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Union Songs & Solidarity






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Warren Fahey sings ‘The Union Boy’

The Union Boy.

A very early Singabout Magazine (1956) published by the Bush Music Club, Sydney, first brought this song to my attention. Its words are sharp and to the point as the young girl defends her new love as ‘recently joining the Union’ but then threatens the young man with a litany of violence if he ever strayed to the dark side, including cutting him up in a hay machine and turning him into ‘Chinese rice’. In this day and age when only one in five Australian workers belong to a trade union it is a reminder of the role of solidarity in our labour history. I decided to record the song as my protest over the continuing erosion of worker’s rights and the decline in respect for traditional craftsmanship.

From Bill Coughlin/Meredith. National Library ORAL TRC4/20

Warren Fahey & The Larrikins sing ‘Unity Boys’. Warren Fahey: Vocals., Dave de Hugard: Accordion., Chris Kempster: Guitar., Bob McInnes: Fiddle. Andy Saunders: Guitar.

Unity Boys.

Australia had the worlds first fully elected Labor government. I believe this came about because, being an island in the middle of the Pacific, we were a geographically isolated country, and we were settled relatively late by people who had an above standard level of education (compared to other countries like America). This also highlighted our need to rely on mateship for survival and this, in turn, led to a general strengthening of the union system. The song comes from the Shearer’s Strike of the last decade of the eighteen-hundreds. This was a bitter struggle that just about ruined the Amalgamated Shearer’s Union but they eventually won and in doing so laid the foundation for the Australian Labor Party. The poem was a natural for the tune ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’ as used in the ‘Wallaby Brigade’. The song also acknowledges the Falkiner family who operated some of the larger South West New South Wales stations including Boonoke, near Deniliquin, which, during the nineteen seventies and eighties, was owned by Rupert Murdoch. I should also add that this is included as a historical item and I can’t really imagine anyone else singing these tongue-twisting verses.



Solidarity Forever: Australian Songs of Struggle and Strife.

Never underestimate the power of a song! After forty years of hunting, researching and performing both traditional songs I have learnt that truth. Traditional songs are very special creations for, unlike all other songs; they are the product of the community rather than songs created for commercial gain. The majority of the songs and poems on this album express anger or frustration – all expressed in their own individual style. Some make their point with wit and parody, some hit like a hammer; others leave you up in the air.

This collection follows four main threads exploring the songs associated with political and social change in an ever-changing Australia: the shearing strikes of the 1890s, the struggles on the coalfields, early factory life, and the Australian at war.

There is little doubt that the national strike action surrounding over twelve years of open dispute and agitation between workers and employers in the shearing industry of the latter part of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new brand of workplace relations. It was a confrontation that started life in the tent cities of the 1850s gold rush where, for the first time, men worked for themselves rather than as shepherds for ‘the boss’. It was a new found freedom fraught with social problems but a freedom considered well worth the fight. As the mines expanded and moved from alluvial to deep shaft mining the need for more organization and capital investment meant that most miners returned to working for ‘the man’.  Many miners transferred across to the coal mining, all operated by companies and, like many infant industries, riddled with problems of ‘who’s master and who’s man’. The shearing industry witnessed another confrontation and records show change was necessary, although extremely slow to be implemented. Squatters, considered by many (including themselves) as ‘all powerful in their own domain’ employed workers on low rates, fed them poor food, housed them in flea-pits and could hire and fire at will. Sheep could be ‘raddled’ with a blue paint by a ‘toby stick’ indiscriminately wielded by a squatter, resulting in shearers not being paid for his work. There were many grievances and, by 1891, they had all tumbled together as the shearers called for ‘solidarity’ and ‘change’. Change ultimately came and, as history shows, led to improved conditions, the consolidation of unions and, eventually, the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

Warren Fahey sings ‘Bump Me Into Parliament’  Marcus Holden: Viola. Garry Steel: Upright Piano. Clare O’Meara: Fiddle.

Bump Me Into Parliament.

This song can claim a bumpy history. Written as a parody of ‘Yankee Doodle’ in 1915 by Bill Casey, of Melbourne, it became a socialist anthem, especially for the Wobblies (International Workers of the World) objecting to the goaling of ‘The Twelve’ socialist unionists. The Sydney Twelve were members of the Industrial Workers of the World and arrested on September 23, 1916, in Sydney, and charged with treason under an archaic law known as the Treason Felony Act (1848), arson, sedition and forgery. It was more about the government’s fear of the rise of socialism and communism and thoughts of ‘reds under every bed’.

I first heard the song sung by the late Declan Affley and eventually found what appears to be the first publication in Songs of the ILP (International Labour Party), Adelaide, 1915, where it was attributed to Casey. (For more on Bill Casey – http://iww.org.au/node/337)

Some explanations to the names mentioned in the song: Justice Higgins was Chief Judge of the Arbitration Court. The reference to Sinclair singing the song relates to the following incident as cited by Solidarity Newspaper (published Glebe, 1918)

‘Constable James gave evidence for the Crown and stated that Defendant (Douglas Sinclair) was a speaker at an ILP meeting on Sydney Domain on July 7 (1918) and sang a song entitled ‘Bump Me Into Parliament’ indicating the use of profane language to wit, the words:

I have read my Bible through and through, And Jesus justifies me,

And those who don’t vote for me, By Christ they crucify me.

In summing up his case the defendant told the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was a quotation which had been passed by the Censor, and it was a song sung Sunday after Sunday on the Yarra Bank, Melbourne, in Broken Hill and Brisbane, and on the Domain for the past two months. He pointed out that it would constitute such a precedent that quotations could be in future an offence, and the quoting of passages from Henry Lawson’s works would be considered as obscene language.

The case was dismissed with Douglas offering to pay a five-pound inconvenience fine.

Finally, as a curious youth in the early 1960s I often visited Speaker’s Corner at Sydney’s Domain where I heard one of the last Wobbly speakers. Every time he shouted out his cry of ‘I.W.W’ the crowd would bawl back an equally defiant: ‘It Won’t Work!’

Warren Fahey sings ‘Rafferty & Cafferty’, Dave de Hugard: Accordion  Chris Kempster: Guitar

Rafferty and Cafferty.

Joe Watson of Caringbah sang me this song when he was ninety-two years old. It’s actually two items I pieced together as I have joined Joe Watson’s ‘Stump Speech’ in with ‘Rafferty and Cafferty’ – a simple case of Rafferty’s Rules! The stump speech is a folk creation to take the mickey out of politicians – the art of saying a lot without saying anything at all. The song can be dated by its mention of ‘Georgie Porgie’ Reid. George Reid was leader of the Liberal tendency in New South Wales, led by Charles Cowper and Henry Parkes and which Reid organised as the Free Trade and Liberal Association in 1889. He was Premier of New South Wales from 1894 to 1899 and Prime Minister in 1904 and 1905. Although a supporter of Federation, he took an equivocal position on it during the campaign for the first referendum in June 1898, earning himself the nickname of “Yes-No Reid.”  Joe said there were several ‘Stump Speeches’ around in those days. You can read the words of both ‘Rafferty and Cafferty’ and the ‘Stump Speech’, plus many of Joe Watson’s other songs at http://warrenfahey.com/people/joe-watson.html

The troubles of the 1890s shearing strikes coincided with the great population shift that witnessed the majority of Australians relocating from the bush to the cities. It was in the cities and coastal towns where work could be found. Of all the new industries it was coal mining that caused the most concern. Growth was rapid as the mines dug deep to feed the ever-hungry furnaces of the cities. We had also started to export coal internationally. This resulted in miners being urged to work harder, longer and often in extremely unsafe conditions. Like the shearers they were paid piecemeal – per ton they took to the mine-top. Like the shearers they found themselves embroiled in a battle of ‘who’s master, who’s man’. The miners had learnt from the shearers and their unions became well organised and aggressive, many attaching themselves to socialist and communist ideology. The struggles in the Hunter Valley and western New South Wales town of Lithgow were particularly violent and both produced songs included in this collection. You will also find some songs from the Broken Hill mines and the railway industry.


Tracking Lithgow’s Folklore through songs and stories.

By Warren Fahey

Australian identity is a sometimes evasive to identify. My brief stint collecting oral histories in Lithgow in the early 1970s provided me with some signposts that have stayed with me and helped develop my understanding of what makes us unique in a rapidly changing world. I grew up in a different Australia at a time when the Australian identity was usually defined as a grog-fuelled, fag smoking, ocker sort of world. Men were gawky, often awkward around women and totally insular in sharing their emotions. Women were the glue in most families, hardworking and controlling the purse strings. Caricatures like Chips Rafferty’s film blokes, Barry Humphries’  Bazza McKenzie and Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee were all macho types and, to some extent, not too far removed from the colonial outback drover and shearer, especially when they hit the big smoke.

I started to absorb Australian history at a young age. Although born in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington I was raised on storytelling, old songs and the poetry of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. The stories of pioneers, explorers and itinerant workers fascinated me. I realised the songs and stories provided a link, a signpost, to just about every aspect of Australian history from the convict era through to city factory life. Over the past fifty years I have collected, analysed and performed these songs and stories on radio, stage and in my books and recording projects. In the late sixties, when I began producing programs for ABC radio, I became concerned that the new medium of television, launched in 1956, was sounding the death knell for storytelling and homemade entertainment, so I decided to go bush for a year and see if I could collect remnants of yesterday’s Australia. I was also keen to see if Australia had any industrial songs. In 1972 I began collecting in earnest and one of my first destinations was Lithgow. It had the history, relative isolation of a valley, and it had coal mining.

Warren Fahey & The Larrikins sing ‘ Lithgow Onwards Struggle’ Warren Fahey: Vocals. Dave de Hugard: Accordion. Bob McInnes: Fiddle.

Lithgow Onwards Struggle.

Another piece included because of its historical significance rather than its singability! Printed as a one-penny broadsheet by the Lithgow-Hartley District 8-Hour Committee, dated 11 August, 1911 and signed by Richard Northey (Secretary). I had it from Jack Mays, a retired miner in Lithgow. It was quite common to sell these penny sheets to raise money for relief funds. This one supported the Ironworks Relief Fund and came from the period of the Hoskin’s Strike, Lithgow. Its original title was ‘Jingle on the Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Struggle’. I set the tune for an ABC Radio documentary in the early nineteen-eighties.

Arriving in Lithgow I made for the obvious point of reference – the Lithgow District Historical Society. Eskbank House, Lithgow’s most-valuable heritage asset, was operated by the society and I recall trawling through endless files and bookcases. My next move was to contact the local miner’s union and locate some retired miners who might agree to be recorded for my National Library collection. Collecting oral history and folklore is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle – one piece leads to another until you have a rounded story. I was fortunate to meet Jack ‘Twinny’ Mays, a retired miner and a mine of storytelling. Jack introduced me to another miner and unionist, Jim ‘Champ’ Champion. Together they provided me with an extensive lexicon of words peculiar to the local mining industry. Many of these words and expressions have been lost in time, especially with the mechanisation and now computerisation of mining.Words like gantry, over-wind, bork, sprags and daug join long-forgotten lines from songs, poems and drinking toasts. I remember asking Jack about his experience in the Great Depression. “Oh, my wife made me a sandwich and I’d head off every morning at 8am and return at 4pm”. I said, “Where did you get work in Lithgow in the Depression?” He looked at me and said, “Work? I couldn’t get work. I used to hide in the bush every day – we didn’t want the neighbours to pity us, they didn’t have any money either.” Jack’s wife added that the family lived on nine shillings a week and had to ‘put our pride in our pocket’. I often use this story when I am trying to explain the hard times of the 1930s to school students. You can give them all the facts and figures but a heart-retching story wins every time. Jack and Jim also gave me a song about the 1911 strike at the Hoskin’s Mine. Miners were paid per ton they bought to the pit top and the union was negotiating with Charles Hoskins for an additional tuppence in the ton. The colliery owner retaliated by decreasing the tonnage by tuppence. One of Lithgow’s most bitter strikes erupted. Jack and Jim related how every day of the strike the scab labourers were met by the Lithgow miner’s brass band who would usually play the ‘Dead March’ as the scabs arrived. One day, encouraged by month’s of keeping the mine operating, the scabs began to dance to the music. This was too much and a hell of a donnybrook broke out with the scabs being locked in the boiler room, Hoskin’s brand new T- model Ford torched, and the local police thrown into the mine’s slush pit.

Warren Fahey & The Larrikins sing ‘When You Give That Tuppence Back, Charlie Dear’. Warren Fahey: Vocals. Dave de Hugard: Accordion. Bob McInnes: Fiddle. Chris Kempster: Guitar. Andy Saunders: Mandolin

When You Give That Tuppence back, Charlie Dear.

This is a union song with a noble history. It concerns the bitter 1911 strike where Charles Hoskins, the mine operator, responded to the union request for an additional tuppence a ton by reducing their rate by tuppence. This led to an old style battle that went on for many months and ended when the strikers attacked the scab labourers who were charged with keeping the mine operational. In the confrontation, Hosking’s new T-Model Ford was burnt to the ground and the attending police were thrown in the nearby water slush pond. The tune was designated as ‘When the Sheep Are In The Fold, Jenny Dear’. I also got this one from Jack Mays and I recorded a version for the first Larrikin album I ever released, Man of the Earth.


Another Lithgow contributor to my collecting project was Bill Coleman. Bill worked as a mine engine-driver but was better known as Lithgow’s ‘strongman’. He was known for lifting heavy weights, including horse waggons in competitions. In some contests, he would even have a tug of war with a horse. During the Depression, he earned money from competing in amateur contests.

Troubles in the Hunter Valley Coalfields.

Norman Brown. Warren Fahey: Vocals. Dave de Hugard: Accordion. Bob McInnes: Fiddle. Andy Saunders: Mandolin. Chris Kemspter: Guitar. Andrew de Teliga: Bouzouki.

A stirring ballad from the Hunter Valley coal miner’s strike of the 1920s and the ensuing confrontation at Rothbury between the miners and the New South Wales Police. The late Dorothy Hewitt wrote the words in 1959. The struggle dates back to 1929 and was one of the fiercest confrontations between government and labour. Norman Brown, a twenty-eight-year-old miner, died from wounds to the stomach after the police fired on the strikers by order of the government. Several other miners received serious injuries.


Broken Hill


There were also troubles out west at Broken Hill, ‘Silver City’. I spent some time collecting in Broken Hill and scars of early strikes were still visible.


Packer the Scab.

Another ditty from a struggle in Broken Hill. Set to the tune’ Only a Button Between You and Disgrace’. Fred Bartley of Broken Hill sang this one for the collection in 1973. One of the other scabs was a man named Bill Bailey and the unionists taunted him by simply singing the words of the popular song ‘Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?’ – this was enough to prove their point.

Warren Fahey sings ‘Packer the Scab’ from the singing of Fred Bartley, Broken Hill, 1974


Mrs Frances McDonald, sings Don’t Go Down In The Mine/The Miner/The Drunkard’s Poor Child. Recorded Broken Hill, 1974. Warren Fahey Collection.


The Miner.

Life for the pit miner was always hard with long hours deep underground and a wage dependent on how much ore was delivered to the mine pithead. This was especially true of the coal industry and many bitter struggles were fought before the industry became unionised.

The original appears to be the English song ‘Five In The Morning’, which is also the tune name nominated in the Kidson Collection of British broadsides and folksongs. My version comes from Mrs Frances McDonald, Broken Hill, 1973, where it was also popular as an old time dance tune. Mrs McDonald broke the verses up by singing ‘Don’t Go Down The Miner, Daddy’ in the middle of the song.