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American influences on Australian traditional music

American influences on Australian traditional music 


American music has had a surprisingly long influence on Australian traditional music. Surprising because whilst Celtic and British music is obvious the American counterpart has not been easy to identify, especially in its earliest appearances. There is no denying that as an outpost of the British Empire, and taking into account the large number of Irish and Scottish convicts sentenced to transportation, it stands to reason that the broadside and other popular songs, including those classified as traditional folk song repertoire, travelled here and went into local circulation almost immediately. The reason for this quick assimilation is simply the nature of traditional song and the ready acceptance of all things British and Celtic, especially those songs that reminded the singer and audience of ‘home’.

We have many printed examples of the broadside in transition and several documented references, mainly early newspapers and diaries, pertaining to the presence of certain folk songs but, of course, this is a selective collection and can only be viewed as an example of what was sung in the Colony. Song played a different entertainment role in the first half of the 19th century and was rarely viewed with a commercial eye. The broadside printer publishers, especially those of London’s Seven Dials district, were the exception rather than the rule. Songbooks were published but were relatively expensive and so limited in their reach, especially to the people who were the main song carriers: the poor.

This was the heyday of the Empire and all things British were considered superior. America was seen as impudent, ungrateful and an irritation. Many of the English songs of the time were overly patriotic, and one imagines, extremely difficult to sing because of their verbosity. These, of course, were the songs printed in magazines, newspapers and high-end songbooks. The ‘folk’ were singing other songs, be they familiar old songs or new parodies. Songs about poaching, old battles, salty sailors and British occupation were popular, as were bawdy verses that appealed to their Rabelaisian appetite.

The first influences of American music on our music pre-dates the Goldrush of the mid 1850s but it was definitely gold that announced the first major influence. This is related to the fact that America had seen its own goldrush, mostly in California, a decade earlier. The goldrush in both countries had a profound effect on the development of these ‘new worlds’ and especially in opening up the remote areas through transport and communication. This too had an effect on social life and, in particular, the demand for entertainment. The fact that goldrushes, by their very physical nature, attract mostly men and this too demanded a different sort of entertainment. Once again the role of songs is fascinating and especially how these lonely men related to sentimental songs and ballads. The songs of the ‘Forty-niners’ were not that far removed from the songs sung on the Australian goldfields and many songs travelled over both. America had about one hundred years on Australia so its cities and services were far more advanced and, in some ways, its song culture, especially its Anglo Celtic roots, had already been absorbed.

Gold seekers who had tried their luck on the Californian fields also came to Australia. There were regular flows of shipping from the West Coast of America and some from New York and Boston. We also know the Chinese and Europeans sailed here but the majority were British and Irish, the latter escaping the rural hardships imposed on them by the British and nature.

The gold rush towns started as tent cities, usually near the rivers. They were primitive affairs with few comforts and that included the supply of food. One imagines that the muddy water, continually panned, was nigh on undrinkable, however this did not deter the miners. Slowly sly grog shops, also housed in tents, were opened to supply dubious ales and spirits. These were illegal establishments but so numerous that the troopers found them difficult to police. Some also sold coffee, tea and prepared foods like pies. Pies were particularly popular because the flour and lard casings tended to preserve the meat longer. It had little to do with the taste and many the casing would have been thrown away. Considering the number of blowies in the bush this was probably a wise decision. As the tent cities grew small main streets were established. Photographs of Gulgong, Bendigo and other gold towns show a double-sided street with wooden and tent structures, some in a terrace style. Shops, houses, saddleries, tent shops, hardware and hotels were built. Some of these towns remain today but, sadly, most have been removed in the name of progress.

Most gold towns had several hotels for, one suspects, this is where the real money was to be made. A popular theory rationalised that you could establish the population of a town by the number of hotels. Some, like Ballarat, with over 500 drinking premises (circa early 1860s), were way out of whack. The competition meant publicans had to offer the best available food, lodgings and a regular flow of entertainers, especially saucy women! Many of the larger hotels also had concert rooms.








I would be pleased to receive any additional material on the use of American tunes in Australian traditional music.
Please email me.

© Warren Fahey 2005

Goldfields hotel Wolumla, NSW