This collection of classic bush poems celebrates the great poets of Australia’s ‘colonial golden years’ – including Henry Lawson, A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson, C J Dennis, P J Hartigan (‘John O’Brien’), G H ‘Ironbark’ Gibson, Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant, E G ‘Dryblower’ Murphy, Joseph ‘Tom Collins’ Furphy, Will Lawson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Will Ogilvie, John Neilson, W T Goodge, and the prolific ‘Anonymous’. These are rip-roaring stories that tell us so much about our Australian identity.
Read them, recite them and rejoice in them!
When I first started collecting folklore, way back in the 1960s, I was always fascinated when old timers would recite bush poems into my tape recorder. I had initially gone out to collect ‘bush songs’ for my National Library of Australia Collection, and for my own repertoire. It soon became very obvious that poems, songs and, indeed, yarns, were seen as a trio – most people I recorded, and after all these years it still holds true, knew all three branches of the tradition tree. To them it all came back to story-telling and I now see bush entertainment as a mighty gumtree with its branches including songs, poems, yarns, drinking toasts, slang, crafts, ghost stories, bush dance music played on a variety of simple instruments, including some homemade ones, and, yes, there are many other branches on that ever-growing tree.
Poetry is certainly one of the strongest branches of the bush tradition. It has a noble history starting with our transported convicts who used poetry to tell of their misfortune, express their aspirations for freedom, and, of course, to use with humour to lighten their heavy hearts. The poems and monologues of Frank MacNamara, including his epic ‘Convict’s Tour of Hell’ are amongst the gems of Australian literature. As the colony moved from goal to adventurous ‘new land’, poetry became a popular vehicle to criticise and ridicule Government humbugs and haughty bigwigs. Magazines like ‘The Sydney Gazette’, ‘The Monitor’, ‘Sydney Punch’ and ‘Sydney Herald’ all carried poetry of this style. The discovery of gold in 1851 saw Australia’s population jump from around 400,000 to 1,250,000 in a decade. Gold also sent the colonies bouncing and poetry was there to tell the stories of hopeful diggers, officious troopers, miners striking it rich and the desperate misery of failure. Poetry also travelled ‘up country’ to the ‘outback’ where it was recited ‘back of Bourke’, scribbled on the ‘black stump’ and sent to the local ‘one horse town’ newspaper, where it was duly published as ‘original verse’. It was poetry that rejoiced as Australia rode the economic boom times of the second half of the 19th century. It was recited around campfires after a hard day’s droving, timber cutting, boundary riding or pushing stubborn bullocks over roads that barely deserve to be called so. It was there too in the homestead and the men’s huts after a day working the plough or shearing blade. It was also with those men and women ‘on the track’ as they humped their swags making track for the next town, and possibly next job.
The stories told in these poems were often heartbreaking stories familiar to most frontier societies: memories of distant home, missed loved ones, and the ever-present ache of separation. There were poems that gave welcome ‘news’ of wealth and success and poems that related what must have sounded hysterically funny: describing the ‘arrival of the new chum’ dressed in England’s finest, including a top hat, plum in mouth, ready to meet the sheep and cattle. The bushmen also wrote and recited poems about their own lives – stories about dogs, dags, cantankerous sheep, trusty horses, crook tucker and the refreshing billies of tea that so revived their drooping bodies and spirits.
Poetry was recited at country dances and parties when everyone had to have a ‘party piece’ be it a song, yarn, tune or poem. Some reciters knew hundreds of poems including many of the lengthy ‘galloping rhymes’ so popular in our tradition. Like the bush singer the reciter’s repertoire would range widely talking in various signposts of our history including early bushranging ballads, the gold rushes through to the accepted ‘bush’ subjects including bush travellers, bad food, grumpy cooks, going on the spree, hitting the big smoke, and poems about the men who they worked alongside – the good, bad and ugly. We also liked a joke in our poems and it has been said many times that we Australians inherited a special sense of humour: dry, sardonic and one that likes to cut down ‘tall poppies’. We recited on horseback, around the fire and around the homestead hearth.
Around the time of Federation, in 1901, Australia experienced a major population shift where the bulk of the population, for the first time, now lived in the coastal cities rather than the bush. The country had seen lean times in the 1890s with massive labour strikes and devastating droughts, and, besides, the factories and work were located in the ‘big smoke’. Hundreds of thousands of bush people relocated to the cities and, in some ways, this should have rung the death knell for traditional entertainment. I can’t but think of that poignant line in A. B. Paterson’s ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ where the poet is reflecting on the hurrying, insensitive city people: ‘The townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.’
Despite the fact we were changing from a nation of people who used to entertain each other, to a nation who ‘got entertained’, reciters, and I refer here to the published collections of poetry rather than the people who recite poems, continued to be popular in Australia. Older Australians will recognise these recitation books as part of their ‘elocution lessons’ where works like ‘Tangmalangaloo’ and ‘The Travelling Post Office’ were enunciated with dramatic (and often nervous) fervour. One of the most successful collections was titled ‘Australian Bush Recitations’ as edited by ‘Bill Bowyang’ (Alex Vennard). This reciter appeared as a series of six commencing in 1933 and contained poems from early newspapers and reader contributions.
Entertainment continued to change dramatically, especially after the introduction of commercially priced gramophone machines and, later, radio. There were many new recreational options including shopping, parklands and beaches, sport, music hall, vaudeville, special exhibitions, and silent film theatres. Did traditional entertainment have a place in this new world? The answer is a firm ‘yes’, because we sorely missed the bush that had played such an important role in defining who we were as Australians.
We were of the bush and we wanted to retain that link. The Bulletin had played a vital role in taking poetry to the isolated bush worker. From its first publication in 1880 this magazine, often known as ‘The Bushman’s Bible’, encouraged and published many bush poems contributed by average workers, and, well into the 20th century, was still being read by city and country person alike.
WW1 cemented our distant relationship with bush poetry as the diggers embraced poems by Adam Lindsay Gordon, A B Paterson, Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and so many other Australians, because poetry provided a much-needed emotional conduit to country, home and family. Reading a poem about an old sheep dog, stubborn longhorn, or high-riding drover, immediately transported these soldiers from the front line to the back paddock. Many army kits included a battered and treasured copy of a classic bush verse collection. The same thing happened in WW2 and to some extent in Vietnam and later military involvements.
There’s a popular song from 1979 called ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ however it could be said that ‘radio killed the reciter’ as the spirit of much traditional entertainment disappeared with the increasing popularity of the wireless. Even bush folk abandoned their regular ‘get togethers’ to tune into their favourite radio quizzes, serials and music programs. Poetry had no place on radio and all seemed doomed. The advent of television in 1956 appeared to hammer the last nail into bush poetry’s coffin. Maybe surprisingly this didn’t happen. Slowly the bush poetry tradition, alongside the singing and playing of bush songs, made a re-appearance at what were called ‘folk festivals’ and country music gatherings. The publication of ‘Australian Bush Ballads’, edited by Douglas Stewart and Nancy Keesing, by Angus & Robertson, in 1955, provided a landmark collection, combining classics with newly located unpublished bush verse. Here was a ‘bush bible’ of verse that spoke of our pioneering past and the role of the poet, both professional and anonymous, in capturing our emotional and poetical history. A few years later they were to do the same thing for the bush song in their publication ‘Old Bush Songs’. In 2005 Graham Seal and myself edited the original A B Paterson collection of this remarkable work, originally published by Angus & Robertson in 1905.
The next part of the revival came with the increasing attendance at the burgeoning folk and country festivals, and in particular the large crowds who gathered for what had been dubbed ‘Poet’s Breakfasts’ – where reciters and poets would perform their own or classic Australian poems. Today these ‘Poet’s Breakfasts’ are open to all comers and it is not unusual to see 500 or more eager poetry lovers listening to Paterson, Lawson or Jill and Joe Blow (who just happen to write poetry about the Australian way of life and strife), as the audience sip tea and munch toast. These later poems come in all shapes and sizes and although we are still riding with the ‘man from the Snowy River’, still staring at the ‘faces in the street’, and looking out the window ‘like Clancy’, we are also reciting about lovesick bulls, stockmen riding motorbikes and bushmen riding to the ‘big smoke’ – in 4WDs. These newer poems are proof that the interest in bush poetry is more than a nostalgic look back to ‘the good old days’, and also proof that we have not succumbed completely to the passive seat by the television and internet screen.
In selecting the poems in this collection I have tried to offer a book of ‘classic’ works that tell our story, or some of them. Most have travelled long bush roads and stood the test of time. They are also poems that were recited rather than simply read. There are many famous names including that prolific contributor Anon, however, it is still just a sampling from a very deep swag.
Bush poetry is in good shape and I hope this collection of Classic Bush Poems travels far into the 21st century. We definitely need more stories in our 21st century lives!
Warren Fahey has been collecting and performing Australian folklore, including classic bush poetry, for nigh on forty years. He has performed in front of Kings, Presidents, Governor Generals, State Governors, Prime Ministers, and for blokes drinking tinnies on the edge of the Simpson Desert. He has spruiked at writer’s festivals, folk festivals, poet’s breakfasts, country music festivals, and several international festivals including the Edinburgh Arts Festival, weddings, wakes, openings and closings. His repertoire includes a swag of bush yarns, ballads, drinking toasts, city ditties and, of course, Australia’s classic bush poetry. He has been honoured with the Order of Australia, Advance Australia Medal, and Centenary Medal and, in 2004, the CMAA Tamworth Golden Gumleaf Award for ‘Lifetime Achievement in Promoting The Bush Ballad’. In 2006 his book, ‘Centenary Edition: ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s Old Bush Songs’ was awarded ‘Heritage Book of the Year’.