Folk Songs And Ballads Of Australia

Album Notes by Gary Shearston (1964)

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Dame Mary Gilmore once wrote: "Shame on the mouth that would deny the knotted hands that set us high". Folk song - traditional and contemporary - serves as an integral part of the oral record of a country's history. Over the past 15 years the tremendous revival of interest and research into the Australian folk heritage has brought about a deeper insight into the lives of those "that set us high". Presented here are 12 songs - old and new - which are part of that living folk history.

PUT A LIGHT IN EVERY COUNTRY WINDOW: A song from the pen of Don Henderson, one of Australia's best and most prolific contemporary songwriters, who has travelled and written throughout the Eastern States. This song was written three years ago after a journey through the area of the giant Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme.

REEDY RIVER: A poem by Henry Lawson set to music by Sydney science student and folksinger Chris Kempster. The song has become widely circulated over the past ten years and was used by Dick Diamond as the title of his Australian folk musical produced by The New Theatre.

LACHLAN TIGERS: A song of the shearing shed depicting the activity and pace of the shearing season in full swing. The "ringer" is the fastest shearer in the shed and when he's "already turned and on the whipping side" means he has commenced working on the second side of the sheep. "Tar" is the preparation applied as a medication to any cuts suffered by sheep during shearing and the "tar-boy" is the gentleman who does the applying. "Jacky Howe" was a champion shearer who held a record of 321 sheep shorn in one day. His name lives on today in the form of a workshirt worn by shearers affectionately known as a "Jacky Howe". The "contractor" is paid by property owners to organise the shearing crews and run the shed. He is an independent "foreman" and may organise crews for several properties in one season. "Bellies" and "topknots" of course describe the areas of fleece on the stomach and head of the sheep and the name "Ward & Paine's" refers to a brand of hand or "blade" shears popular in the days before mechanisation came to the sheds.

JIM JONES AT BOTANY BAY: During the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries, the law in England punished with hanging or transportation anyone who "poached" - that is, took fish or game from another man's land. It was a common offence as workmen were paid such low wages that they and their families were practically starving. As the landlords' estates generally abounded in game it was only natural that a battle of wits, and stronger armaments, developed between the "poacher" trying to feed his family and the gamekeepers hired to protect their lords' estates. If caught and sentenced to transportation to Australian convict settlements the poachers met with hardship and brutality. They worked and sometimes slept in iron chains and were punished for trivial offences by floggings of up to one hundred lashes. From this background comes "poacher" Jim Jones - hardly a convict by modern ideas - defiant, bitter and living for the day when his oppressors may "regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay."

HUMPING OLD BLUEY: "Bluey" and "drum" are two other names for the swag of the swagmen, the great legion of wandering nomads, who - by choice and desperation - spent most of their lives working where they could at an assortment of jobs from one end of Australia to the other. This song was collected by the Sydney Bush Music Club from 70-year-old ex-shearer Ron Mantan who learnt the song when he was seven years old.

THE OLD PALMER SONG: In 1851 Edward Hargraves discovered gold in New South Wales near Bathurst and his find was confirmed by the government geologist. Traces of gold had been found as early as 1823 but kept secret by the authorities for fear of trouble with convicts. But at the time of Hargrave's discovery, N.S.W. had ceased to be a convict colony and the government welcomed news of gold as a means of keeping men in Australia and tempting outsiders to swarm in as they had done earlier at the California gold rushes. In a few months the great new industry had grown up, attracting men from all over the world. The N.S.W. gold boom was soon overshadowed, however, by the discovery of the great goldfields at Ballarat and Bendigo in the new colony of Victoria. Nuggets of pure gold were found there and one digger is said to have filled a quart pot with nuggets after one day's work with a penknife. Later, fields opened up in Queensland and in 1872 rich alluvial deposits were discovered on the Palmer River. This "rush" song tells of diggers setting out from the Victorian goldfields "for that new promised land" in the north.

BRISBANE LADIES: Adapted from an old English fo'csle song ("Spanish Ladies") this has one of the finest melodies of all the old bush songs. The adaptation has been traced back to the late 1880s and credited to Saul Mendelsohn, then a jackaroo near Nanango, Queensland. The place names in the song indicate the route taken by drovers "pushing" homeward from the Brisbane cattle sales to Augathella Station in central western Queensland.

BONNIE JESS: The words of this song are by Thomas E. Spencer, one of the old bush balladists who won fame with his wonderful yarn of "How McDougal Topped the Score" and made himself the hero of a country cricket match. With his team trailing badly, McDougal was last man at the crease. He somehow hit the first ball which his sheepdog "Pincher" promptly gathered firmly in his mouth and made off across country with the fielding side roaring in pursuit. During the chase McDougal managed to stagger the length of the pitch for 50 consecutive runs to "top the score" and bring his team victory. There was probably once a tune for Spencer's love story of Bonnie Jess and her shearer sweetheart but it is not known and the words are here set to a tune of my own making.

OUR FATHERS CLEARED THE BUSH: A recent song from Victorian songwriter Mick Hughes. It appeared in "Singabout" - the journal of the Sydney Bush Music Club - in 1962 and has since become widely circulated.

THE BUSH GIRL: Another poem from the poetic genius of Henry Lawson set to music by Con Caston of Warwick, Queensland. In a tribute, Dame Mary Gilmore once wrote: "Henry Lawson wrote more than just man. There was a woman - mother, sister, wife and sweetheart - behind everything he gave us". In the last verse of the song reference is made to Lawson's visit to London from 1900 to 1902 - a journey which proved to be a mostly unhappy one for him.

KELLY WAS THEIR CAPTAIN: A song about Australia's best-known bushranger and his well-organised gang whose daring raids baffled the police and governments of New South Wales and Victoria for more than 18 months in the late 1800s. It is but one of dozens of poems and songs about the Kelly gang that have circulated throughout Australia for over 80 years. At the time of their origin many were declared "treason songs" and the authorities made efforts to suppress them. "Kelly was their Captain" is one of "Six Authentic Songs from the Kelly Country" collected and edited by John Meredith and published by the Sydney Bush Music Club in 1955. In summing up the legend of Ned Kelly author Clive Turnbull has written: "When a nation has bestowed upon a man the highest tribute in its power to give, in the phrase 'game as Ned Kelly', what remains to be said?"

THE OVERLANDER: There are several versions of this rollicking song with this one possibly the best-known. The first overland drovers were probably John Gardiner, Joseph Hawdon and John Hepburn, who took a mob of cattle from N.S.W. to Port Phillip, Victoria, in 1836. The term "overlander" has always applied to those men who drove sheep, cattle or other stock long distances across the country. In this song the "Gulf" of course, refers to the areas around the Gulf of Carpenteria and the "Maranoa" is a river running out of the south-west side of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland.

May I express my thanks to Hugh Anderson, Bill Beatty, Peter Hamilton, Nancy Keesing, A. L. Lloyd, John Manifold, John Meredith, Alan Scott, Douglas Stewart, Bill Wannan, Dr. Russel Ward, Edgar Waters and the members of the Bush Music Clubs whose collections and writings I have used to supplement my songbag and to study background histories.

Also to the countless poets and singers - famous and anonymous - who have given us our heritage and to my late grandfather, E. J. "Ted" Petherick, whose stories set me on the path.

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