Bush Talk

Good evening and welcome all and my thanks to Maria Millers for giving me the opportunity to speak tonight. I’ve been asked to keep the content reasonably light and so I will try not to get too academic. What I thought I would do was to just reflect on the place and role of the things we have come together to celebrate tonight – bush poetry, the bush ballad and Australian song – their importance over the years to our culture and specifically to our supposed national character.

It is worth noting that these things represent an Anglo-Celtic history and their appeal, I suspect, remains largely to audiences with an Anglo-Celtic heritage.

All that I say in this brief address is, of course, my own humble musings. Feel free to disagree. I can live with shaking heads but I do beg of you to withhold the bread rolls.

I wasn’t sure what sort of an audience would gather here tonight. Was I going to be speaking principally to people with cowboy hats and big belt buckles, was I going to be confronted with folkies in multi-coloured woolen garments and worn leather sandals or was I going to be engaging  left wing English professors in corduroy pants and sports jacket, with leather elbow patches, of course. Or would I be looking out upon the last remnants of the squatocracy, blue-shirted, mole-skin panted men in cabbage tree hats

Looking round I suspect there are among you people from all walks of life, for at some time or other there are few of us who have not been engaged by bush poetry and ballads in some way, whether in a minor or major fashion.

Let me lay my credentials bare before I start. I am not a poet, balladist or songwriter. Nor can I profess to being an aficionado of these forms. I am an historian, principally of the First World War period with a garnishing of ante and post bellum knowledge. I can say, however, with some conviction, that the notion of the ‘Bush’ as celebrated in Australian art, literature, rhyme and song was fundamental to shaping how we have viewed ourselves and that has, subsequently, been projected into a world view.

It is not a freak accident of commercialism that the likes of Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee and the very real Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Man, are considered by many Americans to be typically Australian. Their characters draw on over a century of artistic and literary endeavour that was incredibly successful in formulating a distinct view of Australia and Australians both for domestic and international consumption.

Before I delve into some examples – and I won’t quote too much because I don’t want to steal the thunder from any potential open stagers out there- I want to make a comment about where we are gathered today.

Whether accidentally or by design, we find ourselves in Gembrook, beyond the outer fringes of suburbia. No trains, bar our little steam gem, and that only a recent re-acquisition. Here, you can still see horses being ridden about the ranges and often, as a reminder of bygone days, the odd vintage car rambling about the hills. Bird life abounds and logging is till a fact of life. Tasmanian Tigers could be roaming the wilds, were it not for the predatory black panther that stalks the forests around here.

We are gathered in a place that mainstream Australia undoubtedly considers an appropriate spot for the bush ballad and its adherents to congregate . It is here – outside the city – that the festival’s organizers believe an interested audience might be better garnered. And perhaps they are right. There seems no doubt that popular avenues and venues for the publication and performance of bush ballads have diminished in modern times, as Australia has become more urban and supposedly urbane.

A society that not only tolerates television shows in the form of Big Brother but tries to pass off such dross as quality entertainment, is a society that is unlikely to be moved by a mountain horseman riding through the stringy barks and saplings, over rough and broken ground, and down a hillside at a racing pace – perhaps if it were Melbourne Cup day and they had a few bob each way it might hold their interest  Despite this, it is encouraging to note that a number of specific festivals have been spawned in recent years that celebrate ‘Bush’ verse specifically.

Fans of bush ballads and poetry have to admit that it is no longer a favoured genre of the masses. A hundred years ago when the ‘Bush’ was being tamed when new species of flora and fauna were being discovered and when livelihoods were being carved out of the ‘Bush’, people were captivated by it. Society embraced and romanced the notion of the ‘Bush’. Some of the forms in which this love affair prevailed were – as with all affairs of the heart – in the guise of ballads and poems. In this respect writers were engaging in a long history of storytelling, of oral traditions that bards, minstrels and tribal elders have practised over time.  They have undertaken a process of disseminating the world about them into a coherent digestible form for others in their society.

Not surprisingly, ballads and poems reflected a wide range of experiences from the deeply personal to the broader public experiences and perceptions. They map the history of white settlement from convict days through to modern times. Consider these lines from transported convict, George Barrington.

From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood,
We left our country for our country’s good:

The golden epoch of Australian bush ballads and poetry was its most formative years from the 1880s through to the First World War. This was the world of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and C. J. Dennis. It was also the world of novelist Steele Rudd and the Heidleberg school of painters. This was a period that marked the emphatic breaking down of Australia’s frontiers.

Many of these artistic representations both in print and on canvas dripped with sentimentality for the natural world. Remember that the smells and rhythms of the Australian bush were new to most observers in colonial Australia. The smell of Eucalypts, the echo of bellbirds and other warblings from myriad birds in the bush, the colour of the sky and landscape evoked strong stirrings in people.

Equally the characters that inhabited the frontier were written of endearingly. Thus we see the emergence of Clancy of the Overflow and his mate from the Snowy River and the Sentimental Bloke. They are creations that still resonate with us because they convey a positive view of ourselves of what we are and of what we are capable of. And no modern poet – no matter how much Sir Les Murray is feted – has or is likely to be remembered in the same iconic way as Lawson and Paterson or Dennis.

Poets and balladists in this period were given a public platform through publication in the major newspapers as well as a burgeoning group of jingoistic magazines such as the Bulletin and Boomerang. It was a period in which public education was being pursued with some zealotry. It was a period in which writers were held in high regard; a period in which the three Rs were viewed as paramount to the well being and edification of general society. And poems that tapped into the attempt to develop a national identity in Australia achieved a distinct public resonance. Arguably there was never a period in which the pen stood nearly as mighty as the sword that had carved out the British Empire.

Bush ballads and poetry were a popular form of entertainment and communication. They still are to a lesser degree. Tune into Macca’s ‘Australia All Over’ (If you dare) and each week you will hear some caller offering their humble jottings to the wider public.

Study the diaries and letters of Australian soldiers of the First World War and you will find many examples of ballad and verse in letters, diaries and unit publications. They are less prevalent in the writings of the next generation at War.

Undoubtedly Australia’s most renowned soldier-poet was Henry H. Morant aka The Breaker. He was a dab hand at poetry before the Boer War that ultimately claimed him as well as being an accomplished horseman. Symbolically he is a wonderful early example of the metamorphism of the Australian bushman into the iconic digger as our quintessential example of Australian manhood that develops from the First World War

For many years Australian ballads and poems were a compulsory fixture on education syllabuses throughout the nation – we didn’t learn that one (waves book). Australian schoolchildren no longer receive their weekly broadcast of these things nor are they forced to recite, Dorothea MacKellars ‘My Country’ before the class or worse at some even more public School extravaganza. Perhaps, if they knew the sensation of the cold sweating brow, the knotted stomach and trembling hands that preceded such public recitations they would be thankful. Still, I would wager that most of us in this room can trace the beginnings of their interest in this craft to school.

The last time I stumbled upon a public recital was at a friends wedding a few years ago. He was of traditional Irish-Catholic stock so part of the night was given over to performance by relatives and friends “Give us song, Paddy” – you know the type of night I’m talking about, I’m sure. And so Uncle Pat stood up and an expectant hush filled the hall and then he jumped away with speed “There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,”
And on he galloped with but one slight baulk pulling up only when he uttered the last line “And the stockmen tell the story of his ride”.

It was a refreshing moment and, to hear it, was like being reacquainted with an old friend.  Its also thirteen stanzas long, so its recital is always a small wonder.

The early poets also spoke, at times, about a tension between the city and the bush. As the coastal towns grew into cities, entities in their own right rather than staging posts for the push into the interior, they gave rise to two distinct Australia’s which have been in competition ever since. Henry Lawson wrote a number of poems in which he directly addressed the quixotic notion of the bush as perceived by city dwellers compared with the harsh realities of those trying to eke out a living in the bush.

But let me read you this one, titled “In the storm that is to Come” and written in 1904 because I think 100 years on we should still take heed.
By our place in the midst of the furthest seas we were fated to stand alone –
When the nations fly at each other’s throats let Australia look to her own;
Let her spend her gold on the barren west, let her keep her men at home;
For the South must look to the South for strength in the storm that is to come.

Now who shall gallop from cape to cape, and who shall defend our shores –
The crowd that stand on the kerb agape and glares at the cricket scores?
And who will hold the invader back when the shells tear up the ground –
The weeds that yelp by the cycling track while a nigger scorches round?

There may be many to man the forts in the big towns beside the sea –
But the East will call to the West for scouts in the storm that is to be:
The West cries out to the East in drought, but the coastal towns are dumb;
And the East must look to the West for food in the war that is to come.

The rain comes down on the Western land and the rivers run to waste,
When the city folk rush for the special tram in their childless, senseless haste,
And never a pile of a lock we drive – but a few mean tanks we scratch –
For the fate of a nation is nought compared with the turn of a cricket match!

There’s a gutter of mud where there spread a flood from the land-long western creeks,
There is dust and drought on the plains far out where the water lay for weeks,
There’s a pitiful dam where a dyke should stretch and a tank where a lake should be,
And the rain goes down through the silt and sand and the floods waste into the seas.

We’ll fight for Britain or for Japan, we will fling the land’s wealth out;
While every penny and every man should be used to fight the drought.
God helps the nation that helps itself, and the water brings the rain,
And a deadlier foe than the world could send is loose on the western plain.

I saw a vision in days gone by and would dream that dream again
Of the days when the Darling shall not back her billabongs up in vain.
There were reservoirs and grand canals where the Dry Country had been,
And a glorious network of aqueducts, and the fields were always green.

I have seen so long in the land I love what the land I love might be,
Where the Darling rises from Queensland rains and the floods run into the sea.
And it is our fate that we’ll wake to late to the truth that we were blind,
With a foreign foe at our harbour gate and a blazing drought behind!

You can see what wastrels city people are. C. J. Dennis was another big on the bush but he also saw that the city was where the most likely audience lay and so he gave us the sentimental bloke and his mate Ginger Mick. Here were urban larrikins who roamed the byways around Spadgery Lane – probably barracked for Fitzroy, Collingwood or Richmond (the poor fools). You get a sense of the Bloke and Gingers lifestyle as the bloke recounts the play he has just seen wiv’ Doreen.

This Romeo ‘e’s lurkin’ wiv a crew–
A dead tough crowd o’ crooks–called Montague.
‘Is cliner’s push–wot’s nicknamed Capulet–
They ‘as ’em set.
Fair narks they are, jist like them back-street clicks,
Ixcep’ they fights wiv skewers ‘stid o’ bricks.

Their construction I think marks a decided shift in the understanding of the type that many Australians actually were. The pull of the bush still resonates, however, and the Bloke heads for the country with his newlywed Doreen. His best man is Ginger Mick and he is a fascinating study because Ginger Mick goes to War and dies at Gallipoli. Here we see the quasi-political bent of some nationalistic writers. Mick achieves an acceptability in uniform through his response to the “call uv stoush”. Digger Smith is another soldier who retreats to the bush after the war – reflecting the soldier settler experience to a degree.

Symbolically I think Mick’s death is also the death knell for the pre war romanticism that informed so many poems and ballads. Australia, had, in a very real way lost its innocence.

I would like to finish with a very brief reference to some songs. Songs, in the modern world, especially with the mass media open to their transmission, have reached far wider audiences than poems were ever able to do. They are often associated with advertising and sporting events and are often anthemic in their nature.

I have selected six for consideration. Waltzing Matilda, The Wild Colonial Boy, I Still Call Australia Home, Nineteen, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and lastly Men At Work’s, Down Under.

Waltzing Matilda has become an anthem. Written by Banjo Paterson and put to a tune adapted from an existing bush ballad by Christina MacPherson, it is now sung robustly at all major sporting events. It celebrates the delinquent in us all, a sheep stealer throws himself in a billabong rather than face up to the law; This is also the general appeal of The Wild Colonal Boy – remember him?

‘Jack Duggan was his name He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine’.

It was a massive hit for Doctor Hook in the mid 70s you might recall but what did Jack do:

‘He robbed the rich, he helped the poor, he shot James MacEvoy
A terror to Australia was, the wild colonial boy’.

He dies game with a bullet in his heart.

Like MacKellars “My Country”, Peter Allen’s “I still call Australia home” paints a broad panoramic picture in our minds of a country that is intrinsic to our sense of Australianess. Reading Mackellars poem I am moved by the almost indigineous sentiment it evokes for the land…listening to Allen’s song I wince at its saccharine delivery. Give me the poem any day.

Redgum’s Only Nineteen is a bitter song – “God help me – I was only nineteen” but it was a huge hit because it tapped into the sense of loss of youth and innocence in wartime as did Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. Bogles’ is filled with more pathos and continues to be recorded and sung wherever folkies gather. Both appeal because of the power of the Anzac legend in our national narrative.

Finally, victory in the America’s Cup elevated a song about hippies, fried out combies, vegemite sandwiches, and chundering plundering men into an iconic piece.

But what all these songs have in common is that they perceive Australians as free spirits roaming our wide brown land as well as lands in foreign climes.

May we never loose sight of that celebrated free spirit.