Collectors' Notes: Lloyd Robson

[Published in Australian Tradition July 1965 p. 3-4]

L. L. Robson

These comments on some songs I stumbled upon in Hobart in 1961 will no doubt appear unsatisfactory to the sophisticated collector of ballads; but I am not a collector as such and because these pieces must be among the very few "traditional" songs heard in Tasmania, I shall be concerned here with general observations rather than fine points.

Mr. Davies, the singer, was eighty-eight years old at the time. He was born at the Huon, he said, and had spent much of his life at sea; he sang all his songs enthusiastically and fairly loudly, as if consciously singing to an audience. I should add that Mr. Davies was, at the time, living at St. John's Home for the Aged at New Town. I had earlier been approached by Mr. Ken Fairey, of Sydney, about folk songs in Tasmania and, in a spirit of ignorance and uncertainty, had suggested he try St. John's. He did, and thus it was that collectors heard of Mr. Davies and approached me to tape record him.

He sang five songs and talked a lot about whaling during the hour or two I had with him. The first piece was about the Cyprus brig. In 1829 this ship was on the way to Macquarie Harbour penal settlement from Hobart Town; when it put into Recherche Bay for shelter, the prisoners seized the vessel and, after many adventures, reached China. The episode has figured in many books and has been lately reconstructed by Messrs. Frank Clune and P. R. Stephenson who appear to have set the record straight.

I am unable to comment on the tune which Mr. Davies used, but the song itself was in a rough ballad metre; it followed pretty well the version published and attributed to "Frank the Poet", though Mr. Davies' version was less frilly, e.g. he sang:

Poor Tom Brown from Nottingham, Jack Williams and poor Joe,
They were three gallent poitcher (poacher?) boys, their country well does know.
And by the laws of Al-gaymack (?) that you may understand,
Were fourteen years transported, boys, all to Van Diemen's Land;

whereas the "official" version begins:

Come all you sons of Freedom, a chorus join with me,
I'Il sing a song of heroes, and glorious liberty.
Some lads condemn'd from England sail'd to Van Diemen's shore,
Their country, friends and parents, perhaps never to see more.

I have no idea what Mr. Davies meant by "Al-gaymack", or whatever it was he said. His version omits many minor particulars of Frank the Poet's version (if indeed that mysterious convict did write it), but does include an account of dismissing (disarming) the sentry and leaving him "in his gore", which also appears in another Tasmanian version of this ballad which was, it is said, "forbidden to be sung in public". I have no documentation of this, however, though certainly convicts could be, and were, punished for singing certain "obscene" songs.

The next ballad which Mr. Davies sung was about a whaler, the Waterwitch; it had a sprightly tune with a "Bound away, bound away, where the stormy winds blow" chorus, telling the short story of a successful whaling cruise from Hobart "for monster sperm whale". Mr. Davies was able to cry "There she blows" with great energy in the following verse:

O it's early one morning just as the sun rose,
A man from her mast head cries out "There she blows",
"We're away" cried the skipper and springing aloft,
"Three points on the lee how and scarce three mile off".

And the song ends with:

We'll spend our money freely with the pretty girls on shore,
And when it's all done we'll go whaling for more.

All very jolly but, as the singer added, "Of course the people now about they can't hardly realize what risks those old whalers took in the small boats. You'd never believe they'd lower away in such gales of winds as they used to".

This point was exemplified in another song which Mr. Davies sang. This was about a Captain Marney; it was a true song: "I know some of the people . . . Marney . . . he was whalin' and lowered down after a whale, and come up bad weather and that was the: last ever they see or heard of him …"

Mr. Davies' version begins the same: as "Sir John Franklin":  "Far outward bound, far o'er the deep, Slung in my hammock I fell asleep" but then goes on to describe not the search for the lost explorer (and ex-Governor of Van Diemen's Land), but the search for Marney:

They cruised east, they cruised west,
Round the South-West Cape where they thought best.

He then used, concerning the fruitless search for Marney, a curious phrase, "no tile or talin' could we see nor hear, Concerning Marney and his boat's gear".

Mr. Davies probably meant something about tidings or tale, and indeed another version of the ballad has "news or tidings". This was given to me by the late Captain Harry O'May of Hobart, has a "Come all ye" beginning, and identifies the singer and the ship:

It was in the Grecian brig, O that brig of fame,
In which my brother sailed the main;
He was outward bound on a tedious route
To find where those sperm whales spout.

Both versions end with the singer meeting at Hobart "a maid in deep deplore" though Mr. Davies sang "replore":

As we drew nearer to Hobart shore
I saw a maid in deep replore,
She was sobbin', sighin', sayin'
 "Pity me, I've lost my brother, poor Bob Marney".

This song is, perhaps, one originally sung by a female singer.

Mr. Davies then sang a piece which he told me was written by one Paddy Matthews, "a man that used to write songs . . . He had . . . a song book, all his songs in it . . . About how Carbine won the Cup and all that sort". This was "Port Arthur", a song which presented a striking contrast to the earlier songs, characterized as it was by:

Gone from our mid, thank God, today and passed is the convict's brand,
That sullied the name and blotted the fame of our Tasmanian land.

It was clearly a song of maudlin, not to say self-pitying, character, but Mr. Davies sang it with the same enthusiasm as his earlier songs, though not with the gusto of a larrikin piece about Woolloomooloo, with the chorus:

For me name it is McCarty, I'm a rorty party,
A larrikin so hearty, that's a fact and strike me blue,
I'm a perfect daisy, won't work because I'm lazy,
Gone wrong along with a boozin' throng that loaf around Woolloomooloo.

Mr. Davies did not recall, he observed, where he learnt the song.

Dr. Robson is a lecturer in History at Melbourne University.