Australia’s attitude to its indigenous people has changed dramatically over the centuries and still has a long way to travel. Recording early indigenous material presents major dilemmas for any folklorist as the material is often racist and sexist. My job is to record such material and I would caution anyone wishing to use this material in a detrimental way.
This song appeared in Singabout from the singing of Mr Leo Dixon. I assume the collectors were John Meredith and Alan Scott as the credit simply says ‘the editors’.. They note: ‘Leo picked it up in the northern shearing sheds, and says, “There are many more verses which could easily be got in Queensland.” The tune is a variant of ‘The Rose Tree’. The last verse is from the singing of Arthur Davis of Cullenbone, NSW, and also collected in the 1950s.
Jamie Carlln noted these extra verses from The Goondiwindi Song, from the singing of Lach Robertson:
Away outback on a god-damned track,
Where there are no grass nor water,
I met an old gin with her nose bashed in,
And she asked me to marry her daughter.
So Its Mungindi and mind your eye,
And don’t kick up a shindy;
For we’ll all race in and grab a gin,
And roll her in the bindl.
I’ve got a girl up north and one in Bourke,
And one in Goondiwindi
For they squeal and fight in the middle of the night,
In good old Goondiwindi.
Cyril Duncan sings ‘A Long Time Ago On The Logan’. Collected by Warren Fahey, 1973.
The song describes an Aboriginal ‘sport’s day’ on the Logan River, near Nerang, Queensland. It is a peculiar song in many respects and I avoided performing it until the local cultural community asked me for permission to include it in their local museum. I, in turn, asked if they thought it okay for a white fella to sing it. They said “yes”.
Warren Fahey sings his version of ‘A Long Time Ago On The Logan’
Roy Rene and Nat Phillips, aka ‘Stiffy & Mo’, two great vaudeville stars recorded this song in the 1930s for Parlophone Records as ‘Tit Bits’. Is it inappropriate? Yes, in the 21st century referring to indigenous people as ‘Abo’s’ is offensive.
This song published in Singabout.
Collected from Herb Green, St Lucia, Qld, by Warren Fahey in 1973.Rob Willis subsequently collected a version of this song
Boomerang and Murrurundi Critic, June 1875.
Tune: Fine Old English Gentleman
June 1876 issue
Quotes this ‘traditional ballad’
Skulls on skulls, and limbs on limbs,
Yea, ”twas an awful sight
To see the spot where blackmen fell,
And perished in the fight;
King, chieftain, slave alike succumb,
The yells rise fierce and strong,
Too New South Wales!
The creek all ran with blood
That day at bleak Wagong.
From Tales of a Big Country, 1972 Cooktown. Qld.
Tune: Galway Bay
Oh the girls come down from Oenpelli Mission
They’re wrapped up in the bible when they come
But they’ll soon forget about those Ten Commandments
When you hit them with a snort o OP rum.
Taken from The Australian Aboriginal by Roland Robinson and Douglas Baglin who quote that it was a popular ditty in country towns. It is actually from Dougie Young, Wilcannia. Several of his 1950s songs gained wide circulation.
Beer is all froth and bubble
Whiskey will make you moan
Plonk is another name for trouble
But the metho is out on its own.
And included in the correspondence files of the Keesing papers
Bill Harney was a legend of the Outback.
He was a familiar face to many Northern Territory Aborigines who accepted him as a brother. Harney wrote several books on the Outback. He sent these two ditties to Katherine Brisbane when she (and Doug Stewart) were working on their version of ‘Old Bush Songs’.
Harney could never be described as ‘racist’ and particularly in regard to indigenous Australians. He saw these ditties as amusements and that they were shared by the northern indigenous people.
note: Also refer Bawdry Section for more Bill Harney material
Off times at night with the stars shining bright, I hear that old didjeredu (sic)
And my thoughts seem to stray, for I can’t keep away, from the girls that are easy to woo, and do.
Home, home on the range where the gins and the young quweis play
And man was supplied with a girl as a bride and the old river flowed on its way.
(If You Only Knew What the Redmen do
to make poor Redwing cry’)
WHEN TOMMY RODE THE JOKER.
(The undermentioned incident took place on Merluna Station (Qld), 50 miles from the Batavia goldfield in May, 1903.
The Joker was a notorious buckjumping horse who had damaged the reputation of some of the best horsemen in the Cape York country. Later Harry Shadforth bought ‘The Joker’ and took the animal to Cooktown.
Now Tommy Cook from Donny Brook
Was as black as a fireman’s poker
He heard the joke of the bucking moke.
The horse they called The Joker.
He came alone to the station home
And asked for a job as broker,
Says the boss: ‘Be gob, I’ll give you a job
You can ride The Joker.
He gets his grub by the Black Gin Scrub,
His mates are Flirt and Smoker.
And it won’t be long before you prong
The horse they call The Joker.
They landed him when the lights were dim.
The pace it was a choker.
And he’s in the pen where lots of men
Have tried to ride The Joker.
He’d a cunning look this Tommy Cook
So we christened him Tommy Toker.
T’was a passing joke, I’m afraid the bloke
Won’t stay too long on Joker.
He saddled him well, and I could tell
He was no bloomin’ loafer,
But I’m telling you he must stick like glue,
When he’s up on the back of The Joker.
At last he’s there and they’re up in the air,
It was no game of poker.
But he stacked the cards in the station yards
That day he rode The Joker.
As we let him out he gave a shout
That horse roared like a motor.
Tommy was right. quite merry and bright,
As he sat on the notorious Joker.
With spurs and whip he gave him gip,
His sides were the colour of ochre,
And he raced him back along the bridle track,
T’was the downfall of The Joker.
What a glorious feat as he kept his feet,
And I claim to be no croaker,
T’was a gala day out Merluna way
When Tommy rode The Joker.
Ther are a million ‘jokes’ about Aboriginal characters in the bush and city – typically they are racist and make the indigenous man or woman to appear either dumb or the butt of the joke. Sometimes the character possesses a special cleverness, and, at the same time, is still made to look inferior.
The squatter, when in town for a few days, purchased a pair of ‘lastic sides for Jacky, and back at the sta tion the Aboriginal was all smiles when he received them. ‘By cripe,’ he said, ‘that plurry gin that been do the washln’ here open her eye when she been see me wear em this flash fella boot.’ Here he retired to his hut, and when the squatter again noticed him he was wearing the boots, but was limping. ‘Boots too tight, Jacky?’ he asked. ‘Not exactly that, boss,’ said the aboriginal, ‘but blurry corn longa feet been hurt.’ ‘That’s bad,’ answered the squatter. ‘Cannot you do something for them?’ A sickly grin spread over Jacky’a face. “No plurry fear, boss,’ he said. ‘They never been do nothin’ for me!”
In this story the character, typically named with the derogatory ‘Jacky’, twists the tale.
The young Kingsford Smith, when he started flying, used to barnstorm a town for publicity. The townsfolk would be all excited and would assemble at the local football field where the Mayor would make a speech etc etc and then Kingsford Smith would take a local identity up for a joy flight. On this occasion he decided to take ‘Jacky’, a well-known local black. Up they went and the pilot started doing loop-the-loops over teh town and, finally, landed safely back on the field. In addressing the crowd Kingsford Smith turned to ‘Jacky’ and said, “Well, I think half the people down here thought we were going to die.” ‘Jacky” looked at Kingsford Smith and said, “And half the plurry people up there did too.”
Bush newspapers didn’t help much with racist cartoons, poetry, songs and articles. ‘Bill Bowyang’, a popular columnist, published several works which today would have seen him up at the Racial Discrimination Board.
Townsville Daily Bulletin. 23 Oct 1945
ON THE TRACK with Bill Bowyang
(Except in matters of historical reference, all names used in the ‘track’ are fictitious and do not refer to any person living or dead. )
Along the Big Star River
In the spring of Thirty-eight,
We were tailing touchy cattle,
Young Bill Furber was my mate,
When I heard somebody chopping
At a hollow ironbark tree,
My horse became excited,
Whoever could it be?
The sound came from the river.
So I rode on to the rise,
And there & saw an Abo,
Very black, but small in size;
He had a hole cut in the ironbark,
Which he poked at with a stick,
First I thought he had a ‘sugar-bag,’
Then his elbow gave a flick.
In his hand he held a ‘possum,
Had it hanging by the tail.
Buck or doe, it does not matter .
Let’s presume It was a male;
He already had two ‘possums,
Was about to grab a third,
But something must have warned him.
I suspect it was a bird.
For be turned around and saw me,
He stood like a startled colt,
I casually lit a cigarette.
In my heart I thought he’d bolt.
Though only half a mile,
For a long time running wild,
Probably walked off from some station
Years ago when just a child.
Well, I gave him some tobacco,
But he couldn’t make a smoke.
When I laughed at his clumsy effort.
The abo grinned and saw the joke,
That helped to ease the tension.
Which before was filled with fear,
Though his eyes still held suspicion.
And he wouldn’t come too near.
I pointed to the ‘possum.
And remarked that it was good,
He licked his lips and muttered.
So I knew he understood.
The sun was tipping westward,
It was time for me to go,
Then it was that he informed me
He was Bobbie Wom-bin-to.
Worked on Ravenswood Station,
Used to work on Dotswood too,
‘Till a ‘hot scone’ made him frightened,
Bobble faded and shot through,
Now he thrives on sugar-bag and ‘possum,
Often spears himself a fish.
Living like his ancestors,
Can gratify his slightest wish..
Times have changed since Thirty eight,
The blame rests on the Hun,
I joined the army and my mate
No longer rides the run,
I’ve crossed a lot of country.
And I’ve met the yellow foe,
But I often think of bygone days
And Bobbie Wom-bin-to.
Bougainville B. M. Guild (A.I. F.)
Even the ‘N’ word was used freely (and offensively) in newspapers. Part of its use stemmed from the popularity of miunstrel shows, based on the drreadfully named ‘Coon’ shows of America.
NT Times & Gazette. 4 Nov. 1924
I been see em white man, he been come up
Alonga big fellah canoe to Arnhen Bay,
He bring em nanto, plenty rifle, loosem beer to sup,
All about black boy, cleared out and go away.
Some fellah stay alonga boat climbum big fellah waddy,*
Some fellah bring em nanto long ashore, like Captain Cody.
He been lightem big fellah smoke, blackboy very fright.
He takem plenty walkabout, before he come daylight.
Blackboy he been savey, white man come before
Take em lubra run away, boy sorry ever more.
Now when white man come our land
Lubra we been plant em, longa sand, little island away from land.
Some fellah black boy, been tell em big fellah white man lie.
He been tink it, get em plenty bacca, blanket.
White man been say, “you been see em boat up high,?”
Boy been say “You,” when man say been thank it.
All a same nother one boss been talkem like this;
“You been see em white fellah lubra alonga shore?”
Him been say “Give cm plenty blanket, tobacco plenty stick
Blackboy him cunning, him been say, I been see em before.”
Blackboy him been savey big fellah government man.
He been tell him plenty lie, he no more understand.
All about hear em yesterday alonga finger on two hand
All about two fellah-lubra in the hunted Arnhem land.
Since white man he been go away.
We make em smoke plenty all about come back to stay,
We been have em plenty corroboree, tea, sugar today.
We want plenty white fellah come back again and play.
Wc make em big fellah Corroboree
Ki Hi, Ki Hi, Ki He.
Government he very good man,
He give em the sugar he give em the tea.
He give em the blaket, he give em tobacco;
And many things more and lose em the trucker.
Ki Hi, Ki Hi, Ki Hoi
As a folklorist, I am aware of my duty to record all manner of custom, lore and song – including the awkward ones. By publishing here I record the work and, hopefully, make people think a little harder.
Here’s a song I had two thoughts about recording because it uses the word ‘Abos’ – a diminutive that should not be used. My quandary – should I record the song as popularised, or edit it for the sake of my recording of it. I made the call that it should be recorded as written.
Warren Fahey sings The Snake Gully Swagger. Warren Fahey: Vocals., Jaw Harp. Marcus Holden: Guitar, Stroviol, Musical Saw, Vocals, Brushes. Garry Steel: Accordion, Percussion. Clare O’Meara: Upright Piano, Vocals.
Dave’s Snake Gully Swagger.
I heard this song by Jack O’Hagan and sung by Alice Smith with the Jim Davidson Orchestra (recorded in 1930) on the Music Australia website. It would be familiar to anyone who grew up with an ear plastered to the wireless, listening to the weekly episodes of Dad and Dave on their Snake Gully farm. I debated whether to change the original words where it affectionately mentions ‘Abos and their Tabos’ but decided political correctness can go so far and, besides, I believe it is important we look at these items in context of the times. Hopefully we learn from the past and whilst no one would use the term Abos these days, such unconscious and unfortunately sometimes conscious use was a fact of life in the early 20th century. I have no idea what a ‘tabo’ referred to.
Snake Gully Swagger
Every body round the place will dance to it
It’s gonna set the pace so prance to it
It’s a snifter, body-lifter,
The Snake Gully Swagger
Every tramp along the way will sway to it
Farmers help to load their drays to it
Even Abos and their tab-o’s
Do the Snake Gully Swagger
All the pigs in the pen, the roosters and the hen,
Are doing it now,
The ducks and the drakes are doing shimmy-shakes,
Why even Sally our champion cow (into it…)
Grab yer partner round the waist and go to it
With every step you’ll take you’ll glow to it,
It’s a spry dance, dinki di dance,
The Snake Gully Swagger.