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© Warren Fahey

Let me explain. The isolation of communities in the Australian outback resulted in our traditional music being ‘reduced’ to match the remoteness of the landscape. Songs that came over from Britain and Ireland tended to have their musical ornamentation knocked out of them so that grace notes and even choruses disappeared or were considerably debased. Longer songs were also shortened. These unconscious actions reflected the rough and tumble nature of pioneer life in the ‘outback’ where ‘prettiness’ seemed inappropriate. I suspect there is also a relationship here between the spoken word and the unaccompanied song, the last half of the nineteenth century was also the height of popularity of the bush poem and singing unaccompanied could be seen as an extension of this usually animated recitation performance style. I believe the dry Australian climate also had something to do with the performance of songs. It certainly had an effect on our language and our reputedly ‘dry’ sense of humour.

Many of the ‘song carriers’ were itinerant workers – shearers, dingo trappers, rabbiters and drovers and, firstly, these men usually did not have room for extra baggage such at a musical instrument (except possibly mouth organs and tin whistles and you can’t play these and sing at the same time!) and the usual place of their performance was the evening camp fire where it is difficult to play an instrument when seated without a back support, the usually noisy accommodation huts and, more often than not, if you were a drover or bullocky, on the job.

We have several accounts of drovers singing to quieten the cattle herds but none mention a musical instrument other than a mouth organ.

Two of the most popular of the old bush ballads were Click Go The Shears and The Dying Stockman.

Click Go The Shears is perhaps the most widely-known shearing song. It was popularised by the American singer Burl Ives who recorded a version collected and probably arranged by Dr Percy Jones, and appearing in the Burl Ives Folio of Australian Folksongs (1953), though Jones had published the song in Twentieth Century, vol. 1, no. 1, 1946. The best-known tune for this song is said to be based on one called ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman’, composed by the American Henry Clay Work in 1865, who also composed ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’. Other versions of ‘Click Go the Shears’ use different tunes.

As with many of the shearing songs this one is full of life and colour, weaving a story around the activities and antagonisms on the ‘board’, the floor area where the sheep are shorn. The ‘Colonial Experience’ man is a reference to a usually young man sent from England to the colonies to get some colonial experience before returning home to take a role in the family or corporate business. They rarely got their hands dirty, as observed in this song.

As extraordinary as it sounds the original version of Click Go the Shears was discovered in 2012 by Mark Gregory, a Sydney folklorist, who located the song as contributed to a New South Wales newspaper.

It was signed ‘C. C.’
Eynesbury, Nov. 20, 1891.

Oh, down at the catching pen an old shearer stands,
Grasping his shears in his long bony hands ;
Fixed is his gaze on a bare belled ewe,
Saying ” If I can only get her, won’t I make the ringer go.”

Click goes his shears; click, click, click.
Wide are the blows, and his hand is moving quick,
The ringer looks round, for he lost it by a blow,
And he curses that old shearer with the bare belled ewe.

At the end of the board, in a cane bottomed chair,
The boss remains seated with his eyes everywhere ;
He marks well each fleece as it comes to the screen,
And he watches where it comes from if not taken off clean.

The “colonial experience” is there of course.
With his silver buckled leggings, he’s just off his horse ;
With the air of a connoiseur he walks up the floor ;
And he whistles that sweet melody, “I am a perfect cure.”

“So master new chum, you may now begin,
Muster number seven paddock, bring the sheep all in ;
Leave none behind you, whatever you do,
And then we’ll say you’r fit to be a Jackeroo.”

The tar boy is there, awaiting all demands,
With his black tarry stick, in his black tarry hands.
He sees an old ewe, with a cut upon the back,
He hears what he supposes is–” Tar here, Jack.”

“Tar on the back, Jack; Tar, boy, tar.”
Tar from the middle to both ends of the board.
Jack jumps around, for he has no time to sleep,
And tars the shearer’s backs as well as the sheep.

So now the shearing’s over, each man has got his cheque,
The hut is as dull as the dullest old wreck ;
Where was many a noise and bustle only a few hours before,
Now you can hear it plainly if a pin fall on the floor.

The shearers now are scattered many miles and far ;
Some in other sheds perhaps, singing out for “tar.”
Down at the bar, there the old shearer stands,
Grasping his glass in his long bony hands.

Saying “Come on, landlord, come on, come !
I’m shouting for all hands, what’s yours–mine’s a rum ;”
He chucks down his cheque, which is collared in a crack,
And the landlord with a pen writes no mercy on the back !

His eyes they were fixed on a green painted keg,
Saying ” I will lower your contents, before I move a peg.”
His eyes are on the keg, and are now lowering fast ;
He works hard, he dies hard, and goes to heaven at last.

Here is a collected version for comparison.

Out on the board the old shearer stands,
Grasping his shears in his thin bony hand,
Fixed is his gaze on a bare-bellied yeo –
Glory if he gets her won’t he make the ringer go.

Click go the shears, boys, click, click, click,
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick,
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,
And curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yeo.

In the middle of the floor in his cane-bottomed chair,
Sits the boss of the board with his eyes everywhere;
Notes well each fleece as it comes to the screen,
Paying strict attention that ifs taken off clean.

The tar boy is there and awaiting in demand,
With his blackened tar pot in his tarry hand,
Sees one old sheep with a cut upon its back;
Here is what he’s waiting for – it’s “Tar here Jack!”

The Colonial Experience man, he is there of course,
With his shiny leggings on, just off his horse.
He gazes all around like a real connoisseur,
Scented soap and brilliantine, smelling like a whore.

Shearing is all over and we’ve all got our cheques,
Roll up your swags, boys, we’re off on the tracks,
The first pub we come to it’s there we’ll have a spree,
And everyone that comes along, it’s “Come and drink with me!”

Down by the bar the old shearer stands,
Grasping his glass in his thin bony hand,
Fixed is his gaze on a green painted keg,
Glory he’ll get down on it ‘ere he stirs a leg.

There we leave him standing, shouting for all hands,
While all around him every shouter stands,
His eyes are on the keg, which now is lowering fast,
He works hard, he drinks hard, and goes to hell at last.

From ‘Swagman’ Jack Pobar, Toowoomba, Qld., collected by Warren Fahey, 1973. John Meredith collected a similar song under the title ‘Click, Click, That’s How the Shears Go’ from Jack Luscombe, Ryde NSW, 1953, published in Meredith & Anderson Folk Songs of Australia.