Joe Watson was born in the New South Wales township of Boorowa on the 15th August 1881. He was one of eleven children. His father was born in Ireland and his mother was born in Appin, of Irish parents.
Of the hundreds of people I have recorded and interviewed he has had the most important effect on my work as a folklorist and also as a singer and storyteller. Over the years of our friendship we talked about so much, shared so much and laughed so much that I will never forget him or his Australian spirit.
I was first encouraged to record Joe’s story by one of his sons, a chemist from the North Shore of Sydney, who thought I would be interested in his father’s ‘story’ as a travelling ‘picture show man’.
Over the years I became friendly with the whole Watson family and I am also grateful for their encouragement, which was repaid, I hope, when I featured Joe’s singing on one of my early Larrikin recordings, ‘Bush Traditions’. Fortunately, Joe was alive when the disc came out and the whole family shared the experience. Joe even had his story told on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald when Prof Roger Covell glowingly reviewed the disc, way back in 1975.
Joe was 92 when I first went to record him. He was in good health and had a remarkable memory for detail that would continually surprise me.
Recalling his childhood he told me his father had been employed by ‘Honest John’ Paton, who was a squatter on a farm at Campbelltown, NSW, and during this time he was involved in making one of the first wool presses for the Dunlop Company. He eventually left this job and moved to Lambing Flat where he opened a butcher’s shop in competition with a man who turned out to be Frank (Christie) Gardiner, the bushranger. Joe relished the story and how his father always complained that he couldn’t compete with Gardiner because he never paid for his meat – he simply stole it and sold it. Watson senior eventually moved to Boorowa where he married one of ‘the Hennessy girls’. It was a successful move and he soon owned the butcher’s shop, the bakery and the main Boorowa hotel.
The hotel business ran in the whole Watson family with ten of the children becoming hotelkeepers. Joe always said; “I kept the pub because the pub wouldn’t keep me’
Joe’s first job was as a bullock boy in 1895 and was paid ‘a princely wage of five bob a week.’ His next job was as a rouseabout for eight shillings a week plus board.
In November 1897 Joe Watson “entered show business, when he left home to team up with Paddy Doolan and Ted Hurley…. it was all very exciting…they had a picture show in a wagonette and they used to travel the bush all year ‘round…. I had to join them then and there!”
The ‘picture show’ was actually a magic lantern show. Doolan and Hurley had a large magic lantern and, later, the Australian rights to the original hand-cranked Pathe moving projector system.
The magic lantern, invented in the eighteenth century, became an important entertainment in the Victorian era with sophisticated images; multi focus lenses and slides covering a wide field of interest.
They were a long way removed from digital images but they certainly must have been wondrous in those old days. The slides were hand-drawn or painted up to 1880, after which engravings were transferred to photographic slides and then hand coloured. The slides used by Doolan and Hurley were mainly black and white and obtained from Alec Gunnen, an optical merchant in Melbourne.
I asked Joe to describe a typical ‘showing’. “Well, we would arrive in a town or sometimes a large station property, and line up a program, usually for the Sunday night. Paddy would make a big show of the arrival, lots of noise and banners. We’d charge the public 2/6 each for a night of magic lantern slides and mechanical films (with barrel organ accompaniment). I remember visiting the station of Mr A D Middleton and ‘showing’ to 30 or 40 shearers and rouseabouts.”
“We had pictures of animals in the London Zoo, Countries of Europe, the Royal Family, and slides of the popular scandals of the day – the Dick Marr Case, Paddy Crick Case, the Dean Case, the Tichborne Claimant, The Butler case of Sydney and a series on the Goldfields, and, of course, a series on the Ned Kelly Gang. The murders and bloodthirsty subjects were always the most popular, even with the womenfolk.”
In describing the entertainment Joe explained that he would work the projectors and lanterns, Hurley handled the back of house and Doolan, who was blind, would do the presentation. He said it was very effective – Paddy Doolan would stand at the screen and point with a big white stick as the slides were projected. He had a strong voice and would slap the screen saying “And look at this, the beautiful Volga River in Russia” or “Ladies and gentlemen, did you ever see anything like the Castles of Scotland?”. Joe then explained that Doolan would usually sing a song relating to the series and, sometimes, play his concertina.
As you can imagine I was secretly thinking about Doolan and his song repertoire when I asked Joe if he recalled what song the old man had sung when the Ned Kelly slides were being shown. Joe looked at me, in a way that I eventually recognised as a mischievous appreciation of what I was looking for, and spoke the following two lines;
Oh paddy dear, and did you hear, the news that’s going around,
On the head of bold Ned Kelly they have placed two thousand pounds.
He stopped there and looked at me. Maybe I had my eyes popping out of my head still thinking about Doolan when I replied, “I don’t suppose you remember what tune Doolan sang?”. Joe cocked back his head and proceeded to sing me the complete sixteen verses of the Ballad of the Kelly Gang. When he finished he gave me that look again adding “Is that what you mean?”
I must have had a smile a wide long when I gushed, “I didn’t know you could sing!”. Joe simply replied, “Oh, I’m not a singer.” What Joe actually meant is that he wasn’t a singer like Peter Dawson or even Paddy Doolan, a professional singer! As it turned out Joe Watson was a remarkable singer, natural, emotional and with a staggering repertoire that represented some of the most interesting aspects of the bush tradition.
Paddy Doolan was obviously a bit of a character. He had been orphaned at an early age and placed in the Sir William Clarke Home, London, where he was later charged with misconduct and put in a convict juvenile ship bound for Australia at the tail end of transportation in the 1840s. Joe knew many of Paddy’s stories from those early days including the rough treatment on the juvenile convict ship including a ditty from that time. “The boys on the boat would surround a ‘victim’ and, to the accompaniment of a flageolet and waddies (wooden panels), they would chant:
Hit him – my man, John,
A slap with a pan.
Hit him! Blackbird!
Hit him! Bluebird!
All hands lay on!
(At that stage they would all hit the victim.)
I seem to recall that the above ditty is based on a sailor’s work shanty.
“Paddy had lost his eyes when he was a young man. Apparently he had got a stick in his eye and went to a quack woman who put a poultice on his eyes. I had to become Paddy’s eyesight and accountant!”
At this stage, it was the second day of recording; Joe produced a pocket diary he had used during his days on the road. The diary proved to be a mine of information as it contained all the financial records (including their running account with the defunct Union bank), folk recipes for handmade soap, beer, ink, syrup recipes and even how to make boot polish. There were cures for everything that might befall them including rheumatism and chilblains.
Joe continued on about Doolan explaining how they started to expand their business by selling holy pictures as they travelled around the country. “Paddy had once taken us to Sydney where we went to a sale at Swains, the paper and stationary merchants, where we bought all these large, coloured litho pictures of Rasputin the mad Russian monk. We ended up selling them door-to-door saying they were pictures on His Holiness The Pope. We sold the blooming lot!”
“We travelled in a two-storied wagonette and always had a possum or wallaby rug at night to keep us warm.”
“Doolan was a great singer. My mate Doolan had a repertoire of nearly 400 songs. He could play his English concertina, a Wheatstone, and sing at the same time. He played one of those hurdy gurdy instruments too..”
“We’d sing a terrible lot of songs that you don’t hear today…..we used to do illustrated songs like ‘The Little Hero’ and ‘The Stowaway’ and I would sell the words and music at sixpence a sheet. I’d make them with glue and glycerine and then add indelible ink.”
As it turned out Joe Watson learnt a lot of his songs from Paddy Doolan as they travelled across the Eastern States of Australia. Paddy would sing and play as they travelled, with Joe handling the horses. Joe learnt the Anglo concertina and later became involved with brass bands in Boorowa. He also learnt songs when he settled in Boorowa where he became a publican and mayor.
Joe’s singing style was steady and musically consistent. He was a storyteller and showed no signs of nervousness offering a relaxed style, almost conversational. It is important to mention that prior to our meeting he had rarely sung any of his songs and even his family were surprised that he knew songs.
The Ballad of The Kelly Gang
“I’ll tell you about the largest damper in the world,” Joe said, “It must have been at least twelve feet in diameter and was cooked on a large bullock wheel. We were travelling along this road after a couple of successful lantern showings. On the horizon I could see a cloud of dust and a group of men riding on horses. They were armed with poles and were obviously intent on bashing our heads in. They thought we were the escort for the strike breakers as there was a savage strike on at the time and the shearers were all camped down by this river, and waiting for the scabs to come through – they were coming up from Victoria – the home of scabs.”
“Luckily one of the horsemen recognised Doolan. We joined with their camp and saw this massive damper being made to feed the four hundred men at the camp. We had it with cocky’s joy and it tasted good because it stuck to your ribs.”
“At the river bend camp the shearers played a game called NAP. Other popular games were eucha, ante-up, and ‘pass the buck’. I wasn’t too bad at that thimble and pea game either but it was always hard to find players after you won about three shillings, the blokes would walk away.”
In his travels Joe had also seen a few other games. “One bloke I met had a goose that used to stick its head into a canvas bag and draw out a numbered marble. No one would gamble on it because they all reckoned he was a cheat. Another bloke had a cockatoo for a similar game. The best one was a fellow who had a monkey for a ‘draw’ game….he used to promote it by yelling out, “The game is fair and the monkey don’t care who wins or who looses!” … but he was a cheat too.”
Boxing and horseracing were part of Joe’s life and he knew several poems and songs about these. Two songs ‘Heenan and Sayers’ and ‘Morrissey and the Russian’ are particularly important in boxing history and that one singer should know both songs considering they have not been recorded in Australia before. I subsequently recorded a version of ‘Heenan and Sayers’ from Cyril Duncan.
Horse racing fragment
Oh, stop the horses or I’m ruined,
Knock ’em up against the fence,
Shoot Mulvolio at Strathmore
Or I’ll loose my eighteen pence.
Don’t you see Sir William coming?
Don’t let him win at any cost,
Holy diamonds! Grey Gown has it,
Or Jesus, she’ll have lost.
Joe said there was more to this song but it couldn’t be recalled.
However he did know another “about Mulvolvio, or maybe it was Carslake…..” (Possibly When Carbine Won the Cup)
He fought his way with Carbine up the straight,
Where he fairly won the Cup.
“And when the jockey, Alex Robertson, died on the track there was a song written for him but I don’t remember any more than.”
And the spot they can tell,
Where Silvermine fell,
And the place where Alex Robertson died”
Note: two years later Joe did remember the words to this song and remarked that it had nagged him since we first discussed it.
When we started to talk about boxing Joe recalled the story of Heenan and Sayers and their great battle, which was the last fist cuff, fight before the introduction of Queensbury Rules. “It was, I think, around 1860, in England, and the outcome was a draw because of the interference by the crowd. They fought for a terrible long time before the police stopped the fight.
Heenan and Sayers
The texts typed in italics were the missing lines not remembered by Joe Watson. They come from ‘Folksong of Britain and Ireland’ edited by Peter Kennedy. There is also a version in Colm O’Lochlainn’s Irish collection. There is no doubt this is an extraordinary ballad however, considering the fight took place in the height of our gold rush emigration it is understandable that it would have been big news in Australia.
After singing this ballad Joe Watson became quite emotional about boxing and said, “There’s another song about this fight that’s also called Heenan and Sayers.” He recalled the following lines:
They fought for two hours and a half; each proved himself a man,
‘Till neither of these fighters, they had a leg to stand,
The fight was all in favour of the bold Benicia Boy,
When the Bobbies rushed into the ring, their hopes they did destroy.
At a later session Joe added:
Tom Sayers said he soon would lick that bold Benicia Boy,
But he soon found out at Farmsdale, he’d have to mind his eye,
But the tiger rose within him, lighting flashed his eyes,
Saying, “Roar away old England, but Tommy mind your eyes’.
There never were two better lads and none could be more brave,
They are both honest heroes of honour and of fame,
Tom Sayers trained with cannon balls, and he was good and strong,
But Heenan played with lightning, when his day’s work was done.
Another boxing fragment concerned the epic fight between Morrissey and the Black, sometimes known as Morrissey and The Russian Sailor.
Morrissey and the Black
The blood from his ears were rolling down his back
(Couldn’t recall rest of verse)
Here’s the good health of John Morrissey, the fighter of fame,
He’s conquered those bruisers from over the main,
He’s never been neaten by black, white or brown,
That’s known to the country in Erin all ’round.
That’s well known in the country in Erin all ’round
Sing whack fol-the-tooral, li addy I day.
This is not the usual British version as printed in Kennedy and could possibly be an American song brought here by gold diggers or even travelling minstrel shows. Morrissey was a prizefighter, gambler and politician who became a senator and a member of the USA Congress. He died in 1878.
One day, when we had been talking about politics, Joe asked me if I knew what a ‘stump speech’ was? I hadn’t heard the expression but, of course, I knew that the Domain speakers would ‘get up on their stump’ which was usually an old box or tin garbage bin. In essence the stump speech is a blowhard speech where the speakers say nothing vaguely sensible. I have since heard that these mock political speeches are sometimes called ‘Scotch speeches’ however ‘double Dutch’ would probably be a closer description. I assume they started with the Music Halls. Joe knew two complete stump speeches and both refer to Sydney political identities. Anyway, Joe looked at me and said, “Well, he gets up on his stump and starts……….
The Stump Speech.
The next stump speech is part sung (in italics) and part spoken and mentions ‘Jawbone’ Neild and George Reid, both members of the NSW parliament.
Rafferty and Cafferty
When I asked Joe for the tune of Rafferty and Cafferty he said, “Oh, you’ll get the air outside” and then sang this ditty.
Get The Air Outside
A B C D
Isn’t it easy to sing?
A B C D
Let it go with a swing.
The words are so awfully simple,
You couldn’t forget if you tried,
So learn the words,
The beautiful words,
And get the air outside.
Joe followed the above song with what he called ‘mouth music – the poor man’s musical instrument” The custom of singing tunes, especially dance music, was widespread and some singers were particularly skilled at such accompaniment. The tune Joe Watson used was ‘St Patrick’s Day’
Joe had always been a ‘labour man’ and, in fact, had recently been honoured by the ALP as its longest surviving member. When we talked about the 1880s Shearer’s Strike he was reminded of A B Paterson’s ‘A Bushman’s Song’ which he had learnt some 75 years back.
A Bushman’s Song
Joe always referred to Victoria as ‘the home of scabs’ because so many came (by train) during the big Strikes of the 1880s. It popped up in this Union poem. One day Joe asked me whether I knew that Clancy (of the Overflow) was a Union man?
“When I was at school I remember the teacher, Mr Jeremiah Boyle, being very upset about the death of the jockey Tommy Corrigan. Corrigan was a mate of Boyle and during the Caulfield cup his horse came down and he was trampled to death. That was in the 1890s. I learnt this ‘Tommy Corrigan’ song from the singing of my teacher.”
In talking about the Chinese I was always taken back by Joe’s reference to ‘the chows’. I later realised that he did not intend this to be racist, a simple case of vernacular use. He was obviously aware of the history of the Chinese in the gold rush but more so of their role in the shearing industry. “My wife’s family used to sing about the Chows going to New Zealand”, he offered one day “But you had to be a Mckenzie to get a job in the New Zealand sheds.” This was a reference to the number of Scottish landowners in NZ.
“We had a song about the new chum Chinaman” which had a chorus that went…”
New Chum China
Oh, what’s the good of talking?
When they won’t let a white man live
For any bit of work they’ve got
To the Chinee man they give
So I’ll eat my rice with chopsticks
I’ll learn the lingo too
With a toona mucka hilo – nons so fat
And be a Chinese Irishman.
At a later session Joe had recalled another fragment of this rare song.
I will wear a pair of Chinee shoes; I will wear them on the land,
And I will meet some Chinee chaps and shake them by the hand,
And I will call myself Arh Pat, though me name is Pat McGann
And back I’ll come, once again, as a new chum Chinee man.
“I was involved with the local football club and there was always friendly jealousy between Young and Boorowa so we’d always sing this little ditty.”
Boorowa was Boorowa when Young was a pup
And Boorowa will be Boorowa,
When Young is buggered up.
The Laughing Song
The next item shows how early city pieces moved around the country. It is a variant on ‘Billo’ which was inspired by C J Dennis’s ‘Sentimental Bloke’. I have collected versions from Brisbane, Sydney and now Boorowa. Joe puts himself in the action and, for this version, the early ‘donah’ becomes a ‘widgie’.
Give Me Old Boorowa
So give me old Boorowa and give me a tart,
And I will be simply all right,
Can anyone point, to a finer old joint?
Than Boorowa on Saturday night,
When me and my Widgie go walking along,
My cobbers all try to be smart –
Get out of the way, for it’s Joe, they’ll say,
Going out with his fair dinkum tart.
The Plains of Monaro
Oh, I oft times have heard of the plains of Monaro,
And I’ve longed in my heart for to spend my days there.
To the North, To the North.
Joe added, “This ditty goes on for a lot of verses…”
The following ditty was learnt when he was travelling down the Bogan River district. I am still not sure where this ditty came from and what it means – interesting that it is about the legendary ‘Hungry’ Tyson.
Joe wasn’t sure of the station name so it appears phonetically.
I was travelling down the Bogan,
Where the scrub was thick and dense,
With a thousand head of Tyson’s,
From Queensland’s border fence,
Great curly horns bred at Bunglabiglabors,
With a score of barbed wire fences –
What a bloody dread of iron bars.
Joe continued to talk about Tyson and refer to his reputed stinginess. “He used to ride second class on the train because there was no third class!”
At this stage Joe sang two ‘popular’ songs from the early 1900s.
The Fatal Wedding
Is That You Madge?”
Talks about Barney Flynn who would “cry all the time he shore and would spend all his pay on rum.” Talks about the Shearer’s Accommodation Act and general conditions of shearers. Talks about ‘lambing down’ of shearers. “They used to say that rolling shearers was a hard day’s work”
(Fragment however at a later session he remembered most of the standard Stephen Foster texts)
When the springtime comes Gentle Annie
And the wildflowers scatter all the plain
Talks about how he used to make illustrated song books using indelible ink. He would sell these “half a dozen songs for sixpence”
When asked about the type of songs in these books he replied,
‘When the Harvest Time Is Over, Jessie Dear’ (possibly ‘When the Sheep are in the Fold, Jenny dear’) which he then proceeded to sing.
When The Harvest Time Is Over, Jessie Dear
In talking about the concertina in the bush Joe came out with the following ditty that he said he learnt from one of “the Long Carol boys …they were good shearers and musicians.’
Talks about how he had met Jim Kelly and went to his place for tea. Discusses details of the Kelly Gang magic lantern slide series and gives Kelly’s family history and describes inside of Kelly’s home.
Here’s to the good old brandy, drink it down, drink it down,
Here’s to the good old brandy, drink it down, drink it down,
Here’s to the good old brandy, that makes you good and randy,
Drink it down, drink it down, drink it down.
Here’s to the good old beer, etc
That fills you with good cheer.
Here’s to the good old whiskey,
That makes you good and frisky.
Here’s to the good old cider,
That makes your belly wider.
Here’s to you as good as you are,
Here’s to me as bad as I am,
But as bad as I am, and as good as you are,
I’m as good as you are, as bad as I am.
The following item is typical of the early music hall monologues that played on emotions and especially those of the lower class. Australian capital cities had quite a lot of ‘shoe blacks’ – people who worked street corners polishing shoes and boots.
This is obviously a ‘party piece’ and a ‘tongue-twister’ to boot!
The Boot Black.
The next item is a real puzzler. Joe called it ‘the Hermit’ however I suspect it is called ‘A Pilgrim of Love’. I find the text rather strange and it has almost a hymn feeling, especially a very old hymn. This is an odd song and recently I tracked it down in an 1880s Australian melodist Songster under the title ‘Pilgrim of Love’.
In talking about bushrangers Joe recalled a poem ‘How Gilbert Died’
How Gilbert Died
There was never a stone at the sleeper’s head
There’s never a fence beside and the wandering stock,
On his grave may tread, unnoticed and undenied
But the smallest child on the watershed, can tell you how Gilbert died
Etc (standard version/complete text)
The Wallaby Track(Fragment)
So off we went on the wallaby track,
And down to the Riverina,
There’s jack with the fiddle,
And Tom with the flute,
And Paddy the concertina.
Joe Watson was proud of his Irish heritage and I should also point out that he always sang with what I would describe as an Irish/Australian accent, almost a singing brogue. Not surprising, he was a supporter of Home Rule for Ireland.
Home Rule For Ireland
(Composed by Joe Watson to teach his grandchildren to spell)
This is another peculiar song that I assumed, incorrectly, to be a children’s song since Joe sang it after the above item. Once again, I found it in the Melodist Songster.
The Monkey Song(Fragment)
O monkey, my pretty monkey, come down and play with me,
Though I’m hated by the donkey, it’s because I love you, see,
So come down and love me, my heart longs for you,
Your baboon has a home prepared for you
In the branches oh his bamboo tree.
I’ve got a chorus I want you all to sing,
It’s a beautiful refrain, let it go with might and main,
A wonderful lovely chorus, as easy as easy can be,
And if you know what it’s all about,
You know a lot more than me!
Joe said the following chorus was the first thing he ever heard on a phonograph recording.
Beer, Glorious Beer
Beer, beer, glorious beer,
Fill yourself right up to here.
Drink ’till you’re made of it,
Don’t be afraid of it,
Glorious, glorious beer
Joe said he’d been singing The Wild Colonial Boy since he was a small child.
The Wild Colonial Boy
In talking about highwaymen Joe recalled the following lines of a song he knew as ‘Willie Brennan’ and is usually called ‘Brennan on the Moor’
Here’s a poem Joe learnt off striking shearers
The Shearer and the Rouseabout
Whitely King was the renegade organiser who sided with the squatters. Interestingly, a handmade billy, usually made from an old IXL jam tin with a wire handle, was known as a ‘Whitely King’ and was despised by all bushmen.