Friday, May 8, 2009

Talking Australian: Going Bush

When more people took to surviving and working on the land a bush culture soon developed with its own code of conduct and common idioms. The songs, music and poetry described people's experiences and become known collectively as 'bush music.' The lyrics contain much of the colourful slang of bush life.

Bush ballads recorded the harsh way of the life and contemporary events and experiences of the lives and loves of bushrangers, bolters (on the run), swagmen, drovers, and shearers. Later new themes emerged based on the experiences of war, railways and unions. Although the bush remains a favourite subject of Australian songs (country songs included), it was often portrayed as a place people had left and longed to return to.Australian bush music was folk music which eventually evolved in Australian country music.

The bush songs were handed down as part of an oral tradition from the time of the convicts and were eventually assembled and published in the late nineteenth century when Andrew Barton ‘Barty’ Paterson (better known as Banjo Patterson) compiled Old Bush Songs. It took until 1950 before most of the bush music was recorded.

Overlanders were drovers and stockmen that crossed the Big Brown Land with sheep and cattle; shearers were as hardy a crew and removed the sheep’s fleece. Working conditions were extremely hard and farmers and landowners took every opportunity to cheat labourers whenever they could. Soon shearers formed unions and in 1890 union shearers at Jondaryan Station on the Darling Downs, Queensland went on strike because non-union labour were being used.

In solidarity, the Rockhampton wharfies refused to touch the Jondaryan wool and the unionists won the battle. This galvanised the squatters, and they formed the Pastoralists’ Federal Council, to counter the strength of the unions. In 1891 the central Queensland shearers went on strike and thousands of armed soldiers protected non-union labour and arrested strike leaders. Despite a long campaign of defiance the strike was eventually broken but not before both Pastoralists and Unions realised they had to work more closely together. The great shearer strike of 1891 laid the foundations for the labour movement in Australia.

Shearers worked intensely during the short shearing season (late winter) and often under atrocious conditions. When the last sheep was shorn in the last shearing shed for the season it was called the "cut out." Shearers were paid with a single cheque for their season's work and most did not make it past the nearest town that had a pub. There they would naively entrusted the cheque to the publican who served them grog until their credit was gone and their hell-raising had to end. This gave origin to the Australian English phrase "cut out the cheque" meaning spend all your money.

Many of the early bush ballads were anthems of defiance and recorded the contempt bush people held for the hated squatters and government. The shearer’s strike of 1891 was like the Eureka Stackade and brought many working class heroes to the fore. The most celebrated was Jack Donohoe and the best known song about Jack, is The Wild Colonial Boy.

The songs of the Overlanders (stockmen and drovers) glorified their pride in the skills in driving sheep and cattle over long distances. Songs such as The Queensland Drover had a stirring chorus which presumably would be sung lustily over campfires in the bush.

By far the best known is not a song but a narrative poem written by Banjo Patterson, entitled The Man from Snowy River (1890). The poem tells the story of a valuable horse which escapes and the princely sum offered by its owner for its safe return. All the riders in the area gather to pursue the wild bush horses and cut the valuable horse from the mob. But the country defeats them all except for The Man from Snowy River. His personal courage and skill has turned The Man into a legend.

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