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!

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