Australian Folk Music

A brief history 

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Most people have heard a few traditional bush songs from time to time.  Even if you don't know the words, a few bars of "The Wild Colonial Boy" or "Travelling Down the Castlereagh" will sound familiar;  you'll recognise it as an Australian folk song. There have been lots of books published featuring Australian folk songs, and they appear in school music programs, movies and period television dramas.  By contrast, very few people know much about traditional Australian music apart from what they have heard from modern "bush bands", but the bush band sound we hear today often  bears little resemblance to the music played for dances long ago. So, what was that music like? Where did it spring from?

Until recently dancing was the social passtime in Australia, but prior to WWII it was exceedingly important, and few people didn't dance. Dances were held across the country in cities, towns and the smallest of hamlets - on rural properties and on Aboriginal missions, and in private homes.  Further back, before WWI,  people were often isolated (no telephones, horse and buggy or bicycle to get around) and dances were THE place to be. Dances were not just fun occasions, but provided a chance to meet people, exchange news and celebrate community events.

What was the music like?

 Our early dance music was British and Irish, as the first settlers brought their "country dances" with them, along with lively jigs, hornpipes and reels. Much of this dance music had been written down, and was played by orchestras for society people in the new colony, but the common folk carried their tunes in their heads...and they played them differently.

At about this time in Europe, the industrial revolution was forcing country people into towns and cities in search of work. Across Europe and America, country folk  brought their local dances with them, shared them and altered them as the new dance steps they encountered took their fancy. A huge dance craze took off, as these new dances began to travel. In particular, a new dance called the "waltz" was quickly spreading, and found its way to Australia.

 Thus, our early colonial music changed as free settlers brought the new dances and tunes from Europe, Britain and America. Dances such as polkas, mazurkas, schottisches and polka-mazurkas were soon part of the new dance agenda, along with various quadrilles. (If you want to read more about this, ask your library to get you a copy of Shirley Andrews's wonderful  book, "Take Your Partners").

Over time these dances and the music for them were both altered to suit local tastes and circumstances. New tunes were composed, and others amended.  Other influences changed the new Australian music, such as the great popularity of German bands which toured many regions in the late 19th century,  and the touring minstrel shows and music halls.  Musicians who heard these tunes  simply carried the tunes home, most likely whistling them over & over, & played what they remembered from what they'd heard. (They may have heard a tune repeated through a performance, & no doubt would consult others to "get" bits they weren't sure of. Such is the process of learning by ear).  Later still, grammaphone recordings brought another new source of music.

 All the popular music of the day was carried by ear, and as  players passed music from one person to the next, tunes inevitably changed. Some very well known tunes like "The Irish Washerwoman" survived better than others, but players in different localities often developed their own distinct versions of popular tunes. Frequently the tune's name was not known, and musicians referred to a peice by using the name of the person they had heard it from e.g. "Mum's Mazurka" and "Jack's Waltz". Many musicians had little ditties which they sang to memorise the first few bars of a tune.

If you can imagine a world wthout T.V., radio, recorded music or films you will begin to realise just how important music was in this era. The old musicians tell us that "there was a fiddle in every house", for even if nobody could play, perhaps a visitor might be able to... and then they could have a dance! 

Music for dances was of a high standard. Dooley Chapman, an expert concertina player from Dunedoo, told us "I'd only have to miss a note - by God, you'd see 'em look round - yes, if you only missed one note! ... which didn't happen too often then, I can assure you." (from the C.D. "Your Good Self"). Musicians had to play "to the step", which meant playing not just the right tune for a particular dance, but playing it at the correct tempo and with a rythmic emphasis that suited the steps of the dance. Dances often went all night, and only the best musicians were chosen to play for a dance. Musicians like Dooley claimed that they earned more from playing for a dance than they could from a week's hard labour.

Apart from group and couples dancing, trained dancers travelled around giving exhibitions of step dancing, and step dancing by the untrained locals was widely practiced. The tunes which were specially used for these dances (usually jigs or hornpipes) are now often referred to as "step dance" tunes.

 Many musicians also had tunes which were meant just for listening. These included tunes with very odd melodies or uneven bar structures. Irregular bar structures were not uncommon in European folk music, but often seem very strange to the modern ear, with our listening experience drawn from the British and Irish repertoire (16, 32 or 48 bars, except in a slow air).

As time passed, settlers from a particular country or region sometimes managed to preserve their musical heritage and blend this with that of their new home. The south-eastern corner of Queensland, for instance, has a music strongly influenced by its Germanic settlers...a wealth of beautiful tunes well suited to their favoured instrument, the accordion.

The greatest upheaval in this aural tradition occured with the advent of the "jazz era", and film. Popular English and American music soon held sway. The pianola, piano (and sheet music) came into vogue along with a newer dance style, and traditional music came to be seen as old fashioned. As grammaphones and the wireless took hold, more music was coming directly into people's homes.  Traditional musicians continued to incorporate new tunes into their repertoire from these sources, whilst playing tunes passed down from their forbears or learned in their youth. 

New music included tunes from the burgeoning country music field, and from the English ballroom and "old time" dance schools. Thus, a musician such as the fiddler Stan Treacy from Crookwell might have a repertoire  spanning over 100 years of music played in the local area, but including tunes like "Springtime in the Rockies" and "Lara's Theme" (waltz melodies learned from recordings and radio).

There are some regional differences in the Australian music tradition, and styles of playing varied with the influence of prominent local musicians.  (People naturally copy what they hear when its of a high standard...thus we learn & improve as musicians. Individual flair emerges after this crucial learning process.) So, reflecting the localised nature of traditional music, a player's style was often closely fashioned on that of  the person(s) from whom they learned had their tunes:  players from a particular district inevitably modelled their style on what they heard from family & friends.

Traditional Musical Instruments

 Except for orchestral players,  the main instruments which came to be used for dancing were the fiddle, the concertina, and the melodeon or button accordion.  As pianos became available, they were used to play chords which provided added volume and rythm to support the musicians playing melody.

The fiddle, of course, came with the first settlers, and had been used as a dance instrument for centuries. Colonial orchestras also used instruments such as the cello,  fife and flute. However, for the ordinary person - as opposed to trained musicians - the invention of a new breed of "free reed" instruments had a huge impact on dance music.

 Concertinas were invented in 1829 by a physicist, Charles Wheatstone. The anglo-german concertina became available in the 1840's and quickly travelled to Australia. It became very popular for several reasons. With its bright, tuneful sound, the concertina had a blow/suck movement - one note played on the push, the next on the pull. This gave an inherently rythmic quality to its sound, making it ideal for dance music. Furthermore, unlike the fiddle, the concertina had buttons - you push a button and you hear a sound. (Anyone who has struggled with the violin will appreciate how wonderful this is!).

These instruments had one, two or three rows of buttons, with each row producing a major scale. This meant that a simple melody could be easily mastered. Concertinas were relatively cheap, and portable. A wonderful literary sketch of the concertina of this era is to be found in Steele Rudd's "On Our Selection". Like many of its kind, the bellows of the instrument in this tale had been patched with sticking plasters ... those were the days!

An extension of the concertina, the melodeon is a more robust instrument of similar design. Melodeons could have one, two or more reeds per note, so they made a louder sound ... just what the doctor ordered for a hall full of stamping feet. The melodeon became even more popular than the concertina in later years. (Even in the 1980's and 90's, many people remembered fondly a family member who'd played one, and sadly neglected instruments were at that time still appearing in antique shops.) The button accordion is simply a more elaborate form of melodeon. The one played by Jeff in "Walcha Road" has three rows of notes, plus some extra buttons providing "accidental" notes ... sharps and flats not featured in the three rows.

Other instruments played in the old days included mouth organs, banjos, mandolins, and drums.(Guitars were not commonly used for dance music.) Home-made instruments such as the kerosene-tin dulcimer were also in evidence, necessity being the mother of invention. And, of course, there was the gum leaf.

Today many instruments are used to play traditional music, and the instrument line-up for a band is often arrived at according to who is available.  Traditional accoustic instruments still give a more old-timey sound to any group and the fiddle, concertina, mouth organ and accordion still hold sway where there are musicians who can play them.