“All human beings not utterly savage long for some information about past times, and are delighted by narratives which present pictures to the eye of the mind. But it is only in very enlightened communities that books are readily accessible. Metrical composition, therefore, which, in a highly civilised nation, is a mere luxury, is in nations imperfectly civilised almost a necessity of life, and is valued less on account of the pleasure which it gives to the ear than on account of the help which it gives to the memory. A man who can invent or embellish an interesting story and put it into a form which others may easily retain in their recollection will always be highly esteemed by a people eager for amusement and information, but destitute of libraries. Such is the origin of ballad poetry, a species of composition which scarcely ever fails to spring up and flourish in every society at a certain point in the progress towards refinement.” — Macaulay.
Australia’s history is so short, and her progress has been so wonderfully rapid, that, seeing things as they are to-day, it is hard to believe that among us still are men who can remember the days when convicts in irons tramped the streets of Sydney, and it was unsafe to go to and from Sydney and Parramatta without an armed escort; who were partakers of the roaring days of the diggings, when miners lit their pipes with five-pound notes and shod their horses with gold; who have exchanged shots with Gilbert and Morgan, and have watched the lumbering police of the old days scouring the country to earn the thousand pounds reward on the head of Ben Hall. So far as materials for ballads go, the first sixty or seventy years of our history are equal to about three hundred years of the life of an old and settled nation. The population of the country comprised a most curious medley. Among the early settlers were some of the most refined and educated, and some of the most ignorant, people on the face of the earth. Among the assisted immigrants and currency lads of the earlier days education was not a strong point; and such newspapers as there were could not be obtained by one-half of the population, and could not be read by a very large percentage of the other half. It is no wonder, then, that the making of ballads flourished n Australia just as it did in England, Scotland, and Ireland in the days before printing was in common use. And it was not only in the abundance of matter that the circumstances of the infant Colony were favourable to ballad-making, The curious upheavals of Australian life had set the Oxford graduate carrying his swag and cadging for food at the prosperous homestead of one who could scarcely write his name; the digger, peeping out of his hole — like a rabbit out of his burrow — at the licence hunters, had, perhaps, in another clime charmed cultivated audiences by his singing and improvisation; the bush was full of ne’er-do-wells — singers and professional entertainers and so on — who had “come to grief” and had to take to hard work to earn a crust to carry them on until they could “strike a new patch.” No wonder that, with all this talent to hand, songs and ballads of a rough sort were plentiful enough.
Most of these songs, even in the few years they have been extant, have developed three or four different readings; and not only have the ballads been altered, but many of them have been forgotten altogether. Only one very imperfect song has come to hand dealing directly with the convict days, but there must have been many ballads composed and sung by the prisoners — ballads in which the horrors of Port Arthur in Tasmania, the grim, grey prisons of Norfolk Island, the curse of official tyranny, and the humours of the rum traffic had their share. Possibly some lost singer of convictdom poured out his regrets in words straight from the soul, and produced a song worthy to rank as a classic: but all the songs of that day have been mercifully allowed to drift into oblivion; and their singers, with their grey clothes and their fetters, have gone clanking down to the limbo of forgotten things.
The collection begins with two aboriginal songs. These songs were supplied by Mr. S. M. Mowle, a very old colonist, with much experience of the blacks fifty years ago. He writes — “I could never find out what the words meant, and I don’t think the blacks themselves knew.” Other authorities, however, say that the blacks’ songs were very elaborate, and that they composed corroborees which reached a high dramatic level. The question is of interest, and might be worth investigation.
It is interesting to see how the progress of settlement is reflected in the various songs. Beginning with the crude early days, when there was land and to spare, and when labour was in demand and Australia was terra incognita to all, we find in “Paddy Malone” a fitting chronicle in rhyme. In this ballad a raw, Irish immigrant tells of his adventures in the Australian bush. He was put to shepherding and bullock-driving, which in itself proves that labourers were at a premium, and that instead of a man having to hunt for a job the job had to hunt for the man. He lost his sheep, and the bullocks got away from him. It will be noticed that there is no mention of fences or roads in this ballad, as in the “Paddy Malone” days fences and roads were not very much met with. Compare also “The Beautiful Land of Australia.” In this the settler reaches Sydney, and “Upon the map I chose my land,” which shows that there was land enough and to spare, and that the system of grants to free immigrants was in full swing. It is noticeable that in all the ballads of early days there is a sort of happy-go-lucky spirit which reflects the easy-come, easy-go style of the times.
Next in order come the ballads of the days when the squatters had established themselves, and the poorer classes found it harder to live. “The Squatter’s Man” is a ballad of these harder times. Compare it with “Paddy Malone.” There is no talk of sending a new chum out with sheep and bullocks now. The first rush of settlement is over, and the haughty squatter contemptuously offers ten shillings a week as wages to a man for a variety of drudgery that is set out with much spirit in the song.
Next come the free-selection days, when the run: of these squatters were thrown open to purchase on certain easy conditions, and at once the ballads change their tone, and there is quite a pæan of victory in “The Free Selector — a Song of 1861.” The reader will note that “The Land Bill has passed and the good time has come,” and further on the singer says
“We may reside
In a home of our own by some clear waterside.”
The squatters also had a word to say, and “The Broken-down Squatter” puts their side of the case in a sort of ad misericordiam appeal; while “The Eumerella Shore” is a smart hit at the cattle-stealers who availed themselves of the chances afforded by the new state of things in the country. Later still comes the time when the selectors became employers of labour, and “The Stringy-bark Cockatoo,” though rough in style and versification, is a splendid hit at the new squireens, A “cockatoo,” it should be explained, is a small settler, and the stringy-bark tree is an unfailing sign of poor land; and the minstrel was much worse treated when working for “The Stringy-bark Cockatoo” than when he was a “Squatter’s man.”
So much for the historical element; now as to the songs themselves. As metrical compositions they cannot be expected to rank high. In all her history England has produced only a few good ballads, and ballads do not get justice from cold print. An old Scotchman, to whom Sir Waiter Scott read some of his collected ballads, expressed the opinion that the ballads were spoilt by printing. And these bush songs, to be heard at their best, should be heard to an accompaniment of clashing shears when the voice of a shearer rises through the dill caused by the rush and bustle of a shearing shed, the scrambling of the sheep in their pens, and the hurry of the pickers-up; or when, on the roads, the cattle are restless on their camp at night and the man on watch, riding round them, strikes up “Bold Jack Donahoo” to steady their nerves a little. Drovers know that they must not sneak quietly about restless cattle — it is better to sing to them and let them know that someone is stirring and watching; and many a mob of wild, pike-horned Queensland cattle, half inclined to stampede, has listened contentedly to the “Wild Colonial Boy” droned out in true bush fashion till the daylight began to break and the mob was safe for another day. Heard under such circumstances as these, the songs have quite a character of their own. A great deal depends, too, on the way in which they are sung. The true bushman never hurries his songs. They are designed expressly to pass the time on long journeys or slow, wearisome rides after sheep or tired cattle; so the songs are sung conscientiously through — chorus and all — and the last three words of the song are always spoken, never sung. There is, too, a strong Irish influence in the greater number of the songs; quite a large proportion are sung to the tune of the “Wearing of the Green,” and the admixture of Irish wit and Irish pathos in their composition can only be brought out by a good singer.
One excuse, if excuse be needed, for the publication of this collection is the fact that the songs it contains are fast being forgotten. Thirty or forty years ago every station and every shearing shed had its singer, who knew some of the bush songs. Nowadays they are never sung, and even in districts where they took their rise they have pretty well died out. Only a few years ago, every shearing shed had at least one minstrel who could drone out the refrain of a shearing song –
“But, oh, boys, such sheep I never shore,
As those that made us knuckle down at Goorianawa.”
But the Goorianawa sheep are not celebrated in song nowadays, and advertisement has failed to produce a copy of the song. Down in the rough country near the Upper Murrumbidgee, where the bushranger Gilbert was betrayed by a relative and was shot by the police, there was a song about “Dunn, Gilbert, and Ben Hal.” It commenced –
“Come! all ye lads of loyalty, and listen to my tale;
A story of bushranging days, I will to you unveil,
’Tis of those gallant heroes, God bless them one and all,
And we’ll sit and sing “God Save the King, Dunn, Gilbert, and Ben Hall.”
Another line ran—
“It’s one thousand pounds, alive or dead, for Dunn, Gilbert and Ben Hall.”
Thirty years ago every one in the district had heard this song, and all the sympathisers with the bushrangers (which meant the bulk of the wild and scattered population) used to sing it on occasion; but to-day the most persistent inquiry has failed to reveal one man who can remember more than a few fragments of it; and yet it is only forty years since Ben Hall was shot. It is in the hope of rescuing these rough bush ballads from oblivion that the present collection is placed before the public.
A. B. PATERSON
A. B. Paterson (editor), The Old Bush Songs, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1905, pp. ix-xvi