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Bush songs and music

Photo of musicians playing bush music at Emu Bottom, 1971.

Eric Wadsworth, Musicians playing bush music at Emu Bottom, 1971. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The songs and music that has come from people's experiences of living and surviving in the Australian bush has become known in Australia as 'bush music'. Bush songs have been written by ordinary everyday people and are a record of the colourful slang of bush life.

The convict songs of the early days of the Australian colonies became the foundation of Australia's bush music. Bush ballads recorded the harsh way of the life and contemporary events and experiences; the lives and loves of bushrangers, bolters, swagmen, drovers, and shearers. Later new themes emerges based on the experiences of war, railways and unions.

The most famous of these bush ballads is Waltzing Matilda, Australia's unofficial national song about a swagman shearer. Many songs and lyrics, written down for private use, were later assembled and published by A. B. (Banjo) Paterson as Old Bush Songs in the 1890s. It was not until 1950 that there were published collections or recordings of bush music. They were always handed down as part of an oral tradition, similar to folk music.

Bushranger ballads

Painting of Ben Hall

Ben Hall.

Convicts wrote songs about bushrangers, who were often escaped convicts. There is a cluster of ballads about the young Irish convict-turned-bushranger 'Bold' Jack Donohoe, who was shot dead in 1830. These ballads continued to be sung as anthems of defiance for decades. In the shearers' strike of 1891, Bold Jack Donohoe was sung to voice the feelings of the shearers against the squatters and the government. The most popular ballad about Jack Donohoe may have been 'The Wild Colonial Boy'.

The bushranging ballad Streets of Forbes records the slaying of bushranger Ben Hall by police troopers in 1865. It is generally believed to have been written by John McGuire, Ben's brother-in-law and neighbour, after he saw Ben's body being paraded through Forbes:

Ben went to Goobang Creek, and that was his downfall
For riddled like a sieve was valiant Ben Hall
'Twas early in the morning upon the fifth of May
When seven police surrounded him as fast asleep he lay.

The characters are real and the names are important as they provide the details of the event of the death of Ben Hall, confirmed by an oral history account by Bob Bolton.

Overlanders - Stockmen's and Drover's songs

Photo of sheep shearing, Yandilla station,  ca 1894

Yandilla, sheep shearing, ca 1894, slide: lantern, b&w. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

After the gold rushes, shearers and drovers composed ballads and songs which became part of the oral tradition of Australian bush music. Click go the Shears, perhaps the most widely sung shearer's song, borrows its tune and a little of its text from an American popular song of the Civil War.

Out on the board the old shearer stands
Grasping his shears in his long bony hands
Fixed is his gaze on a bare-bellied 'joe'
Glory if he gets her, won't he make the ringer go.

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow
And curses the old snagger with the blue-bellied 'joe'.

Stockmen and drovers, known as' overlanders', developed pride in the skills which required them to drive sheep and cattle over long distances. This is expressed in many of their ballads and songs such as Ogilvie's Kings of the Earth; 'We are slaves of the saddle and bridle Yet Kings of the Earth when we ride!'. Favourite Australian Bush Songs (1964) compiled by Lionel Long and Graham Jenkin documented the best known handed down versions of droving songs. These included The Drovers Dream, The Drovers Song, and The Queensland Drover, with its stirring chorus:

Pass the billy round boys!
Don't let the pint-pot stand there!
For tonight we'll drink to the health
Of every overlander.

With federation of the colonies in 1901, Australians began showing pride in their own music and this is reflected in their adoption of Waltzing Matilda as an unofficial national song. Waltzing Matilda, an Australian slang term which means to carry one's swag from camp to camp, tells the story of a swagman who steals 'jumbucks' (sheep) from a farmer.

Written by Banjo Paterson in Queensland 1895, Waltzing Matilda was inspired by the death of swagman-shearer during the shearers' strikes of the 1890s. It was put to music by Christina Macpherson of Dagwood Station, near Winton, Queensland. The tune was adapted from the traditional Scottish tune Craigielea which she had heard at the Warrnambool Races in Victoria in 1894.

The bush remained a favourite subject of Australian songs, although it was often portrayed as a place people had left and longed to return to. The most famous song of the inter-war years was Jack O'Hagan's On the road to Gundagai (1922).

Bush music collection and revival

In the 1880's and 1890's, Australian writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson popularised a tradition of bush ballads in the publication Old Bush Songs, which is still a strong influence on Australian folk and country music today. Classic bush ballads included The Wild Colonial Boy and The Eumeralla Shore.

An Australian bush music revival began in the 1950s when John Meredith recorded old-timer singers born in the late 1800s, singing and playing old bush songs. For four or five years he collected songs from Sydney and in a limited region of central-western New South Wales, around the Lachlan River. Systematic field recordings were also carried out in Victoria by members of the Folk Lore Society of Victoria.

The first bush songs recorded were mainly from Jack 'Hoopiron' Lee (b. 1876) and his mate, Joe Cashmere, a fiddle player and bush poet, both from Booligal, on the Lachlan. They included The Backblocks Shearer, Wild Rover No More, The Drover's Dream, Andy's Gone with Cattle, Bold Jack Donohoe and Moreton Bay. In November 1954, 'Duke' Tritton (b. 1886) turned up in response to an article in The Bulletin about 'missing' verses, songs and bush ballads - having worked as a shearer out west, then droving, fencing, labouring, boxing and singing.

The Bushwhackers
Photo of Dame Mary Gilmore performing with the Bushwhackers

The Bushwhackers at Dame Mary Gilmore's ninetieth birthday, 1955, photograph: b&w. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

In 1954, Meredith assembled a small group to sing the songs he had collected and The Bushwhackers were born. The group play button accordian, the lagerphone, bush bass - a one-stringed tea-chest, guitar and mouth organ. Duke Tritton then has a second career through the Bushwhackers as a singer, on radio and in public.

The Bushwhackers first disc - The Drover's Dream, (1955) is released by the newly formed Wattle Recording Company, ultimately selling 20,000 records after the first pressing of 200. The first LP recording of Australian bush music is Australian Bush Songs (1956) by Englishman A L Lloyd, based on songs Lloyd learned in his youth in central western New South Wales. This gained Australian bush songs wide exposure and influenced the repertoire and singing style of bush music revival singers in the 1970s.

Indigenous bush music

As part of the 1950s Australian bush revival, an itinerant Aboriginal worker, Dougie Young, recorded his songs with 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 folk song revival movement. Aboriginal folk singers have also preserved white Australian song texts such as The Old Bark Hut. The close relationship between Aboriginal and white stockmen is commemorated in The Dying Stockman:

Give Wongi my saddle and blanket,
Give Billy my bullets of lead
That these two dark friends of my childhood
May remember a stockman who's dead.

Overlanders - Stockmen's and Drover's songs

In 1971 The Overlander Song Book was published. This reflected the systematic recording of songs collected in far north Queensland by Ron Edwards. Comparatively, very little collecting was done in other parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory or Western Australia. The Big Book of Australian Folk Songs is virtually a revised edition of The Overlander Song Book and shows the rich bush and folk song tradition that existed in North Queensland, with much local material. This repertoire of bush music was influential in shaping the development of Australian folk music and the folk revival of the 1970s.

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Australian bush music

Australian bush songs

Bush music references

  • John Meredith's, Folk Songs of Australia, and the Men and Women Who Sang Them (1967).
  • Nancy Keesing's Australian Bush Ballads (1955) and Old Bush Songs (1956) in which she collaborated with Douglas Stewart. They work with other folk enthusiasts including Edgar Waters, who worked at the NSW State Library.
  • Russel Ward published his doctoral thesis as The Australian Legend (1958) which helped re-establish the legend that the Australian nation defined itself by the values and attitudes of the up-country bushman.
  • The Victorian Bush Music Club and the Folk Lore Society of Victoria publish a magazine renamed Australian Tradition, 37 issues until 1975 and the Sydney Bush Music Club publish Singabout. Through these publications, many scores of fine traditional songs (such as The Streets of Forbes), and songs newly written in the folk idiom, first appear. (A considerable part of the recordings are now held by the National Film and Sound Archive).

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Last updated: 6th February 2007


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