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-The Survey Fields



© Warren Fahey

The Survey Fields.

The project, the first of its kind in Australia, commenced on the 1st February 2003 and ran for two years.

The survey fields in its original draft included the following subject areas:
Early broadsides and songs about Sydney.
Pioneer migrants and their views on Sydney life.
Indigenous material – early interpretation of Aboriginality, Koori songs.
Folk poetry and recitations.
Traditional, popular and contemporary songs about Sydney.
Music Hall references to Sydney including songsters.
Word usage including colloquial sayings, slanguage.
Superstitions, customs, festivals.
Sydney humour including Sydney specific yarns and jokes.
Sydney eccentrics – a register.
Sporting folklore.
Curious history.
Labour history.
Ghost stories.
Folk craft.
Dance heritage in Sydney.
Children’s lore.
Oral histories.

I do not see myself as an academic folklorist. I never undertook a course in folklore nor any other university field. I often say I am a graduate of the Dingo University and the School of Hard Knocks as I certainly learnt everything I know as I traveled through life. If anything I am curious, focused and admit to an over-riding interest in most things that make us Australian.

In surveying the folklore of Sydney I wanted to make a broad sweep to illustrate how folklore is created and distributed. There is a general misbelief that folklore is something associated with the past, particularly our colonial bush past, and not something from the cities. In showing that dentists, bakers, butchers, bankers, secretaries, housewives and everyone else you care to nominate, all create and intentionally or unintentionally distribute folklore as part of their everyday lives, would show folklore as a ‘living’ tradition.

I have often described my work as being like a recycling unit – I collect, either through fieldwork or archival research – and then I ‘return’ it packaged up in compact discs, books, broadcasts, magazine articles and through performance. My Australian Folklore Unit website also plays an important role in this ‘recycling’ and receives around 55,000 visitors every month. In taking on a project like the Folklore of Sydney it was not practical to narrow my research to the exclusion of all other material. However, if I was trawling through an early newspaper I would look for anything that I considered interesting, something that I could use in a future project, and, of course, anything particularly about Sydney. That said, I also looked for specific folklore and what I refer to as ‘curious history’, and in the initial stage of the project I prepared a list of subjects that I considered would reflect the project’s agenda.

I probably achieved seventy percent success in collecting material in the survey field, the rest relegated to the not-enough-time basket. Of course, other subjects that I hadn’t considered appeared and demanded my investigation.  In truth I would have liked to have done more fieldwork, interviewing specific individuals and group, but without a team of supporters such work is extremely time-consuming and, in a grid-locked city like Sydney, extremely frustrating. Such is the journeying of the modern-era folklorist!

In surveying a city’s folklore one could go in several directions and, indeed I did, usually at the same time! One could have, possibly should have, focused on several groups such as bus drivers, airport workers, publicans, gardeners, plumbers, hairdressers, secretaries, welfare workers – the list is obviously endless – my point being that every group would have folklore, obviously some more than others, but highly likely within their ranks you would find the remnants of traditional working methods, customs, stories, nicknames, apprenticeship pranks, jokes, word usage, xerox lore, superstitions and so on. For the record, much of this material is unreconisable to its users and distributors, until it is pointed out as folklore.


Folklore pops up in some surprising places. There is a small nature strip of curvy road on Barrenjoey Road from Newport to Avalon, mainly known as the Bilgola bends (after the beach suburb of Bilgola) where a custom has emerged whereby handwritten signs are festooned along the short strip.

The majority of these signs relate to greeting visitors or commemorating anniversaries, weddings, engagements and birthdays. Some simply say ‘Tracey – I Luv You’ or ‘Welcome back Matt and Bev‘ however one sign, of twenty-six, I recorded this past December declared ‘Welcome to my big, sexy, dark-haired lover boy’. Another pleaded ‘Carol – marry me!”. Mind you, the signs sometimes get nasty with one reading ‘Wendy B is a Slag!‘ The bend also contains a well-kept roadside memorial to an accident. The wreaths decorate the telegraph pole where the person was killed in a motor accident. Returning in January to photograph the current crop of signs I discovered the council had taken them down however a few new ones had been erected. One sign definitely created havoc and was the subject of a newspaper article.


As an old hand at using the media, especially my associates at ABC radio, I narrowed any interviews down to specific topics. To ask listeners to send in ‘their folklore’ would, not surprisingly, draw a blank. When I steered the requests to superstitions, place names, urban myths, colloquial expressions or school war cries, as examples, I usually received a flow of contributions. Richard Glover, Angela Catterns and James Valentine, all of ABC local radio Sydney, were the most fruitful interviews, especially on the subject of school songs and war cries, which appeared to produce a flood of nostalgia.  In locating narrow subjects like theatre superstitions I emailed a short questionnaire to several theatrical identities, producers, directors, actors etc and this also reaped a good return. Some requests, especially for military and naval contributions from service people drew a blank.

I have a keen interest in songs and verse and although my main interest is traditional material I am also interested in other neglected forms including pioneer country music, songs written for live performance on early radio, music hall and early popular stage songs. Early newspapers have always been a fruitful search area and now that the NLA Beta projecthas digitized many of the main early newspapers, including the Sydney Gazette, Melbourne Argus and Sydney Morning Herald, searching is endless. A simple search for ‘songs’ produced some 239052 items and a further search within these findings for ‘Sydney’ reduced the list to a mere 108100 items. Of course most of the results did not produce an actual song about Sydney, more likely a reference to a song being sung in Sydney. What I did find were reports of events where songs were sung. Adelaide Advertiser 13/August, 1903: report on a Sydney event ‘Clergyman Shocked! Nigger Songs Sung At Orange (Lodge) Celebration () or, from the Hobart Mercury, 28 July 1908, a report on the Tramway Strike, Sydney: ‘What The Strikers Are Doing: Singing Songs and Making Speeches’. Another, which caught my eye, referred to ‘Profane Songs In The Public Streets’ (Letter to Editor, SMH, 28 May 1859), which referred to a seemingly bawdy parody of The Lord’s Prayer. Such references are extremely tempting for the song hunter.

Songwriters, being poets, often romanticize a city from a personal perspective and there is a fine line between schmaltz and emotional communication. Traditional songs have a way, to use a current expression, of cutting through the crap and, thankfully, so do some contemporary songs. The older songs and ditties about Sydney tend to be about significant social changing events (war, depression, federation, strikes), personalities (sportsmen, politicians, eccentrics) and newsworthy events (Sydney Exhibition, disasters, sport) and leisure time pursuits like boating, swimming etc) the newer songs (1950 onwards) tend to be about the songwriter’s experiences in the city. These include songs about various suburbs, landmarks, observations on people encountered etc. Songs that comment on political situations like the general frustration with Sydney transport and State Government management are also popular, especially in the folk community. John Dengate, Bernard Bolan and John Warner are three well-known contributors to the Sydney contemporary folksong catalogue. Paul Kelly, Richard Clapton, Tim Freedman (The Whitlams) are representative of more pop-influenced songwriters.

One area of song that did surprise was the sheer number of contemporary songs written about Sydney and its suburbs. Some were quite old but many were relatively recent compositions. I included all genres of music in compiling a survey list including some rock, jazz, blues etc so as to provide the most definitive list. I also opened this one to the general public by posting requests on various websites and forums. It was interesting to see how many of the songs came from recordings I had released on my Larrikin Record label between 1974-2000. See (15).

I grew up in a very different Sydney. It rivaled Melbourne for grand buildings but, sadly, and unlike our great southern city, most of them fell to the wrecking ball and greedy development. Being in my mid-sixties allows me some perspective on the city’s history although, I admit, it tends to be coloured by nostalgia. Such things obviously also colour what a collector collects!  One odd thing I wrote about for the project was a nostalgic survey of Sydney ‘smells’ – everything from corner stores to department stores and some suburbs that had a peculiar pong about them.

The big question is whether Sydneysiders see themselves as different from the residents of other Australian cities. Folklore, in it peculiar way, can certainly provide us with some answers. Most Australians, wherever they live, tend to believe that Australia is ‘God’s Own Country’ (Godzone), and their particular patch the best part of it. Sydneysiders are no different and, I suspect, rather snobbish about it. My research shows they characteristically see Melbourne, or as Sydneysider’s say, ‘Melboring’, as too dull, Victorians are often described as Mexicans from south of the border. Adelaide as too up itself, Perth as too far away, Brisbane as new money vulgar (referring to it as BrisVegas andnearby Sufferer’s Paradise), Darwin is Hicksville and Canberra as unnecessary. Sydney, to its inhabitants, is just right (despite the State’s economy, transport, health and other vital social structures being in disarray). As ex Prime Minister Paul Keating once declared: “If you’re not living in Sydney – you are merely camping out!”