‘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 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.