A HISTORY OF THE BUSH BAND
© Warren Fahey
The first so-called bush band was The Heathcote Bushwhackers in 1952. Its members were John Meredith (button accordion), Jack Barrie (tea chest bush bass) and Brian Loughlan (lagerphone or jingling johnny). Heathcote being an outlying southern Sydney suburb. As the trio gained popularity the group became more known simply as The Bushwhackers. In 1953 the band featured in the highly successful New Theatre production of Dick Diamond’s play Reedy River. In 1954 Meredith established the Bush Music Club, an organisation dedicated to preserving and popularising our folk song and dance traditions. The Bush Music Club continues this work. Over the years new members joined the Bushwhackers including Alan Scott, Harry Kay, Cecil Grivas, Chris Kempster and Alex Hood. They disbanded in 1957.
If you google ‘Bushwhackers’ today you will find it difficult to locate a reference to Meredith’s pioneer band but you will find numerous pages dedicated to The Bushwackers (note the spelling change) – the band established in the early 1970s that successfully fused modern approaches to interpreting Australian folk songs and tunes. Both bands had an extraordinary effect in influencing the course of Australian folk song and spawned hundreds of groups that used the generic description ‘bush band’.
At one stage, in the late nineteen seventies/early eighties bush bands seemed to be everywhere. Country towns, mining settlements and remote communities at the back of Bourke were all likely to sport a local bush band. There were bush bands in the cities as well – lots of them. My own group, one of the earliest, The Larrikins, was formed in 1969 in Sydney and is still performing, albeit with myself being the only original member. The Bushwackers were established a couple of years later and is also still performing – it too has only one original member, the lagerphone bouncing Dobe Newton.
The term bush music originally reflected Meredith’s interest in collecting and reviving an interest in songs from and about the bush. He was no doubt inspired by the international interest in folk music, especially the Anglo Celtic tradition. Meredith became known as a ‘hardliner’ with little tolerance for anything that threatened his concept of what the music should sound like. He is on record as having a continuing battle with the esteemed English folk singer A.L.Lloyd who Meredith publicly criticized for a number of issues including Lloyd’s style of singing and musical arrangements. It is difficult to imagine what else the music could have been called – the word bush seemed to sum up the songs that were being performed, particularly in the 1950s and 60s – primarily songs about shearers, drovers, gold fossickers, bullockies and bushrangers.
The sound we identify with the bush and especially bush dancing is a romantic view and very few could be described as authentic – and this is not important. What the bush bands should be setting out to do is capture the spirit of colonial music. Some bands are closer to the tradition than others. Due to the popularity of bands like The Bushwacker’s Band much of the revival played in a loud and boisterous manner, probably totally acceptable to the young and somewhat boisterous audiences who jumped up and down on the spot to the Kangaroo Hop or Waves of Bondi. In truth the bush dance of the 19th century was typically a sedate and very polite event. Many of the dances like the waltz, schottische, varsovienne were almost dainty in structure and called for equally ‘polite’ music. The polka and set dances were more active and called for more upbeat musical accompaniment.
Here is a list of bush bands past and present. Actually most are past for there are very few bush bands as I write this in 2011. Where did they go? The easiest answer is they ran out of puff however I believe there are a few other reasons: Firstly, it has to be taken into account that the folk music movement, if it can be called so, has changed dramatically and now embraces many other musical expressions like world music, blues and, probably the largest sector, singer songwriters. This change in direction, or expansion of musical choice, meant that audiences moved in other directions including away from bush music. Audiences also moved to other forms of entertainment, particularly home entertainment and the internet. Folk dance also played a big role as the so called ‘bush dance’ was a major feature of the typical bush band’s entertainment and it became unfashionable. In the heydays of The Bushwackers, the late seventies and eighties, it was not unusual to see football ovals with a sea of enthusiastic dancers performing ‘The Circassian Circle’, ‘Waves of Tory’ or the ‘Galopede’ as The Bushwackers, now completely electrified and featuring a drum kit, urged them on. The dances were never formal although it was usual practice to ‘teach’ the steps as a run through. What usually happened was complete mayhem, and a hell of a lot of good fun.
Bush dances were staged at folk festivals, local halls and wherever a bush band was to be found. Then, around the late eighties, they dwindled away. There is still a big audience for dancing and the collecting and documenting work of the late Shirley Andrews, Nell Challingsworth, Peter Ellis and associations like the Bush Music Club, Heritage Dancers, Victorian Folk Music Club and various demonstration groups, keep the dance tradition very much alive.
I would also suggest that many bush bands killed the emu that laid the golden egg by abandoning their traditional repertoire, which they replaced with songs written by members of the group. Many of these songs were dullsville – pastiche – songs written about events of the past. Of course some excellent songs came out of the bush bands but overall many bush bands turned their back on their core material. This quite possibly had something to do with the group’s desire to establish copyright on material they performed, especially if they recorded their works. Another reason could have been boredom since many of the bush bands appeared never to fully understand and appreciate their repertoire or cultural responsibility – often singing songs unsympathetically, usually far too fast to relate the song’s story. These bush band belters were emulating The Bushwackers who sometimes carried as much sound as a rock group and also reflecting many of the pub venues they performed in, as background music. “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em…. and play louder and faster’.
As a folklore collector, and I know this was and probably still is a frustration all collectors and enthusiasts share – most bush bands offered a small repertoire of ‘all time favourites’ and seemed uninterested in taking on the performance of collected works. The esteemed folklorist Ron Edwards and I often discussed this issue. There was certainly no shortage of songs and tunes.
There were also bush bands in other countries, especially England, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and America. These bands performed (and probably still do) in a variety of venues including Australiana themed restaurants, local bars where Australian beer is sold and at events requiring an Australian theme. New Zealand also had a vibrant bush band history and introduced local New Zealand shearing and gold fossicking songs.
There is no doubt that folk music in general has become more sophisticated. Audiences tend to expect perfection. Bush music by nature was always a bit rough and tumble, and this, of course, was and is part of its charm. It is not unusual to be at a folk festival and see a semi folk/pop act like the John Butler Trio and then a bush band. It is not always a comfortable transition. Festival organisers relate how much the festival programming process has changed over the years – a call for performer applications for the annual National Folk Festival in Canberra will result in around 600 – 800 applications – there are usually no more than fifteen bush band applications.
Is bush music losing its appeal? The short answer is yes – however it needs to be noted that it never was that popular. A distinction needs to be made between the general public and the cognoscenti, especially folk festival attendees. The general public has, of course, lost its way in many areas of genuine cultural and social expression. We are continually being conditioned to accept outside cultural influences: films, music, books, clothing, foodstuffs, architecture etc. We are also surrounded by phony history – KFC and McDonald’s outlets in restored historic buildings, ridiculous television historical reenactments and so forth, as if they are real history. Musically we are a long way from the days around the campfire or kitchen table, just as far away from the days when we sang around the piano. We now think music is what we hear of television reality programs like the X Factor or Australia’s Got Talent. In our busy lives we have little time for the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson let alone songs from our pioneering days. It would be encouraging to say the education system is mindful of its duty in this area but, sadly, despite some very keen teachers, the system fails us.
It’s not all depressing news. Bush music and bush bands survive and so does a continuing interest in the musical signposts that document where we have come from and who we are. You just need to search a bit harder.