Friday, July 13, 2018

Verandah Music on Youtube

For a selection of videos and films of traditional Australian music, visit our Youtube channel. This is a colletion of rare, vintage and otherwise important field recordings and archival performances mostly unavailable elsewhere and growing all the time...

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Billy-Boiling Stakes

Our old mate Ed Sorenson again provides some eyewitness insight into the way bush folk made and played their own music in the nineteenth century. In his Life in the Australian Backblocks(1911), he describes the bush travellers’ competitive billy boiling custom. This was a serious business, it seems, and demanded knowledge of the folk science of boiling water in a billy, a standard necessity of bush life:

‘Among some travellers billy-boiling takes the form of a competition. The man of experience, looking over an array of well-used billies, says: "I'll back my billy to boil first." Interest being thus awakened, the others then put fiery spurs to their own utensils, each waiting, with tea-bag in hand, for the first ripple. Of course, some are specially adapted for quick boiling, whilst others are "naturally slow." A man with a quick boiler is always ready to back it against any other. He understands it, and can judge its boiling-time to within a few seconds. An old billy will boil quicker than a new one. The water is also worth considering. River-water will boil quicker than rain-water, stagnant water quicker than running water, whilst water that has once been boiled and cooled will boil again quicker than any other.’

The iconic billy is a standard feature of bush lore and songs like ‘My Old Black Billy’ and, after a little doctoring by the advertising industry, in the best-known version of ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ These competitions also provided another opportunity for making music, as Sorenson goes on to describe:
‘Yet, there is many a tedious wait for the billy to boil, and rejoicing of hungry ones when it begins to bubble. The old diggers on Ballarat and Bendigo used to sing, "Oh, what would you do if the billy boiled over?" when it was time to make the tea. And what legends are wrapped around the billy! Yarns are always being told, and bush songs are always being sung around a million camp fires while the billy boils.’

So, as the song goes:

You can sing of your whisky and sing of your beer
There’s something much nicer awaiting me here
It sits on the fire beneath the gum tree
There’s nothing much nicer than a billy of tea!

Sunday, June 24, 2018


From Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas

In the days of sail, when sailors signed on to a voyage they were paid a month’s wages in advance. This was spent on clothing and equipment needed for the trip, as well as grog, women and the other necessities of a matelot’s life. Because they had to work this payment off before they were paid again, the first month of the voyage was known as ‘working off the dead horse.’ When the month was over and they began receiving their pay, they might perform a folk play known as ‘Burying the Dead Horse’

… The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus.  When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel:—


You have come a long long way,
   And we say so, for we know so.
For to be sold upon this day,
   Poor old man.

You are goin’ now to say good-bye,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die,
   Poor Old Man.

Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month!  The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid.  After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers.  Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water.  The Requiem is then sung to the same melody.

Now he is dead and will die no more,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Now he is gone and will go no more;
   Poor Old Man.

After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the “bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer your’s [sic]to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!

This was how Richard (later Sir) Tangye, bound for Melbourne aboard the Parramattain 1879 recalled the ceremony aboard that ship. (Richard Tangye, Reminiscences of travel in Australia, America, and Egypt, London, 1884).
Amazingly, on the same ship and the same voyage a young man named George Haswell took the trouble to document the sailors’ work shanties. He was a skilled musician and transcribed the words and music of their songs, including the ‘Dead Horse’ ceremony described by Tangye (bottom of first page and top of second page, below, for melody).

(SLNSW)NB: Very early use of ‘folksong’ here, especially in its combined form – yes, you really wanted to know that!)

There are many other accounts of this maritime ceremony, which was extant before 1845. It must have been eerie in a probably empty sea at dusk, as well as enjoyable for crew and passengers. Certainly, all accounts involve alcohol. 

But what did it sound and look like as the crew advanced across the deck chanting and pushing or pulling a horse-shaped structure, sometimes with glowing and occasionally, if the captain allowed, with fireworks? We’ll never know. But we can hear the song in a very nice modern rendition by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Dead Horse ceremony usually took place in one of the ocean regions known as ‘the horse latitudes’. Respectively, 30-35 degrees north of the equator and 30-35 degrees south of the equator, these were areas where the winds often died away, becalming sailing ships. As the legend goes, if a ship was becalmed long enough in one of these regions for the drinking water to run out, any horses (and presumably other livestock) might be thrown overboard to preserve water for the crew. A bit more folklore – might even be true!

Graham Seal
PS: A longer version of this post, with sources, is at Ghost Music , on this blog.

Friday, June 8, 2018


Here’s another item on bush music. The blokes in this drawing were celebrating New Year’s Eve, sometime around the 1890s. The picture and accompanying description comes from Edward Sorenson’s classic book, Life in the Australian Backblocks(1911).

Barely-known today, Edward Sorenson was a successful writer and journalist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Queensland and spending most of his life in the bush, he knew what he was talking about and his writings provide sharp observations of bush life and customs, including music. Here he is on a night at a bullock camp:

‘Bullock camps were once plentiful along the main roads. Not infrequently there would be fifty or sixty men in camp, and, gathered round the blazing log fires, they would mix the yarns of the roads with songs and music. Two out of every three teams carried a concertina or a violin. Travellers joined them, and many a time bushrangers have shared their fires; more than once the lawless bands have helped themselves to the cargo. This, of course, was in the long ago, when bullock-driving had its thrills and possessed something of the picturesque features of the southern overlanders.’

And again, this time on travelling ‘cattle-men, scalpers, brumby-hunters, buffalo- shooters, or prosperous diggers.’ When camped together for the night their ‘packs will produce two or three different musical instruments, and music, songs, recitations, and yarning alternate till late at night, while a dozen horse-bells are jingling in the bush around them.’

Sorenson mentions the central role of music in bush entertainment a few times in his book but also points out that it was rare, in his experience, at least, to find anyone who could sing a complete song. If this is accurate, and it probably is, it could explain why collectors often collect what have been called ‘fragments’ of traditional song. The Sally Sloane’s and Simon McDonald’s were probably as scarce as hen’s teeth.

The impromptu New Year’s Eve band in the picture has a couple of whistles, a concertina and a kerosene drum. The musicians are wearing bell-bottom trousers, popular with larrikins at the period. One of the whistlers is wearing a bowyang tied beneath his knee, an indication that he is a working man.

Along with our other posts on this topic, this helps us a picture of traditional bush music in its social contexts at a period when it was a major form of everyday, DIY entertainment and socialising.

Monday, May 28, 2018


Here’s another in our Verandah Music  posts on home-made music. The family band described in this article from 1943 is similar to one we featured a few years ago under the title 'The Music of Strange Bands'.


A SOUTH COAST (NSW) family has a strange collection of home-made musical instruments. There are several whistles made from bush timber; a violin made from a cigar-box, bits of bush timber and kangaroo sinews; some unnamed instruments made from bullocks' horns; an instrument which they call a bottlephone because it consists of beer bottles mounted on a frame and struck with a little mallet to produce the music; a drum made from two goat skins; and a banjo made from a sheep-skin and wallaby tail sinews. Several of the girls learnt to play tunes on gumleaves and one of the boys can play tunes on a set of old bullock bells which he has altered and timed. Altogether quite a novel jazz band.

"Wongarbon." Sydney.(Smith’s Weekly, 3 July 1943, p. 8).

Wondering what a bottlephone is? 

‘a "bottle-phone," Is, as Its name Indicates, made from bottles, which are made
to supply the various notes of the musical scale. You will find It easy to build, and
It will give you and your friends lots of entertainment.’

You can make and play your own!

‘… You will need 22 bottles of varying size to get a range of notes from B flat, below middle C to G, above high C, with the intervening half tones. Each bottle is suspended on a string, and the pitch is checked with a piano, adding water as necessary to obtain the right pitch….’

Go to follow the illustrated instructions for making and playing a bottlephone (1940). Easier than Ikea!

The bottlephone seems to have been around for a while. Rob found mention of one in a concert at Kadina in 1900 and even advertisements from the early 1890s.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

And now for the ‘Ethiopian Serenaders’…!

Songster of the Ethiopian Serenaders (USA)

Here’s an interesting snippet from 1850, indicating the early presence of blackface minstrel shows in Australia, even before the gold rushes. Minstrelsy, deriving from the ‘Jump Jim Crow’ comic song fad, was in Australia shortly after it first appeared in the early 1830s and was amazingly popular up to the end of the nineteenth century, and beyond. (Offence alert: racist language).

Ethiopian Serenaders

A company, of performers, calling themselves Ethiopian serenaders, have recently arrived in the colony, and are giving entertainments at the Royal Hotel. This description of amusement had a great run when first introduced into England a few years since. The singing consists of what are generally termed " nigger songs," which are accompanied by an accordeon, a banjo, (which much resembles a guitar,) a tambourine, and the " bones," or castanets, and from the excellent time kept by the instruments, the effect is most pleasing. One of the company, Mr. Howard, has a most sweet voice, and his singing of several plaintive airs, accompanied by himself on the accordean [sic], from which he elicits most delightful tones, was much admired, as was also the solo of Hark the Merry Christ Church Bells on the banjo. The performance on Wednesday evening appeared to give much satisfaction to a numerous and respectable audience.

The Sydney Morning HeraldApril 5 1850, 3.

One of the intriguing aspects of Australian folksong is the extent to which it used American tunes, even well before the era of recorded music. The minstrel shows from America and Britain, as well as other touring entertainments, are the prime suspects for the spread of these imported tunes and songs. 

This English band was probably the first minstrel group known to have appeared in Sydney. ‘Blythe Waterland’s Serenaders’ performed at the Royal Hotel on 1 April, 1850, and at other venues. Their leader was Henry Burton (stage name ‘Blythe Waterland’, also a founder of Australian circus). The band, which included two members named ‘Howard’, toured country centres as well as Melbourne, Launceston and Hobart and returned to Sydney as ‘The Ethiopian Serenaders’. 

Their repertoire included ‘Lynchburg Town’, ‘Walk Along John’, ‘Johnny Boker’, ‘Dandy Jim’, ‘Old Grey Goose’, ’Ole Dan Tucker’, ’Boatman's Dance’, ’Jenny get your hoecake done’, as well as that show-stopping church bells number. For sea song tragics (me included), it’s interesting how many of these were shanties. It was not unusual for minstrel shows to include a wide variety of other styles, not excepting sacred music. These travelling entertainers quickly generated local imitators who continued to spread the repertoire and aided its adaptation into the folk tradition

The instruments mentioned have also been influential in the tradition here. Certainly the accordeon, banjo and ‘bones’, here referred to as ‘castanets’, became popular. But what happened to the tambourine? Did it become the ‘jingling Johnny’, said to have been a possible precursor of the bush band lagerphone? 

Many will equate tambourines with the Salvation Army. But, from this and other accounts, it seems that the tambourine was quite commonly played as percussion in a variety of bush and other more or less spontaneous ensembles, as well as by professionals. All this was long before the Salvation Army was formed in 1865.

Maybe those Sally Annie timbrel troupes just frightened everyone else off?

Graham Seal

Monday, May 14, 2018


A 'bush band' c. 1905, SLQ

The first mention of a ‘bush band’ seems to be in the surprising context of a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868. The Sydney Mailof 15 February that reported a reception for his Royal Highness at which a Volunteer band – a military style brass band – played in the usual manner for such events. After the Duke had departed, guests danced quadrilles to the music of this band, but a ‘bush band’ was also playing, quite a lot, it seems:

‘There was another band upon the ground - what was called "The bush band" - which also favoured the public with much melody. Its harmonies, however, were more of a lugubrious and sentimental character than those of its rival, and it was consequently less popular. It was, however, the centre of a small knot of applauding amateurs de musique who seemed to appreciate "Ah che la morte" and "The heart bowed down," &c. ’

The following year, His Excellency Governor Weld was received at the Roman Catholic Mission at Victoria Plains, Western Australia.

‘While His Excellency was at supper, a bush band was got up consisting of a violin, concertina, triangle, and a large tin dish which answered instead of a drum; several popular airs were played; and His Excellency was very much pleased, for he knew that every one was doing their very best, and with the best intentions.’ (The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 19 November 1869, 2-3).

It is likely that some, or all, of the members of this bush band were Aboriginal inmates of the Mission.

By the 1880s, bush bands seem to have been an accepted element of the colonial music scene. As reported in the 18 January edition of the Warwick Argusin 1886:

‘The new year was ushered in in this part of the world in the usual fashion. The stirring strains of the bush band - composed of first and second kerosene tins, an asthmatic concertina, a wheezy comb, and a couple of broken-voiced tin whistles - burst upon the stilly night as the clock struck 12. The atmospheric disturbance was something terrific - and the wonder is that we have had a day's fine weather since. The roisterers made the usual round of the pubs. At the first - host Holmes' - the 'cute landlord warned his visitors that it being after midnight, and consequently 1886, the new Licensing Act was in force and he dare not open his house or sell liquor between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. "We don't want you to sell it, shouted the tin whistle. But the landlord was obdurate, and the thirsty ones had at last to go empty away. They were more successful elsewhere. Having gathered plenty of eatables and drinkables, they returned to the Royal and made things lively for a short time; then, leaving their instruments in pledge for what they did not get, adjourned to the recreation reserve and disposed of the "wine and wittles." Most of them have quite recovered.’

The essential connection between bush music and booze seems to have been well established by this time and spontaneous ensembles of this kind remained a small but important element of community music-making. When the folk revival produced the original Bushwhackers band of the Sydney Bush Music Club in the 1950s, the only changes were the addition of the bush bass, probably derived from the brief skiffle craze of that era, and the lagerphone. 

The spirit of handmade music remained the same. From the 1970s, the ‘second’ Bushwackers [sic] band (originally Bushwackers and Bullockies), took the style to a new level of electrified volume and professional performance standards. Many other ‘bush bands’ also formed in this period and one or two remain today, though the bush dance fad that largely supported these groups has long gone. 

Time for a revival, perhaps?

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The historical research on which this article is based was mostly undertaken by Dr Graeme Skinner of the University of Sydney, used with his kind permission - see his excellent site, Australharmony.

Graham Seal