SONGS COMPOSED BY CONVICTS


AUSTRALIA AND ITS TRADITIONAL MUSIC – a brief overview

 

SONGS COMPOSED BY CONVICTS

© Warren Fahey

 
What would have these early songs have sounded like? We know from the writing of George Mayhew what the London broadsides sounded like and there is every reason to assume they sounded the same when they were sung in Australia.
The same could be said for the Celtic songs that found themselves transported.

Mind you, there was an earlier time when ‘ballad singing’ was considered frivolous and even down-right evil.

This account from Grubstreet Journal, Feb 27 No. 276. tells all…… from Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 5 Feb 1735, p. 93

the ballad singer

the ballad singer

 

Of Ballad-singing

 
The Scandalous Practice of Ballad-singing, is the Bane of all good Manners and Morals, a Nursery for Idlers. Whores and Pickpockets, a School for Scandal, Smut and Debauchery, and ought to be entirely suppressed, or reduced under proper Restriction. If Ballads do not, yet they ought to come under the Stamp Act, and the Law looks on Ballad-singers as Vagrants. This brings to my Mind the ill Conduct of many of our middling Gentry, who suffer their Children, particularly their daughters, to frequent the Kitchen, be familiar with the Servants, and so learn their Manners. One Part of their Conversation turns upon frightful Stories of Witches, Apparitions, &c. which serve to keep Miss in Awe, and in their interest.

 
Her Delight in the Kitchen-Conversation increases with her Years; now is flattered, taught to shew Tricks upon Cards, and play at Romps; ~ which soon makes her forget her Birth, and think herself on a level with them. Well! Miss is now out of her Hanging Sleeves, and every one, especially the Footman, tells her how pretty she is. Now Ballads and Love Songs are daily presented her, and vouched for Truth: One tells, “How a Footman died for Love of a young Lady, and how she was haunted by his Ghost, and died for Grief. Another, How the Coachman run away with his young Mistress, took to Hedging and Ditching, and she to Knitting and Spinning, and lived vast Happy, and in great plenty. And a third, How the young ‘Squire, Master’s eldest Son, fell in Love with the Chambermaid, married her at the Fleet, was turn’d out of Doors, kept an Inn, got Money as fast as Hops, till the old Gentleman died suddenly without a Will, and then his Son got all, kept a Coach, and made his Wife a great Lady, who bore him Twins for 12 years together, who all lived to be Justices of the Peace, &c. By such foolish Stories Miss is deluded; sighs, pities, and at last loves; and so too often undone without Remedy

 
A Female Correspondent, who signs Virtuous, complains of the many ruinous Marriages that are every Year practiced in the Fleet, by a Set of drunken swearing Parsons, with their Myrmidons that wear black Coats, and pretend to be Clerks and Registers to the Fleet, plying about Ludgate-hill, pulling and forcing People to some peddling Alehouse or Brandy shop to be married, even on Sunday, stopping them as they go to the Church.
 

Not long since, a young Lady was deluded and forced from her Friends, and by the Assistance of a very wicked swearing Parson, married to an atheistical Wretch, whose Life is a continual Practice of all Manner of Vice and Debauchery.—Another young Lady was decoyed to a House in the confines of the Fleet by a pretended Gentleman. Dr. Wryneck immediately appear’d, and swore she should be married; or if she would not, he would have his Fee, and register the Marriage from that Night. The Lady, to recover her Liberty, left her Ring as a Pledge that she would meet him the morrow Night.

 

Some musical instruments were played here. The in the early days of the colony there were reports of tin whistles, hurdy gurdys, harps and fiddles being played in the streets and taverns. As more free settlers came to the colonies they would have brought other musical instruments. We do know that a piano arrived with the First Fleet!

 
Apart from the imported broadside ballads like The Girl With The Black Velvet Band, Van Dieman’s Land and Henry’s Downfall, to name but three widely distributed broadsides, there were songs composed by the convicts. The best known would be Moreton Bay and Exile of Erin, both probably the work of Frank MacNamara who also wrote The Convict’s Tour of Hell (which is reproduced on my site). Many of the older ballads would also have been changed to include local names and incidents and some would have been parodies – such is the nature of the evolution of folk songs.

 
As the colonies grew so did the demand for entertainment. The colonies were very much male-dominated reflecting the waves of transportation and the military infrastructure established to administer. Alcohol played a major role in entertainment and one assumes taverns were a meeting place for sung entertainments.