On the Road, Black Forest, Vic., c. 1860, watercolour, S. T. Gill (Courtesy State Library of NSW)
‘The Stockman’s Last Bed’ is the ninth and final song on Burl Ives’ 1953 album ‘Australian Folk Songs.’ It was actually recorded in Australia before Burl Ives, by Tex Morton, in the 1940s. It appears in multiple newspapers throughout the late 19th century. However, the website of the State Library of NSW tells us that the song was written by the two daughters of Coionel Grey in 1846, as a parody of ‘The Last Whistle’. This website also displays a handwritten manuscript showing the words.
Dr Graeme Skinner fleshes out the details considerably in the ‘Australharmony’ website (University of Sydney). Elizabeth Anne (‘Bessie’) Gray was born in Scotland in 1826 or 1827, the older daughter of Charles George Gray and Jane Grogan. Her younger sister, Maria Catherine, was born in 1829. The family travelled out to Australia on the John Barry, leaving Dundee on 25th March 1837, and arriving in Sydney on 13th July. The ship spent some time in quarantine upon its immediate arrival, due to there being fever on board. Maria and Elizabeth are both described as ‘songwriter, amateur vocalist.’
Maria Catherine Leith Hay – nee Gray, c. 1860 (Courtesy Australharmony, University of Sydney)
(Courtesy State Library of NSW)
Quoting directly from Australharmony: Colonel Gray…determined to settle in Port Macquarie, then and for several years after a penal settlement. He accordingly took up his land-grant on the River Hastings, about twenty mils from the township, where he remained until 1848, when he was appointed Police Magistrate of Gladstone.
The website ‘An Australian Folk Song a Day’ tells us that ‘The Stockman’s Last Bed’ was first published in Australia in the ‘Queensland Native Companion Songster’ in 1865. However, Dr Graeme Skinner on Australharmony shows us that the song was published before that in Ireland, in the Cork Constitution, on 22nd January 1856.
(Courtesy Australharmony, University of Sydney)
It was also published in ‘Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle’ in 1857, and ‘The Illustrated Melbourne Post’ and ‘The Illustrated Papers – Hamilton Spectator and Grange District Advertiser’ in 1865. It continued to be published in many newspapers throughout the latter half of the 19th century.
“THE STOCKMAN’S LAST BED. AN AUSTRALIAN SONG. Music arranged by S. H. Marsh.”, The Illustrated Melbourne Post 25th August 1865, 128 (Courtesy Australharmony, University of Sydney)
‘Fresnostate.edu’ tells us that Hugh Anderson believed the song was derived from ‘The Boatswain’s Whistle’ by Charles Dibdin, though also notes that John Manifold was not convinced.
According to Wikipedia, Charles Dibdin (before 4 March 1745 – 25 July 1814) was an English composer, musician, dramatist, novelist, singer and actor. With over 600 songs to his name, for many of which he wrote both the lyrics and the music and performed them himself, he was in his time the most prolific English singer-songwriter.
However, Dr Graeme Skinner at Australharmony tells us that ‘The Last Whistle’ was composed by W. Shield.
The Last Whistle, a favourite song composed by W. Shield, sung by Mr. Steward, published by Carr’ Music Store in Baltimore, U.S.A.
(Courtesy the Lester. S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Sheridan Libraries and University Museums, Johns Hopkins, via Australharmony, University of Sydney
According to Wikipedia, William Shield (5 March 1748 – 25 January 1829) was an English composer, violinist and violist. His music earned the respect of Haydn and Beethoven.
State Library of NSW
Evans Early American Imprint Collection
(The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 5th May 1986 – Courtesy Australharmony, University of Sydney)
The Ale-House Door (painting of c. 1790 by Henry Singleton – courtesy of Wikiwand)
‘Wild Rover No More’ is the eighth song on Burl Ives’ 1953 album ‘9 Australian Folk Songs.’ It was included in Banjo Paterson’s ‘Old Bush Songs’, and also in Douglas Stewart’s and Nancy Keesing’s ‘Old Bush Songs.’ Having said that, there is nothing distinctly Australian about the song at all, and very few Australians have recorded it. The song would appear to have been originally written for the temperance movement, propaganda to discourage the consumption of alcohol. Ironically, it is now best known as a drinking song, and is very popular in the pubs of Ireland. In recent times, it has mostly been recorded by Irish performers – The Pogues, The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers, The High Kings, etc. Having said that, when The Clancy Brothers introduce the song on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show in the 1960s, they refer to it as “an old Australian song.”
Despite the song’s popularity in Ireland, the origins of the song most likely lie with England. There is also evidence that an early version of the song was sung by fishermen in the North Atlantic. The website ‘Mainly Norfolk’ tells us that ‘Wild Rover No More’ probably evolved from a song entitled ‘The Green Bed’, where the poorly treated ‘rover’ is a fisherman.
The Institute of Australian Culture
Australian Folk Songs
Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music
Irish Australian Song Library
Refreshment Shanty, Ballarat 1854 (by Samuel Thomas Gill, courtesy of Art Gallery of Ballarat)
‘Click Go the Shears’ is the seventh song on Burl Ives’ 1953 album, ‘9 Australian Folk Songs.’ It is one of Australia’s most famous folk songs, recorded by many singers, including Rolf Harris and Slim Dusty, yet surprisingly little is known about its origins. Indeed, until fairly recently, many folk music scholars felt it may have been written as late as the 1940s.
The breakthrough came in 2013 when doctoral student Mark Gregory typed the phrase ‘tar here jack’ into the search function of Trove, the repository of Australia’s digitalised newspapers. Bingo! Up came the words to ‘Click Go the Shears’ – albeit with the different name of ‘The Bare Bellied Ewe’ – in the Bacchus Marsh Express of 5th December 1891. There were, of course, some significant differences in the lyrics, and the Burl Ives version was found to be much shorter than the original. This discovery placed the song right at the heart of the shearers’ strikes of the 1890s, and the turmoil that led to the establishment of the Australian Labour Party in the years leading up to Federation in 1901.
Gregory’s own account of his discovery can be found here:
More information can be found on the website of the University of Wollongong, here:
The story includes a performance by Jason and Chloe Roweth singing the original version at a woolshed in western New South Wales.
‘The Bare Bellied Ewe’ in the Bacchus Marsh Express was attributed to ‘C. C.’ from ‘Eynesbury, Nov 20, 1891.’
‘Eynesbury’ was a large sheep station in the 19th century, located approximately 20km southeast of Bacchus Marsh. Wikipedia explains that it was named after the birthplace of Simon Staughton in England. Staughton came to Australia in 1841, and settled on a large property. Following his death in 1863, the property was subdivided into four smaller properties (still very large!) for his four sons. One of these was ‘Eynesbury.’ The Eynesbury Homestead – the grandest of all the four homesteads – was constructed by Samuel Staughton in 1872. It is still standing, and is used as a function centre.
‘Eynesbury’ is now the site of a housing estate in the suburb of Melton in Melbourne’s far west. Further information can be found here:
To my knowledge, there is no clear evidence that ‘The Bare-Bellied Ewe’ was written at Eynesbury. It is, however, the place from which our earliest record of the song came, and that is significant in its own right. It would be fascinating to know who ‘C. C.’ was. It is possible that ‘C. C’ wrote the song but, to my mind, more likely that he simply submitted them to the newspaper.
(Shearers’ quarters, Eynesbury)
The Bacchus Marsh Express gives the tune of the song as ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman.’ This is an American song that was written by Henry Clay to mark the celebration, by the ringing of church bells, of the victory by the northern states in the American Civil War in 1865.
The words of the two songs are very similar. ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman’ begins as follows:
High in the belfry the old sexton stands,
Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands.
Fix’d is his gaze as by some magic spell
Till he hears the distant murmur,
Ring, ring the bell.
‘The Bare Bellied Ewe’ begins as follows:
Oh, down at the catching pen an old shearer stands,
Grasping his shears in his long bony hands;
Fixed is his gaze on a bare bellied ewe,
Saying “If I can only get her, won’t I make the ringer go.”
Bob Bolton explains on the website of Fresno State University that the words of ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman’ were too specific to remain popular for very long, However, the tune was very popular, and travelled quickly around the world. It had reached Australia by 1868.
Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band can be heard singing ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman’ here:
Other sources used in the writing of this article are as follows:
‘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
‘Botany Bay’ is the third song on Burl Ives’ seminal 1953 album, ‘Australian Folk Songs.’ It was signed, sealed, and delivered to Australia by Englishmen which, I must admit, I find a little depressing. There was no creative input by any Australian at all. Nevertheless, the Australian people have taken it to their hearts, no doubt in part because it is such a good ‘singalong’ song.
Before I go any further, we need to talk a little about Botany Bay. It was so named by Sir Joseph Bsnks, the botanist accompanying Captain James Cook when he sailed up the east coast of Australia in 1770. Banks was swept away by the rich variety of plant life in the area. (Initially, Cook referred to the area as Stingrays Harbour because of the large numbers of these fish that they caught.)
Cook noted the entrance to Sydney Harbour, but did not sail into it, and no doubt failed to properly appreciate its full potential. He named it Port Jackson after Sir George Jackson, one of the Lords Commissioners of the British Admiralty. The early settlement of what is now Sydney began at Botany Bay, when the First Fleet (consisting of eleven ships, of which six were filled with convicts), under the command of Governor Arthur Phillip, landed in 1788. The land was low lying and swampy, however, and Phillip quickly moved the settlement north to Port Jackson, which was far more suitable. They chose a small bay which they named ‘Sydney Cove’, and there began Australia’s first convict settlement.
The song ‘Botany Bay’ featured in a musical melodrama, ‘Little Jack Sheppard’, which premiered at the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1885. It was staged in Melbourne, at the Opera House, the following year (1886), and Sydney the year after that (1887). (Yes, that’s right, the Melbourne Opera House!) It was written by Henry Pottinger Stephens and William Yardley. The music was written by Meyer Lutz, with songs written by others. It is not clear exactly who wrote ‘Botany Bay’. The Gaiety Theatre programme in London credits Lutz, but the sheet music published by Allen & Co. in Melbourne credits Florian Pascal (the pseudonym of Joseph Williams). The London newspaper ‘The Era’ stated in 1890 that the melody was a hundred years old.
(Courtesy National Library of Australia)
(The Melbourne Opera House – Courtesy ‘Beyond the Name – Peculiar Places’)
Jack Sheppard was a real person, and he inspired many serious plays, one of which was turned into a novel. ‘Little Jack Sheppard’ was written as a parody of these. He was an English thief who was best known – and loved – for his multiple escapes from gaol. He was eventually hanged in London in 1724. A crowd of 200,000 people (a third of the population of London at the time!) formed a procession as he was taken to the gallows. An ‘autobiography’ was distributed, thought to have been ghost written by Daniel Defoe, the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ As Sheppard’s dead body was cut down, a crowd of people gathered around to prevent it being taken away for post-mortem examination.
The song is written from the perspective of one of the English convicts who has been transported to Australia for a seven-year penal sentence. He is still on-board ship, and is singing on behalf of his fellow convicts as well as himself. it is a warning, albeit a very jolly and light-hearted one, for fellow potential criminals not to follow the path the narrator has chosen or else they, too, will end up in a similarly unenviable position.
Many of the words to ‘Botany Bay’ bear a resemblance to a much earlier song. ‘Here’s Adieu to All Judges and Juries’ is thought to have been written in about 1820. The song’s sentiments are very similar to those expressed in ‘Botany Bay’, though the mood is much more sombre.
‘Botany Bay’ contains the following verse:
Oh, had I the wings of a turtle-dove,
I’d soar on my pinions so high,
Straight back to the arms of my Polly-love,
And in her sweet presence I’d die.
‘Adieu to All Judges and Juries’ has this:
Oh, if I had the wings of an eagle
High up on these pinions I’d fly.
I’d fly to the arms of my true love,
And in her soft bosom I’d lie.
The Jury (1861) by John Moran (Wikipedia via Buckinghamshire County Museum)
Indeed, it is worth taking a small diversion here, and noting the frequency with which the fantasy of being able to fly to a far distant, much happier place appears in other folk songs. For example, ‘The Dying Stockman’:
Oh, had I the flight of a bronzewing,
Far o’er the plains I would fly.
Straight back to the land of my childhood,
And there I would lay down and die.
‘The Dying Stockman’ was adapted from another song entitled ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket.’ The second verse reads as follows:
Had I the wings of a little dove,
Far far away would I fly; I’d fly
Straight for the arms of my true love
And there I would lay down and die.
Today we have our own big steel birds to take us quickly to where we want to be – provided we have the money for the fare, and all the paperwork is in order. Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that the area around Botany Bay is today the site of Sydney Airport.
Wikipedia (used extensively)
‘The Dying Stockman’ is the second of nine tracks on Burl Ives’ 1953 album, ‘Australian Folk Songs’, that did so much to revive Australia’s interest in its own folk song history. It has since been recorded by many others, including Slim Dusty, Lionel Long, Dennis Gibbons, Alex Hood, The Wayfarers and the American singer, Paul Clayton.
The website SecondHand Songs reminds us that a dying person of any of a number of occupations (including that of lumberjack and sailor) issuing “a final request to comrades, including to be wrapped in work clothes” (after his death) is a common theme in folk songs.
It is certainly buried deep in the Australian psyche. Even Rolf Harris introduced his smash hit, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, with the following spoken word introduction:
There’s an old Australian stockman, lying, dying, and he gets himself up onto one elbow and he turns to his mates who are gathered round, and he says…
The website ‘Australian Folk Songs’ (by Mark Gregory) tells us that the song was first published in the Portland Mirror (in Victoria) in 1885, and that it was written by Horace Flower. It goes on to say:
“The brothers Horace and Charles Flower, Queensland station owners, were keen songwriters in the 1880s – 90s.”
It credits the Flowers with also writing ‘Broken Down Squatter’ and ‘A Thousand Mile Away’.
‘The Dying Stockman’ was included in Banjo Paterson’s collection of folk songs, ‘Old Bush Songs Composed and Sung in the Bushranging, Digging and Overlanding Days’, published in 1905 by Angus & Robertson. This was only ten years after the song’s first publication though it may, of course, have been written several years earlier.
Hugh Anderson devoted an entire chapbook to ‘The Dying Stockman’. It was published, together with linocuts by Ron Edwards, by The Rams Skull Press in Ferntree Gully in 1954 (a year after Burl Ives’ album). Anderson tells us that the song “is widely known in Australia as sung to the tune of ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’, composed by Charles Coote.”
The first verse of ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’ is as follows:
A tall stalwart lancer lay dying,
And as on his deathbed he lay,
To his friends who around him were sighing,
These last dying words he did say:
“Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket
And say a poor buffer lies low;
And six stalwart lancers shall carry me
Carry me with steps solemn, mournful and slow.”
The first verse of ‘The Dying Stockman’ is as follows:
A strapping young stockman lay dying,
His saddle supporting his head.
His two mates around him were crying
As he rose on his pillow and said,
Wrap me up with my stockwhip and blanket
And bury me deep down below
Where the dingoes and crows can’t molest me
In the shade where the coolibahs grow.
Flower has done a good job of adapting the words to Australian conditions, but I don’t think it is necessary to credit him with too much creative genius.
Anderson goes on to tell us, however, that
“Coote was not inspired as a composer – he in turn worked upon an earlier original. The original of both the tune and the words for ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’ belongs to England and Ireland. The tune of ‘Rosin the Beau’ as printed in A. E. Wier’s ‘The Book of a Thousand Songs’ (1918) and also in ‘Franklin Square Song Collection 1881 – 91’, is very similar to Coote’s song, ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’.”
‘Rosin the Beau’ has been recorded by many folk musicians, including A. L. Lloyd, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Dubliners and Jim McCann, and The Corries. It begins as follows:
I’ve travelled all over this world,
And now to another I go,
And I know that good quarters are waiting to
Welcome old Rosin the Beau.
To welcome old Rosin the Beau, etc.
When I’m dead and laid out on the counter,
A voice you will hear from below,
Saying send down a hog’s head of whiskey to
Drink with old Rosin the Beau,
To drink with old Rosin the Beau, etc.
Then get a half-dozen stout fellows,
And stack them all up in a row.
Let them drink out of half-gallon bottles to
The memory of Rosin the Beau.
To the memory of Rosin the Beau, etc.
The website ‘Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music” credits ‘Rosin the Beau’ as having spawned ‘Wrap Me Up in My Tarpaulin Jacket.’ ‘The Dying Stockman’ is sometimes known as ‘Wrap Me Up in My Stockwhip and Blanket.’ Interestingly, Burl Ives also recorded ‘Wrap Me Up in My Tarpaulin Jacket’.
The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library records ‘Old Rosin the Beau’ as appearing in ‘Howe’s Comic Songster’ in about 1879. The song is also very popular in the U.S., where there are many songs with the same tune. The California State University, Fresno, website notes Rosin the Beau as first appearing in sheet music published by Osbourn of Philadelphia in 1838.
Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem ‘The Sick Stockrider’ first appeared in ‘Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes,’ a collection of Gordon’s poems published in 1870. It is a (highly detailed) variation on the theme, but ends a little differently:
Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms wave,
With never stone or rail to fence my bed;
Should the sturdy station children pull the bush flowers on my grave,
I may chance to hear them romping overhead.
‘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.
The Australian folk song, ‘Gum Tree Canoe’, would appear to have been adapted from an American song of the same name, written by Silas Sexton Steele in 1847. The American version has been recorded by several artists, the most prominent perhaps being the American musician John Hartford, who included it on his 1984 album of the same name.
Mindful that the Australian gum tree, the eucalypt, had not been introduced to the U.S. until the late 19th century, I turned to Quora, a Californian website for asking and answering questions. I received a prompt reply from Ben Waggoner who said that, while he was not familiar with the song, he suspected the tree referred to in the American song was the sweetgum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua. To quote Waggoner directly,
This is a native tree to the southeastern United States, and it does exude a sweet gummy sap when cut. My grandmother used to chew the sap instead of chewing gum. The leaves turn an attractive red in the autumn, and the dry spiky fruits are excellent for throwing at people if you are an obnoxious seven-year-old.
He posted an addendum that the song refers to the Tombigbee River, which is very close to where his mother grew up, in the town of Columbus, Mississippi.
I have uploaded onto YouTube a video I took of the Victorian Folk Music Club performing the Australian version of ‘Gum Tree Canoe’ in 2015 at the annual Wattle Day Festival held in Hurstbridge, Victoria. The musicians are wearing yellow and green, the colours of the Australian wattle. Here is the link:
A performance of the American version of ‘Gum Tree Canoe’ by John Hartford can be found here:
I must admit, I was amazed to discover there was an earlier version of the song that was not about eucalypts at all!
The visit to Australia of the American singer Burl Ives in 1952, sponsored by the ABC, and his role in recording and popularising Australian folk songs, is fairly well known. The visit of a second American singer, William Clauson, to Australia some five years later, also sponsored by the ABC, is much less so. Clauson’s parents were immigrants from Sweden, and this country, as well as the U.S.A, was to prove a large influence on his life. He eventually built a career travelling the world, collecting, singing and recording the folk songs of the countries he visited, with a special emphasis on Mexico, where he was known as ‘the blonde cowboy’. Assisted by the Australian Catholic priest Percy Jones, who had also offered so much assistance to Burl Ives, he recorded an LP of Australian folk songs, entitled “‘Click Go the Shears’ – Songs of Australia”, in 1960.
‘The Canberra Times’ newspaper devoted a good deal of attention to Clauson’s 1957 tour though, oddly, I can find no record of it on Trove in any other newspapers. An article titled ‘Balladeer To Give Next A.B.C. Concert’ (Wednesday 11th September 1957, page 2) provided biographical background.
Clauson was born in Ashtabula, Ohio. At the age of two his family moved back to their native Sweden, where he spent his childhood. Early he began to show great interest in all things musical. His parents entered him in the Boras Conservatory where he studied violin, voice and composition. When he was seven his parents returned to the United States, where he finished his education. While at high school Clauson became interested in the classic guitar and gave up his violin in favour of this instrument. He began his studies with the famed virtuoso Jose Barrose, and continued his vocal studies with Victor Fuchs. He has a fine tenor voice.
Another Canberra Times article, titled ‘Clauson at Canberra Next Monday’ (Tuesday 17th September 1957, page 2), provided information about the forthcoming Australian tour.
Clauson will make 43 appearances during his 13-week tour, and will include in his tour a number of places not previously visited by A.B.C. celebrity artists. These include Port Moresby, where he will give two concerts, and King Island. He has just completed a successful tour of New Zealand.
Perhaps the lack of reporting in any other newspapers can be explained by the number of unusual and ‘out of the way’ places that he visited. Clauson arrived in Australia, by air, on Sunday, 22nd September, 1957. He… went direct to the Canberra Community Hospital, where he sang to patients in the children’s ward.
(The Canberra Times, Monday 23rd September 1957, page 2)
The following night he performed at the Albert Hall. Like Ives before him, Clauson’s concerts were covered in the press. Unlike Ives, however, the reviews were not universally positive. An article titled ‘Bright Entertainment by William Clauson’ (The Canberra Times, Tuesday 24th September 1957, page 3) begins well enough.
William Clauson last night fully justified his claim to be a singer of international ballads and folk songs. He sang in a special concert arranged by the A.B.C., and the Albert Hall was well filled for the occasion. Clauson sang ballads and folk-songs from at least 11 countries, including Australia. He has a light baritone voice that is well-suited to the kind of programme he sings – neither affected nor too heavy, but clear in diction and pleasing to the ear.
The only sour note comes in the final paragraph.
Spontaneity is an essential of folk-singing, and in this William Clauson’s performance left just one thing lacking. Gesture and inflection were wholly admirable, but the accompaniment suggested at times a lack of adaptability. It made itself felt especially in the longer ballad-type songs, where a change in the accompaniment to suit the altered sentiments expressed through the words would have added to them and made them more convincing.
Clauson returned for a second tour of Australia in 1965. The sixties were a time of great turmoil and change. One can sense in the newspapers of the time how much the mood had changed. An article in ‘The Canberra Times’ on Monday, 7th June (page 11), announced that Clauson… will appear in a series of 13 ten minute programmes on ABC television, starting tonight at 8.20.
The tone of the article is respectful and positive. Alas, another article in ‘The Canberra Times’ on Saturday, 31st July 1965 (page 12) strikes a very different note. Titled ‘Peter, Paul, Mary and sweet William’, it begins with the news that the famous folk trio ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ will be able to squeeze a tour of Australia in before they commence their European tour. Nevertheless, they cop a minor backhander from the reviewer, who then launches into many others, including Burl Ives.
It has been fashionable among critics to knock the trio, and certainly its smooth, slick presentation of folk songs palls after a while. But I have always thought that they retain some of the bite and vigour of true folk music even in their most commercial songs, and they often use harmonies that have an arresting, Southern Mountains quality. The true measure of their achievement is how much better they are than other commercialisers like Nina and Frederik, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, The Rooftop Singers, et al.
This is nothing, however, compared to what lies in wait for William Clauson.
A folk singer (if he can be called that) of a very different sort is William Clauson, the Swedish-American troubadour who has been peddling his wares around the concert halls for some years now. Like Peter, Paul and Mary, he is a folk song populariser. But whereas the trio retains some genuine feeling for folk music, Clauson appears to have none at all. His musical approach is precious, mannered, effete. He sings the robust, bawdy songs of the British Isles as one might expect a Sunday school teacher to sing them, only worse. But he is not only a populariser. He is an improver. In creating his own, personal, debased form of “folk music”, he changes the words and melodies of the songs he sings, apparently to make them more acceptable to the polite tea-party audiences to whom he often sings.
Whether this is fair or not, I really have no idea. Certainly, the respectful mood of the 1950s seems to have disappeared well and truly by 1965. My father had a copy of Clauson’s ‘Click Go the Shears’ LP which I listened to as a child, and enjoyed. I played it again recently, and it sounds overproduced and stiff by today’s standards, but that is hardly surprising. The earlier 1965 ‘Canberra Times’ article (7th June) mentions Clauson being presented with a ‘gold record’ (20,000 sales) for ‘Click Go the Shears.’ Clauson may not have been a top line star, and it may also be true that he lacked a certain degree of courage, but it appears nevertheless undeniable that he made a significant contribution to the renaissance of Australian folk music, as it began in the 1950s.
‘A Nautical Yarn’ is one of the nine Australian folk songs that American singer Burl Ives recorded in 1952, and which were to have such a profound effect on Australians’ perception of their own folk music heritage. The ‘yarn’ takes place on the Murray River. (Whether the adjective ‘nautical’ can be applied in the context of fresh water is arguable.) The words are credited to Keighley Goodchild. They are a play on the general notion of shipwrecks, so many of which occurred, and so tragically, in the 19th century. A paddle steamer is making its way upstream to the town of Wahgunyah (the furthest upstream port on the Murray) when a storm arises during the night. The crew fear for their lives, but the boat is grounded on a sandbar, and they all walk safely through the shallow water to shore!
According to his obituary, which was published in The Riverine Herald in 1888, Goodchild was born in London, and had a good education. He had arrived in Melbourne fifteen years earlier (1873) from New Zealand. How long he had been in New Zealand is not stated.
The Echuca Historical Society also has information about Goodchild’s life. He was born in 1851. (By way of historical comparison, Henry Lawson was born in 1867, and Ned Kelly in 1855.) Goodchild was very much a newspaperman. In Melbourne he worked for the Argus. He moved to Echuca in 1880, and stayed there until his death at the age of only 37 of ‘consumption’ (TB) in 1888. He worked for a number of newspapers, and was editor of the Echuca Advertiser. For the last two years of his life he worked as a compositor for The Riverine Herald. (It was the job of a compositor to arrange type for printing.) He also published a column under the title ‘Municipal Musings’. (Many of these can be easily accessed via Trove.)
Goodchild also wrote poetry, and in 1883 he self published a small collection of his own work with the title ‘Who Are You? : A Volume of Verse’. One of the poems in this book, ‘While the Billy Boils’, was included in the final volume of a series of poetry collections published in London. The series was titled ‘Canterbury Poets’, and the final volume, with Goodchild’s poem, ‘Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Poems inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand’ (1888), was edited by B. W. Sladen of Oxford. (Goodchild received his copy several days before he died.) The phrase, ‘while the billy boils’, was just beginning to gain traction in Australia and New Zealand, and this was not the first time it was used. It was also chosen as the title of Henry Lawson’s first collection of short stories, published in 1896. Lawson did not use the phrase himself, but his editor, Arthur Jose, felt it was apt. (Jose almost certainly knew of Goodchild’s poem.) Plans were afoot for a second collection of Goodchild’s verse to be published in London, but this did not eventuate, no doubt due to his premature demise.
Here is the first stanza of ‘While the Billy Boils’ by Keighley Goodchild.
While the ruby coals in the dull grey dust,
Shine bright as the daylight dies;
When into our mouths our pipes are thrust,
And we watch the moon arise;
While the leaves that crackle and hiss and sigh
Feed the flame with their scented oils,
In a calm content by the fire we lie
And watch while the billy boils.
‘A Nautical Yarn’ is included in the blog ‘An Australian Folk Song A Day’, by John Thompson. John references the source of the song as ‘Big Book of Australian Folk Songs’ by Ron Edwards, and adds this note from the book:
“…Ian Mudie in his book ‘Riverboats’ suggests that “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own.”
So perhaps Keighley Goodchild did not write ‘A Nautical Yarn’ after all!
To further complicate matters, there is more than one tune for the song. Goodchild’s stated tune was ‘The Dreadnought’, but Burl Ives’ folio of Australian songs used ‘Villikins and his Dinah’.
Who knows, perhaps Goodchild would have developed into a writer to rival Lawson and Paterson if he had lived longer? Then again, that can no doubt be said about a number of writers whose lives were cut short in those hard, early days.
A Nautical Yarn
I sing of a capting who’s well known to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks is his name.
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
To the Port of Wahgunyah his wessel was bound
When night comes upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters it clear light did throw;
But the wessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a yeo.
Oh, Capting, oh! Capting, let’s make for the shore,
For the winds they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the capting, “though the fierce winds may blow
I will stick to my vessel with a Yeo heave a yeo.”
“Oh! Capting, oh! Capting, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Capting, oh! Capting, we’ll soon be a wreck –
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!
But the capting laughed loudly, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
“Farewell to the maiding – the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends – I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the capting he swore –
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.