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VIDEOS – WARREN FAHEY


Author Archives: Warren Fahey


About Warren Fahey

Warren Fahey is a cultural historian, author, broadcaster and performer.

VIDEOS – WARREN FAHEY

An ongoing series of videos highlighting bush songs, city larrikin ditties and bush poetry. The project was commenced March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WARREN FAHEY’S BUSH SONGS AND CITY DITTIES, VERSE & DANCE MUSIC RECORDED 2020

I find it extraordinary that I have been singing Australian folk songs and ballads, and reciting bush poetry, for over 50 years. My interest started the year after I left school and ramped up when i turned eighteen. The sixties was experiencing what became known as the ‘folk revival’, folk music was everywhere including the radio and stage, and I wondered why 95% of music was American or British. It set me off on a lifetime journey to identify Australian folk music and stories. At twenty I moved to Newcastle, north of Sydney, and started a folk club. I had been to folk clubs in Sydney and wanted to continue my interest with the music. I had no thoughts of singing other than enthusiastically joining in chorus songs. Somehow-or-other the folk club I ran, The Purple Parrot (what was I thinking?), was successful but it was a struggle finding enough singers. One night, with encouragement, I nervously sang a set of songs, mostly English songs (I recall I sang ‘The Molecatcher’ and ‘The Widow of Westmoreland’s Daughter’). I was as nervous as all get out, but survived. As the years went on so did my fascination for songs and it wasn’t too long before I started building my repertoire. I still don’t consider myself a ‘singer’ – I am storyteller and still passionate about the old Australian stories, especially the well-travelled songs. I have lost count of how many times I have performed on stages across Australia and the world. I have also lost count of how many songs and poems are tucked away in my noggin. What I do know is that these songs are important in our Australian story and I am but a conduit to their onward journey. As for the concertina, I am a self-taught player of the English concertina. It is ideal for my voice and story songs. Thanks for listening and keeping the songs alive. WF

This double CD of my favourite songs is still available as a download (usual online stores) or CD direct from my store/paypal $30 including postage (email for international post). wfahey@bigpond.net.au

THE HARDEST BLOODY JOB I EVER HAD. What luck! The anonymous shearer lands a job on a small sheep property where the cocky also has grapes for wine-making. He claimed it was the hardest bloody job he ever had!

THE BIG GUN SHEARER. The life cycle of the 19th century bush worker: sign on, work, get the season’s cheque, go boozing, suffer regret, sign on again.

COCKIES OF BUNGAREE. Potato ‘chipping’ (digging spuds out) was hard on the back. The early pre-dawn shift didn’t help either. Bungaree is in Victoria. From the singing of Simon McDonald

HOME SWEET HOME: Also known as ‘Jog Along ‘Till Shearing’.

HEENAN & SAYER: THE BIG FIGHT.

FRANK GARDINER IS CAUGHT AT LAST. The trial of the notorious bushranger was a media circus. This song comments on the trial.

A SAILOR’S SURPRISE: QUEER BUNGLE RYE.

BOXING SONGS: Les Darcy/Christening the Baby.

HOMELESS MAN. Harry Robertson’s song about homelessness and hopelessness.

THE GOLDEN VANITY. Ballad. Collected from Simon McDonald, 1950s.

GREEN GRASS UPON THE GREEN. From the singing of the legendary bushman, Bill Harney.

THE DRINKER’S DREAM. Bush poem collected from Bob Taylor. You never know who you’ll meet in the desert!

MAIDS OF AUSTRALIA. From the singing of Jimmy Cargill, Randwick, 1973.

NINE MILES FROM GUNDAGAI. The yarn about the dawg on the tuckerbox.

THE BLACK CAT PIDDLED IN THE WHITE CAT’S EYE. bush tune

THE FEMALE RAMBLING SAILOR. early broadside about a girl who disguises herself as a sailor and serves in merchant navy for three years. Based on fact. Collected by Norm O’Connor/Mary Jean Officer from Mrs Peatey.

THE DROVER’S DREAM. A bushman dreams of an native animal parade – and realises he is asleep.

ACCORDING TO THE ACT. sea song about the 1890s new maritime act. From the singing of Captain Watson, Melbourne.

PADDY WEST> The notorious ‘training school’ for would-be sailors. The song was sung on the Australian run in the 19th century.

THE DYING STOCKMAN> One of the most famous bush songs.

THE OLD MACQUARIE. A children’s song collected from Mrs Susan Colley, Bathurst, 1970s.

THE SHEARER’S HARDSHIPS. I found this in a 1860s newspaper contributed by P. J. McGovery. A familiar tale about station cooks.

TWO PROFESSIONAL HUMS. To be on the hum = bum = swaggie. I collected this in Broken Hill.

THE OVERLANDERS. Classic bush song about drovers.

LOWLANDS. Sea song sung on the Australian run in the 19th century. A ghostly story.

LONG LANKIN. A British ballad. Sometimes he appears as Lamkin, Lambkin etc .. a stonemason who has been wronged, and takes a bloody revenge.

ROBIN HOOD AND THE BISHOP OF HEREFORD. A big ballad. Did Robin Hood exist? Probably not. But the legend of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor lives on in our imagination.

MUTTON, DAMPER & TEA. A bush poem about the delights of the Australian table!

JONES’ SELECTION. A warning to would be city farmers…. “if ya savin’ up yer screws to get upon the land – watch out the land don’t get on youse”

DROVER’S DITTIES/FLASH STOCKMAN

TWO BLACK CROWS This ballad has old credentials and is known in the British Islaes as The Twa Corbies, Two Ravens etc where their version has the talking crows deciding to peck the eyes out of a dead knight upon the road. We didn’t have knights in Australia but we did have old dead horses and cattle.

THE ROSE BAY FERRY. Bernard Bolan’s song about the imaginary life of a would-be sailor.

THE SPIDER FROM THE GWYDIR. Bush poem

FLASH JACK FROM GUNDAGAI. Shearing song

MY NAME IS EDWARD KELLY Bushranging ballad collected from Cyril Duncan.

AUSTRALIA (CONVICT SONG).

WIDGEGOWERA JOE. Shearing song.

THE MINER. Song collected in Broken Hill from Mrs McDonald. The life of a miner in song.

COLONIAL EXPERIENCE A new chum’s account of Botany Bay.

GINNY ON THE MOOR. A ballad from the singing of Simon McDonald, Cresswick, Victoria.

LIMEJUICE TUB. The new chums came over from England in ships they nicknamed ‘limejuice tubs’, because of the daily ration of limejuice and vinegar to ward off scurvy. I love the line “the great jumbucks are shorn by the great humbugs’. I recorded this version from Edward Gilmer, Maryborough Qld.

THREE MEN CAME A-HUNTING. A children’s song

THE BOLD AND RESTLESS GARDINER: The morning of the fray. Bushranger ballad. Possibly written by Frank Gardiner and this song fashioned by A . L. Lloyd.

MY HOME IN WOOLLOOMOOLOO: The Tattooed Lady.

BROKEN-DOWN SQUATTER. The 1890s saw a dreadful drought hit the east coast of Australia. This song, written at the time, sums up many problems. The old squatter is talking to his beloved horse as they leave the property to the crows.

GOORIANAWA A grand old shearing ballad which names many of the large and famous shearing stations of the East Coast. I first heard the song sung by Duke Tritton at the Bush Music Club, 1960s. Duke solved a puzzle in the 50s when Stewart & Keesing were preparing their 1957 edition of Paterson’s Old Bush Songs.

JIM JONES AT BOTANY BAY A convict broadside ballad. These old story-song typically came in the first person. Most offer remorse. Jim, pissed off, seeks revenge.

THE ROAD TO GUNDAGAI. Sometimes known as ‘Lazy Harry’s’, this shearing tale is typical. Season’s end and the shearers plan to travel to the big smoke but only make it as far as a favourite pub.

THE WILD COLONIAL BOY I collected several versions of this great bushranger ballad including versions from Mrs Colley, Cyril Duncan, Jack Pobar and Joe Watson. They all had one thing in common – “I’ll fight but not surrender, cried the Wild Colonial Boy’.

SHICKERED AS HE COULD BE. Shickered is a Yiddish word for drunk, full as a gook, tight as a tick etc. It is an Australian version of the much-older ballad ‘Seven Nights Drunk’ aka ‘Our Goodman’

AT EACH GATE THE SHEARERS STOOD – an old bush song collected from Mrs Susan Colley who told me the Lachlan shearers liked to describe themselves as ‘tigers’ – they were tenacious at work and play.

THE MAN FROM IRONBARK. Classic Banjo Paterson.

CLANCY’S PRAYER This was recited to me by Joe Watson adding “That Clancy bloke was a union man….”. Joe, a lifetime ALP member, always referred to Victoria s ‘the home of scabs’ – because that’s where the 1890s strikebreakers came from.

A BUSHMAN’S SONG – an old bush song sometimes known as Travelling Down The Castlereagh. This version collected from Joe Watson.

A SHEARER’S DREAM. Henry Lawson’s poem where the rouseabouts turn into pretty young girls – with trays of whiskey.

THANKS TO THE YANKS. Songwriter, John Dengate, used to say he thought we should stop selling Australia to overseas countries and, if we didn’t watch it, we’d be the world’s gravel pit. We know how that turned out!

JOHN DENGATE, SONGWRITER AND SATIRIST

THE SENIOR’S ALPHABET. A song I cobbled together about ageing. sigh….

A DIGGER’S LETTER Anonymous letter home from the front.

ONE OF THE HASBEENS. Old-time shearers were paid per sheep they shore and as they aged, they slowed down, and, eventually bcame ‘hasbeens’. They usually became station cooks. You didn’t have to know anything about cooking – just fighting!

A DOG’S MISTAKE – a poem by Banjo Paterson in DOGgeral verse

THE BANKS OF THE CONDAMINE. An Australian version of the age-old ballad, The Banks of The Nile. In our version, the young girl wants to disguise herself as a shearer and go with her lover. It is set in a conversational style, in itself unusual in the Australian tradition.

WEE POT STOVE. A song by Harry Robertson.

EUABALONG BALL. They must have been tough times in the early bush – you’d have to make sure you got a pretty sheep!

DINKI-DI. Sometimes known as ‘Horseferry Road’. It tells of the disgruntled digger on leave.

THAT DIRTY LITTLE TRAITOR, BILLY HUGHES – an unaccompanied song about Prime Minister William Hughes. Anonymous and located in an early union magazine. It was probably written by a member of the IWW.

JIM THE BOSS RIDER. Bush poem from Clarrie Peters, Austinmer, 1973

MORETON BAY. Convict ballad.

DEATH OF BEN HALL. Bushranger ballad 1865

THE MARYBOROUGH MINER. This is a song fashioned by A. L. Lloyd in the 1950s for his Riverside album. Lloyd said he learnt it off Bob Bell in 1935, however, it is more likely a rework of the version published in Paterson’s ‘Old Bush Songs as The Murrumbidgee Shearer. Whatever the case the song is a good story. Anyone interested in the real story of the British folk revival and its relationship with the left would be rewarded by reading ‘Bert’ – a wonderful biography of Lloyd by Tony Arthur. (AbeBooks has copies under $10).

TAMBAROORA TED. Ted considered himself a gun shearer and a ‘ladies man’. This version from Joe Watson.

WOOLLOOMOOLOO. A song sung to me by Susan Colley 1973, Bathurst.

THE BILLYGOAT OVERLAND. Another of my Banjo Paterson favourites. This one from his book ‘The Animals That Noah Forgot’.

FREEDOM ON THE WALLABY. Henry Lawson wrote this in the 1890s and immediately attracted the attention of conservative politicians in Queensland – they said he should be charged with sedition for stirring up trouble between the shearers and squatters. Henry would have liked that!

MY SON TED. From the singing of Sally Sloane. I recorded this version from the legendary singer in 1988, Lithgow, NSW

A SAILOR’S LIFE. This is a typical Victorian tear-jerker. My father sang a few verses. The young girl goes in search of her missing sailor boy and learns he has drowned, so she runs her own boat onto the rocks in despair.

THE CONCERTINA. A brief overview of the history of the concertina and my relationship with it.

MY OLD BLACK BILLY. Ted Harrington’s wonderfully evocative song from the 1950s stage musical Reedy River.

THE YOUNG MAN FROM NARRANDERA. A tale of woe. Left with a baby whilst his wife is ‘on the rant-tan’. She done him bad!


Australia Day

 

Written 2018 for AUSTRALIA DAY

I am, You are, We Are, Blah Blah Blah.

I am now quite resigned to the arm-swinging chorus that tells me ‘I am, you are, Aust-ral-ian’. After hearing the song ad infinitum in Rugby World Cup promotions, Salvation Army Red Shield campaigns,  endless loops from Telstra, school assemblies, and anything else that vaguely smacks of flag-waving, I am preparing myself for the song’s annual main day outing – what is currently referred to as ‘Australia Day’.

I say ‘currently’ because it seems many Australians would like to throw their two cents into the ring on the current debate as to whether the name or date should be changed to reflect modern day Australia. It’s changed before and could possibly change again. Besides, Australians have shown they rather enjoy tormenting government over public opinion as evidenced by last year’s marriage equality survey. (Oh, now I remember, that particular victory was  also celebrated in the bleachers of Parliament with joyful ‘I am, you are, we are’ arm-swinging.)

I usually head for the hills on Australia Day. Despite being a cultural historian and performer steeped in stories and songs about our history I find the annual celebration too jingoistic, too predictable and, in some ways, too disturbing. I grew up in the forties and fifties when Australia Day was just a pup. Coincidentally, I was born in January 1946 the same year and month the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on January 26 as ‘Australia Day’. It also confirmed that the Monday closest to the date be a public holiday. My childhood memories of are of phoney-colony re-enactments, cannons firing over Sydney Harbour and the curiosity of having more Australian than British flags flying. I also remember tokenism towards indigenous Australians who were not included in the census and were not entitled to vote.

Australia has travelled some wild roads and, of course, we have earned the right to celebrate. Even our very first immigrants and freed convicts felt an urge to celebrate their new land. We know that as far back as 1808 the 26th of January was seen as an appropriate date to celebrate what they described as “the love of the land they lived in.” The arrival of the British with their First Fleet on the 26 January seemed a natural for the British – they were the conquerers, they raised the Union Jack. Little thought was given to the feelings of the indigenous population. Had the Aborigine fought back like the Maori it might have been a different story. Had we negotiated a treaty it would have been a different story. I have sympathy for those who refer to the date as Invasion Day for there is no denying that we as a nation have not always done the right thing by our indigenous people. Some will say this is all in the past, some Like John Howard, took a more cowardly stance refusing to say sorry. We are now a smarter people, a more compassionate people and if nothing else comes out of the present-day debate it is to be hoped formal recognition in our constitution will move to fruition.

An odd twist to the Australia Day story is that the main protagonists to unify the colonies into a federation of states was an organisation called the Australian Native’s Association. Formed in Victoria its membership was restricted to ‘all white men born in Australia’. It was instrumental in developing the White Australia Policy and, later, the call for a unified date to celebrate a national day.

To many Australia Day is just an opportunity for a major piss up. Although BBQs, funny hats, patriotic slogan t-shirts and buckets of grog have some appeal, the day carries many messages. We are a indeed a lucky country and even our convict birth proved a success. It didn’t take long for the young Australia to realise ‘colonial born was superior to sterling born’. Our wide, brown land offered endless plains and opportunities. We struck it rich early with the discovery of gold in 1851 and we’ve been flogging those minerals ever since. We rode the boom times with sheep, beef and wheat and even in the mean and lean times of the 1890s and 1930s economic slumps we lived in a ‘fair go’ land. We travelled a strange road with the most restrictive immigration policy in the world – no coloured people allowed – to emerge as the most racially accepting country in the entire world. We now have more ethnicities than the USA, Uk or Canada. We’ve done all this in a relatively short span of history. Yes, we have more work to do in acceptance, nation building and revealing our national identity, and Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on how we can move forward as one – because I am, you are, very lucky Australians.

Warren Fahey AM is a cultural historian, writer and performer. He received the Order of Australia ‘gong’ in the 1989 Australia Day Honours.




Into The Bloodstream. Archie Roach.

Review for Rhythms Magazine

 

The so-called popular music industry can be a cruel beast. Artists, often in their creative prime, get chewed up and spat out at a gobsmacking rate and, usually, at a relatively scary young age. Indigenous artists have additional hurdles to leap. The music industry has often described its rationale as ‘throwing music against the wall to see if it sticks’. Rhythms readers, being musically educated and amazingly discerning, know that there is another musical world where artists thrive and longevity is seen as a positive. Archie Roach, undoubtably our best-known indigenous singer, released his landmark Charcoal Road twenty-two years ago when he was 36, and the young man sketched on that album cover is now hurtling towards his 60th birthday. His new album Into The Bloodstream is testimony to his creative spirit, determination and knack for adventurous collaborations.

I caught up with Archie Roach in October after he had performed at Uluru for the 30th anniversary celebration concert of Shane Howard’s Solid Rock. I wanted to know how he has been traveling over the past few years where he has had to contend with the loss of his partner and soulmate, Ruby Hunter, and a string of medical nightmares including a stroke and the loss of a chunk of his lung. I wanted to put his state of mind alongside the new collection of songs which are, surprisingly, remarkably positive and joyous. I asked him how important the songwriting and recording experience was to his personal healing.
“It was vitally important for me as a songwriter and person. Into The Bloodstream is an album of songs that I really didn’t believe I was going to make. That was it, I thought I had lost my creative spirit. Ruby was always my sounding board and I did know if my songs were good enough or if I could do anything with them. In the old days we used to sit around the kitchen table and swap songs. Ruby encouraged me and steered me in the right musical directions. I had some songs, and some half written songs, and needed someone to bounce ideas off. I was also unsure of my voice after losing part of my ‘engine room’.”

The missing link proved to be musician, producer and Audrey Studios principle, Craig Pilkington. Craig also recorded Kutcha Edwards album which I was slated to review for the magazine so I hunted him down for a few comments on both projects. I knew his name from various sleeve notes but had forgotten our paths had crossed before and he reminded me I had released an album of his band, The Killjoys, on my Larrikin label in 1998. The album, which by the way, was really good, was a final nomination for an ARIA – ‘Best Adult Contemporary’ – but lost out to Archie Roach’s Looking For Butterboy. As Craig observed, “the planets keep aligning!”

Archie spoke genuinely about Craig’s role in making his music come together and, in some ways, opening doors to his healing. “We tossed the songs around and he had the vision to make it all happen. He brought me back and gave the songs the life that I had in my head. He is really good like that, good with arranging musicians and in getting the right sound to carry my songs. Sometimes I find it confusing even to prepare a performance gig list – the order song should fall, but he does it so naturally.” Craig identified that Archie’s songs were “a combination of messages, philosophies and stories that leant themselves to a gospel/soul treatment so it was obvious we needed a large Hammond organ-led ensemble that could be powerful and majestic as well as joyous and dancing, and we needed a big choir.”

Archie Roach’s music has evolved into something that salutes several genres – gospel, blues, country rock and folk – but above all has retained the singer’s own voice. Archie freely admits that as he has grown older so has his respect for music. “I like nearly all music and, as a songwriter and singer, and after recording the new album, I am feeling more confident, stronger. I think I can take any musical road ahead, I don’t feel restrained or restricted.” Well, Archie certainly doesn’t sound restricted on this album. At several points his voice soars upwards and drops to what could only be called a growl reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. I asked Archie where that growl came from – “I don’t know, it was something that came to me recently, it’s just there and, I admit, it is a bit menacing.” Craig went deeper, “Archie was amazing how he explored new areas in his vocal expression and range. Having half a lung removed changed things physically, and he used that to his benefit rather than let it limit him. We always had an oxygen tank close by, but I reckon he sang higher and lower than he ever has.”

Storytelling in song is something Rhythms readers know about and Archie’s songs on this album are solid stories. As an indigenous artist he is part of an age-old tradition of storytelling that, as he says, “I grew up with stories even today and one of my greatest pleasures is to sit down and have a good yarn.” These are Australian stories too and, to his credit, he hasn’t allowed his songwriting to slip into the darkness of his recent years. He has also successfully avoided Americanisms in either words or styles. We discussed how many local contemporary singers, especially country artists, have allowed themselves to endorse Americana. “I hate people singing toons instead of tunes. I could go on but you can hear our language disappearing in so many singers. It doesn’t make sense not to sing in the way we speak here.”

One of my favourite tracks on the album, and there are many, is ‘Big Black Train’ which rolls along, complete with a ‘chug-a-lug’ railway rhythm, from the very first bars from Craig Pilkington’s Hammond organ through to the swinging vocals by the Indigenous Choir. Borrowing ideas from This Train Is Bound For Glory it effectively advises listeners not to get on board –

This train’s not bound for glory, this train
This train’s not bound for glory, this train
No, this train’s not bound for glory, taking only the unholy
This train, this train, this train.

The Indigenous Choir is something very special. As indigenous Australia has been finding its voice this one was all about time and it was worth the wait. Next stop should be an album featuring this choir. Space precludes me from naming them all but the 19 voices reinforce the songs with definite joy and add a great contrast to Archie’s lead vocals. Craig, who recorded the choir at St. Brigid’s hall at Crossley, an old church owned by the community, explained how he recorded these tracks, especially ‘Song to Sing’ and ‘Top Of The Hill’. ‘At Audrey Studios we always try and create a space in our recordings and you can hear this ‘room’ in the way we physically recorded Archie and the choir. We wanted to make a big statement with Archie’s messages and the choral and string arrangements helped give us a dramatic power where we needed to be big but not necessarily loud.”

Of the dozen songs in this collection all but two were written by Archie. Of the two remaining he co-wrote ‘’We Won’t Cry’ with Paul Kelly (who sings on the track) and the other, ‘I’m On Your Side’ is a Paul and Dan Kelly song. In talking to Archie about songwriting we discussed the way traditional songmen like the Kimberley’s Nyalgodi ‘Scotty’ Martin receive songs from their dreaming. I asked whether he thought he was part of this tradition? In his song ‘Mulyawongk’ he addresses Ruby Hunter in a beautifully uplifting lament. “The song came from the river and Aboriginal people say their ancestors live in the river. It is a powerful totem. I hope my song possesses some of this magic.”

‘Heal The People’ and ‘Wash My Soul In The River’s Flow’ are two aspirational song from the album. They are aspirational but not in a naif happy-clappy way. Both offer the simple message that we all have a responsibility to care for the land. Archie’s straight-forward comment is “If the rivers are doing okay then our society will do okay as well.”

While I had the chance of yarning to Archie I wanted to ask a couple of questions that these sort of interviews usually follow.

W: Who are your musical heroes?
A: Paul Simon. When he was touring Australia with his Gracelands concert I met him backstage at the Melbourne Concert Hall and he asked if he could visit my home. He came for two days. We swapped songs and he visited the local community. It was a big thrill as I’d always liked his music. Then there’s Paul Kelly, Mahalia Jackson and soul singers like Sam Cook and Al Green.

W: What about non-music heroes?
A: My foster father Alexander Cox, Uncle Banjo and my big brother, Johnny Roach.

W: When you have switched off, want to relax and dream, what music do you listen to?
(I’d love to see the faces of Rhythm readers as they digest this response)
A: Bagpipe music! I have always loved Scottish music, especially the pipes. It is something I inherited from my father who was a Scot. I still like ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, ‘The Rowan Tree’ and songs like ‘The Scottish Soldier’. I used to sing these with my father – even the gaelic bits.

This is a very satisfying album from one of our national treasures. The next step is the roll out of the live show. It will be a “big show” primarily for festivals and major concert halls. With 24 people on stage, including the Indigenous Choir, and a creative visual component, it will showcase the album’s arrangements. Whether bagpipes will feature is yet unknown.

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And The Band Played On

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON

Robert Holden. Published by Hardie Grant Books.

Review for the SMH/The Age 2014

When Britain sounded the first bugle call for the Great War Australian patriotism leapt to attention. Men and boys from farms and factories across the nation marched into makeshift training camps like Broadmeadows, Puckapanyal, Marrickville and Liverpool and were as ‘green’ as any new chum imaginable. What they lacked in preparation they made up for with gumption and determination that eventually identified the Aussie Diggers as the ‘fighting kangaroos’, a force to be reckoned with. This year marks the beginning of WW1 and bookshelves are already starting to groan with the sheer number of publications. This interesting history of a little-known aspect of war deserves a place alongside the big guns..

History tells us that WW1 was incredibly loud – bolt-action rifles, rattling machine guns and deafening field bombs rained on the troops day and night. And the Band Played On, as the title suggests, explores a different sound of war, the music and live entertainment that helped divert our soldiers from the horrors of the front line where death was never far from mind. Our troops trained and marched to war to the sound of brass bands, buglers summonsed soldiers into action from morning to night and, when there was a break, be it in the mess huts, transport vehicles or the endless time spent in lice-ridden trenches, songs were sung, poems recited or music made on simple instruments like the harmonica, jaw harp, tin whistle or concertina. This ‘down time’ was incredibly important in fortifying our troops encouraging relaxation, camaraderie and a reminder of better times. It was diversion therapy of the very best kind.

Robert Holden points out that Australia appeared to recognise the importance of wartime entertainment before Britain. This possibly had something to do with the fact a decade or so prior to the war the bulk of our population lived in the bush where singsongs and party pieces, especially recitations, along with community dances, were the main form of entertainment. Certainly the majority of our first army entertainers were enlisted from relatively untrained musicians and singers. We were a nation of people used to entertaining each other although the then recent population migration to the cities, and the growing popularity of the gramophone, radio and motion pictures, signalled a developing passivity.

One aspect of Holden’s history that puzzles me is the obvious disregard for the oral tradition. Australians were extremely clever in creating and circulating parodies, especially bawdy songs, however they hardly get a mention. Even our first anonymous parody of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, itself a relatively new song at the time, received wide circulation.

Fighting the Kaiser,
Fighting the Kaiser,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?
And we’ll drink all his beer,
And eat up all his sausages,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?

Anonymous songs and ditties, and there are hundreds from WW1, had a knack of addressing topics that popular song typically avoids. Holden rightfully points to the popularity of songs like ‘Little Grey Home in the West’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ (although he fails to mention Australian-born Florrie Forde popularised it and the other WW1 classic ‘Goodbye-ee’) however these singalong songs hardly capture the harsh reality of folk songs like ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ or ‘I Want To Go Home’ (Oh my, I’m too young to die, I want to go home). These are songs that acknowledge the reality of war where your mate’s head could be blown clear off yet you had to stand ground.

Holden has done some fine digging in TROVE and the Australian War Memorial archives to tell us who the army entertainers were and why they were recognised as real soldiers. One quote nicely sums up the soldier-entertainers as ‘necessary as the dry socks and duckboards’ and ‘as much a part of the army as the Machine Gun Corp’. Certainly the accounts of front line stage shows, where the whizz bangs were flying far too close for comfort, give new meaning to the term ‘stage fright’.

There’s some tantalising entertainments mentioned. What I’d give to hear the No. 1 Army Service Mouth Organ Band, the No. 2 Army Service Drum and Fife Band, or sit through a performance by the HMAS Sydney’s Hobo Band. The most intriguing accounts cover two theatrical show bands, The Coo-ees (often accompanied by a full orchestra) and the wonderfully named Anzac Coves featuring their ‘star turn’, Vic Kemble, a female impersonator. The army magazine Aussie summed up the show’s highlight , ‘Aussie has seen a lot of girl girls not nearly as girlish as Pte. V. Kemble’s impersonation.’ (Kemble ultimately received three medals for his war service.)
Warren Fahey is a cultural historian and author. His latest e-book is ‘The World Turned Upside-Down’ a history of the Australian gold rush era. www.warrenfahey.com