Australian Folk Songs
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This article is from The Oxford Companion To Australian Folklore, with kind permission of the editors, Gwenda Beed Davey & Graham Seal, and the author, Edgar Waters

Folk song

Many attempts have been made to define folk song. Readers who wish for an introduction to the literature on this subject might well begin with the first chapter of A.L.Lloyd's Folk Song in England (1967) or George Herzog's article, 'Song: Folk Song and the Music of Folk Song', in Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (1972). Suffice to say here that almost the only point on which all definitions agree is that some kind of oral transmission should be involved. It might seem then that the folksong collector might be well advised to record any song which shows signs of having been transmitted orally; to publish all (or most) of the material collected; and leave each folksong scholar to select for study those songs which meet his or her definition of folk song. This field recording strategy seems, however, to have been adopted only occasionally

Systematic recording of folk songs in Australia began only in the early 1950's. One of the first into the field, and the most persistent and successful collector of all, was John Meredith. For four or five years he collected songs (and other material) from singers in Sydney and in a limited region of central-western New South Wales. Meredith and Hugh Anderson put the results of that fieldwork into a book called Folk Songs of Australia, and the Men and Women Who Sang Them, first published in 1967. Meredith has an interesting comment on his field recording strategy in his book on the singer and songwriter 'Duke' Tritton, whom he met early in his collecting career:

"He told me that he had a few songs he had written himself, but being a bit of a folksong purist at the time, I told him that I wasn't particularly interested in them, that it was the traditional ones I wanted. so it was left to Alan Scott to collect 'Shearing in a Bar' and 'The Goose Neck Spurs."

He does not explicitly say so, but it would seem that after this early period of 'folk song purism', he took to collecting everything, or almost everything, that singers offered him. He and Anderson selected for publication a representative sample of almost all the kinds of songs recorded; there seems to have been some suppression of material with sexual reference that some readers might have found offensive.

Meredith resumed fieldwork in the 1980's. Songs collected in the 1980's were printed in Folk Songs of Australia, volume 2.

Meredith and Anderson said, in the preface to the first of these volumes, that

"most collections ... limit their material to those items that have an Australian content or flavour . . . Folk Songs of Australia marks an important departure by including a number of songs of British and North American origin."

Others have not followed their example, and the two volumes of Folk Songs of Australia remain the only books from which a good general overview of the Australian folksong tradition can be readily obtained. The folksong enthusiast cannot get a better overview without delving into the pages of journals difficult to find even in major libraries, and beyond that, into the unpublished field recordings held by the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive. Meredith and Anderson claimed, in the preface to Folk Songs of Australia, that 'the material presented is representative of the whole continent'. The songs published so far only in journals, or still waiting on transcription from the field recordings, show that this claim needs some qualification. This does not affect the main point made here: the Meredith books arc the best place to begin an acquaintance with the Australian folk song tradition.

Folk songs from the British Isles in Australia

It might seem logical to begin an account of Australia's folksong tradition by looking at the songs that settlers from the British Isles carried with them. It might be better to begin with a comment or two on what they did not carry with them.

The folklore of many parts of Europe is still rich in pagan ritual, more or less imperfectly integrated into Christian religious practice; or, from the point of view of the religious reformers of the Reformation, more or less hideously corrupting Christian practices. In most parts of the British Isles these rituals, and the songs that went with them, came under strenuous attack in the rationalizing, revolutionary years of the seventeenth century. They hung on here and there to be recorded by nineteenth and twentieth-century folklorists. Nothing of this kind reached Australia, or if it reached Australia, survived, with the seemingly solitary exception of the song of 'The Derby Ram'. Many versions of this song have been recorded in Australia, most of them keeping at least some reference to the magical sexual potency of the ram. But nothing remains of the ritual that it once accompanied, though it was preserved in attenuated form into the twentieth century in parts of northern England.

Ritual songs apart, many Anglo-Scottish songs, more or less probably of mediaeval origin, have continued in oral tradition until today, not only in England and Scot land, but also in Ireland and in North America. Very few songs of this age seem to have reached Australia or, perhaps, to have survived transplantation. There are versions of 'Our Goodman', a 'favourite joking song' wherever songs are sung in English. There are versions of 'Barbara Allan', a favourite sentimental ballad wherever songs are sung in English. There is a solitary version of a riddling song folded into a ballad, which is convenient to call 'Captain Wedderburn's Courtship'; Harry

Dicks, who sang it for Meredith, called it 'The Chicken and the Bone'. There is a single record of 'The Trees They Do Grow High' ('My bonny boy is young, but he's growing'), a fragment at that. The list could be extended, but many songs on the list would be like the last mentioned: a single record of a fragmentary version. Even then, it is a short list compared with one that could be made for North America.

The four songs mentioned above have all, at one time or another, been referred to as Scottish songs. In fact, like a great many other folk songs commonly thought of as Scottish, they were widely sung in England; conversely, many folk songs commonly thought of as English are widely sung in Scotland. Furthermore, many Anglo-Scottish songs have been in the Irish folk song tradition since a time before white settlement in Australia began.

An Irish folklorist, Brian O'Rourke, said in his book Blas Meala: A Sup from the Honeypot (1989), subtitled 'A Selection of Gaelic folksongs with prose translations and verse equivalents':

"For a long time now, songs in English, both native and imported, have been popular in the Gaeltacht that is, those parts of Ireland where a considerable part of the population still uses Gaelic for everyday speech] . . . It is certainly a fact that the exponents of songs like 'Barbara Allan', 'The Banks of the Nile', 'The Bonny Boy', 'John Mitchel', 'Skibbereen', and 'A stor mo chroi', have included some of the pillars of the sean-nos singing style (the 'old style' Gaelic tradition)."

The first three of the songs mentioned by O'Rourke are Anglo-Scottish. The first, 'Barbara Allan', seems to have been fairly widely sung in Australia. The second, 'The Banks of the Nile', seems not have been recorded in Australia; but a derivative ballad, 'The Banks of the Condamine' ('The Banks of Riverine' in some versions), has been recorded from Victoria to the Northern Territory. 'The Bonny Boy' is presumably the song cited above as 'The Trees They Do Grow High'.

Anglo-Scottish songs probably began to spread widely ill Ireland only after the settlement of considerable numbers of English and Scottish in the seventeenth century. It may well be that the adoption of Anglo-Scottish songs into the Irish folksong tradition proceeded most quickly in the southern parts of the country. In Ulster the Anglo-Scottish settlers, especially the descendants of Presbyterian Scots, have maintained a separate identity. In other parts of Ireland, English settlers - even soldiers who had served in Cromwell's campaigns against the Irish - showed a strong tendency to go native, reverting to the Roman Catholic faith and becoming absorbed into the Irish population. Presumably this process helped in the spread of English songs as well as the English language.

By the seventeenth century English presses were beginning to pour out ballad texts printed on broadsides (see Broad side ballads). Most of these ballad texts disappeared almost as quickly as most of today's pop songs. But ballad singers hawked the broadsides around country towns and at places for social entertainment, such as fairs and public houses, so a few of the street ballad texts passed into oral circulation. At the same time a few songs that had previously existed only in oral tradition were learnt by the ballad hawkers. Texts were carried to London, printed on broadsides and then carried back to the countryside in print. Some songs -'Barbara Allan' is one - owed their widespread and long continued life in oral tradition to the constant interaction between printed and oral traditions. More important, the street ballad came to form a model for country songmakers creating new texts. As the use of English spread in Ireland, the English street ballad style became the model for Irish songmaking in English. Broadside ballad printers in Dublin and other Irish towns helped to spread both Anglo-Scottish ballads, and the street ballad style, in Ireland. And when the tide of migration began to change direction, to run from Ireland to Britain, Irish ballads were spread into England and Scotland. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, itinerant farm workers who moved across the Irish Sea for the harvest in England and Scotland must have been important in this spread of Irish ballads. But as the new industrial cities developed, Irish peasants began moving into them in large numbers, to become industrial workers in the appal ling slums of cities like Manchester and Glasgow (this was happening on a considerable scale long before the great famine of the 18405). Irish ballads became as common in English broadside print as English ballads in Irish broadside print.

In short, when settlers began to arrive in Australia from the British Isles at the tail end of the eighteenth century, there was already a considerable stock of folk songs common to all the English-speaking parts of the British Isles. The stock that was held in common undoubtedly became larger during the nineteenth century as internal migration mixed up the various peoples of the British Isles even more thoroughly than they had been mixed already. The mixing went on in countries of British and Irish settlement overseas.

When Henry Lawson made a trip up country, and wrote a jaundiced account of bush life afterwards, A. B. Paterson chided him in verse for presenting such a gloomy picture. He asked Lawson:

"Did they rise up Willie Reilly by the campfire's cheerful blaze.
Did they rise him as we rose him in the good old droving days?"

Lawson replied:

"Yes, I've heard the shearers singing 'Willie Reilly' out of tune;
Seen them fighting round the shanty on a Sunday afternoon."

'Willie Reilly' is an Irish ballad; Lawson and Paterson seem to agree that it was one of the songs generally known among bush workers. This is the sort of evidence which in the past has been used to argue that the main influence on the Australian folksong tradition has been Irish. But the text of 'Willie Reilly' had been put into print in the nineteenth century by a number of English broadside printers, including Catnach of London whose sheets sold far and wide and in great numbers. It turns up, though infrequently in oral tradition from the south-west of England to the north-east of Scotland. In short, it is unlikely that 'Willie Reilly' was carried to Australia solely by Irish singers and passed on by Irish-Australian bush workers to bush workers of English or Scottish or Welsh descent. It is reasonable to assume that it was known to some singers from Britain as well as Ireland before they migrated to Australia. Perhaps even more important, it belonged in a ballad tradition that was common throughout the British Isles. 'Willie Reilly' was just one of dozens of similar ballads carried to Australia. We will never know just how many, because it is obvious that songs of this kind were already disappearing from a moribund folk song tradition when Meredith and others set out to record in the middle of the twentieth century.

All this may be illustrated by considering the songs of Sally Sloane. Sally Sloane was the finest singer of all those recorded by John Meredith. Only a few of the singers recorded by other collectors sang anything like as well as Sally Sloane, and no other singer had a repertoire of songs as big as hers. Sally Sloane sang a number of songs passed on, through her mother, from her grandmother. That grandmother, Sarah Alexander, arrived in Australia from County Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland, in about I 83 8. Many of the songs passed on to Sally Sloane from her grandmother are, of course, Irish in origin, but a number are certainly English or Scottish in origin: 'The Sprig of Thyme', 'The Lowlands of Holland', 'The Trees They Do Grow High', 'Lovely Nancy'. There are others which might be either Irish or Anglo-Scottish in origin: 'The Cherry Tree', 'The Wee One', 'The Banks of Claudy', 'Molly Baun Lavery' (obviously Irish with a name like that?; maybe--it appeared in English broadside print as 'Molly Whan', and was much sung in parts of England as 'Polly Vaughan' and 'The Shooting of His Dear'). It seems that Anglo-Scottish songs were being sung in the Gaeltacht long before Brian O'Rourke made the comment cited above.

The continued mixing of traditions in Australia is illustrated by the fact that Mrs Sloane learnt a couple of other songs, 'The Green Bushes' and 'The Rambling Sailor', from a migrant English railway worker. Both are almost certainly of English origin, though 'The Green Bushes' has also been found in Irish oral tradition.

The most interesting singer that Meredith recorded in the 1980s was Harry Dicks, whose grandfather had been transported from England in 1825. Some of the songs he sang were passed on in the family. 'It's a good song if you can sing it', he said of one song: 'I had it from my father, and he had it from his father'. The song was 'Skibbereen', one of the native Irish songs in English which O'Rourke refers to in a passage cited earlier. It ends with a cry for Catholic Irish vengeance on Protestant landlords. Harry Dicks learnt his version of 'Captain Wedderburn's Courtship' ('The Chicken and the Bone') from Hilton Hogan of Oberon about 1940. Meredith refers to Hogan as 'an Irishman (Irish-Australian?), living in the middle of an old time Irish (Irish-Australian?) enclave'. Dicks learnt the song from Hogan while shearing: 'He used to pick up shearin' and pick up wool and that around the sheds, and I used to hear him singin' it'.

Three points may be made about this account of Harry Dicks's songs. First, an Anglo-Scottish song survived in an 'Irish enclave' to be passed on in the middle of the twentieth century from a singer of Irish descent to one of English descent. Second, an English convict learnt an anti British Irish song and passed it on to his Australian son, and he in turn to his son. Convicts were not segregated, or at least not systematically segregated, by religion or nationality. This kind of transfer must have gone on quite widely among the transported convicts; and not only while they were serving their term of punishment. Ex-convicts of all kinds mingled in Sydney and Hobart and up-country. Third,

enclaves such as the one that Meredith mentioned grew up mainly in regions where the great sheep and cattle runs of early colonial times were broken up for closer settlement. In such enclaves, obviously the mingling of traditions must have been slowed down. But men were constantly forced out of these enclaves, where the farms created by free selection did not prove profitable, to take other jobs, often as pastoral workers:

"There's brand new chums and cockies' sons
They reckon that they arc great guns;
They fancy they can shear the wool
But the buggers can only tear and pull . . ."

The mingling of traditions went on.

In the first volume of Folk Songs of Australia the proportion of songs carried from the British Isles, as against songs made (or significantly altered) in Australia, is about one to two. If the claim made by Anderson and Meredith in 1963, that the selection of songs printed in Folk Songs of Australia was 'representative of the whole continent', is true, then presumably the proportions would have been similar if Meredith's collecting had been done in Western Australia or the Northern Territory, rather than New South Wales. Anderson and Meredith also noted in 1963 that 'none of Sally Sloane's children have inherited her love of folk song'. Meredith's later work showed that it was not just a family tradition that was dying. In 1987 Meredith commented on the results of his fieldwork in the 1980s:

"Instead of singing and making music country folk watch TV or a video; home-made entertainment is no longer an integral part of daily life . . . During the 1950s I recorded dozens of singers. More recently, over a period of four years, I have encountered only two performers who were good enough to warrant a return visit."

In the 1950s and early 1960s, systematic field recording of folk songs was carried out in Victoria by N. and P. O'Connor, Maryjean Officer, R. Michel and other members of the Folk Lore Society of Victoria. Some of the most interesting of these songs were published in the Society's journal, Australian Tradition (which was edited by Wendy Lowenstein, who was also a collector), but many of them have still not been published. The field recordings are now held in the sound archive of the National Library. A little later, over a period of several years, systematic field recording was carried out in south-eastern Queensland by R. and M. Michel, S. Arthur and others. Many of the songs recorded in this region also have not been published, but copies of a considerable part of the field recordings are now held by the National Film and Sound Archive.

Systematic recording has been done in the far north of Queensland, most of it by Ron Edwards; he has published many of the songs collected. His field recordings have apparently either not been preserved or are at present inaccessible. Very little collecting has ever been done in other parts of Queensland, or in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia or Tasmania. We will, in fact, never know whether the claim that the material in Folk Songs of Australia was 'representative of the whole continent' is true. All that can be said is that the material was representative of the folksong tradition of the south eastern mainland of Australia, from Victoria to southern Queensland, as it existed in the third quarter of the twentieth century. A considerable proportion of the songs in the tradition at that time had been carried to Australia from the British Isles. It is probable that the proportion had been higher in the century between 1850 and 1950. It is probable also that the songs carried from the British Isles had under gone a selection process in Australia. We may suppose with some confidence that that process removed from the Australian folk song tradition fairly quickly songs in Gaelic (and Welsh); songs in dialects of English unfamiliar to Australians speaking the remarkably uniform kind of English that evolved so quickly; and those macaronic Irish songs which had texts partly Gaelic and partly English.

Folksong making in Australia


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory