While the Billy Boils


WHILE THE BILLY BOILS



INTRODUCTION

Of all the ABC radio projects I devised this 16-part series proved to be the most popular. The ABC broadcast it several times and, some twenty-nine years later, I am delighted to see it freely available.

The following is an extract from my original notes accompanying the series in 1979. In retrospect they are quite naïve in their sentiments – such is life after all these years. What hasn’t dated is the singing and music which still sounds extraordinarily fresh. I make special mention of two of the members of my pioneering group, The Larrikins, namely Declan Affley and Jacko Kevans, both of whom have gone to the big campfire in the sky. Their individual style and passion for the music comes across as a real testament to their creativity. Of all the various manifestations of The Larrikins, and there were many since I intentionally formed the group to record specific projects, this was the ‘super group’. This is no reflection on any other person who performed with the group as they were all significant contributors. This one just happened to consist of so many talented individuals who fused to produce some very unique representations of bush music.

Needless to say there are lots of gems in this collection including many songs never before – or since – recorded.
They won’t make programs like this ever again! Warren Fahey 2008.

The singers and musicians were:
      The Larrikins: Declan Affley, Jacko Kevans, Dave de Hugard, Bob McInnes, Cathie O’Sullivan & Warren Fahey
      Plus guests: Trevor Shearston, Tony Suttor, Mike Jackson & John Dengate.

The spoken word segments were presented by:
      John Ewart, Les Foxcroft, Guy Le Clair, Diana McLean, Declan Affley, Jacko Kevans and Warren Fahey

The series was scripted by:
      Warren Fahey.

Produced by :
      Christopher Lawrence and Warren Fahey.

There is something magical about a group of yarn tellers offering a few tales around a steaming billy of tea. The spirit of Australia was born and bred over the ‘billy’ for here was a neutral territory where the boss could talk man-to-man with the workforce: it was a place to air differences; to discuss the politics of the day; a place to speculate on social change; and it was a hallowed ground for relaxation with the comfort of comradeship.

The Australian of yesteryear undoubtedly had more time to participate in such elementary pleasures but, sorry to say, modern day Australians have little time for ‘man-made’ entertainments. Sadly, we have become a nation that is entertained rather than entertains. Gone are the days of community singing around the piano; gone, too, are the good old days when every Australian had a ‘party piece’ ready for the call. Today it is far easier to switch on the telly or plug in the home video cassette system. Yarning has been made (almost) redundant!

For the past twelve years I have been involved in tape-recording and researching Australian folklore. My travels have taken me from one end of this country to the other, and the one fact that continually nags at me is that Australia is in danger of losing its identity. The Australian identity is best seen in the traditions that have evolved over the past 200 years. It is sometimes difficult to understand the relevance of the old ways, but nevertheless I feel it is of the utmost importance that up-and- coming Australians know why they are Australian and what traditions they have inherited. Although only a ‘pup’ on the international scene, Australia has managed to produce a unique folklore. Coloured by the traditions of the Irish, Scots and British settlers, it is nonetheless uniquely Australian in its attitudes and evolution. Folklore is a process of adoption and adaptation, and we are no exception. The Australian tradition, like that of the United States, is very strongly a pioneering tradition. Our songs, poetry, superstitions, customs, word usage and crafts are all flavoured by a feeling of ‘man against the wilderness’, and later by a surge of nationalism expressed as ‘we came, we saw, we conquered’. To me the songs are the most interesting examples of our folklore.

The Australian tradition boasts over 1500 anonymous songs ranging from early convict creations through to songs telling of life in the cities. These are not songs written for ‘tin-pan- alley’, they are songs written by Australians, ordinary working class folk, wanting to express their emotions about Australia. Here you will find re-worked versions of the noble British and Scottish ballads; local compositions telling of gold- diggers, bushrangers, shearers and railwaymen; parodies and ditties from the Great Depression; songs composed by Australians at war. The Australian folksong heritage spans the development of this country and reflects the aspirations of the average Australian rather than the armchair historian.

It is fascinating to study the travels of folksongs. Why are they so long-lived, why do people commit them to memory and why do they treasure them so? It is not uncommon for the folklore collector to meet with a traditional singer and to unearth a vast repertoire of songs and stories. It is also interesting to note that these singers rarely admit to being singers “No! I can’t sing” is a common response. I recorded a sixty- year old builder in Brisbane in 1973 who had inherited a love of the old songs from his bullock-driving father, in the course of one evening I recorded more than sixty songs, including rare ones about the Kelly Gang, Crimea War, Depression and several early British variants of traditional and popular song. Certainly my contributor was no singer by commercial standards, but his warmth and feeling for his songs possessed a special emotion that was hypnotic.

Way back in 1972 the ABC broadcast a series, The Australian Legend, featuring Peter O’Shaughnessy and Declan Affley. The series was widely acclaimed and re-broadcast nationally on the AM Band. In 1979 the Music Department of the ABC, on my urging, made the decision to produce a major presentation on Australian traditional music for both AM and FM broadcast. This series, titled While The Billy Boils, comprises 16 half-hour programs recorded at the ABC’s Chatswood Arcadia Studios. The music for the series features leading interpreters of Australian traditional music. The Larrikins, with several feature performers including Trevor Shearston, Mike Jackson, Tony Suttor and John Dengate

The series features a large collection of material collected over the past 15 years, including many new songs and variants. Performers have interpreted the songs as faithfully as possible to the originally recorded version, including several unaccompanied items. Musical instrumentation covers instruments used in the tradition like the Celtic Harp, button accordion, fiddle, tin whistle, concertina, spoons, bones and mouth organ.

In a way, While the Billy Boils is a potted history of Australia as seen through the songs and folklore of the average Australian. It is the typical Australian – of the men and women who built this country and who direct its course in history. What better way to see Australia than through the comforting steam of billy tea!

Warren Fahey 1979