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Songsters & Songbooks


I’ve Got the Music Right Here in My Pocket
The Role of Songsters in Australian Music

© Warren Fahey

Songsters are generally pocket-sized song books used to commercially distribute the words of popular songs of the day. Some later songsters carried simplistic musical notation however 95% of songs are words only. The use of musical notation was limited by the page size and the fact that musical notation had to be hand-etched.

The first documented locally printed songsters were produced in the mid-1850s, coinciding with the gold rushes era and wide scale emigration. The following songsters were the most influential of the early publications.

The Colonial Songster, also known as Small’s Colonial Songster, was issued in 1857 and followed by two more volumes, one printed in Castlemaine and the third in Adelaide.

Coxon’s Comic Songster was published in Ballarat c. 1858-59

Australian Melodists. Melbourne. c. 1875-85

Thatcher’s Colonial Songster 1857 and a later collection Thatcher’s Colonial Minstrel (aka Thatcher’s Colonial Songs) 1864 – 4 songsters

The Sydney Songster. George Chanson (Layou). C.1865-69

Tibbs Popular Songs & Poems, printed in Sydney, Vol 1 appeared 1887 and Vol 2 1888

The Victorian Songster, Printed in Melbourne, undated circa 1860 however it contains Thatcher’s ‘Where’s Your License?’

The Queensland New Colonial Campfire Songster was published in Sydney, 1865.

Native Companion Songster Brisbane 1889

The Sydney Golden Songster. Published Sydney 1893.

Of course, it is highly likely there were several more similar songsters published in the nineteenth century, especially during the mid 1860s when popular entertainment was a vital part of isolated gold rush life.
The reality is that these are the only songbooks that, to date, have come to the attention of library-searching folklorists. Hopefully there are others hiding in the stacks.

The songsters played an important role in popular entertainment. In some ways they were the next in line after the broadside ballad sheet, sometimes referred to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, which were the main printed carrier of songs in the eighteenth century.

Here’s a song I found in the Universal Songster (published London) 1825. A 3-volume hardback set of books, texts only, with popular ‘songs of the people’. It is interesting because it catches the flavour of the period and mentions several extremely popular songs.

The Ballad Seller

Here are catches, songs and glees,
Some are twenty for a penny,
You shall have whatever you please,
Take your choice for here are many,
Hear is ‘Nan of Glo’ster-Green’,
Here’s ‘Lily Of The Valley’,
Here is ‘Kate of Aberdeen’,
Here is ‘Sally In Our Alley’.

Here is ‘Mary’s Dream’ ‘Poor Jack’,
Here’s ‘The Tinker and The Tailor’,
Here’s ‘Bow Wow’ and ‘Paddy Whack’,
‘Tally-Ho’ ‘The Hardy Sailor’,
Here’s ‘Dick Dook’ ‘The Heart Blade’,
‘Captain Wattle’ and ‘The Grinder’,
And I’ve got ‘The Country Maid’,
Confound me though, if I can find her.

Drinking songs, too here abound,
‘Toby Philpot’ ‘Fill The Glasses’
And, ‘Here’s A Health To All Good Lasses’,
Here’s ‘Come, Let Me Dance & Sing’,
And, What’s better far than any finer,
Here’s ‘God Save Great George Our King’
‘Hearts Of Oak’ and ‘Rule Britannia’

Life on the gold fields was as wild as any Hollywood Wild West film has shown. All was hustle and bustle bordering on panic. Spirits were high then low then high again as excited miners returned with news of newly washed nuggets. The towns themselves were little more than shantytowns slapped up to service the masses of men, and some women, who cradled all day in the riverbeds and needed some diversion in the evening. First the miners would arrive, many of them hardly fit for the job and some straight from the shipping port as they carried with them a pick, a shovel, a sieve and, if the were lucky, a cradle. They slept in makeshift tents and some even dug holes where they lived like rabbits. Stores and coffee huts followed as they served out dubious meals at exorbitant prices. In most cases there was no choice and no competition and certainly no time.
Soon the shops joined to provide a streetscape where drapers, banks, general stores and hotels stood next to funeral parlours and newspaper printers. Nuggets, weighed at the counter, were general currency and one could buy, depending on your wallet, everything from musical instruments to tasty delicacies.

Advertisements tell of flageolet’s, concertinas, ocarinas, jaw harps, mouth organs and other music instruments being sold in there thousands. Here’s a short description I found in an old file in the Mitchell Library, from a J C Johnson, who lived in Gulgong between 1870-74.

‘The Queen Street, Gulgong, camp was the most crowded thoroughfare in Australia. It was a blaze of light at night. The pubs were doing a roaring trade, so also the shanties up and down the street. The click of the billiard balls were heard on every side and the ear was charmed (or otherwise) by the playing of concertinas, accordions, jew’s harps, tin whistles, flutes etc, at every fancy goods store, where patrons were ‘trying before buying’. Occasionally a good player would come along, and, urged by the proprietor, would stand on the doorstop and play popular airs to an audience of some hundreds in the street; Music had charms even in those sordid days, and a good concertina could cast a spell over the crowd by playing Home Sweet Home or Hard Times Come Again No More and so on. And then, when the player was tired and handed the instrument back to the proprietor or perhaps to an intending purchaser, the big crowd would give a cheer, while some of them would almost carry him off to the nearest pub for a ‘wet of the wire’.’

As the network of goldrush towns grew it attracted commercial entertainers to the many hotels that serviced the thirsty miners. Although some miners arrived with their wife and family the majority travelled alone fearing the life as too hard for women. In reality it was too hard for many men. The gold towns were male-dominated and hungry for entertainment and especially from the fairer sex. Famous singers like Lola Montez toured the larger towns while some hotels offered everything from freak shows to piano players. So called ‘Nigger Minstrel Shows’ were extremely popular. These were mainly American and usually, but not exclusively, white singers dressed with ‘black face’. Racially unacceptable today but a fact of life at that time. The minstrel shows sang popular songs of the ‘Dem Bones Gunna Rise Agin’ variety and many of these songs, including Stephen Foster hits like ‘Gentle Annie’ and ‘Gumtree Canoe’ crossed over from popular to traditional being collected in the oral tradition. I suspect that the Minstrel show troupes were also important in popularising the bones, spoons and the banjo in Australia.

The miners, and I should add the city audiences, wanted the words to the most-popular songs and it was only natural that they would end up in a printed form, especially since the printing press had also travelled out bush. At one time, for example, there were four or five newspapers being published in Gulgong alone. The availability of printing presses, especially the larger ones in the city, made songster publishing a possibility. It is important I mention that there really wasn’t a popular music industry as such at this time – no system of copyright ownership other than the singer saying ‘I wrote this song’. Of course, this also meant no one could prevent the printing of a song in a newspaper or book.

There is no doubt that the more sentimental the song lyrics the more popular the song. I would cite ‘Home Sweet Home’ as being the one song that stands out as the universal favourite. I have found this song mentioned in all manner of manuscripts and memoirs right across Australia. This song must have touched the hearts of every lonely man separated from wife, mother, father, children and all that he held dear. It must have been doubly touching to those thousands who had left Britain and Ireland, and other parts, so many miles away.

The early music halls also favoured these heartfelt songs that the artistes rendered with appalling mock tragedy complete with gushing tears and flowing handkerchief. Time and time again one comes across songs about dying children, women waiting (hopelessly one assumes) for their husbands to return from the sea, stories of prodigal sons and wayward daughters. Romance, tragedy, patriotism, politics and utter nonsense were the stock-in-trade of the Songster.

Here’s another reminiscence from Johnson’s Gulgong stay and describes a woman who sang while dressed in an elaborate mermaid outfit!

‘For a few nights a woman with a wonderful voice created a furore, She had been famous at the Lachlan (goldfields) in her younger days. I heard Sara Flowers sing, and this woman, I have forgotten her name, was very similar – not as cultivated perhaps, but certainly of equal volume, so much that it filled the theatre, and could be heard as far as Herbert Street. Her songs were, in a sense, vulgar – well, say risqué – but they gave great satisfaction to most of those who heard her. I remember one of her songs was about ‘a fish with a long, long tail which wasn’t a shark, a minnow or a whale. And the woman’s action was fishy in the extreme, as also was her costume, which made her look like a mermaid. In fact it was skin tight, and the way she changed from one scaly costume to another was surprising; first it was green, then gold, and then a steely blue, and the tail dragged behind her along the stage.’

I suspect Charles Thatcher was not unique in as much as he was an entertainer who performed his own songs at the piano. I can’t but help wonder how the hell he was heard but then I believe people tended to listen more to the story songs in those days. There is also the possibility that many of the establishments he played in were small but then many were quite large. Maybe he had a booming voice. Maybe there were terrifying bouncers to threaten the audience to be morgue quiet? Whatever the case Thatcher’s songs did get wide circulation and were printed in his own songsters and also in other people’s songsters.
One of Thatcher’s great advantages was that he not only sung about the miners but also was extremely topical – even naughty. His various jibes at the law enforcers and Chinese would have been enough to gain attention. Thatcher was also very active in New Zealand where he and his wife lived for some time under the patronage of ‘Bully’ Hayes the rogue sea Captain who owned a hotel business in that country. Thatcher produced songsters for several of the towns he regularly played. Hugh Anderson has done a great deal of work on Thatcher’s Australian publications and they are unreservedly recommended. One of the most interesting aspects of Thatcher’s work is that many of his songs entered the tradition and especially the folk revival. It is hard to think of Australian gold rush repertoire without nodding directly at Charles Thatcher.

The songsters also played a role in allowing colonials to look back at themselves. It was generally believed that colonial-born was superior to ‘sterling’ or British-born and many of the songs poke fun at both sides of the fence however the majority of songs try to capture the spirit of the gold digging fever and the frenzy of emigration. One interesting aspect of the early songsters, or at least the ones we know about, is that they all offer local songs rather than use songs popular in Britain or Ireland at the time. Of course, the world was far more patriotic in the nineteenth century and the notion of Britain as an Empire was still believable. We readily sang of King, Queen and Country.

Another aspect that should be considered is the relative scarcity of books and, of course, the cost of books. Given the choice between mining equipment and books, the equipment always won. From what I can establish the above-mentioned songsters were very keenly priced and should have been in reach of most miners and city dwellers. They were also pocket-sized which would have also contributed to their popularity.

While the miners were well served with songwriters, singers and songsters the pastoral industry doesn’t seem to be so served. Where are the identifiable songwriters of the shearing, droving and timber industries? Of course we have the songs that came from those workers and experiences, and we can track how certain songs moved from poem to song – A B Paterson’s ‘A Bushman’s Song’ (aka ‘Travelling Down The Castlereagh’) being a good example of how a poem, published in a magazine, found a tune and emerged as a song that became orally circulated.

This year I came across a new series of songsters that changed the way I view some of our folk repertoire. The Australian melodist series of songsters, published quite early between 1875-1885, contained some very surprising songs – many of which had been ‘collected’ from traditional song carriers. The songs of Simon McDonald being a good example for his repertoire contained several songs very close to those published in this series including Jenny (Ginny) On The Moor and All Around My Hat. Cyril Duncan surprised me when he sang ‘The Parson and The Clerk’ but there it was in the Melodist. One surprising inclusion was the Copper family favourite ‘Dame Durden’.

Possibly the development of the book and magazine market, the lower price and, above all, the penetration of the postal service to deliver to far flung destinations, superseded the need to publish locally. Henry Lawson, although a professional writer, spoke in an Australian voice. He used Australian words like mate and bloke and flat broke and, along with Banjo Paterson and others, provided the stories and poems that told of the average person. Maybe we all felt more confident as Australians to write our own stories and sing our own songs. Whatever the case there were ‘Songs of the Shearers’ Songsters published. It was Paterson who eventually gathered up the available songs in his ‘Old Bush Songs’ (Angus & Robertson, 1905). If only Henry had done a similar job!

It was around the 1885 mark that the music industry had organised itself to publish works that appeared in songbooks and sheet music. There was also the emerging sound revolution that was starting with an early version of the Pianola, which was actually a ‘player piano’ that used a sheet music roll. Mr Edison’s amazing wax cylinders were also capturing sound and were to be distributed commercially. Our Dame Nellie Melba was one of the earliest artists to record on cylinder.

The 1880s was also the heyday of the music hall – those extraordinary palaces of popular working class entertainment where a prince and a pauper could join in harmonious chorus singing. Music halls, already big business in London, San Francisco and New York, sprung up all over Australia. It is interesting to note that Australia delivered some of the most successful internationally famous music hall artists to the world – Florrie Ford (from Melbourne) was hailed as ‘The world’s greatest chorus singer’ and some of her successful songs included Tipperary, Goodbye-ee, Lassie From Lancashire, and the Van Damn Family. Those interested in music hall should look at my Yesterday’s Australia series on Rouseabout Records particularly ‘Corned Beef & Cabbage’ and ‘Is ‘e and Aussie Is ‘e Lizzie?’

The success of the local music hall, along with the growth of music publishing, produced a new wave of songsters. Once again they were pocket sized and offered the words of the most popular songs. The most important songsters reflecting the popular theatre and music hall were:

  • The Silver Songster
  • The Wattle Songster
  • Imperial Songster
  • Crackerjack Songster
  • Silver penny Songster
  • Broadcast Songster
  • Tivoli Songster
  • The Gaiety Songster
  • Boomerang Songster
  • Allen’s Popular Songster

All of these songsters were published in series and, in some way; consumers were encouraged to collect them. Silver, Wattle, Imperial and Boomerang were published in Sydney and Allen’s in Melbourne. All songsters carried British and America songs and, surprisingly, a steady flow of Australian compositions ‘as sung with great applause by …….at the Tivoli‘ etc . Frustratingly most songsters published in this period were undated however, if one can locate a starting date, it is possible to track them since all the series were numbered and the most popular, like Boomerang and Imperial, were issued on a monthly basis.

The Boomerang Songsters, published by the J Albert & Sons Company of King Street, Sydney, were extraordinarily successful and were still being published in the 1990s. The Albert family became, and continue to be, a major music publishing company representing everything from ‘evergreens’ to the Easybeats, Mixtures and rockers ACDC. They also, from their earliest days, obtained the local representation of international music catalogues. Along with the publishing of music the company also held the Hohner agencies and over the years imported or manufactured millions of mouth organs and accordions, auto harps, tin whistles and those peculiar instruments the nose flute and swanee whistle . In later years they held the license to a network of radio stations including 2UW, in Sydney. As they say “it all started with a song”

Before Albert & Sons there was a man called Joe Slater who appears to have been overlooked in the music-publishing story. I couldn’t find any significant references to him in the Mitchell Library other than as a composer of four songs. This is puzzling considering his enthusiasm for publishing the pioneer Imperial Songsters and his association with the Sydney music history.

Another aspect of the songsters, especially those issued at the turn of the twentieth century, was their racist content. This attitude appears to walk hand-in-hand with the music halls where racist slurs, especially against the Jews, seemed commonplace. One suspects that the ‘Hebrews’, as they were more likely to be referred to, were a comedy scapegoat rather than a vicious target. It could be argued that there is little difference however many of the entertainers writing or singing the material, were actually Jewish. Our most famous Music Hall artist was certainly the legendary Roy ‘Mo’ Rene, who was a Dutch English Jew (Van der Sluice). ‘Mo’ was certainly up there with his jokes and patter about the Hebrew Nation. Many of the songsters offered jokes along with the songs and to our eyes many of the jokes were extremely racist – you certainly couldn’t print them today as ‘entertainment’. The songs too were racist and it wasn’t just the Jews who copped it: Italians, usually referred to as ‘dagos’, were typified as cunning, Germans and Dutch were considered dim-witted, Scots and Jews thrifty etc. ‘Mo’ also had a classic song called ‘Eucalyptus Baby’ about an Aboriginal girl he met at Kurnell! Many of the songs were sung, and printed in the songsters, in a parody dialect where “When I walked my baby” became “Ven I Valked My Babby’, and so on. Such racism, however cloaked and supposedly innocent, would inevitably end up being fuel for the Nazi fires of WW2. Make a mockery of someone (or a group) for long enough and people believe what they hear, however misguided.

The growth of the songster in the twentieth century ran parallel to the penetration of the young recorded music and broadcast industries. The music industry delivered hit after hit and craze after craze as the music hall saluted the next era of popular music however this one had a new dancing partner, the wireless.

© Warren Fahey