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.

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