
Come listen to me ditty, come listen to me hum.
While I relate a verse or two of the professional hum,
Who travels the north, likewise the south, likewise the east and west,
Hummin' the chuck wherever he goes, and hangin' the man who works.
"That's all he ever did, too," cried the cook, shaking her podgy fist in the direction, the rider and the nag had taken. "Wait till I get him. Boss, I'm throwin' up this job. He isn't going to beat me."
We winked at each other, as she waddled back into her kitchen, and each silently wished Sunset Harry the "Troubadier," the best of luck.
From the Age Saturday 21 February 1925 p. 25.
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory