The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing
(Photo courtesy National Archives of Australia)
‘The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing’ is the sixth song on Burl Ives’ 1953 record, ‘9 Australian Folk Songs.’ It has been recorded by many people since then, including Lionel Long, Gary Shearston, Martyn Wyndham-Read and the Bushwackers.
The song describes how the shearers are the heroes of the hour at the height of the shearing season, splashing money around carelessly. Once the shearing is finished for the year, however, you will generally find them camped on the banks of a river, living an extremely frugal existence.
A number of writers point out that the words have been taken from a poem, ‘The Wallaby Track’, by E. J. Overbury. For example, the second verse of the poem begins:
With a ragged old swag on his shoulder,
And a billy or pot in his hand,
‘Twould astonish the new-chum beholder
To see how he’ll traverse the land.
The second verse of ‘The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing’ reads as follows:
With a ragged old swag on my shoulder
And a billy quart-pot in my hand,
And I’ll tell you we’ll ‘stonish the new-chum
To see how we travel the land.
‘The Wallaby Track’ was first published in the Creswick and Clunes Advertiser, in 1865. (By way of historical context, Banjo Paterson was born the year before, in 1864, and Henry Lawson two years later in 1867. Dame Mary Gilmore was born in the same year. This is also probably the year when Ned Kelly, at the age of ten or eleven, rescued the seven-year-old Richard Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek in Avenel, Victoria.)
Creswick and Clunes are two old Victorian gold mining towns in central Victoria. They are not far apart, and are often considered together. Creswick is perhaps best known as being the birthplace of the Australian painter and writer, Norman Lindsay. Clunes’ principal claim to fame these days is that it hosts the annual ‘Clunes Booktown Festival.’
Overbury also wrote two other well-known poems, ‘The Public by the Way’ and ‘The Loafer’s Club.’
Overbury also published a collection of his poetry, ‘Bush Poems’, in 1865. In 1999 Red Rooster Press published ‘Two Goldfield Balladists’, edited by Hugh Anderson. The balladists were W. W. Coxon and E. J. Overbury, and the book comprises two small, old books: ‘Coxon’s Comic Songster’ and Overbury’s ‘Bush Poems.’
Overbury wrote a preface to his book, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. It reads as follows:
The great object I have in view publishing this little book is, if possible, to make a little money by it. If the purchaser obtains six-pennyworth of amusement from it, the benefit will be mutual. Like all virgin authors, I naturally expect that it will permeate through all classes of society, not only in this country, but in the most distant parts of the earth – that it may even cause some sensation amongst the crowned heads of Europe, and be recognised by the “Great Panjandrum” himself. Under these circumstances, I am willing to declare “The right of translation is not reserved.”
Anderson wrote an extensive introduction to ‘Two Goldfield Balladists.’ He tells us that “…Overbury was born in Scotland about 1830, and arrived as a cabin passenger on the Anne Cropper in May 1853, aged 22 years…”
He goes on to say that Overbury spent most of his time in Australia employed by the Anderson brothers – James, John and William. He also rented his home from them. The Andersons were based in the gold fields of central Victoria, and their primary business was supplying timber for the deep leads. When local supplies were exhausted, tramways were laid deep into the Wombat State Forest. Their empire continued to grow, and they became involved in land speculation and agriculture. They built a five-storey flour mill in nearby Smeaton, which still stands today. (Overbury wrote his ‘Preface’ from Smeaton.)
Hugh Anderson makes the point that there is some confusion about Overbury’s middle name, as it is sometimes given as ‘Irvine’. Dr Graeme Skinner confirms that his middle name was indeed ‘Irvine’, and the initial ‘J’ is therefore an error. Skinner also tells us that Overbury was born in Westbury, Wiltshire (via Bath), England, on 5 September 1830. Information provided by Skinner is far more detailed, and also much more recent, than that provided by Anderson, so I am inclined to think it is also more accurate.
Eight years after ‘Bush Poems’ was published, in 1873, Overbury wrote a letter to The Australasian newspaper in Melbourne. He was now in Glengower, not far from Smeaton. The letter was published in part, with an editorial response, in The Australasian, Saturday 8 August 1873, on page 16. He is complaining about a man – whom he names (but the editor chooses not to) – who is making minimal changes to Overbury’s work, and passing it off as his own.
“E. J. Overbury” (Glengower) – This correspondent writes to us to give satisfactory proof that he is “the real author of the songs termed the ‘Wallaby Track,’ ‘The Public by the Way,’ ‘Jack and I,'” &c, and in support of his claim gives the names of a good many respectable gentlemen as references. We regret that we are not familiar with the compositions themselves. He says “the songs themselves are certainly not worth much notice grammatically speaking. No doubt error abounds in them to a large extent. But the working classes in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland appreciate them, and I do not believe that a party who calls himself ______ should intentionally rob me of that little approach to fame that I am certainly due. Mr. ______ represents himself as the author of all these songs. He attends in shearing time every station that can possibly lie in his route. He partially makes a parody by calling ‘The Public by the Way,’ ‘The Shanty by the Way,’ but every word in it except the change of substantives is mine. The same with the ‘Wallaby Track,’ and as time, and ignorance, and dishonesty advance, I fear that others of my own composition may suffer the same fate.” We are sorry to learn that Mr. Overbury, like other men of creative genius, suffers from the competition of plagiarists. He may, however, take it as a proof of his popularity when his songs are acceptable even in their altered and plagiarised form. We trust that as time advances ignorance and dishonesty will not advance too, and that his rival minstrel will come to rely on songs of his own production.
it is clear the editor has little respect for Overbury. He does not know his poems, and refers to him sarcastically as a ‘creative genius.’ Overbury had the last laugh, of course, with his words now immortalised in ‘The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing.’ His rival also achieved some long-term success, however. ‘The Public by the Way’ is now better known as ‘The Shanty by the Way.’
Hugh Anderson tells us that Overbury died in Creswick Hospital on 22nd February 1898. The local papers noted the death of “an old resident of Smeaton.” The records of the Smeaton cemetery referred to him as “the local bush poet.”
I can find no information at all about the tune to ‘The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing’. To my ear, it sounds quite similar to ‘The Dying Stockman’.
‘Australian Folklore – A Dictionary of Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions’ by W. Fearn-Wannan (Lansdowne Press 1977) – page 543
‘Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times’ by Douglas Stewart and Nancy Keesing (Angus & Robertson 1970) – pages 232 – 3, page 248
‘Complete Book of Australian Folklore – Compiled and annotated by Bill Scott’ (Summit Books 1976) – page 193, pages 332 – 3
(Photo courtesy National Archives of Australia)
The Station Cook
‘The Station Cook’ is one of nine songs included on the album ‘Australian Folk Songs’, released by the American folk singer Burl Ives following his visit to Australia in 1952. This album can quite fairly be said to have triggered the Australian folk revival. The ‘station’ referred to in the song is, of course, a sheep station. In the song, the narrator, a shearer, tells us sarcastically of the cook’s great prowess, serving up a variety of delicious dishes. In truth, the shearers have fallen ill, and they blame the cook! This is a popular theme in the culture of early colonial Australia. No doubt the most iconic of them all is the cook, Old Garth, in the 1975 film ‘Sunday Too Far Away.’
The tune for ‘The Station Cook’ is taken from a Scottish song, ‘Musselburgh Fair’. Musselburgh is a town in Scotland, only a short distance east of Edinburgh. The same tune is used for ‘Lachlan Tigers’.
The song tells us that the cook works at a shearing shed in Fowler’s Bay, and the song is sometimes also called ‘Fowler’s Bay.’ ‘Fowler’s Bay’ is a coastal town in South Australia, located to the west of the Eyre Peninsula, in a bay of the same name. The bay was named by Matthew Flinders on 28th January 1802, after his first lieutenant, Robert Fowler. The town was originally named ‘Yalata’ after Yalata (sheep) Station, that was established there in the 1860s. Yalata Homestead was built in 1880. The ruins can still be visited today.
We are also told in the song that, amongst other things, the cook serves up ‘doughboys’. These are a doughnut precursor, probably of American origin. There is a ‘Doughboy Island’ in Corner Inlet, Victoria (near Wilson’s Promontory). I imagine the name comes from its small size and round shape. The other food items mentioned in the song are plum-duffs, dumplings and pies. Plum-duff is a traditional English pudding, an earlier and simpler form of today’s plum pudding. (‘Duff’ is an early pronunciation of ‘dough’, from the north of England.)
The website ‘SecondHand Songs’ states that ‘The Station Cook’ was first published in the newspaper ‘The Australian Star’ in 1877. However, according to the online research portal Trove this newspaper, which was published in Sydney, began publication in 1887. ‘SecondHand Songs’ also states that the words were submitted by P. J. McGovery. It also says that whether he wrote the words, or was simply a reader of the newspaper, is not clear. I can find no other reference to P. J. McGovery.
‘The Station Cook’ should not be confused with ‘Station Cook’, a song by John Williamson.
(Photo courtesy The National Library)
2020 Port Fairy Folk Festival
Maggie Somerville and I were thrilled to be invited to perform at the 2020 Port Fairy Festival, as part of the Writers/Spoken Word section of the festival, organised by Jim Haynes.
We agreed to contribute an item (Maggie a song, me a poem) to the Aussie Morning Show on each of the three mornings (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Maggie would launch her new CD (‘The Forest Prayed’ – poems of Dame Mary Gilmore set to music by Maggie), while I would contribute to a forum on ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature.’ I also agreed to participate in the Pat Glover Storytelling Award and, in the end, Maggie did too.
Our involvement got off to a bright start at the Saturday Morning Show, held in recent years in the Pavilion, rather than St. Pat’s Hall, where it was held when we last attended, in 2016. The Pavilion is a great venue, as it is right in the heart of the festival. The 9am start meant we were done and dusted by 10am, when the music shows started up, and threatened to drown us out. The Morning Show is held in the upstairs part of the Pavilion, offering great views of the festival from its balconies.
The show began with Jim briefly interviewing Maggie and me, as well as Di Jackson-Hill, who was launching her new children’s picture book, ‘Windcatcher’ (published by CSIRO Publishing), about the local bird, the short-tailed shearwater (illustrated by Craig Smith), and local writer Maya Linnell, who was launching her new ‘rural romance’ novel, ‘Wildflower Ridge.’ Jim was also launching his own very large new book, ‘The Big Book of Australia’s War Stories.’
Jim is an absolutely brilliant performer who always packs in a crowd, so we were playing to a full house every morning.
Thank you to Maggie for this photo of me. Here is Maggie strutting her stuff.
Bush poet Mick Coventry, from Kyabram, did a bracket of jokes and poems later in the show, exercising his particular brand of laconic Aussie bush humour. The crowd loved it!
Maggie and I had something of a programme clash, in that her CD launch was scheduled to begin while the panel discussion of ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature’ was still in progress, and I was keen to spend as much time as possible at her launch to support her. The situation was further complicated by the discovery of a technical hitch. Rather than employ a bevy of musicians to accompany her (a very expensive exercise), the plan was for her to sing along to the CD minus her vocal track, karaoke style. Unfortunately, however, there was a problem with getting it to play. This was eventually solved, but not without a good deal of angst all round!
There was still another problem, as we had no sound man to stop and start the track as needed. Fortunately an old friend of Maggie’s, Melanie Dorian, who was at the festival assisting her husband, instrument maker at ‘Rocky Creek Strings’, agreed to step into the breach.
The panel discussion was held at Blarney Books & Art, a relatively new (and excellent) combined bookshop and art gallery in the town.
More information about ‘Blarney Books & Art’ can be found here:
Jim suggested I kick off proceedings to allow me to spend as much time as possible at Maggie’s launch, and I was pleased to be able to talk about my journey as a writer – the decision to write poetry for children, and the subsequent long and rather tortuous, but ultimately very satisfying, path to the publication of ‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ by Walker Books in 2014. The other members of the panel were Di, Craig and Jim. Unfortunately, I was not able to hear what they had to say, but I was told that it had all gone well, with plenty of fruitful discussion towards the end.
I was pleased to find upon my arrival back at the Pavilion that Maggie’s launch had not yet begun, so I was able to watch the whole show. Melanie did a fine job as Maggie’s assistant!
Only one track could not be played, that for the accompaniment of ‘Botany Bay’, and it was probably more effective performed acapella anyway.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ can be found here:
The Forest Prayed
The Pat Glover Storytelling Award was great fun on the Sunday afternoon. Maggie’ poem, ‘A Deadly Weapon’ (a cautionary tale about taking Irish penny whistles to the Magistrate’s Court!), was extremely well received, but the winner was Eric Purdy, a Scotsman, who told a hilarious tale about deciding to wear a kilt one day, and ending up with one that was far too big for him. He described a garment that began high at his chest, descended to near his feet, and extended great distances both front to back and side to side, so that he felt like ‘a tartan shuttlecock.’ Congratulations Eric!
After final performances at the Monday Morning Show, it was time to wind down and head for home. First, though, we took the opportunity to go for a stroll along the beautiful beach…
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend at an amazing festival, and we both feel very privileged to have had an opportunity to contribute to the proceedings.
During the course of the walk to the lighthouse, I was drawn to this beach.
I could see a large log that had washed up, and I began to salivate at the other possibilities. I am always drawn to the sight of beach debris, especially a remote ocean beach like this. It provides a link to mariners adventuring on the high seas, and makes me feel, for a short while at least, a little wilder and freer myself.
This one did not disappoint.
This rusty old drum was interesting.
Here we have some plastic bottles, a lovely length of rope, and a vast amount of netting.
The log, as I suspected it might, proved to be the jewel in the crown. It was solid and sound, with the ends rubbed round. I found that, with some difficulty, I could lift one end.
The sheep kindly made way for me – with a little protest – as I clambered back up the slope above the beach, and made my way back home.
Neist Point Lighthouse
I think perhaps the highlight of my recent holiday in Scotland was the trip with Maggie Somerville to Neist Point Lighthouse on the Isle of Skye.
After a delicious lunch at the Three Chimneys Restaurant, we needed a good long walk to shed some calories. There were no good prospects immediately to hand, so we jumped in the car and headed north. The lighthouse was as at the end of the road.
Spectacular scenery surrounded us, together with many black-faced sheep.
The lighthouse is located at the end of this dramatic headland.
It was constructed in 1909 by David Alan Stephenson, a member of the famous lighthouse-building Stevenson family, and close relative of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It has been operating remotely since 1990, and the cottages where the lighthouse keepers once lived are now owned privately.
The lighthouse features in a photograph in the book “Harpoon at a Venture”, which tells the unlikely but fascinating tale of the attempts by Robert Maxwell (author of “Ring of Bright Water”) to establish a commercial basking shark fishing industry off the west coast of Scotland in the late 1940s.
Here is a dramatic view of the lighthouse. I can only assume that the large bell facing out to sea at the top of the cliff is a foghorn.
Once we had returned to our car, Maggie was determined to see a Highland Cow. Our quest took us to some very remote and ‘out of the way’ places until, somewhat ironically, we eventually tracked a couple down in a paddock next to the primary school in a nearby town!
Falkirk Folk Club
Recently I had the good fortune to spend some time in Scotland. I was staying with my friend, Maggie Somerville, whose daughter, Gronya, was a member of the Australian Badminton Team. We were living in the small town of Falkirk, midway between Glasgow (where the Games were being held), and Edinburgh.
Although not large, Falkirk has a thriving folk club, and Maggie and I were keen to get along if possible. They hold their club nights – “session nights”, as they call them – on Thursday evenings, at the Tolbooth Tavern in the middle of town.
We arrived a little late the first week, not being entirely sure where to go or what to expect. Proceedings were in full swing by the time we arrived. The weather was unseasonably hot, and they had chosen to meet in the newly-refurbished courtyard downstairs rather than the customary upstairs room which would simply have been too hot.
The courtyard was L-shaped, and it was impossible to see the performers from where we stood. I noticed one gentleman had scaled the wall for a bird’s eye view, so I decided to follow his example. It turned out to be a relatively simple matter to duck around the back, climb up onto a rubbish skip, and from there up onto the beautiful old stone wall. I did get a wonderful view from up there. I was only cursing myself for not taking my camera with me.
You will note that my hat gave a fairly firm clue to my nationality – although we were mistaken for Kiwis!
The following week we were back upstairs, and both invited to perform.
Maggie played a tune on a whistle, and sang a couple of songs.
I recited a couple of poems from my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.
There were a number of fabulous performances during the course of the evening.
This gentleman gave a very spirited rendition of Danny Boy.
And this man played the “Irish pipes” beautifully. (Note that the bag is inflated with bellows under the right arm, rather than the Scottish system of a tube from the mouth.)
Here are a couple more shots of the rest of the gang.
It was a great evening. Naturally enough, we drew comparisons between Falkirk Folk Club and our own meetings at Ringwood. I was struck by how many strong solo performers there were, mostly singers of traditional songs, accompanying themselves on guitar. On the down side, though, there were no women performing, although there were plenty in the audience. Also, the instrumentation was heavily biased in favour of the guitar. I have mentioned the pipes player already, and there was also a fiddler. However, there were no accordions, harmonicas, whistles or mandolins.
The place of poetry is an interesting one. I was certainly accepted at the club as a poet, and we were told that it is not unheard of to hear poetry at their meetings, but it was also clear that it is a fairly rare event. At Ringwood we have quite a number of reciters and poets. The tradition of poetry and recitation would appear to be stronger in Australia than in Scotland.