Edgar Waters

Folksong making in Australia
[From The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore edited by Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal pp. 162-163]

We know very little about folk songs of the early colonial period in Australia. We have a solitary recording of a song about the 'convict times' in Tasmania: 'The Seizure of the Cyprus Brig'. There is a poem, known from a manuscript, of this title, said to have been written by the Irish convict known as Frank the Poet. The song was recorded from an old whaler named Davies in the 1960s. It makes use of bits of the text from the manuscript poem, adds an introductory verse from a broad side ballad called 'Van Diemen's Land' and sets it to one of the tunes used for that song. 'Van Diemen's Land' is about poachers transported as convicts to Tasmania. Differing texts locate the poachers in Ireland, in England, and in Scotland. The tunes often have a vaguely Irish feel about them, but of course, as Samuel P. Bayard, the American authority on the song tunes of the British Isles, put it, 'We can often reasonably infer that a given version of some widespread air is Irish or Scottish, for example, but we cannot therefore claim that the air itself was of Scots or Irish origin'. Mr Davies's version of the tune, and his singing style, both suggest English rather than Irish influence. Frank the Poet's manuscript looks Irish; Mr Davies's song sounds - to use a term that gives offence to some - decidedly Anglo-Celtic.

A squatter from the country around Goulburn in New South Wales printed, in a book of reminiscences about life in the first half of the nineteenth century, the text of a song about an English convict transported for poaching. The tune used for this text, 'Jim Jones at Botany Bay', was 'Irish Molly-O', he said; seemingly another Anglo-Celtic song.

There is a song about the hardships of convicts at the penal settlement on Moreton Bay and the spearing to death of its commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, in 1830. The bushranger Ned Kelly seems to have been quoting it in part of his rambling 'Jerilderie letter', written in 1879. It purports to be the testimony of an Irish convict, and it has been attributed to Frank the Poet: text and tune both seem to be decidedly Irish in character. The only complete version recorded from oral tradition came from a fine singer, Simon McDonald, recorded by members of the Folk Lore Society of Victoria.

There is a cluster of ballads about the young Irish convict turned bushranger, Jack Donohoe, who was shot dead by mounted police troopers (the 'horse police') in 1830. Most of them are in a street ballad style that has nothing particularly to distinguish them as Irish; but some have texts that voice Irish defiance of British tyranny: 'He'd scorn to live in slavery or be humbled to the Crown'. There is plenty of literary evidence to show that ballads about Donohoe were much sung by bush workers, Irish-Australian or otherwise. From Donohoe, shot in 1830, to Ned Kelly, hanged in a Melbourne gaol in 1880, many of the notable bushrangers were Irish or Irish-Australian. (Those who like to think that Australians are a rebellious lot, and like to attribute this to Irish influence, sometimes dwell on this circumstance. It happens that a lot of the police who fought the bushrangers were also Irish-Australian. One of the policemen who finally captured Ned Kelly was a Senior Constable Kelly.)

The bushranger ballads, not unexpectedly then, often express Irish-Australian hostility to the British crown and hence Australian colonial authority. It is worth noting explicitly that they do not express hostility to fellow-Australians descended from other ethnic groups. Joseph Cashmere, a bush worker who had spent most of his working life in the south-western corner of New South Wales, told collectors in the 1950s that bushranger ballads had there been called 'treason songs'; a term once used in Ireland for anti-British songs. A policeman had once been offended when one of Cashmere's friends sang 'The Wild Colonial Boy', and locked up the singer for the night. But Cashmere did not suggest that a liking for bushranger ballads was in any way confined to Irish-Australians.

There is evidence aplenty to show that the attitudes to the bushrangers -- and the singing of bushranger ballads -- were determined by social class rather than ethnic origin. Bob Michel collected a version of 'Bold Jack Donohoe' from a singer in Queensland, who had learnt it from his brother. His brother had enrolled as a special policeman during the shearers' strike of 1891, and had gradually been won over to the shearers' side. He had learnt 'Bold Jack Donohoe' from some of the shearers. They sang it as an anthem of defiance, but no longer of Irish defiance of the British crown and its colonial representatives. Now the song was used to voice the feelings of a militant Australian working-class group and its defiance of home-grown squatters and the elected government of Queensland.