An independent forum of strategy, tactics and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements
Birth of an old bush balladBy Helen Palmer
In 1951 Doreen Jacobs and I wrote two songs. She had been studying with composer Alan Bush in London and had worked with his Workers' Music Association choir. There was controversy in the air about sung ballads and folk songs, and the proper role of the people's choirs that were forming here and there to present militant and traditional songs at festivals and meetings. The folk tradition – what was it, essentially? Vaughan Williams' lush settings of waly-waly-up-the-bank English folksong and Paul Robeson's "Negro Spirituals – arr. Burleigh" for the concert platform were beginning to move into disrepute. A.L. Lloyd had written of the militant popular origins of folksong. To try to incorporate it into a more sophisticated musical culture – was this merely to tame and domesticate it, depriving it of its roots and its sting? On the other hand, was a folksong an authentic reflection of the popular culture only if presented in the untrained, nasal style of the Oldest Inhabitant from whom Cecil Sharp or his equivalent had taken it down? Wasn't this merely an accident of birth or history that it would be artificial to perpetuate in a different environment?
And what of folksong in Australia? Years before, I had spent a disappointing month or so searching for traditional ballads in the Mitchell Library. While working on a very undergraduate thesis on the history of the ballad, during which I had become wrecked on the scholard's question whether it was the product of some mysterious communal creative process or the work of an individual minstrel, I had been intrigued by the way in which traditional themes had turned sentimental when transplanted to America, sardonic when transplanted to Australia. I wanted further evidence. The results were meagre, as I should have known. What had found their way into the stacks were of the printed broadsheet, "popular reciter" type. The real revival awaited the work of bush music clubs and the collectors with their tape recorders, a decade later.
In 1950, Vance Palmer and Margaret Sutherland published (through Allan & Co) a collection called Old Australian Bush Ballads. Their idea was to "make a songbook that could be used in a popular way, thus preserving contact with the simple, democratic tradition of campfire and track that is part of our inheritance". Vance Palmer "restored" (that is, edited, and smoothed out for singing) the words of thirteen songs (some of which had appeared in slightly different versions in Banjo Paterson's Old Bush Songs); Margaret Sutherland “restored” the music and added piano accompaniment, "calling", as the preface says, "on her own instinct for appropriate melody when there was no one who remembered the original tunes". Their premise was that if there were a revived interest in these songs they might be sung, family-style, round the piano. It was wrong. When the revival came, it wasn't round the family piano (which hardly existed), but round the guitar in the bush music clubs – or the violin, the banjo and the bones. Purists regarded Old Australian Bush Ballads as anathema, and were quick to put things right. John Manifold (Who Wrote the Ballads?, Australasian Book Society, 1964) confessed tolerantly: "It dismayed me horribly at the time; but I have come to see that Vance's none-too-accurate singing may have been to blame for some of the tunes. I was able to see him not long after the book appeared, and ask him for permission to reprint more accurate versions of two of these."
Anyway, with this evidence behind us, Doreen and I decided to see what could be done to fuse some of the elements of the ballad tradition with a contemporary musical context. The words had to be spare, singable, and they had to tell the story. The music must be vigorous, unmannered, unpretentious. But why not use the resources of trained singers or a trained choir?
We knew of no ballads about two radical highlights in Australian history: Eureka, and the 1891 shearers' strike. So I wrote the words of The Ballad of Eureka and The Ballad of 1891 and she set them to music. More to test the workings of the system than for anything else, we went through the formalities of copyrighting both of them.
The first, though sung by Leonard Teale at the 1954 Eureka centenary meeting in Sydney and used by Film Australia in a short documentary, Flag of Stars in 1974, virtually sang into oblivion. The Ballad of 1891 lived on because a couple of years later, Reedy River was given birth, at the New Theatre, in Melbourne (1953). My memory may be wrong here, but I think we heard only after it went on the boards that 1891 was included. The story was that the producers had come across the words on a roneoed sheet (which Doreen had used for her choir) and had assumed that it was anonymous. I remember writing to New Theatre to put them right, and the Sydney performance later in the year made proper acknowledgement in the program, and also in the Reedy River Songbook. We established a reputation for being difficult by protesting when student and popular songbooks reproduced words or music inaccurately and without permission. Perhaps our resistance to the process of becoming anonymous bush balladists was unreasonably stubborn; after all it was a compliment. But resistance or not, it went on.
In 1964 I received a wire from Rigby's of Adelaide. Their collection, Favourite Bush Songs, was at the galley proof stage when they discovered that 1891 was authored, composed, and copyright. Editor-in-chief Ian Mudie explained that "the editor who `collected' this song tells us that he has often heard it sung in the bush as if it were a folk song". I told him that his editor was not alone; Denis Prout in his book on Lawson had quoted a line from it as a `contemporary' ballad of the 1890s; and Ian Mudie's own glorious catalogue of anonymous Australians might provide the answer:
"It was me who boiled my billy under the coolibah, told the bloke in the flash car to open his own flamin' gates ..."
Ian Mudie replied: "Perhaps next time They'll Tell You about Me is reprinted, I should add a footnote: `But it wasn't me who wrote The Ballad of 1891' ".
Rigby's book made suitable acknowledgements; but this didn't daunt the reviewers. For instance, Jock Veitch in the Sun-Herald (October 18, 1964) began his review:
In 1891 the price of wool was falling in Australia and the men "who owned the acres" were worried. They faced a shortage of money and they felt the time was ripe for a head-on clash with the Amalgamated Shearers' Union. But the shearers stuck together and threatened to strike if their award conditions weren't upheld. The story is part of Australia's history and you can read about it in the history books. Or you can sing about it. The shearers did and the song is still remembered. Anyone with an interest in folk music must know the stirring refrain:
"From Clermont to Barcaldine the shearers' camps were full,
Ten thousand blades were ready to strip the greasy wool,
When through the west like thunder rang out the union's call:
'The sheds'll be shore union or they won't be shorn at all'."
Australia's history was forged in the main by men like the shearers – convicts, bushrangers, squatters, drovers, stockmen and swagmen. And while the professional historians have well noted the facts and figures of our development as a nation it's a beat to beat the history our battlers wrote for themselves. They wrote unselfconsciously – words and music we now call folk songs."
SinceMay 24, 2005