Old Bush Songs: The Centenary Edition of Banjo Paterson's Classic Collection.
Edited by Warren Fahey and Graham Seal. Sydney: ABC Books, 2005. 324 pp. Illus. Bibliog. Discog. Index.
ISBN 0 7333 1591 7. AU$32.95.
The national mythologies of Canada, the USA, and Australia each include a 'pioneer experience' with remarkably similar elements:
1. a 'wilderness'--the north, the woods, the west, the bush
2. a European pioneer population defined by male occupations--sourdoughs, loggers, cowboys, shearers, overlanders, swagmen
3. aboriginal residents who have until recently been a romantic sidebar or a tragic footnote to the main pioneer story
4. a popular culture that still draws on the pioneer experience for national icons and narratives
5. a pioneer literature of verse, song, and story, traditional or professionally created, that was compiled in the late nineteenth-century twilight of the original era.
The respective fates of these songs and stories after their initial publication have also been similar. They were enjoyed as popular literature for several decades, then receded into the nation's passive repertoire except for one or two works that now stand for the rest. In the USA, a verse and chorus of 'Home on the Range' reached iconic status, but the bulk of cowboy materials dropped from sight unless they reflected ongoing local activity (in western states, there is still an audience for old cowboy songs and modern cowboy poetry). In Canada, the widespread popularity among anglophones of gold rush verse by Robert W. Service was reflected, then relocated, in grade school children memorizing one or two emblematic works--'The Cremation of Sam McGee' and 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew'. Service's oeuvre is now honoured more in the occasional official performance than in the actual armchair read.
In Australia, one bush-inspired poem-turned-song continues in national memory. It is Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson's 'Waltzing Matilda,' the nation's unofficial anthem and (perhaps to the dismay of some) international musical icon. But this, too, may be a case of cultural synecdoche. From what I gather as a distant Canadian observer, bush songs and poems have become the province mainly of folklorists and folk singers dedicated to keeping them in the public eye and ear.
Hence the appearance of Old Bush Songs: The Centenary Edition of Banjo Paterson's Classic Collection, edited by folk performer Warren Fahey and folklorist Graham Seal. The original Old Bush Songs, published in 1905, featured ballads and poems on bush topics that lawyer-versifier Paterson elicited from the public. The centenary edition 'retains much of the original publication and supplements these with a selection of old bush songs that have since been found'--some eighty-five songs in all, organized in chronological sections.
In a dual introduction, which could have used a tad more editing, Fahey profiles Paterson and his collection, outlines Australian song collecting since Paterson's day, discusses the nature of folk song, describes the songs in the book and performers who have interpreted them to modern audiences, and lists the collection's publication history. Seal provides a brief account of the book's place in the history of Australian folklore studies and assesses the scope and limitations of its songs. He concludes with a disclaimer regarding misogyny and racism in the lyrics retained 'in the interests of presenting an accurate historical record'. The book is given great visual appeal with numerous period drawings, photographs, and newspaper cartoons (there is one I thought might be as much in need of a disclaimer as the lyrics, but it is nothing anyone will riot over).
Old Bush Songs is a graceful pas de deux by folk singer and folklorist. Each entry consists of a short 'from-the-stage' type of introduction, with historical context ('... the ships carrying eager emigrants were nicknamed "limejuice tubs", referring to the daily ration of ...') and affective commentary ('... life for the pit miner was always hard ...'); then the song text itself; and finally a scholarly footnote identifying provenance ('Susan Colley of Bathurst, New South Wales, sang this version to ...'). Given its title, one would think this was a song book, but in the modern sense, it is not. As in the original, there is no musical notation. For tunes, you have to go elsewhere--books and recordings listed in the 'webography'. Singers may find the volume handy as a reference for the classic repertoire, broadened and brought up to date, or as a place to encounter lyrics they'll research further.
But the fact is, Old Bush Songs seems to be aimed more at a reading public than a performing one. Anyone with half an interest in Australian history and culture will find themselves caught by the power and charm of the materials qua verse--their mix of pathos, toughness, and humour, and their easy-going presentation. Certainly the collection will well serve Australians who have no knowledge of the bush experience, or have a passing acquaintance but wish to delve further into how that experience felt to their forebears. Non-Aussies will find the book useful for the same reasons, but they had better have a good Australian dictionary to hand. If those without one don't know what 'hard yakka' is, they will be in for some.
I. SHELDON POSEN
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa