|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.