Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Lying Back, and Thinking of Lomax

It was stinking hot last night and unable to sleep my thoughts turned, as they do, to Australian bush music. I think it is fair to say it has a bit of an image problem. Most people are probably too scarred by memories of the Pride of Erin at school, I sure know I am. Scratchy tapes echoing shrilly through school halls and the clammy-dry hand of a 12 year old boy. Slide! Slide! Slide! That's Australian bush music.

Daggy patriotic doggerel. Tedious sermons from weirdos with big beards about all the stuff that made Australian history so boring at school.

I finished high school in a town which was not only the self proclaimed Celtic Capital of Australia but also hosted the Australian Bush Music Festival. I have some dim memories of it. I am standing in the mud and rain outside a marquee eating roast beef in a damper roll. Every time I take a bite, the flour falls in drifts onto my clothes.

So, it's a hard sell to alot of people in a way that the Celtic-derived folk music of eastern USA is not. Alot of these songs, if they were tweaked a bit as bluegrass or Guthrie-esque ballads you'd pack out The Basement at $60 a ticket. This is where the obvious "cultural cringe" observation comes in, but I resist. I actually quite like that aspect of national neurosis and, frankly, some other cultures could do with a bit more cringing themselves. That said, sometimes it goes too far and sometimes taking our own stories more seriously could be a good thing.

A digression: the author Sharyn McCrumb has a thing in her books, set in the mountains of east Tennessee and North Carolina, about a certain strain of minerals which runs through that area, skips the Atlantic and is only found again in the slopes of Scotland, Ireland and northern England. This, she says, is part of the reason immigrants from those areas stopped and stayed in Appalachia (and it's pronounced Appa-latch-ia, you condescending Yankee) and built a culture there. I don't know the geologic fact of it, but it's a nice idea. Surely someone has written a scholarly tome on the obvious (and not so obvious) connections between Australian and American folk music? Is there an Australian "Invisible Republic"?

I'm going to continue chasing up the Cobbers. The album I have been informed was actually called Portraits of Australian Women, and getting the name right has meant finding a bit more info. This lists a number of Cobbers albums between the mid 70s and mid 80s, and gives a track list for Portraits:

Bonnie Jess
Girls of Our Town (about Newcastle girls)
Bush Girl
Daisy Bates
Leaving Nancy
Mary Called him Mister (" ... and the idiot called her Miss." Repressed romance Bronte-style.)
Farewell to Greta (the Ned Kelly one)
Reedy River (tragic dead wife/baby one)

Moving on. Up there with Portraits in this genre of bush music inflicted on us as children (but of course we are grateful now for such a rich musical education, aren't we? Aren't we?) was Man of the Earth, which contained "The Sandy Hollow Line" referred to in the comments of the Long Black Veil post. This was the work of Warren Fahey and may I just say: God bless you, sir. There is a special place in cyberspace heaven for people with informative, easy to navigate, updated websites. I think anyone interested in the area will find plenty of enlightment within.

Last night on the phone mum came up with a tape she had made of Man of the Earth and it's awesome stuff. When I can get a copy, I'll write more but apart from The Sandy Hollow Line it includes songs like:

When You Give That Tuppence back, Charlie Dear.
This is a union song with a noble history. It concerns the bitter 1911 strike where Charles Hoskins, the mine operator, responded to the union request for an additional tuppence a ton by reducing their rate by tuppence. This was an old style battle that went on for months and ended when the strikers attacked the scab labourers who were keeping the mine operational. Hoskings new T-Model Ford was burnt to the ground and the police thrown in the nearby water slush pond. The tune was designated as 'When the Sheep Are In The Fold, Jenny Dear'.

Norman Brown.
I had forgotten I had recorded this stirring ballad from the Hunter Valley struggles. It was written by the late Dorothy Hewitt, in 1959, and also included on Man of the Earth. The struggle dates back to 1929 and was one of the fiercest confrontations between government and labour. Norman Brown, a twenty-eight year-old miner, died from wounds to the stomach after the police fired on the strikers by order of the government. Several other miners received serious injuries.

The early Larrikin albums seem to be long out of print but Fahey has a couple of compilations available from Folkwax.

A PS, I came across lyrics to The Banks of the Condomine, I don't know what album it was on but I can hear it clearly in my head.

Oh hark, the dogs are barking love and it is nearly day
The boys have all gone mustering and I must be on my way
And I must be gone by morning light before the sun does shine
To join the Roma shearers on the banks of the Condamine

There was no planning in this little rediscovery of bush music during the week of the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade (about which Ozblogistan has produced much crunchy goodness), just a happy accident.

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