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

Folksong making in Australia

We know very little about folk songs of the early colonial period in Australia. Wc have a solitary recording of a song about the 'convict times' in Tasmania: 'The Seizure of the Cyprus Brig'. There is a poem, known from a manuscript, of this title, said to have been written by the Irish convict known as Frank the Poet. The song was recorded from an old whaler named Davies in the 1960s. It makes use of bits of the text from the manuscript poem, adds an introductory verse from a broad side ballad called 'Van Diemen's Land' and sets it to one of the tunes used for that song. 'Van Diemen's Land' is about poachers transported as convicts to Tasmania. Differing texts locate the poachers in Ire land, in England, and in Scotland. The tunes often have a vaguely Irish feel about them, but of course, as Samuel P. Bayard, the American authority on the song tunes of the British Isles, put it, 'We can often reasonably infer that a given version of some widespread air is Irish or Scottish, for example, but we cannot therefore claim that the air itself was of Scots or Irish origin'. Mr Davies's version of the tune, and his singing style, both suggest English rather than Irish influence. Frank the Poet's manuscript looks Irish; Mr Davies's song sounds - to use a term that gives offence to some - decidedly Anglo-Celtic.

A squatter from the country around Goulburn in New South Wales printed, in a book of reminiscences about life in the first half of the nineteenth century, the text of a song about an English convict trans ported for poaching. The tune used for this text, 'Jim Jones at Botany Bay', was 'Irish Molly-o', he said; seemingly another Anglo-Celtic song.

There is a song about the hardships of convicts at the penal settlement on Moreton Bay and the spearing to death of its commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, in 1830. The bushranger Ned Kelly seems to have been quoting it in part of his rambling 'Jerilderie letter', written in 1879. It purports to be the testimony of an Irish convict, and it has been attributed to Frank the Poet: text and tune both seem to be decidedly Irish in character. The only complete version recorded from oral tradition came from a fine singer, Simon McDonald, recorded by members of the Folk Lore Society of Victoria. There is a cluster of ballads about the young Irish convict turned bushranger, Jack Donohoe, who was shot dead by mounted police troopers (the 'horse police') in 1830. Most of them are in a street ballad style that has nothing particularly to distinguish them as Irish; but some have texts that voice Irish defiance of British tyranny: 'He'd scorn to live in slavery or be humbled to the Crown'. There is plenty of literary evidence to show that ballads about Donohoe were much sung by bush workers, Irish-Australian or otherwise. From Donohoe, shot in 1830, to Ned Kelly, hanged in a Melbourne gaol in 1880, many of the notable bushrangers were Irish or Irish-Australian. (Those who like to think that Australians are a rebellious lot, and like to attribute this to Irish influence, sometimes dwell on this circumstance. It happens that a lot of the police who fought the bushrangers were also Irish-Australian. One of the policemen who finally captured Ned Kelly was a Senior Constable Kelly.) The bushranger ballads, not unexpectedly then, often express Irish-Australian hostility to the British crown and hence Australian colonial authority. It is worth noting explicitly that they do not express hostility to fellow-Australians descended from other ethnic groups. Joseph Cashmere, a bush worker who had spent most of his working life in the south-western corner of New South Wales, told collectors in the I950s that bushranger ballads had there been called 'treason songs'; a term once used in Ireland for anti- British songs. A policeman had once been offended when one of Cashmere's friends sang 'The Wild Colonial Boy', and locked up the singer for the night. But Cashmere did not suggest that a liking for bushranger ballads was in any way confined to Irish-Australians. There is evidence aplenty to show that 3 attitudes to the bushrangers -- and the singing of bushranger ballads--were determined by social class rather than ethnic origin. Bob Michel collected a version of 'Bold Jack Donohoe' from a singer in Queensland, who had learnt it from his brother. His brother had enrolled as a special policeman during the shearers' strike of 1891, and had gradually been won over to the shearers' side. He had learnt 'Bold Jack Donohoe' from some of the shearers. They sang it as an anthem of defiance, but no longer of Irish defiance of the British crown and its colonial representatives. Now the song was used to voice the feelings of a militant Australian working-class group and its defiance of home-grown squatters and the elected government of Queensland.

The gold rushes that began in the 1850s brought an enormous sudden increase in the white population of Australia; but the settler population was already beginning to take off, and most of the population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century came from natural increase, not from immigration. Cultural trends, like demographic trends, grew from foundations laid before the gold rushes and were not affected greatly - or, at least, were not directly affected greatly - by the influx of gold seekers.

The gold seekers, a lot of people crammed densely together, many of them with money to spare for luxuries, attracted a following of professional entertainers: opera singers, ballet dancers, music-hall singers, 'black minstrels' straight from the gold diggings of California. The professional entertainers wrote the songs of the Australian goldfields. Like most of the songs produced by professional stage entertainers, they were ephemeral. A lot of them have been printed in collections of Australian 'folk' songs. There is very little evidence that more than two or three ever passed into oral tradition. It is much more important that from now on a constant flow of music hall, vaudeville and 'black minstrel' entertainers came to the Australian cities from London and Dublin and San Francisco; the Australian 'poor relations'-- professionally speaking--picked up their songs and jokes and ways of dressing and spread them, through travelling shows, to country towns and even shearing sheds.

A lot of the song texts that can be dated to the second half of the nineteenth century, and the early years of the twentieth, belong to the old street ballad style: lugubrious songs about the untimely ends of jockeys and boxers, about railway disasters and shipwrecks. Folk Songs of Australia has its fair share of them. 'The Wreck of the Dandenong', transcribed from the singing of Mary Byrne, looks dull, bathetic, in print. Listening to Mary Byrne singing it, with the dry voice, the uncertain intonation of a woman of seventy-three, on John Meredith's tape, a sympathetic listener may find more, and understand a little better what these songs once meant. Some of these songs were printed on broadsides, others in newspapers of one kind and another.

Literacy rates in the Australian colonies seem to have been relatively high even in the first half of the nineteenth century. Colonial governments began to introduce free and compulsory primary schooling in the last quarter of-the nineteenth century. Some of the goldfields entertainers had published 'songsters': small, thin books containing song texts. In the second half of the century, some of the songsters published were aimed at an audience of bush workers. Some texts from these songsters passed into oral circulation; in other cases, a version printed in a songster seems to have influenced texts already in oral circulation. Many singers seem to have taken to writing down song texts newly learned, relying on memory only for the tunes. Singers who had forgotten a song text took to writing to newspapers, asking if another reader could supply it; such re quests were often rewarded, and the prac tice is not quite dead yet. Some singers kept scrapbooks, containing texts that they had written out and other printed texts cut from newspapers. Thus, written and print ed sources began to influence the form of songs which had at first circulated only orally .

Conversely, print helped many songs originating with urban popular entertainers to an uncertain life in oral tradition. So, for example, an Australian music-hall performer, Lance Lenton, wrote a song about Woolloomooloo larrikins, to the tune of an Irish stage song, 'Killaloe'. Collectors found the song (or, more usually, fragments of it) remembered by old singers in Tasmania and Victoria, as well as New South Wales, in the 1950s and 1960s. Some English, Irish and American texts originating with professional stage entertainers passed into Australian oral transmission in the same way. An adaptation of 'The Wild Colonial Boy' by a Dublin entertainer, Percy French, even passed into Australian as well as Irish oral tradition.

The biggest group of native Australian folksong texts was produced by bush workers. They took their models, their tunes, scraps of text from all kinds of sources. Two or three examples will have to do. The dialogue song known usually as 'The Banks of the Condamine', but some times as 'The Banks of Riverine' (i.e. the Riverina), has been collected from Victoria to the Northern Territory. The dialogue is between a woman and her lover, who is about to set off to a shearing shed or to a horsebreaking camp. It is made over from an Anglo-Scottish broadside ballad of the Napoleonic wars, 'The Banks of the Nile'. The setting has been transferred to Australia with astonishingly little alteration to the original. This is one of the songs mentioned by O'Rourke, cited earlier, as sung in the Gaeltacht, but it seems to have been a special favourite in the north-east of Scotland, and many of the tunes used for 'The Banks of the Condamine' have a Scottish sound about them.

One of the most widely sung of many shearers' songs, 'Click Go the Shears', borrows its tune and a little of its text from an American popular song of Civil War reference.

'The Drover's Dream', recorded in many versions from Victoria to northern Queensland, is set to the tune used for the Irish stage song 'Killaloe'; the same tune that Lance Lenton used for his song about

Woolloomooloo The text of 'The Drover's Dream' also has something of a music-hall or minstrel-show style about it.

The speaking of verse seems to have been a kind of entertainment as popular with bush workers as the singing of songs. A few of the texts of the better-known bush balladists, notably Paterson and Lawson, were set to tunes by bush singers, and have been recorded from oral tradition Many bush workers wrote verse, as well as reciting it, and often had it published. 'Duke' Tritton, a singer and versifier recorded by Meredith in the 1950s, wrote a lot of verse, and a song called 'Shearing in the Bar'. This has been popular with urban singers of the 'folk song revival'. Tritton explained that he wrote the words, with a bit of help from his mates, and only later thought of setting a tune to the words. Thus, the style of the bush balladists came to influence bush songmaking. But the popularity of verse recitation probably helped to enfeeble the folksong tradition. The wider spread of the products of the music industry--aptly so-called--made possible by the electronic media have now killed it almost completely. For an introductory overview of the Australian-made folksong texts, and their tunes, the two volumes of Folk Songs of Australia should be supplemented by Snatches and Lays (2nd edn, 1973) and the publications of Ron Edwards, preferably The Big Book of Australian Folk Song (I976). The first edition of Snatches and Lays was published under a spurious imprint and by pseudonymous editors Sebastien Hogbotel and Simon Ffuckes. The introduction to the first edition said that

"The songs and verses in this collection have, in some cases, been sung and de claimed for centuries. It is proof of the vitality of this form that the most recent of them is less than three years old; by the time this book has appeared the store of unprintable, 'dirty' songs will have been further added to."

To this they added in a foreword to the second edition of 1973:

"Just in case there is any misunderstanding about the matter, this is .a serious collection of songs as sung by sailors, soldiers, airmen, students and the like in and around Australia between the years, say, 1940 and 1960."

Ron Edwards brought together in The Overlander Song Book (1971) material published in a number of earlier, smaller publications. The Big Book of Australian Folk Song, is virtually a revised edition of The Overlander Song Book. It includes a considerable number of songs while probably never entered oral circulation. It contains very few of the songs carried from the British Isles; on the other hand, it shows that a rich folksong tradition existed in north Queensland, with much local material. It suggests that such local material may have existed in other regions which did not attract field collectors. It also contains a bibliography which is still useful, though out of date.

Aboriginal songs in English

Very little was recorded from English speaking Aboriginal singers in the 1950s and 1960s. An exception was the recording by an anthropologist, Jeremy Beckett, of songs written and sung by an Aboriginal itinerant worker, Dougie Young. A few of Dougie Young's songs were published on a gramophone record by Wattle Recordings in 1963 . One of Dougie Young's songs, 'The Land Where the Crow Flies Backward', was taken up by white singers of the folksong revival movement, but the Wattle recording soon went out of production. Collecting in the 1980s, especially work done in parts of New South Wales and in Brisbane by Chris Sullivan, shows a strong tradition of songs in English. Some parts of this tradition are rather unexpected. Aboriginal singers have preserved some songs carried from the British Isles that have not been recorded from white singers; for example, a version of an English broad side ballad known as 'The Indian Lass' (the 'Indian' in this case being Hawaiian). Aboriginal singers have also preserved Australian-made white song texts, such as 'The Old Bark Hut'. Most important of all are the songs made by the Aborigines and dealing specifically with Aboriginal life. Sullivan and others found some of Dougie Young's songs had been passed on to other Aboriginal singers. Sullivan also recorded songs about Aboriginal life written by other Aboriginal songmakers quite recently, but already passed into oral tradition. The style of these songs derives largely from acquaintance with the sound recordings of popular professional entertainers: the very thing that was helping to end folksong making by white Australians.

The outsider wishing to learn more of this impressive tradition will have to seek access to the field recordings held by the National Library, or the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, or wait for publication of the songs in one form or another. The Library and the Institute are preparing a joint publication of some of the material.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory