Songs of the ’Sixties
By Spencer Browne.
Do Songs Live?
One may be pardoned for a difference in view from the old saying that Empires dissolve and peoples disappear, but songs pass not away. Even one questions Ovid in the doctrine that “songs have immunity from death.” It seems to me that while the impalpable spaces of the world may throb with the sweetness and passion of old-time songs or even burst their figurative sides with laughter at the archaic funnyisms, there is not necessarily a survival of even the best of the old weddings of words and melody. I may be wrong, but consider it probable that I know songs, words, and music which do not survive with any one else. Talking the subject over the other day with a friend, Mr. “Jim” Philp, the poet, a man well informed by tradition upon the songs of, say, 65 years ago, he suggested that with them I might be suspected of the peculiar qualities of a musical Ossian, or of a qualified Chatterton. My friend has perspicuity, and he is frank; but I am not ashamed to say in support of bona fides that some of the songs of which I propose to write are both in text and notative expressiveness beyond my humble capacity. I am old enough to remember a good many who were convicts, or lags, as the terms went, and one from whom I heard many songs was an old chap who had been sent out or transported for some trifle, and had been assigned to my great-grandfather.
A Hat Full of Songs.
Paddy, to use only his first name, and allow the other to remain unexpressed but not forgotten, was a lover of poetry and song, and had a wonderful “hat full,” as it was then put — now we call it a repertoire or repertory — not only of the things the convicts used to sing, but of ghost stories of the most deliciously creepful kind. Often we boys would sit, figuratively and literally at his knees, and drink in the softly keened ballads of the day, or perhaps of 50 years earlier, and the stories of ghosts away in Sligo or Mayo, whence Paddy came for his transgressions, and whence my people came, because Ireland offered no career for bright, devil-may-care young men who were not politicians. Probably some of the scraps which I remember of Paddy’s singings are well over a 100 years old. All old New South Wales folk, or many of them, at any rate, have heard of “Willie Riley.”
Come, rise up Willie Riley, and come along with me,
I mean to go with you and leave this count-er-ee.
To leave my father’s dwelling, his houses, and free lands,
Away goes Willie Riley and his own dear Colleen Bawn.
Paddy sang that with great devotion. It was a long song of about twenty verses, and, as a ballad should, told its own story. But there was “Johnny Riley” with the same tune:
As I rode out one evening down by a river’s side,
I overheard a pretty maid, the tears were in her eyes,
“This is a dark and stormy night,” those words I heard her say,
“And my love is on the raging seas hound for Americkay.”
And John Riley was evidently beloved by one who could not live without him, for when Ophelia-like the lady was drawn from the water the ghost had left her, and:
They found a letter in her breast, and it was wrote with blood,
“How cruel was my father, for he sought to shoot my love.”
One should not worry about matters of rhyme. Even Shelley was sometimes a bit slovenly in that way. Another of Paddy’s songs was sung with a peculiar minor intonation which cannot be given here, worse luck, for it is very beautiful:
The moon was bright and the night advanced,
When a convict came to the Isle of France.
Around his leg he wore a ring and a chain,
And his country was of the Shamrock green.
Then there was one of the “Come-all-ye’s,” which had as a beginning an invocation and a dramatic promise:
Come all ye young men and maids and listen unto me,
And I will sing a song to you about the raging sea —
About the raging sea, my boys,
And a good ship tight and free, &c.
It may be remarked that though many have heard of what is commonly called the Irish “Comalyee,” few know the origin of the name. It came from the circumstance that so many of the songs began with “Come all ye.” And if you want an illustration look up your Church of England hymn book and find “Come, all ye faithful,” which is perhaps the oldest of the “Comalyees.” I have given only a few of Paddy songs, but would dearly like, if space permitted, to tell you of such little romantic things as “Way down in yonder valley there lays my heart’s delight,” with the earnest and picturesque declaration that “In the middle of the ocean shall grow a myrtle tree,” ere the singer’s heart would sink to even a suggestion of unfaithfulness. Let me drop a little tribute to the memory of old Paddy. We never heard from him in song or story a gross thought. He was a very good Roman Catholic of the old school, and found that there was beauty enough in the world in the purer things, and humour enough in the world in the cleaner things, and we boys easily might have had less worthy mentors than the old ex-convict.
Some Other Songs.
Many people did not believe in their children learning the old convict songs as they were called. Thanks be that our mother had too much of the artist in her nature for such narrowness. But there were scores of very beautiful songs of the refined school, songs which my wife sings to-day — and she sings, too, some of the old “rough stuff” with a most disgraceful facility — and one of the most delightful was:
’Twere vain to tell thee all I feel,
Or say for thee I’d die;
I know that words but ill reveal
What my soul would wish to sigh.
And there was the rather over-sentimentalised “Constance,” with its:
I do not ask to offer thee a simple love like mine,
I lay it as the rose is laid on some immortal shrine.
* * *
But little have I been beloved, sad, silent, and alone,
And yet I feel in loving thee the wide world is my own.
These songs have charming melodies and please the Good Lord I’ll have the melodies written out soon, and have made a half promise to give them to the Historical Society of New South Wales in April next. And here is a little gem of a beautiful song, the melody of which has unaccountably vanished:
I cannot flatter if I would
A face so fair, a heart so good.
The clearest stream that ever shone
But dim reflects the golden moon
It may be added that I knew from my mother the words and music of these songs when I was a five-year-old. Except “Constance,” I have never seen them in print, nor heard them elsewhere, nor knew any one who had heard them. In later years I heard many of the little songs of Vincent Wallace from my old friend “Toby” Bushelle, who was Theobald Vincent Wallace Bushelle, a nephew of the composer. One, “The winds that waft my sighs to thee,” was published in later years, and I saw a copy of it at the house of Mr. and Mrs. George Chaffey, at Renmark, in the later days of 1888. It was brought from the United States. Another very charming Vincent Wallace thing was “When the children are asleep.” My friend “Toby” Bushelle had learnt them from his mother, the famous Madame Bushelle, wife of the basso Bushelle, who was the rival of Lablache. We had also “My Bud in Heaven.” Please do not be derisive. It was the sentiment of the period when the polka was a dissipation and the waltz a wickedness — that is if you were wicked “The Bud,” we boys called, it and we heard it with real tears on our young cheeks and in our easily touched ruffianly young hearts. It began:
I had a bud the Gardener gave me,
A pure and lovely child.
I took it to my bosom
To cherish undefiled.
Of course in the song the Gardener took the bud and placed it far above the contaminations of the world. And we had also “Sweet Spirit, Hear my Prayer,” That is a song of devotional beauty and we cannot afford to laugh it off, however old fashioned it may be.
The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld.) Saturday 30 October 1926, page 16
Presumably the author is Reginald Spencer Browne (13 July 1856 – 9 November 1943), journalist and army general [see: “Reginald Spencer Browne”, Wikipedia (accessed 12 May 2012)]