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© Warren Fahey

These weren’t the only performance situations for we know that the bush songs were also popular in the homestead where there was most likely a piano. Somehow the piano doesn’t really sit too comfortably with the singing of most bush songs. Once again, this isn’t to say they were not sung to piano accompaniment but the songs sung in the squatter’s parlour were usually of a different type, a ‘nicer more polite’ style of song or ballad. Of course the piano was extremely popular to accompany dance music and I will discuss that in a later section.

The timeframe is also relevant for the late 1890s saw many great changes in society, many brought on by the discovery of inventions, not the least being electrical power and cabling. This was also the heyday of a new type of stage entertainment loosely described as ‘music hall’ – theatres where popular entertainers played to average working class people rather than mostly wealthy people. This produced an interest in singalongs and this resulted in a new industry – the music industry including the publishing of songs. Many songsters were published during this period and these helped popularise certain songs and reintroduce older ones. The most popular songsters in Australia were pocket sized and had names like Boomerang, Imperial, Silver, Wattle etc – refer to my essay on Songstersin the Folklore articles on this site.

The most important change came with the turning of the century when in 1901 Australia changed from being a group of colonies to a Federation of States with a Federal Government. Coinciding with this event was a massive population shift from the country to the cities. The main reason for this move was the appeal of the coastal cities and the prospect of steady work in the new factories of industry. Australia had ridden high on the backs of sheep, cattle and horses and now the change had swept the entire bush. This made Australians look at their history and where they had come from with a new respect. It also rang the death knell for the old songs and ways of entertainment.

There is little doubt that the bush song tradition was aided and abetted by the vast army of itinerant workers, mainly males, who travelled from region to region, sometimes State to State, seeking work as shearers, drovers, timber cutters, fruit pickers, spud diggers and a zillion other jobs particular to the country. As they moved they took their songs and other folklore with them. It must be remembered that most of these workers lived in camps with communal living quarters that provided a good platform for homemade entertainment. Another factor was the usual absence of alcohol in these accommodations, so music making was a good choice. It is understandable that many of these popular songs would have been about the lives of the men who sang them.