[Editor: This article notes that Henry Lawson was an early Labor poet; it also refers to the use of blue as a “fighting colour of Labor”.]
Lawson & some contemporaries were pioneer Labor poets
No doubt Labor has a right to call Lawson one of its singing pioneers. Here’s one or two reasons why:
In May, 1891, a few months after the first issue of “The Worker,” Henry Lawson wrote “Freedom on the Wallaby” for this paper. It ended on a fiery note in this fashion:
So we must fly the rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting,
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.
Earlier in May another outstanding Australian poet, E. J. Brady, had published in “The Worker” “FROM THE SOUTH TO THE NORTH,” the first two verses of which went:
There are anxious, watching faces ’mongst the workers in the South,
There’s hope in many bosoms, there’s a prayer in many a mouth.
We are waiting for the issues as the moments bring them forth.
And we send a hearty greeting to our brothers in the North.
From the dirty, smoky city, from the workshop and the mine,
We stretch the hand of friendship ’cross the distant border line,
For we feel the Cause is mighty and the truth can never fail;
If we’re true to one another Truth and Justice must prevail.
The verses end in this fashion:
So I send a friendly greeting o’er the border line to you,
Tell the North to stand together, for the South is staunch and true.
On September 19, 1891, “The Worker” published “THE ARMY IN THE REAR,” a Lawson poem which had appeared in “The Bulletin” (Sydney) three years before — in 1888. Some of the stanzas read:
I listened through the music and the sound of revelry,
And all the hollow noises of that year of Jubilee;
I heard beyond the music and beyond the loyal cheer,
The steady tramp of thousands that were marching in the rear.
Tramp ! tramp ! tramp
They seem to shake the air,
Those never-ceasing footsteps of the Outcasts in the Rear.
I heard defiance ringing from the men of rags and dirt,
I heard wan women singing that sad “Song of the Shirt,”
And o’er the sounds of menace and moaning low and drear,
I heard the steady tramping of their feet along the rear.
Tramp! tramp! Tramp
Vibrating in the air.
Those never-ceasing footsteps of the Army of the Rear.
Perhaps one of the most interesting disclosures among the early poets who wrote for “The Worker” was that THEIR fighting colour of Labor was not RED but BLUE. Henry Lawson was one of those who subscribed to that colour — mixing some of Ireland’s emerald green with it!
Here are two examples: The first from “The Worker” of May 30, 1891, was entitled “TRUE BLUE,” and was written by Frank M’Coy, on the first of that month. There are seven verses all ending more or less on the same theme. The first three verses are as follow:—
Hurrah! boys, the daylight is breaking,
The dawning of freedom’s at hand;
And the bright star of promise is gleaming
Thro’ the mists that envelop the land.
The hold of the tyrant is loos’ning,
And banished the power that he knew,
Whilst the ranks of our boys are advancing,
LED ON BY THE BANNER OF BLUE.
TRUE BLUE is our union colour,
Emblematic of freedom and right;
The colour we mean to defend, boys,
Till justice shall give us the fight.
Let them send up their rifles and bayonets,
Their Gatlings and Nordenfeldts, too;
We’ll close up the ranks all the firmer,
And stand by our colour — the BLUE.
That our cause is a noble and just one,
The weak and downtrodden will grant —
A cause we are bound to succeed in,
In spite of a snuffler’s cant.
Let them chain up our leaders and treat them
As gaolers their criminals do,
Where they go we’re game, boys, to follow.
And loyally stand by the BLUE.
It was in the June 27, 1891, issue of “The Worker” that Henry Lawson’s “AS IRELAND WORE THE GREEN” was published. There are six verses and six choruses, every chorus linking the green and blue. Here are the first two verses and a chorus:
By right of birth in southern land I send my warning forth;
I see my country ruined by the wrongs that damned the North,
And shall I stand with fireless eyes and still and silent mouth,
While Mammon builds his Londons on the fair fields of the South?
Oh, must we hide our colour,
In fear of Mammon’s spleen?
Or shall we wear the BONNIE BLUE
As Ireland wore the green?
As Ireland wore the green, my, friends!
As Ireland wore the green!
Aye, we will wear our colour still,
As Ireland wore the green!
I see the shade of poverty fall on each sunny scene,
And slums and alleyways extend where fields were evergreen.
There is a law that stamps the flower of freedom as it springs;
And this upon a soil that’s trod by prouder feet than kings’.
Lawson was one of three Australian balladists who were regarded as being distinctive in the nineties in Sydney. The other two were the late “Jim Grahame” (James William Gordon), and Rod Quinn, who died last year within a few days of one another. Grahame was a particularly close friend of Lawson’s. Roderick Quinn often wrote for “The Australian Worker” as well as the Sydney “Bulletin.” Like most Australian bush poets they could be described in some respects as “Labor” poets, because they wrote so vividly of the bush and its people — where Labor was cradled.
Edwin (Ted) Brady is still alive in Victoria. He was once editor of “The Australian Worker” for a brief period, before the days of the late Henry Boote. Some old-time Labor poets (and prose writers) in their onslaught against war, used language which would cause temperatures to rise in the ranks of “authority” to-day and might bring an armed squad to “The Worker” if such were published.
The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), Monday 11 September 1950, page 8