Bolters, Bushrangers & Duffers

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Album Notes by Edgar Waters (1965)

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". . . and it was for gold he made so bold, and not so long ago . . ."

The first Australian bushrangers were Englishmen and Irishmen - convicts transported to the penal settlements of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. Here, in the language of the day, they had bolted and taken to the bush.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie issued a proclamation in 1814 about bushrangers which spoke of them as men who had "unlawfully absconded and fled from their usual Habitations and Employments... into the Woods and retired Places... with intent to support and maintain themselves by Rapine and Violence... Idleness and Debauchery."

But the convicts did not call them unlawful absconders; they sang of them as men who "scorned to live in slavery or wear the convict chain." And the poverty-stricken dungaree settlers did not care that they supported themselves by rapine, but sang in their praise because they robbed "the robber rich men." As for violence, the bushrangers were slow to kill when compared with their fellow bandits of other lands and other times. Though perhaps, in the end, many of them felt like the bushranger who said from the dock of a court in Sydney, in 1839: "I've been all over the country in my time without taking the life of anyone. I've been baited like a bulldog and I'm only sorry now I didn't shoot every tyrant in New South Wales."

As the generation of convict bushrangers began to die out, their place was taken by a new generation of young men - native born and bush bred. Some of them were the sons of convicts. Some of them took to the bushranging trade readily and early. Some of them drifted, or were pushed, into bushranging only after early trouble with the law over less serious crimes than robbery-under-arms; often, over cattle duffing or other forms of stock stealing. The stealing of stock was naturally regarded as a crime deserving harsh punishment by the wealthy graziers who suffered from it most. But to bush workers and dungaree settlers it hardly seemed a crime at all - especially since the fortune of many a wealthy squatting family was founded, often enough in fact and even more often in folklore, by a cattle duffing ancestor.

James Macarthur, a wealthy landowner of Lachlan Macquarie's day, pointed out of the bushrangers that "the sympathies of the numerical majority of the inhabitants are in favour of the criminals, whom they would rather screen from punishment, than deliver over to justice." So it remained until the day when Ned Kelly - last of the famous bushrangers - was hanged in Melbourne in 1880, amidst the fears of some respectable citizens that his sympathisers would raise a revolt.

 


 
"Gary Shearston has clearly established himself as one of the contemporary singers who can make of our folk music a modern and endurable art."
Craig McGregor
(Sydney Morning Herald)

Tradition has it that Governor Darling, in the 1830s, tried to put down the singing of the ballad of the bushranger Jack Donahue. But still today in the bush there are a few old singers who sing Bold Jack Donahue as they learnt it from an older generation, and so on, in a chain that leads back to the singers of Darling's own day. After Kelly's death, authority prevented the performance of plays about his life. Even in the twentieth century, authority for many years banned the screening of a film about Kelly. But today his name is used everywhere by Australians of all kinds, who praise a man's courage by saying: "He's as game as Ned Kelly." Such is life (as Kelly is supposed to have said as he stepped to the gallows).

Along with the bushranger ballads on this record, there are a few songs about convict hardships and convict rebelliousness, and two songs about cattle duffing by dungaree settlers (two songs written from very different points of view). The convict songs may help to explain how it was that some convicts came to take to the bush. The songs about cattle duffing may help to fill out the picture of the war for land between poverty stricken free selectors and wealthy graziers. For that land war is an essential part of the background in the later bushranging days.

Wherever possible, Gary Shearston has learnt the songs on this recording from field recordings of bush folk singers and sings them in traditional bush style - except that bush folk singers mostly sang without accompaniment. On this record all the songs but two are sung to instrumental accompaniment provided by Richard Brooks on harmonica, Kemp Fowler on concertina, Les Miller on banjo and guitar and Gary Shearston, himself, on guitar. They are skillful and sympathetic accompaniments, which add to the musical interest of the songs without detracting from the traditional flavour of the singing.

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