Memories of a Woolshed Concert



dance
 

MEMORIES OF A WOOLSHED CONCERT

Henry G Lamond
Published in Walkabout September 1962

 

 

 

 LAMOND, HENRY G(eorge) (1885-1969) was a well-known grazier and, in later life, author, particularly stories about animals. He was the lease-holder of the Molle Island group off the Queensland Coast.

WALKABOUT MAGAZINE was a popular weekly magazine devoted to Australiana and tourism.

 

The Dance of the Shearers2

 

 

 

WHEN stations in western Queensland were large, numbers immense, shearings long, the cut-out concert at the end of shearing was a recognized function. It was easy to find a beneficiary: the local hospital in the nearest town was always eager and willing to have its funds supplemented. If it was easy to find a target for any gains, it was simpler to get actors.

In those days nothing under a shearing of about 100,000 sheep was considered a worthwhile shed. Fifty shearers, an equal number of rouseabouts — referred to officially as “shed-hands” — and about thirty station musterers and other odd bods, comprised a shed. Though pay was small then, compared to now, after a shed of eight or ten weeks those without money to spend had lost it in the gambling schools. As for talent, those old western sheds were just brimming over with it, hidden and otherwise. After the first hesitant refusal by a supposed star, who took little pushing to reverse his decision, talent Just poured in.

Those old-time sheds were mystery bags of humanity. Taking one at random, more or less symbolic of all, and real if nameless, a producer could select from a medley of talent. There were university graduates from Oxford., Cambridge., Dublin. There was a supposedly disqualified doctor, an unfrocked parson, an odd lawyer or two, a rejected politician, a couple who claimed to have been stage stars in their times, other odd bits. There was plenty of variety.

The first thing, once the idea had taken root — and that was a case of spontaneous generation — was to elect a committee. That was easy: it was mainly self-appointed. Previous experience was the main essential. Then the big moment arrived: a Master of Ceremonies had to be picked, and he was invariably referred to as the Interlocutor. Bill Reilly was virtually elected before a vote was taken. He had experience, a commanding personality and a flowing moustache that would respond with spiked tips when twisted with soap. At work Bill was a piece-picker, a lowly rouseabout; but as Interlocutor and boss-in-general of the concert he ceased to be everyone’s football and was a king in his own right until the final curtain fell.

Music? A mouth organ, a concertina, an accordion would be fitting and adequate for any sing-song; but the cut-out concert demanded nobler things. If the wife of the station manager had a piano she might be persuaded to lend it, and promises of its care would be a flood tide of pledges. If the manager had neither wife nor piano, the publican in the township might be persuaded to lend his instrument, which was dumb on several notes, flat on many, tinny on all. A wagonette would be sent to the pub; the piano would arrive, tied so securely that a spider’s web would appear simple by comparison. A bodyguard would escort the thing to the wool-room; young rouseabouts edging in to strike a stray note would be kicked out of the way without ceremony.

Music without musicians has a hollow sound. There may have been, and doubtless were, some quite accomplished pianists in that collection of men. After tapping a key or two they withdrew to let someone else try to knock music out of that piano. That was easy; Joe Brady was an accomplished vamper. He could vamp for any song, sentimental or humorous; he could alter the tempo of his “Tum-tum-tum” to fit any dance. Joe Brady was unanimously elected.

There had, of course, to be a theme song. That was sung at the commencement, at the end and at other odd intervals. “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” was the recognized theme song for such entertainments. A choir of half a dozen sufficed for that; the whole audience would certainly join in at appropriate and other times.

Before the concert took place, and with a week’s rehearsal, the theme song became so common that even the rafters of the shed rattled to it, and the sheep, if only they could have stayed long enough, would also have known it by heart: “Oh, dem golden slippers. Oh, dem golden slippers. Climb up, my chillun, climb,”

There had, of necessity, to be an audience for the concert. That was assured: every man, and the couple of women, on the station were sure to be there worth the entry fee of two shillings. Some might have had cash; “shin-plasters” were the main medium of exchange. A shin-plaster, common currency in those days, was a promissory note, an I 0 U, or some other bit of paper signed by a local businessman, storekeeper or publican. “Local”, in this in-stance, meant anybody within a hundred-mile radius. No one ever questioned the legality or financial backing of these documents; they were supported by custom and faith.

Visitors came by buggy, by horseback, a few on bikes, and an odd one may even have “pushed the knot” (the poetic way of saying he carried his swag). When they were all gathered there would be the best part of a couple of hundred people of both sexes, with the females in a most decided minority. That was their day of glory, and they knew it: they were waited on hand and foot by men starved of feminine society, who rushed gladly to fill any request, from a drink of water to a box or chair.

Those visitors had to be accommodated. They all brought their swags, which might be translated as “blankets and bed linen”. Some brought tents and made their own camp. Most of them were divided: the shearers’ mess took the sports and cream of the visiting gentry; a number were put up in the rouseabouts’ hut; the aristocracy, inside men such as station managers and the like, were, of course, the guests of the station. And the ladies? At a big shed there was always some large building, which could be emptied to provide a temporary dormitory. One essential: a bang-tail muster for hand-mirrors and other looking-glasses. They were hung in readiness for the girls.

In due course, and after the race-meeting, the cricket match, the dance and other events, the night of the cut-out concert arrived. The wool-room in the shed had been prepared. Almost invariably the press was on a higher level than the rest of the room. That served as a stage. Bales of wool were piled in tiers at the back. They, perhaps, would represent the pit where the gods gathered. Forms and other seating had been brought from odd places; they were for the saloon passengers. There was heavy work and considerable time involved in preparing the theatre. Men toiled willingly, and it would have been a distinct breach of etiquette to demand payment or hint at overtime in return for the sweat they shed. It was a Labour of Love. A curtain was easy to make: some old wool-bales sewn together, with links of hobble chains attached at suitable distances, and threaded on a wire running in front of the stage — that, with pulley-ropes and one thing and another, made a really ideal curtain. The lighting was just as easy for men with brains: kerosene tins were cut diagonally and nailed to the stage, the backs serving as reflectors and protectors. Each, with a cross cut in the bottom, and the edges turned up, held a candle as well as anything a man could buy in a shop. All that, with a few fancy touches added, was the theatre. There were NO SMOKING notices on the walls. They were quite unnecessary. Few women smoked in private in those days; no lady smoked in public. Men did not smoke without the permission of the ladies; no gent smoked in an enclosed room in mixed company.

The wool-room was packed; quivers of excitement ran through the’ audience; shouts of approval sounded as the curtain slowly rolled up. Something went wrong: it had to be lowered again. That doused half a dozen candles. They had to be relit by a nervous stage-hand, who received more applause than was commonly given a star. Next time the curtain went up without a hitch. Mr. Interlocutor, his moustache soaped to bayonet tips, stood in the middle of the stage. Messrs. Bones, Sambo, Ras’tus and Ebenezer, faces blackened with burnt cork, mouths and eyes more than twice normal size, were seated on either side of him.

Bones commenced: “Massa Interlocutor, I seen a dog runnin’ along th’ street th’ other day. An’ what do you think he had in his mouth?” Every member of the audience knew that one. But they waited in breathless suspense for the dialogue to end with the answer: “His tongue.” The ensuing applause and gales of laughter blew out a couple more candles.

Gympie Howard, that famed entertainer and shearers’ cook of western Queensland, was announced. Several candles had to be relit. Gympie came on. He knew his worth. He gave what was expected of him, and he sang “Teach-ing McFadden to Waltz” with appropriate action. He was barely off the stage when he was on again: only an atomic bomb — mercifully (to Gympie) not invented then—would have .prevented an encore. This time, with quick change nothing short of marvellous, he appeared as a Chinese gardener, then common in the west, hawking his wares from house to house. He wore the regulation pig-tail, which dated it prior to 1912, and his patter was accepted as pure Cantonese or some other dialect. The audience would have been applauding yet, had not the Interlocutor announced another artist.

The show went on. There was a humorous recitation by Mr. Bostock, who followed it with “Jacob Strauss,” supposed to be pathetic, and at which the audience laughed. Mr. Gaylow, a “soubrette,” whatever that might be, had teased the counterlining of a saddle and made himself a wig. The dress and the wig proclaimed his as a comic item. The audience was there to be amused: they complied with laughter.

Items quickly followed each other. When the barmaid from the pub in the township was announced to sing that very sentimental old ballad, “Only a Leaf,” the response from the audience, particularly from the back-benchers, was nearly deafening. Miss Perkins, who was “Maggie” at any other time, swung into her stride after a couple of false starts. Joe Brady vamped as he had never vamped before. At the conclusion of the song, after the heroine had died, the Interlocutor granted a signal honour:. he advanced to Miss Perkins, bowed, curled the tip of the right wing of his moustache, offered her his arm and escorted her off stage.

That was something so unusual in western etiquette that the crowd wanted to see more of it: they clapped until Miss Perkins appeared again and responded with “I’ll Be Your Sweet-heart.” She may even have eclipsed Gympie with the applause she received.

But the biggest hit of the evening, judging by the noise with which it was hailed, was made by Bluey Jenkins. Ever since his nomination had been accepted by the authorities, Bluey had made something of a nuisance of himself in the expert’s room: he drilled holes through pennies to attach them to the heels and soles of his dancing shoes. He wanted them for his speciality tap-dance.

The announcement that Mr. Bluey Jenkins would now oblige was received coldly and with courtesy applause only. After Miss Perkins, the audience was in no mood to be bored by Bluey. The pianist did his best, and vamped in good style. In fact, the piano shook to the stress. The audience waited. There was a jingling of copper coins rattling on the boards, and Blue, lightly tapping, pranced out.

A roar went up. Any previous acclamations would resemble a hiccough compared to the thunder-clap that now greeted him. Bluey in-tended to do things properly. Perhaps he had an idea that a tap-dance was an athletic event; for such, he felt he should be suitably attired.

He had on an athletic singlet which fitted him so closely that it might not have been there. For running trunks, or whatever he considered was appropriate, he had a pair of girl’s garments of delicacy, with lace frillings and skirted edges.

He was met with what are now classed as wolf whistles, ribald remarks — some rude and rather pointed — and invitations. No one knew if Brady was vamping or not. The din was so great that no musical instrument could be heard.

The concert ended abruptly. Some one in authority lowered the curtain with a rush, which blew out more than half the candles. In the semi-darkness the Interlocutor announced that there was tea, coffee, cocoa and brownie at both messes. He did not wait for a vote of thanks to the chair: he declared the meeting closed and the concert ended.

But the audience, one and all, agreed they had been well treated. The concert had been worth the price of admission, even without Bluey Jenkins. Some of them even admitted, and took care that no one in authority was listening, that, with Bluey’s stunt, the concert had been worth double the admission charge.