Harry Schaefer, Dance Musician

Rob Willis

I had often heard the name of dance-player Harry Schaefer mentioned by older musicians around my hometown of Forbes NSW.  Saxophone player Jimmy Collits and concertina player Lionel Pietsch were two of the many who spoke of him with reverence. 'It's a pity you were not around to have a yarn to him', they said.

As well as their memories of Harry riding his push bike to dances, violin and drum strapped to his back, there were also stories of a collection of music that he had handwritten over the years. The first indication that some music may have still been in existence was when Helen Bernardi of Forbes, gave me copies of some of her father’s handwritten tunes, and commented that her Dad had played music with Harry Schaefer and a lot of the tunes were from him.

It is amazing how often an innocent remark leads to an event. I was browsing in the Eureka second hand shop and talking with one of the proprietors, Mrs Marie Snow about music (not an unusual practice for me) when the name of Harry Schaefer surfaced. Marie mentioned that she had some hand written music manuscript books of Harry's. Would I like to see them? Could I use them in my research.

The Schaefer manuscript collection consists of ten handwritten books encompassing the repertoire of a traditional dance musician from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900s. The tunes are all marked with the dance that they would be played for and also contain full programs for the quadrilles that were danced in Australia at this time.  The dances range from varsoviennas and mazurkas of early times to the later fox trots and quicksteps.

Harry had the ability to hear a tune from another player and write the music, collecting the old tunes before the advent of tape recorders.  Many of the tunes cannot be located in printed music and have only the name of the town where they were learnt or the name of the person from whom the tune was learnt in the aural tradition.  The Echuca Waltz and Violet’s Polka are two examples.

As Harry had been dead for many years the only way that more information could be obtained was to interview the older musicians around the Forbes district who had been influenced by him.  There were also memories of Harry from musicians I had previously recorded and who were now deceased, these complemented the recordings made of those that were still surviving.  From this series of interviews, and assistance from Schaefer descendents a picture of an amazing traditional musician emerged.

He used to ride a push bike - strap the old violin around his back - always used to ride the push bike from Parkes out here - usually had a tin whistle with him as well. He could play anything. He had a flute - he could play anything you gave him, and he was all self taught.
Biddy McLenehan – Harry’s neice
Harry Schaefer - anything you'd ask him he'd play it - any instrument you'd put in front of him he'd pick it up and play it just like that.
Lionel Pietsch - concertina player and a friend of Harry

Harry Schaefer was the youngest of eight children, born on November 11, 1876 at Echuca, Victoria, where his parents had settled. His father Carl had emigrated from  Bavaria in 1857, and had met Anna Lorke, originally from Prussia, while living in Germantown, near Geelong. They were married in 1862, and moved to Echuca sometime between 1864 and 1867. Carl had been a musician in Germany, but the family history suggests that Carl saw being a farmer as a more suitable occupation for Harry, and discouraged his music making.

“Harry's father wouldn't even teach the boys so they used to have to steal his violin. I don't know whether you have ever seen one of the old, what they call the old strippers they had years ago for stripping the wheat before the headers came out. Well, they had a great big box on the back of them and they used to get the old chap's violin and they'd hide in there and learn to play it - that's how they all used to play music.”
Biddy McClenehan - Harry's Niece

The variety of instruments played by Harry was truly amazing - fiddle, Strohviol, flute, tin whistle, piano, clarinet, accordion, cornet and other brass instruments are among those mentioned.

“I think I was first introduced to him by Bill Cade (old time fiddle player from Forbes), and I got to know him as an old time dance band player in the area, commonly used in woolsheds and so forth around. But he seemed to be able to play pretty well all the instruments, violin, Strohviol, piano accordion, he seemed to have a variety of instruments down at his place.
When I saw him playing it would all be by ear he was very quick at picking things up. If you played a tune a couple of times, even less than that, he'd sort of get hold of it and go away with it, where we'd have to play it over and over again to get hold of it.”
Merv Hawke - musican and dance band player

“We went out to Inchgower ( a woolshed) to put on a dance to raise funds for the ambulance - and some wise character said 'Where's the orchestra?'
I said 'That's it over there - that man with the violin on his lap'. Harry Schaefer - only bloke there - and boy could he play, wasn't two ups and he had everybody on the floor, happy as Larry - one violin. He played almost all over the place on his own.
See, Harry Schaefer wouldn't buy a piece of music - No he was too miserable - No he'd hear something on the wireless or another band playing it - He'd go home and write it out - stop in the head - write it out himself - by golly boy.”
Joe Hohnberg:- founder of the Forbes Ragtime Band and close friend of Harry Schaefer

As well as playing for dances solo, Harry became involved with many of local dance bands.  The Forbes Ragtime Band that played around the area in the era of the Second World War was well known and often mentioned.

In his later years Harry lived in a shed behind a house in the township of Forbes. It was small, but Harry seemed content with a simple life.

“When we went into the shed everything was so compact - hanging up off the unlined roof - even the bicycle was hanging from the roof. He had a forge in there and if you went there he would light the forge and boil the billy on the forge. And the smallness of the shed I'd say it was 10 foot by 6 foot roughly - and all his instruments were hanging from the ceiling. I believe he could play 17 instruments There was just a couple of chairs and a bed and all the instruments - there did not seem to be a window or anything.”
Steve Hohnberg:- Son of Joe Hohnberg

Harry Schaefer died in Forbes on May 22nd 1954 aged 79 years and is buried in the Forbes cemetery.
Forbes has a rich heritage of music, song and dance and Harry Schaefer was a vital link in the continuance of these traditions.  His music has been shared for three generations and is still being played Australia wide by traditional musicians and bands.

Schaefer manuscripts - National Library of Australia
Interviews with Merv Hawke, Jimmy Collitts, Lionel Pietsch, Joe Hohnberg, Biddy McClenahan, Steve Hohnberg and others – RobWillis collection National Library of Australia or Rob Willis Private collection. 
Film of Lionel Pietsch – Meredith/Willis collection ScreenSound Australia

The Forbes Ragtime Band - photo taken at Grenfell, 2 September, 1944
back row: Jim Collitts, Joe Hohnberg (kazoo), Harry Schaefer (Strohviol), Mick Peters
front row: Mr Mills, Harry 'Bricky' Wallace, Harry 'Monkey' Jones

Christmas on the verandah Schaefer residence
at ‘Nine Mile’, near Forbes circa 1927
Harry Schaefer right side, third from front

Schaefer family – date unknown
Harry with brothers, sisters and in-laws
Standing from left: Fred Newell, Charlie Schaefer, Harry Schaefer, Emma Schaefer (John’s wife), John Schaefer
Seated: Annie Schaefer Newell

Pat Nightingale

By John Harpley
(Ref Willis Collection NLA ORAL TRC 3388/56-57-58)

The collection of folklore can sometimes be a protracted affair. In 1958, on a field-collecting trip at Tumbarumba in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, folklorist John Meredith found references to a song about the death of a shearing shed union representative. He was given Pat Nightingale’s name as being a possible source of the song. Years later when Meredith learned that Rob Willis and I were undertaking a field trip to Queensland he supplied us with contact details for Pat in the hope that we might be able to collect this song entitled ‘The Death of the Shed Rep’. Pat Nightingale was subsequently recorded in June 1996 at Keppel Sands near Rockhampton, Queensland

Pat was born in 1910 at Rockhampton and lived with his family at Mount Morgan until the Mount Morgan Gold Mine closed down when Pat was thirteen. His family moved to Sydney looking for work. He got a job at Arnotts Biscuit factory but soon got sacked for throwing a broom at his boss. He yearned for life in the Bush and eventually got a job on a Station in the Central West of New South Wales at the age of sixteen. He “got his first shearing shed” as a rouseabout at Garimpa Station, out the ‘other side’ of Bourke, on the Paroo River. He spent much of his early life ‘knocking around’ the Bush working at various bush occupations such as shearer’s cook, saddler, rabbit trapper, station hand, fossicker and gravedigger.    

He gained a love of music from listening to silent movie orchestras and various dance bands that he heard playing in dance halls when he was a young man. He also remembered people in the Bush making music and entertaining themselves with such instruments as the gum leaf; paper and comb; the bones or sticks to keep time; bottles partially filled with water to get different notes; and musical bells. He fondly reminisced about the “good times” enjoyed when people  “made their own bloody fun”.

Pat made several trips back to Sydney to see his family and on one such trip he discovered and fell in love with a Hawaiian steel guitar that his sister had brought home from the Islands. Three years later he managed to find someone in Sydney who knew how to play it and after a few lessons he was soon playing for dances in a guitar band. He then remained in Sydney for a couple of years while he learned to play the steel guitar. In 1936-7 he spent a lot of time busking in and around Sydney in order to become a proficient musician. He purchased a 1938 model Rickenbacker electric steel guitar from Nicholson’s Music shop in Sydney and he believes it to be the first one imported into Australia. The portable amplifier that came with this guitar was known a vibrator and was powered by a 6-volt car battery. He later moved back to the Bush and travelled around the Western New South Wales districts playing for various radio stations as well as busking and picking up gigs wherever he could. He remembered playing for a dance at Ivanhoe with solo steel guitar when no other dance musician could be found. At the time we recorded him he still owned and played this guitar. He eventually commenced working as a shearer’s cook on the big sheds in Western New South Wales and he recalls spending a lot of time entertaining the shearers and other shed hands after a hard days work.

Pat learned the following song while working at a shearing shed at a place called Banket just North of Lightning Ridge in about 1933. “I used to get the guitar out and we’d all sing different songs, you know, and I’d play. A couple of them sang those ones so I wrote them down so I wouldn’t forget ‘em”.


There was a mad shed rep. and a bastard they say,
Who had for his motto “work eight hours a day”,
When the rousies would barrow you’d hear the rep. yell,
Then he’d get as hot as the tomcats in Hell.

Now the rousies poor bastards were having their fun,
When up jumped the rep. like a shot from a gun,
He said “you can’t barrow you know it’s a farce”,
And he pissed them all off with a kick in the arse.

Now the rousies were gloomy their pleasure was done,
They couldn’t see why they’d been stopped from their fun,
And they had no ideas ‘til the penner-up said,
“We’ll put a death adder in the mad bastard’s bed”.

Now the rousies next morning were first out of bed,
They tore round to see if the shed rep. was dead,
As stiff, stark and cold with a smile as he lay,
And the rousies all murmured “we’ll barrow today”.

They all had their breakfast and went to the shed
They knew very well that the shed rep. was dead
And they worked with a will and they worked with a way
And the song that they sang was we’ll barrow today

Now one stand lay idle where the shed rep. had been,
He never was heard of and never was seen,
For the rousies had buried him deep in the pit,
And covered him over with big lumps of shit.

Now the shed rep. has gone where all bad shearers go,
He’s down underground where he’s shovelling coal,
And his motto “you must not work more than eight hours”,
Was changed by the rousies to, “please bring no flowers”.

He learned the next song while working on Garimpa Station on the Paroo River.


You’ve heard of the flash Sydney shearers,
They’re the flashest of men out of town,
There’s nothing so flash, oh by golly,
As a shearer when shearing comes round.

He cuts out each shed and is happy,
He puts on the dog and all that,
He’d whip anything in creation,
And ends up by whipping the cat.

In most sheds you’ll always find growlers,
In the last shed the sheep they cut well,
But these are the regular howlers,
As tough as the sinews of Hell,

They set all hands growling and muck up,
They growl at the shears and the sheep,
They growl at the cook and his tucker,
And snore, snort and fart in their sleep.

And when all the shearing is over,
And the mince-balls have come to an end,
It’s then you will find those flash shearers,
Cooking Johnny-cakes down at the bend

And when they return to the city,
It is then they become mild and meek,
It is then you will find those flash shearers,
Going up for the dole every week.

Pat also recited the following verses;

There’s a cook on Mumble Bumble ought to be in gaol they say,
For his numerous offences in the culinary way,
Most everything the beggar ever curried, hashed or fried,
Would create a revolution in an ostrich’s inside.
All the crows and the goannas get most awful stomach aches,
Taking chances on the fragments of the dampers that he bakes,
And no self-respecting emu ever ventures on his cake,
For they’ll get appendicitis if they eat it by mistake.

Plus this one;

You can tell those greasy shearers by the smell of their greasy feet,
And when they see those sausage balls gawd blimey don’t they eat,
For they shear wet sheep on Monday and they shear wet sheep again,
And make the lousy Rousie work in eighteen points of rain.

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