Click Go the Shears [traditional Australian song, 1890s]

[Editor: As is common with folk songs that have been passed around by word of mouth, there are several variations of the same song in existence. The earliest known printed version of “Click Go the Shears” was published in The Bacchus Marsh Express on 5 December 1891.]

Click Go the Shears

Out on the board the old shearer stands,
Grasping his shears in his thin bony hand,
Fixed is his gaze on a bare-bellied yoe —
Glory, if he gets her won’t he make the ringer go.

Chorus:
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 bare-bellied yoe.

In the middle of the floor in his cane-bottomed chair,
Sits the boss of the board with his eyes everywhere;
Notes well each fleece as it comes to the screen,
Paying strict attention that it’s taken off clean.

The tar boy is there, awaiting in demand,
With his blackened tar pot, in his tarry hand,
Sees one old sheep with a cut upon its back;
Here is what he’s waiting for — it’s “Tar here Jack!”

The colonial experience man, he is there of course,
With his shiny leggings on, just got off his horse.
He gazes all around, like a real connoisseur,
With brilliantine and scented soap — he’s smelling like a whore.

Shearing is all over and we’ve all got our cheques,
So roll up your swags, boys, we’re off on the track,
The first pub we come to, it’s there we’ll have a spree,
And everyone that comes along, it’s “Come and drink with me!”

Down by the bar the old shearer stands,
Grasping his glass in his thin bony hands,
Fixed is his gaze on a green painted keg,
Glory he’ll get down on it, before he stirs a leg.

There we leave him standing, shouting for all hands,
While all around him every shouter stands,
His eyes are on the keg, which now is lowering fast,
He works hard, he drinks hard — and goes to hell at last!

Editor’s notes:
“Click Go the Shears” uses the tune of the American song “Ring the Bell, Watchman”, written by Henry Clay Work (1832–1884), and parts of it are clearly based upon that song, using some of its words.

The earliest known printed version of “Click Go the Shears” was published in The Bacchus Marsh Express on 5 December 1891, under the title of “The Bare Belled Ewe”.

Prior to the discovery of the 1891 publication of the song (located in 2013 by Mark Gregory), it had been thought that the song was of a later origin. The author Ron Edwards had given evidence, from recollections of the old-timers that he collected songs from, that pointed to a starting-point in the early 20th Century, possibly the 1920s, rather than the song being a product of the late 1800s. However, the discovery of the 1891 version laid such speculation to rest.

bare-bellied yoe = a ewe with hardly any wool on its stomach (belly), whether due to genetics or medical problems (disease or parasites); in this song, the snagger gets the bare-bellied sheep, which meant that the ringer would have to work harder to ensure that he kept his lead, and status, as the fastest shearer

blow = a single stroke, short or long, of the shears through the wool of a sheep

board = the area in the shearing shed where the shearing takes place

brilliantine = an oily perfumed hairdressing, which used to be used by men so as to make their hair glossy

colonial experience man = a “new chum” or “jackaroo” from England, a young man sent out to Australia to gain some experience of life in the colonies, sometimes even the sons of wealthy parents who had sent him out to learn about the wool business; viewed with some cynicism by the shearers as they were seen as “soft” men who did not really have to work hard to earn their living

keg = a large vessel used to hold liquid, such as a keg of beer (the old kegs were made of wood, but most modern beer kegs are made of steel)

pub = hotel; an establishment where the main line of business is to sell alcoholic drinks for customers to consume on the premises (“pub” comes from the abbreviation of “public house”); often the shearers, as itinerant workers, had little else to spend their money on, and would therefore end up spending a lot of their earnings on a spree in the nearest decent-sized town, devoting a lot of their time to drinking in the pub

ringer = the fastest shearer in a shearing shed

screen = the table in a shearing shed where the fleece is thrown (spread out), and the scrappy bits taken off the edges, where the wool-classers would grade the wool for sale

shouting = buying drinks for others in a pub

snagger = a shearer who rushes, shearing the sheep roughly, often leaving tufts (snags) of wool on the sheep

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”

tar boy = in a shearing shed, this was the person who had the job of dabbing antiseptic Stockholm Tar on any sheep which had been inadvertently cut by the shears; in later years, when tar was replaced by antiseptic creams, the term “tar” was still used; the “tar boy” was often a young lad, but the role was also filled by adult men (a broad phraseology regarding age, similar to that of the position of “best boy” in the movie industry)

yoe = an old term for an adult female sheep, a ewe (some versions of the “Click Go the Shears” song use the word “joe”, as a variation of “yoe”)

Some variations:
bare-bellied ; blue-bellied
before he stirs a leg ; ere he stirs a leg
cane-bottomed ; cane-bottom
smelling like a whore ; smelling like a sewer
shouter ; bludger
track ; tracks
yoe ; yowe ; yeo ; joe

One version uses a different wording in place of the line “With brilliantine and scented soap — he’s smelling like a whore”; instead, it uses the words “Whistling the old tune, “I’m the Perfect Lure”.”
[See: “Click go the Shears”, on the “Australian Folk Songs” site]

Another version has significant variations to four lines:
The first pub we come to we’ll all have a spree,
Line up to the bar boys, and have a drink with me.
Eyes on the clock, the time is going fast,
He drinks hard, he works hard, and goes broke at last.
[See: The Overlander Song Book, page 111]

An additional stanza that has been used, sung after the “colonial experience man” stanza, is:
Now Mister Newchum for to begin,
In number seven paddock bring all the sheep in;
Don’t leave none behind, whatever you may do,
And then you’ll be fit for a jackaroo.
[See: Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times, page 254]

Another additional stanza that has been used, sung after the “Tar here Jack!” stanza, is:
First you take the belly-wool and niggle out the crutch,
Go up the neck, for the rules they are such,
Clean around the horns and the first shoulder down,
A long blow up the back and turn her around.
[See: “Click Go the Shears”, on the site of Reinhard Zierke]

References and further reading:
The Bacchus Marsh Express (Bacchus Marsh, Vic.), Saturday 5 December 1891, page 7 (accessed 21 July 2013)
Ron Edwards. The Overlander Song Book, Rigby, Dee Why West (Sydney), 1982 (c1971), pages 109-111
Warren Fahey. Australian Folksong Guide, Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, Sydney, [1974?], pages 36-37
John Leonard. Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, page 293
Lionel Long and Graham Jenkin. Favourite Australian Bush Songs, Rigby, Adelaide, 1972 (c1964), pages 65-66
Douglas Stewart and Nancy Keesing. Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1964 (c1957), pages 254-255
G.A. Wilkes. A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1978, pages 37, 89, 296, 305-306, 327-328
Click Go The Shears”, Australian Folklore Unit [“curated by Warren Fahey”] (accessed 10 June 2012)
Click go the Shears”, Australian Folk Songs (accessed 10 June 2012)
Click Go the Shears”, Reinhard Zierke (accessed 10 June 2012)
Click Goes the Shears – Meaning of Aussie Lyrics”, Suite101.com (accessed 10 June 2012)
Glossary of Wool Terms”, National Wool Museum [City of Greater Geelong] (accessed 10 June 2012)
The Bare Belled Ewe”, Australian Folk Songs (accessed 28 July 2013)
Origins: Click Go the Shears” [forum page], The Mudcat Cafe (accessed 28 July 2013)
Click Go the Shears”, Mainly Norfolk (accessed 29 September2013)

Origin of tune:
“Click Go the Shears” uses the tune of the American song “Ring the Bell, Watchman”, written by Henry Clay Work (1832–1884) in 1865 to celebrate the end of the American Civil War (also known as the “War Between the States”, depending on your viewpoint).

The song was popular, not only in the USA, but also in Australia, with sheet music for the song being published in Melbourne. “Ring the Bell, Watchman” was mentioned as early as 1869 in many Australian newspapers, including The Bacchus Marsh Express, which later published an early version of “Click Go the Shears” in 1891.

Ring the Bell, Watchman

High in the belfry the old sexton stands,
Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands;
Fix’d is his gaze as by some magic spell,
Till he hears the distant murmur,
Ring, ring the bell.

Chorus:
“Ring the bell, watchman! ring! ring! ring!
Yes, yes! the good news is now on the wing.
Yes, yes! they come, and with tidings to tell —
Glorious and blessed tidings —
Ring, ring the bell!

Baring his long silver locks to the breeze,
First for a moment he drops on his knees;
Then with a vigor that few could excel,
Answers he the welcome bidding,
Ring, ring the bell.

Hear! from the hilltop, the first signal gun
Thunders the word that some great deed is done;
Hear! thro’ the valley the long echoes swell,
Ever and anon repeating,
Ring, ring the bell.

Bonfires are blazing and rockets ascend —
No meagre triumph such tokens portend;
Shout, shout! my brothers, for “all, all is well!”
’Tis the universal chorus,
Ring, ring the bell.

Source:
Bertram G. Work (editor). Songs of Henry Clay Work, Press of J.J. Little & Ives Co., New York, [1920?], pages 116-117

References:
Henry Clay Work, Ring the Bell, Watchman! [sheet music], Root and Cady, Chicago, [1865] (accessed 29 January 2013)
Henry Clay Work, Ring the Bell, Watchman! [sheet music], Root and Cady, Chicago, [1865] (accessed 29 January 2013) [This copy is held by the Library of Congress and has, on the front cover, a handwritten notation “Filed Feby 28th 1865” and is date stamped as “Nov 22 1865” by the Copyright Library]
H. C. Work, Ring the Bell Watchman [sheet music], R. J. Paling, Melbourne, [1868?] (accessed 29 January 2013)
H. C. Work, Ring the Bell Watchman [sheet music], W. H. Glen, Melbourne, [ca. 1891-1900] (accessed 29 January 2013)
American Civil War”, Wikipedia (accessed 29 September 2013)
Naming the American Civil War”, Wikipedia (accessed 29 September 2013)
Table talk”, Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, 8 July 1869, p. 2
Mechanics’ Institute. Fine arts exhibition. The first grand promenade concert” [advertising], The Ballarat Star, 6 August 1869, p. 3
Exhibition concert”, The Ballarat Star, 7 August 1869, p. 3
Ballan Mechanics’ Institute. A grand vocal concert” [Advertising], The Bacchus Marsh Express, 11 December 1869, p. 2
Ballan Mechanics’ Institute. A grand vocal concert” [Advertising], The Bacchus Marsh Express, 11 December 1869, p. 4

[This article was updated on 29 September 2013, regarding the publication of “Click Go the Shears” in 1891 (under the title of “The Bare Belled Ewe”) and the dating of the appearance in Australia of “Ring the Bell Watchman”.]

Comments

  1. Thanks for posting the lyrics to “Click Go the Shears.” I’ve heard “Beat by the old swagger,” which was explained as “swagman,” and seems to suit the context of the song. Is “snagger” a word used elsewhere, or could it be a misinterpretation of “swagger”? Is “swagger” used elsewhere (perhaps the misunderstanding goes the other way)? Any sheep-shearers out there? (I understand that songs change through oral transmission.)

    Ottawa, Canada

    • The word used in the song is “snagger”, not “swagger”.

      The “Editor’s notes” section above defines snagger as “a shearer who rushes, shearing the sheep roughly, often leaving tufts (snags) of wool on the sheep”.

      In the context of the song “The ringer . . . curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yoe” because, in the shearing sheds, the number of sheep shorn was important. It was an honour to be the ringer (i.e. the fastest shearer in the shed), so it would be annoying when people doing a slap-dash job looked like catching up in numbers. It would be even more annoying when a snagger, doing a quick and careless job (leaving snags of wool on the sheep, instead of shearing them properly) would get a bare-bellied sheep, as he could then get through his sheep even faster, thus making it easier to catch up to the ringer.

      “Snagger”, as a term, is found in various places in a shearing context. Here is an example from 1925:

      “Tell me if you think these sheep of yours are shorn or only snipped.” Then, without waiting for a reply, Tommy went on to say, “When you applied for a stand you told me you were a shearer, but in saying that, you made a mistake, for of all the snaggers who have graced these boards you are the worst. Now you can go on your way, but don’t come back. Within a few minutes your cheque will be waiting for you in the office.”
      Townsville Daily Bulletin, Saturday 21 March 1925, page 12

  2. Geoff Cooper says:

    The rhyme connoisseur/whore (var sewer) suggests that whore was pronounced hoo-er, exactly the same as that of a Liverpudlian I knew in the early 1960s.

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