Chapter Seven 2

Hey Ho Raggedy-O

Chapter 7 – page 3

In 1861, several advertisements and articles about “Rainer and Barlow” were run in the Creswick and Clunes Advertiser with reference to Barlow having come out of his retirement as a farmer. One noted that he:

“…. has evidently not neglected the culture of his musical talents, being much improved since his last visit here. Formerly he was chiefly known as an amusing delineator of negro life holiday, but in addition to this he not only performs ably on the following instruments vis.– piano, harmonium, violin, rock harmonicon, piccolo, melophone, banjo, and — shades of Apollo! — the bones, gridiron, and kitchen bellows — but also sings with taste and skill some of our finest ballads and songs….”

Now he is described as a delineator of many nations, who plays twelve different instruments. His act has evolved from black-face minstrel to actor of many, many parts.

rock harmonicon

The rock harmonicon is a xylophone with keys of tuned stone. It was first exhibited in Edinburgh in 1842. Barlow, always one to take up new ideas, was playing one in Melbourne in 1852. He wrote musical pieces for it. He played it during his tour of England in 1857 and was still playing it in 1861 after the shipwreck out of China. How was this heavy instrument saved? Is the date for the shipwreck wrong? Maybe the shipwreck was during a later world tour. The melophone is a type of keyed fiddle, rather like a hurdy-gurdy. (There is an instrument like a French horn that has taken the name, but this was not invented until a later date.) The melophone played by Barlow was invented in 1859, making him one of its earliest players.

Although he was part of a minstrel troupe for a while, there is no evidence that Barlow ever acted with a theatre troupe or even played characters out of plays. This makes him unusual among the Billy Barlows of the 19th-century entertainment world. Sam Cowell and George Coppin, and most of the lesser-known Billys, at least began their careers as team-actors in plays, and/or used theatre characters in their acts. Even Mayhew’s Street-Billy acted the play character Paul Pry. Barlow did join other entertainers for short periods, and late in his career he headed a minstrel troupe, but he usually performed as a soloist. He sometimes played piano accompaniment for other singers in their performances. Increasingly, as time went on, he performed alone in his own whole-night shows.

Frequently, in articles and advertisements in the Creswick and Clunes Advertiser, there are references to Barlow’s clever musicianship, his dances, his original songs, his mimicry, and his collection of characters which were his own.
“…his unexampled Budget of Eccentricities.”

His imitations of animals, birds, and insects are part of a long tradition of tricks of this kind played on the fiddle. I am privileged to count, among my friends, Greg O’Leary, a superb and imaginative fiddle player who is also articulate and perceptive. He says that it was the responsive nature of the fiddle that first attracted him, and that it just naturally falls into mimicry. He also says that all fiddle players, even the most serious of classical violinists, use their instruments to imitate the sounds around them. It’s just the way it is. Some players do it in secret but many use the art to advantage as part of their stage act. And it has always been so. O’Leary is sure that the fools and jesters and dance-tune fiddlers of the old European courts would have included mimicry in their performances. I am aware, as a singer, of the nature of fiddle music. I know that in the hands of someone like O’Leary this beautiful instrument can echo a singer’s every phrase, or add pure and delicate harmonies that make your throat catch, and your eyes prickle. I also know, now that I come to think of it, that when I wish to be accompanied by a fiddle when I sing Listen to the Mocking Bird, I have to be very careful to chose an extremely tame and submissive fiddle-player. Even then it is hard for him or her to resist doing bird imitations.

The people of Castlemaine were very impressed by Barlow’s, ” …..wonderful imitation of that stupendous machine The Locomotive Engine, or Railway Overture.”

Barlow was one of the early players of American-style banjo in Australia. The Railway Overture was a popular instrumental piece at the time, and banjos — especially old ones in certain tunings — have real and interesting possibilities. An old-style banjo strung with gut strings and tuned in what is known as “graveyard tuning” (the four melody strings tuned to an open D major chord), can produce wonderfully dark and heavy locomotive sounds. Barlow’s banjo may have been tuned even lower than this. Another friend of mine, Martin Forster, an imaginative artist-craftsman who plays a lovely old banjo, played me his train imitations, inspired, he said, by Doc Watson. Martin experimented with different tunings as we tried to reconstruct Barlow’s banjo playing. The Railway Overture can still be seen on sheet-music, but it’s given as a piano arrangement, and the effect is not at all the same. English banjo players learned the piece by ear in the 19th century, according to one of Henry Mayhew’s informants, and it was largely improvised.

In July 1862 Barlow performed at the opening of George Coppin’s Apollo Music Hall in Melbourne. Coppin promised only the best of performers for this venue and especially for his opening night. He must have considered Barlow suitable, the description of him by a reviewer from the newspaper Argus notwithstanding:
“… Catering for other tastes, Mr Barlow, a popular minstrel-show singer, sang ‘The Blue Tailed Fly’.”








A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)


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