© Warren Fahey
Collecting and researching folklore in Australia can be a frustrating and expensive endeavor: vast areas to travel, costs of accommodation, food, telephone, vehicle costs, recording equipment and, of course, the necessity of having to maintain an income of sorts to pay the household bills. Australian folklore has chiefly been collected by self-financed individuals, most holding an unrelated job, undertaking collecting in their spare time. John Meredith, Norm O’Connor, Hugh Anderson, Bob Michell, Alan Scott and even A.B.Paterson all worked the nine-to-five grind. Bill Wannan managed to tie his work into journalism, and Ron Edwards into painting and book publishing. I also had to maintain a ‘real job’ – although I often look back at my ever-struggling Larrikin record company and music publishing as an intrusion into my ‘other life’. I started collecting ‘part time’ in 1969 and could only afford full time status in the year 2000. Oral historian, Rob Willis, is probably the only collector who has worked consistently for an institution, in his case the National Library of Australia. Rob’s collection at the NLA is testament to how successful such a full time position can be.
When I got riper (I prefer not to say older!), I realised that my days of traveling the bush were limited. I was indeed fortunate to have traveled so far and so often in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Whilst my interest in folklore hasn’t diminished, my desire to stay in look-alike motels, sleep on friend’s couches and, above all, sit behind a driver’s wheel for endless days, certainly has. I like my home comforts, especially my reference library, kitchen and computer. The life of the ‘armchair collector’ can be extremely fruitful.
Having never been short of an idea, and the necessity of having to originate my own projects, it struck me in 2002 that I should look at collecting the folklore in my own backyard – Sydney. I have always been interested in city life. I am a city slicker – ‘Paddington born and Paddington bred’ – and, as my father, George Fahey, would add, ‘strong in the arm and thick in the head’. Much of my early collecting reflected this urban background and, although it was more fashionable to heed the call of the bush, I actively sought industrial, maritime and other areas of more urban folklore. Even my late-1960s song repertoire reflected this interest with my earliest recording projects being Navvy on the Line: Australian railway songs (ABC Radio), Limejuice & Vinegar: songs of the Australian rivers and seas and Man of the Earth (Larrikin’s first album release and Australia’s first collection of industrial folk songs.)
Folklore can help us understand the how’s, why’s and wherefores of city life. There is little doubt we live in a rapidly changing world and folklore can help us understand these changes too. Much of what we know as urban folklore, and I am referring mainly to folklore that reflects our lives right now rather than what we would see as historical folklore, has been created and circulated for a reason. As a society we are continually rolling folklore over, adding to it, editing it. This can express itself in many varied ways: speech, story, humour, custom, myth etc. Take the now well-known urban myth regarding what has become known as the Penrith Panther or Blue Mountain’s Big Cat. Most Sydneysiders are aware of the story: a very large panther-like creature is regularly sighted in the lower Blue Mountains of western Sydney. People swear they have seen it roaming hillsides and even venturing into common property. Blurred photographic images are produced to verify claims however most claims are, of course, of the ‘a friend of a friend’ category. At the time of the last sighting in 2008 the then Premier of New South Wales, Nathan Rees, a parliamentary representative of the western suburbs, publicly refused to dismiss the story as myth because “so many people had told him about it.” Despite information that refutes the claim -including the fact that this myth has been in circulation in the area for well over a century, and the fact that similar myths occur in other states of Australia, especially the Grampians of Victoria – the big cat reappears regularly.
Folklore is often found in the most likely and unlikely places throughout our lives. Our first stories tend to be folk stories, usually handed down from family to family, including the little ditties and lullabies that send us to sleep. Later we hear more structured stories, some traditional and some improvised versions of popular children’s books such as Possum Magic. Around this time we also start to be more social, joining pre-schools where, once again, we learn simple songs and stories. When we join primary school folklore runs rife, especially in the playground where old and new action games, chants, jokes and songs proliferate. I recorded on video 23 Sydney clapping games. In high school we tend to become ‘tribal’ and pick up bits and pieces we feel comfortably define ‘our group’. This can express itself in clothing style, haircuts, language, humour and, nowadays, the creative ways social groups communicate with mobile telephone slanguage.
As young adults we are impressionable but usually determinedly individualistic. Once again language, humour, dress and foodways become an important part of who we are. I guess you get the message by now: as we travel on through life, relationships, work, play, custom etc all gather folklore – we ‘adopt’ and ‘adapt’ the folklore that we see as ‘our’ story.
So it goes until our final days and even then, in our dying days, folklore rituals, customs etc appear to manage and document our final journey – religious ceremony, flowers, cards, post-funeral gatherings etc are all part of ‘our’ folklore.
Of course all the above examples are common to all Australians however, my point being, that one can look at Sydneysiders for unique local variants. Who else could coin the phrase ‘As crook as Rookwood!‘ – referring to Rookwood Cemetery (also called the dead centre of Sydney!), ‘shoot through like a Bondi tram’, ‘as busy as Pitt Street on Friday arvo’,’ he lived so far out they had to kill a man to start a cemetery’, ‘smells like a bag of prawns left on Manly Beach’, ‘he could pull a load up druid Street’, ‘he got the last ride before Blondin’ and ‘he’s gone to Gowings!’
The folklorist’s task is to identify these folkloric bits and pieces and to attempt to put them into some order so, possibly, we can learn from each other’s experiences. In many cases we simply adopt folklore, accept it, without knowing where it originated or why (if in fact one could simply dates such evolving creativity). One example of this is surely the simple mnemonic poem that reminds us of how many days are in each month. 30 days has September, April, June and November, All the rest have 31 save February, with 28 fine, ‘till leap year makes it 29. Readers will probably be surprised to find that folklore, twisty thing that it is, has produced more than 6o variations of this ditty.
At the time of writing this article I lunched with some friends and the conversation turned to calendar lore and two new examples of calendar lore surprised me. One friend, a senior barrister, demonstrated how he uses his knuckles with a rhyme to show the months (see below). Another friend, a banker, demonstrated how he used his fingers to do a similar countdown of the months. As an intrepid folklore collector I swung into action and, employing the best of modern practices, captured the impromptu demonstrations on another friend’s IPhone camera. Here are the results: