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From the 2018 conference:

The Jig Doll in Australian Folklore: Untapped Potential

A Paper to the 13th Annual Conference of the Australian Folklore Network

National Library of Australia, Canberra, 29 March 2018


A Broad Definition

If you listen to the Dubliners singing Whiskey on a Sunday you will hear that Liverpool busker Seth Davey had three wooden dolls that danced on a plank and that his tired old hands tapped away at the beam. But in the Irish Rovers Songbook, the lyrics by Glyn Hughes refer to strings, which conjures images of a marionette, [i]

It is possible that a compromise position is found in the marionette a la planchette

A familiar sight around folk festivals is Steve Wilson aka the ‘concertina man’ busking for contributions to leukaemia research. His troupe includes dancing dolls which he made himself. Earlier Steve would don a mask that made him look suspiciously like a certain media magnate, thus creating the impression that the foot operated doll was dancing to the tune set by the media. The doll, with characteristic red ‘budgie smugglers’ and rather wide ears, looked suspiciously like the Australian prime minister of the day.

Moving with the times, Steve created yet another doll in top hat and tails that resembled the next prime minister in line. He then abandoned the mask but placed the ‘body’ of the former prime minister on the plank so that the new one could dance on him – symbolic of dancing on the political grave of the one he had assassinated during a coup!

It is no accident to call the timber base on which Steve makes his puppets dance, a plank. In the French tradition these dolls are known as ‘marionettes a la planchette’ – puppets on a plank or board. Steve chose to use this device to keep his hands free for instruments. [ii]

Dancing Machines

Whether old Seth Davey used a device similar to Steve’s or not, when I decided to add something similar to my busking routine, I contacted several puppet companies around Australia in case they had such puppets in their kit. They were very good at replying and wished me luck with my venture, but none had made such dolls or machines.

Eventually, I decided to import a jig doll. Chris Harvey of has several models on his site and he also has the all important ‘dancing machine’ to operate the dolls hands free. In Britain these puppets are known as ‘jig dolls’. In North America they are called ‘limber jacks’ or ‘limber jills’, which tend to be much plainer, often consisting of flat timber and sometimes lacking even the most rudimentary facial markings. Clearly however, in both cultures dancing dolls are part of the folk idiom.

There are several ways of manipulating a doll with your foot. The machine I got from Chris has a static board – a sound box really – and the foot pedal operates a stick in the back of the doll, making it go up and down. The hinged joints (shoulders, hips and knees) do the rest.

There are other ways of manipulating the doll using the foot. The doll can remain fixed while the board moves up and down. In one such system, the puppet is near ground level and the foot operates a pedal. In the other the foot pumps a springy rope attached to the plank. In this version, the plank might be held on a post, or it can be sat on by the operator. Bernie Davis performing ‘Johnny Todd’ shows how effective it can be to save the puppet’s movement for an instrumental chorus. [iii]

Clearly, the hands free element is essential for buskers and solo performers.

Fun on a Stick

However, long before hands-free machines were created, jig dolls were operated manually. The doll has a stick in the back. The operator can then make the doll dance on any surface. The potential range of movements is broader than with a doll fixed to a machine. The doll can leap in the air, move sideways and bow. The ‘youtube’ clip of Val Knight’s dolls performing in tandem is a great illustration of the potential for well decorated dolls used with imagination to achieve almost lifelike status. [iv] It is possible that one day a jig doll chorus could be assembled.

To achieve more flexibility, the operator can sit on a board and manipulate this board with the other hand. This increases the options yet again. Sometimes the operator taps the board. Other puppeteers favour pinching the edge of the board. In the ‘Feet on Fire’ clip, the operator has a special attachment for the board and has the doll dance on its toes, which are capped with metal. [v]

When the operator’s hands are occupied with stick and/or board, this reduces the musical options. Some operators sing or lilt while their doll dances, but it is probably more common to find that the operator works in co-operation with another musician. Clearly the jig doll operator is a musician because he or she provides a percussion instrument, just as the player of spoons or bones does. It might even be possible to set up a number of ‘boards’ like a drummer’s kit. You could try a toy drum, a biscuit tin and a hollow box all in a row. It is even possible for the jig doll to dance with an entire band, but hopefully, it will avoid recorded music!

Toy or Not?

There is no limit to the creativity of jig doll makers. Historically, dolls have been made to dance, seemingly independently, with all kinds of device – steam turbines, water wheels, hour glasses of sand, clockwork (think of the ballerina atop the jewel box) and one maker of phonograms designed a doll that would operate from the spindle of a turntable.

My jig doll came with a tongue in cheek warning ‘This is not a toy! Do not give it to children!’

Jig dolls are a folk instrument. They originated in an age of simpler toys – of spinning.tops, marbles, jacks, skittles, hoops, rough and ready catapults and bows and arrows, vehicles that needed to be pushed along. But children still appreciate these simple pleasures with not a screen in sight.

I chose ‘Henery’ from Chris Harvey’s collection. His body is neatly turned on a lathe and he has a great background story. He is named in honour of the King of Edwardian Music Hall, Harry Champion, whose most famous song was ‘I’m Henery the eighth I am’.

Since taking Henery out on the streets, I have had many people stop to talk about him. One woman said that she had such a doll operated by a stick in the back. Two women with walking aids stopped to admire Henery and said that they also had been tap dancers. One of them expressed pride in the fact that as a teacher she had given a start to a young man currently dancing the lead role in ‘Aladdin’, a popular musical showing in Sydney.

A man stopped to talk about Elvis Presley. In the movie ‘G.I. Blues’, Elvis sang ‘Wooden Heart’ (Muss I Denn) with puppets. The clip is on youtube and the miming is not convincing but Elvis’ voice is pure and rich and the ‘girl’ puppet to which he sings is simply beautiful with long blonde plaits and big dark eyes. The man, who boasted of a spiritual experience at Gracelands, was a genuine admirer of Elvis and expressed disdain for the tacky exploitation which occurs at Elvis festivals.

I showed Henery to the clever craftsmen at Central Tablelands Woodcrafters (Woodies) in Bathurst. They made Bob the Swaggie, Bill Morris and Bridget the step dancer. They were turned on a lathe and decorated by Woodies Bill and Bob. Gene dressed Bridget and made her hair. Col Borny made me some simpler limberjacks. He had one as a boy growing up on Jersey during the German occupation.

Australian Connections

My research into jig doll use in Australia has not been very productive. The jig doll has a long and well documented history in Britain and given the British influence here, it would be surprising if the jig doll did not cross the sea in some numbers. [vi] There are several toy and childhood museums in Australia but my inquiries with these revealed that they had no such items in their collections. One museum reckoned it would try to find someone to evaluate mine but this was clearly irrelevant to my needs.

When Rob Willis heard my paper he mentioned that there is a jig doll in the Forbes Museum. I contacted the museum and a curator named Bruce kindly sent me photos, The doll was given to a Cowra woman by Paul Wenz, himself a fascinating character. The doll is branded ‘Claquette’ and is of French origin.

Jig dolls discovered by Dave Johnson were operated on a plank which was strapped across the player’s knees. This seems awkward. Dave also found that the dolls seldom made a public appearance, perhaps because they were in the ‘golliwog’ style which even thirty years ago might have been frowned upon. [vii]

Untapped Potential

Because jig dolls are so versatile, they have great potential to be incorporated into the folk process.

They have potential in the building including the carpentry, painting and costuming.

They provide fair scope for individual creativity.

They can be used as a percussion instrument.

They could stimulate an interest in folk music among children.

They provide a means of participating in the joyous expression of dance.

They could even have benefits in occupational therapy.

A last word: When I was busking one day a donor commented: ‘You know, you are pretty good -, but he (Henery) is brilliant’.



[i] The Dubliners ‘Whiskey on a Sunday’

[ii] Steve Wilson busking with the gang ; see also  ‘Autre Marionette a la Planchette’

[iii] Bernie Davis singing ‘Johnny Todd’

[iv] Val Knight Jig Dolls Workshop

See also

[v] Pub session with jig doll Fast Stepping – Feet on Fire

[vi] Chris Brady’s site is very comprehensive on the British history

[vii] See: David Johnson ‘History – Jig Dolls’ Singabout #58, December 1986,





From the 2017 conference:

Percy French – Painting, Poetry, Performance and Paddywhackery? 

Gene Smith

Paper delivered Easter 2017 AFN Conference, National Library Canberra


Like some of my contemporaries in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew up listening to Brendan O’Dowda singing Percy French songs on the radio. I was doubly fortunate as my grandfather, who had a fine tenor voice and a great liking for the same songs, performed them daily for the family. As an adult, learning to read music and play instruments, I continued my enjoyment of French’s songs although some of his old-fashioned values and use of the Irish people as the subject of his humorous songs made me question my admiration. An example is McBreen’s Heifer, one of Percy’s many songs about the economics and humour of courtship and marriage. It depicts young Jamesy O’Byrne trying to choose a wife and being confused by the dowry offered with one sister and not the other.

Sez he “to wed Kitty is very good fun,
Still a heifer’s a heifer when all’s said an’ done.
A girl she might lose her good looks anyhow,
And a heifer might grow to an elegant cow.”

Although our first reaction to the sentiments in the song may be negative, as the blatant trading of women in marriage does not sit well today in the western world, the song does demonstrate Percy’s skill as a songwriter and story-teller. We enjoy the well-painted characters of the greedy and puzzled young suitor and the impersonal know-all of the schoolmaster, the twist in the story, the memorable lines and the cheerful tune which complements the text. However, we are left with a story which treats women as objects and gives a less than flattering depiction of the Irish characters. In addition, Percy uses Hiberno-English, a form of English which reflected the speech of the native Irish and which was often used in an exaggerated form to make the Irish the butt of stage jokes. All of this, the jokes, the Irish characters and their speech and their use by an Anglo-Irish stage performer poses questions about the songwriter’s motivations. Should we be more critical? Who was this Percy French and why is he still remembered?  In answering these questions, this paper looks at Percy French’s many talents but will focus mainly on the songs, his best known works.

William Percy French was born into a well-connected Anglo-Irish family in Roscommon in 1854. The Anglo-Irish were the ruling elite, living in the big house and representing the government of England. Members of Percy’s family had been appointed to the office of High Sheriff. In his play The Hostage, Brendan Behan defined Anglo-Irish as “a Protestant with a horse” (Behan 1978, p143). This short amusing definition encapsulates the “other” of the Anglo-Irish in a country where most of the population was Roman Catholic and too poor to own a horse or the “big house”.

Percy’s education followed the pattern of many of his Anglo-Irish peers – home tutoring, school in England and university at Trinity College Dublin. An early introduction to Euclid by a home tutor suggested an engineering degree and a path into the railways. Later he became Inspector of Loans to Tenants for a government drainage scheme in County Cavan. All of this predestined him for a conventional career path but, Percy’s artistic life and talents at school and university and his focus on painting, poetry and song while at work, led him in a different direction and made him famous in Ireland and abroad. That his heart was not in engineering was clear when he purchased new strings for his banjo and packed them and a tennis racquet and an easel to prepare for his first job. His sister, Mrs de Burgh often travelled with him when he undertook his engineering work and she commented:

“Sometimes he sketched, sometimes hummed over airs likely to go well to verses he had composed, or insisted on my singing the melody while he arranged the harmonies” (O’Neill 2016, p.7).

It was clear that Percy’s heart lay in the arts rather than engineering. His daughter Ettie noted that  her father “was remembered  chiefly as a songwriter but oddly enough song writing was just one of his sidelines” (O’Neill 2016, p.157).  His stage brochures described him as an “Irish art humorist” which encompassed his own poetry, singing, banjo playing and artwork. Painting was a special gift and love of his and he produced many watercolours, over 90 alone being in the North Down Museum and many others in private hands.  He could draw with both hands and a special concert trick was his upside down drawing which would be revealed at the end of the performance. Although his watercolours sell well (one sold for $62k) his songs have kept him firmly in the public eye and heart. In the days before mass communication, his punishing concert performance schedule through Ireland, England and America allowed him to publicise his songs, poems and plays. Over 150 years later his songs are still loved and sung in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, his paintings are sought after and his work is commemorated by the great and good in an annual festival in Roscommon. Yet when you examine the songs and poetry, you could be taken aback by the use of the Irish people as the subject of most of the humorous and popular songs. Can he be accused of paddywhackery?

Paddywhackery is defined as “a form of racial stereotyping that highlights the presumed characteristics of Irish people.  At best, paddywhackery is humorous and endearing; at worst, it is annoying and even offensive. Like all stereotypes, paddywhackery is a denial of individuality” (Pitlane Magazine May 2014). The Urban Dictionary defines paddywhackery as “the fakey out of the box Irishness” noted in stage Irish depictions nowadays such as the TV show Mrs Brown. In 1899 The Spectator (7 October, p.26) noted “but the mischief is that a great many people believe that this is the true and characteristic Irish humour, and form their estimate of the Irish people accordingly. …However, sentiment of this sort is always vastly popular in the music-halls, and no doubt it is profit- able (sic) to evoke it.”

The work of a contemporary of Percy’s epitomised this style of stage Irish writing. Robert Martin, pen name Ballyhooly and brother of Violet Ross of Somerville and Ross, authors of The Irish R.M., was strongly anti-Home Rule and a boycotted landowner. His stage characters used a thick pastiche of Hiberno-English to caricature the way Irish people spoke English and this suggested their lack of education and intelligence. Although Martin was popular in some quarters, he was reviled by many in Irish society. Arthur Griffith, in The United Irishman, referred to him as “A thing called Robert Martin (who has) done more to slander Ireland than any man alive” (Stevens 2011, p.104). Although many consider the Irish happy to laugh at themselves, sensitivity to such stage Irish depictions continue to cause tension. J.M.Synge’s Playboy of the Western World  faced riots when first performed (Grene 2017) and recently the actor Ardal O’Hanlon (RadioTimes 2017) noted that he vets all scripts before performance: “In every show I’ve been involved in I read the script, take out the Irishisms right away and say, ‘I’ll supply those’”.

Can Percy French be accused of paddywhackery? At the time Percy was writing and performing, the English view of Ireland was largely critical, fuelled by Irish agitation for smallholders to buy rather than rent land from English landlords and for Home Rule for the country. Percy, like Robert Martin, was Anglo-Irish and a stage performer who used Irish incidents and characters as the main theme of his humorous performances, plays, songs and poetry. His position as a member of the Anglo-Irish elite and use of the local Irish (unlike Somerville and Ross he did not often use his own class) as his stage subjects placed a distance between him and the people he portrayed. A publicity brochure for his shows in London (1901) noted that he spent many years “studying the idiosyncracies (sic) of the Irish peasant” (Tongue 1990).  Just as Robert Martin had, Percy used Hiberno-English for his character’s dialogue and this was at a time when The Gaelic League was striving to revive Irish culture and the Irish language. Was he blind to the political situation? He rarely refers directly to poverty, the Land Wars or Home Rule. His musical Strongbow, which he hoped would have a long season, was not well received and closed after a week as he suggested the English were invited into Ireland. Did he therefore avoid political references in his work? Publishers had advised Anglo-Irish writers to avoid the political in deference to local sensitivities (O’Neill 2016, p.84).

Why then was Percy French loved and remembered by so many when others such as Robert Martin were reviled and largely forgotten? Over 150 years after his birth, Percy’s works are recognised, performed and discussed at the annual Percy French Summer School in Roscommon. There academics, politicians, artists and musicians come together to celebrate his life and review his place in the modern world. His songs enjoyed a renaissance in the 1950s in Ireland through the work of the singer Brendan O’Dowda. His songs and poetry continue to be performed in Ireland and beyond. Why is Percy loved and why does his work endure?

Dr Julie Stevens (2012)  notes that “ French did not alienate his audience in the way that Robert Martin did, as French was seen as being truer to Irish humour and Irish ways in his ability to recreate ‘genuine native fun’ rather than comment on it from a distance.” Percy had always enjoyed mixing with people and listening to their stories. His travels around Ireland as an engineer had been invaluable and as an unashamed bower-bird, he seized upon events and turns of phrase for his writing. Alan Tongue (1990, p.50)  recounts the story of a woman who saw Percy painting one of his many pictures and invited him in for a cup of tea. Her children had all left home for America and she uttered the memorable line, “’Tis lonesome …with the childer away”, a line which inspired Percy to write a song, one of the few sad songs in his repertoire and  one of many he wrote on the theme of emigration. The Mountains of Mourne, one of these emigration songs, written in the form of a letter home to a sweetheart, demonstrates Percy’s skill as a story teller. Each verse paints a picture of the newly discovered city of London, the loneliness and longing for home and the “otherness” of the new migrant.  A newspaper clipping from 1912 (Tongue 1990) notes that “in serio-humorous or sentimental songs he blends a tuneful verse with a hauntingly pleasing pathos, simple and tenderly touching.”  The Emigrant’s Letter written as Percy sailed on a ship to Canada conveys the sadness of the Irish migrants who might never see their homeland again.

“And a long sort of sigh seemed to come from us all

As the waves hid the last bit of ould Donegal.

Oh it’s well to be you that is taking your tay

Where they’re cuttin the corn in Creeshla the day.”

Although Percy did not explore the political situation of the time, perhaps because he was avoiding the kind of backlash he had experienced with his musical Strongbow, he tapped into social concerns such as emigration. He did not involve himself in the politics of the Land Wars but he did explore the social and economic effects of the tension between romantic love and the need for land acquisition through marriage. McBreen’s Heifer demonstrates the extremes of this with girls and heifers being weighed in the marriage contract while in Little Brigid Flynn the young man feels the expectations of his parents to “get a girl who owns a bit of land”. In  Ach, I Dunno

a clear-eyed young woman notes:

“I’m simply surrounded by lovers since da made his fortune in land,

They’re comin’ in crowds like the plovers to ax for me hand”

Although there is a young man who takes her fancy, she is more than aware of the difficulties of married life:

“I’ll not be a slave like me mother with six of us all in a row.”

These few examples point to Percy French’s skill as an observer, listener and story-teller. His publicity material (1901) boasts that the “Irish songs are  based on  real incidents, and are not the incoherent medley of manslaughter and whisky which London is too prone to look upon as voicing Ireland’s humour” (Tongue 1990).

What of the charge of using Hiberno-English? There was no doubt that Irish people did speak English in a more colourful way and used the syntax of their native tongue in many phrases.  W.B.Yeats, a proponent of the Gaelic League and a critic of all things stage Irish, had difficulty in voicing the Irish characters in his plays and needed the support of Lady Gregory to add authenticity to the dialogue and the characters (Stevenson 2012). By contrast, Percy’s characters paint themselves through their dialogue. He used Hiberno-English sparingly, avoiding the exaggerations used by other performers. His ear for the language was noted by many. Berrie O’Neill (2016, p.63) quotes Derek Collie who was renowned for his knowledge of Irish culture: “Percy had an acute ear for the local idiom….revealing the character and expression of the people”. Dialogue is the basis of much of Percy French’s work and, as in McBreen’s Heifer, the characters not only tell the story but manage to paint a vivid and, in this case, less than flattering picture of themselves. It is in the songs, with the skilful marrying of text and music that Percy’s genius must be appreciated.

In her paper for the 2012 Percy French Summer School, Dr Ita Beausang comments that the songs  are blessed with  not only the “wit and use of language…but also the inventiveness and charm of the music” (Beausang 2012).  In composing his songs, Percy collaborated with Dr William H Collisson and others including his daughters but for many of his most popular songs he wrote both the words and the music. As a professional stage performer Percy French would have been very aware of the importance of connecting with the audience and of the need to marry the text and the tune. His humorous songs have lively tunes, often Irish dance rhythms, with dotted notes to emphasise the important words. He would change the key or the rhythm between verse and chorus in songs if it suited his purpose. McBreen’s Heifer and Are Ye Right There Michael are examples of this. In Mc Breen’s Heifer the verses which tell the story are in 6/8 and the chorus, the outsider’s view, is in ¾ time. Shlathery’s Mountain Fut appropriately changes from a jig to a march in the chorus. Percy used well-known Irish airs in some songs and rewrote music if he felt it did not match the text as in Are Ye Right There Michael? 

These songs were an important part of Percy’s stagecraft. He used stories he had heard in Ireland and doubtless he embellished some in the interest of his performance but he is never accused of malice or cruelty.  He was noted for his “Irish eye” (Stevens 2012) and many spoke of his closeness to the people and sympathy with them. Although he performed for many English audiences, he was well received all over Ireland. Alan Tongue (1990) lists 175 locations in Ireland for his concerts. In the excerpt on Percy French in the Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Vallely 2011, 288), the comment is made that his “humour is  perceived as laughing with the plain people rather than at them.”  O’Sullivan (1960, p.1), a proponent of traditional Irish songs, reminds us that “anyone who wishes to understand the mind and soul of the Irish  people must have recourse to their songs”. He castigates Thomas Moore for the poetic unreality of his songs but reminds us that Percy French is still loved (p.10).

Percy provides us with real vignettes of life in the late nineteenth century. Through his songs, poems and plays we can tap into a world which is long gone. As Catriona Clear (2015) notes:  “Percy French’s songs have great historical value because their humour and pathos were rooted in his keen observation of the Irish people he knew and loved at a time of rapid social change”. Percy may have used the Irish people as the subjects of his stories and performances but the humour was light and “genuine native fun” (Stevens: 2012), the humour Irish people themselves enjoy in one another. He straddled the gap between  Anglo-Irish and the local people with ease and “his talent, charm and wit allowed him to appropriate facets of an older mirror image held up by the English, to reconfigure them, and to infuse them with such delight that they can be and are reclaimed as our own (Cox Cameron 2016). With an acute ear, a painterly eye, an empathy with those he met and a talent for story-telling and performance, Percy French captured the world around him in memorable, gentle and humorous vignettes. His enjoyment of life shone through his work. As Percy himself said: (2017 Percy French Summer School brochure):

“I was born a boy and have remained one ever since.

Friends and relatives, often urge me to grow up and take an interest in politics, whiskey, race meetings, foreign securities, poor rates, options and other things that men talk about, but no –

I am still the small boy messing about with a paintbox, or amusing myself with pencil and paper, while fogies of forty determine the Kaiser’s next move.”



2017 Percy French Summer School  brochure:

Beausang, Ita 2012: 2012 Percy French Summer School  “The better will the music be…Melody and Rhythm in the Songs of Percy French’

Behan B. 1978: The Complete Plays Eyre Methuen London

Clear, Catriona 2015: 2015 Percy French Summer School,Percy French and Irish everyday life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’

Cox Cameron, Olga 2016: 2016 Percy French Summer School ‘A stranger in my own midst’

de Burgh Daly, M (ed) 1929 : Prose, Poems and Parodies of Percy French  Dublin: Talbot Press

Grene, N. 2017: ‘How 110-year-old Playboy caused a riot’

Healy, James N.1966 : Percy French and his Songs Cork: Mercier Press

Nulty, Oliver 2002: Lead Kindly Light. Celebrating 150 Years of Percy French Bernadette Lowry ed. Dublin: Oriel Gallery

O’Dowda, Brendan 1981: The World of Percy French Belfast: Blackstaff Press

O’Neill, Berrie 2016: Tones that are Tender: Percy French, 1854–1920 Dublin: Lilliput Press

O’Sullivan, Donal 1960: Songs of the Irish An anthology of Irish Folk Music and Poetry with English Verse Translation  Browne and Nolan Limited Dublin

Pitlane Magazine 2014:

RadioTimes 2017:

Stevens, Julie: 2011 ‘Somerville and Ross and Percy French on Edwardian Ireland’  in Brian Cliff and Nicholas Grene (eds) Synge and Edwardian Ireland  OUP 2011

Stevens, Julie 2012: 2012 Percy French Summer School ‘Percy French, Somerville and Ross and the Irish Scene’

Stevenson M. 2012: ‘Lady Gregory and Yeats Symbiotic creativity’

 The Spectator 7 October 1899

Tongue, Alan 1990: A Picture of Percy French Belfast: Greystone Books

Urban Dictionary  (

Vallely, F. ed. 2011: Companion to Irish Traditional Music, second edition,Cork University Press





Tony Smith



Tony Smith [i]

A presentation at the AFN Conference, NLA Canberra, Easter 1916 [ii]

If Australians know any songs that lament the tragedy of the war of 1914 to 1918, it is likely that these songs were penned recently. Songwriters such as Ted Egan, Judy Small and Eric Bogle have given voice to hitherto silent plaints about the loss, waste and injustices of the period. Finding songs that were used by contemporary opponents of the war is not easy. This paper reports on my attempts to find such songs.

The paper touches on the Anzac Centenary, the opponents of the war, use of music in support of the war and songs that might have been used by protestors.

Anzac Centenary

Despite the distractions of international and domestic politics, Australians must be aware of the commemorations of the centenary of the war of 1914-1918. Perhaps astute observers sense a link between the ubiquity of the Anzac legend and some policy decisions taken by recent governments. Both the legend and the commemorations are politically significant.

To early 2016, $562m had been allocated for Anzac Centenary events. [iii] Britain and France apparently allocated $90m. each.

Scholars disagree about the war’s significance, but there has been little dissent about the Centenary. Michael Leunig’s cartoon extends the cliché that ‘truth is the first casualty in war’ to truth as the first casualty in war commemorations. Perhaps inconvenient questions are being inadvertently ignored or deliberately suppressed. [iv] Voices of dissent in the period 1914-18 were certainly silenced. Today the national consensus is that the Anzac tradition must be revered, a century ago, the consensus surrounded the importance of the British Empire to Australians.

Historians such as Marilyn Lake have questioned official interpretations of the war’s impact. [v]Lake challenges the idea that the war, the Anzac legend and the Gallipoli landing were as important to nation-building as popularly supposed. She argues that important legislation in the first decade of the twentieth century included social policies which ushered in fair wages, votes for women and support for the vulnerable. The war years undermined those reforms, splitting the Labor Party, hampering economic development, causing industrial unrest and poverty and privileging one specific kind of masculinity over other identities. The hopes of independence raised at Federation were eroded by the war ethos of empire loyalty, internment of foreign looking people and silencing of dissent.

Perhaps the Anzac legend has been an essential part of the Australian ethos, but it may be subject to political manipulation. It waned during the Vietnam years of the sixties and seventies but saw a resurgence in the eighties.

Politicians since 1915 have exploited the idea that essential Australian values are those represented most closely by white, Christian, males of a militarist disposition. They take the respect shown for sacrifices made in warfare and massage this into a consensus to disadvantage their opponents in ‘culture wars’. It will be interesting to see if the consensus holds when the centenary of the first conscription plebiscite of October 1916 arises. As the vote failed to achieve majority support, anti-conscriptionists might hold unofficial commemorations.

There is not time here to debate these wider questions but I should state my position clearly. I think that a consensus can be manufactured and manipulated for political purposes. It is also important to understand that this consensus makes it difficult to dissent during the centenary, difficult to identify dissenters of the war years, and so also difficult to appreciate how they used songs. Some Anzac legend enthusiasts might feel that this very search is subversive.

Who opposed the war?

Joan Beaumont in Broken Nation says that in 1914, a few leftist organisations questioned the war. Labor Call (of Victoria’s Political Labor Council), Australian Worker (Australian Workers’ Union), Direct Action (International Workers of the World) and even the Bushman’s Bible, the Bulletin provided a class analysis of a trade war or capitalist war. Vida Goldstein (editor of Woman Voter, the voice of the Womens Political Association and the Womens Peace Army) called on women to ‘refuse to give their sons as material for slaughter’. These voices, muted in August 1914 became louder because of growing casualties, the length of the war, cynicism about government aims and actions including introduction of censorship and the conscription Bills. Contemporary enthusiasm for the war is over-estimated if we look at crowds at today’s Anzac Day marches and by commentators who refer in hindsight to the birth of the nation at Gallipoli.

Actions taken to humiliate and silence dissenters contradicted the rhetorical claims that Australian troops were dying to protect freedom. Victorian Labor MHR Frank Anstey commented that while Australia was fighting for liberty abroad, the jailing of dissenters such as the ‘Wobbly’ (IWW) leaders was breeding tyranny at home: ‘What is the good of victory abroad if it only gives us slavery at home?’

The War Precautions Act was used against dissidents. After authorities proscribed the song ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son To Be A Soldier’, they searched protestors’ homes including that of Cecilia John, because they believed copies of the song were secreted there.

Clearly, conscription and support for the war were distinct issues but may often have been confused in the popular mind. It is also possible that some supporters of the war changed their positions because they encountered hypocrisy in the pro-conscription case.

There were conscientious objectors and pacifists. Some of these were religious dissenters especially Quakers such as Maggie Thorp the ‘Peace Angel’. Catholics of Irish dissent were ambivalent, particularly after British troops executed the leaders of the 1916 rising in Dublin and when MPs in the House of Commons cheered news of the executions. [vi]

Left wing unions and the IWW were early dissenters. The IWW songbook contained parodies and these were particularly severe on Hughes. At their own meetings or at those they went to disrupt, the most popular song was apparently the Red Flag.

The Government exploited wounded veterans in recruiting campaigns. It also turned a blind eye to their activities. In October 1916 on a march through Melbourne of the United Women’s Anti-Conscription Committee banners were broken and eggs thrown. The organisers feared that ‘agents provocateurs’ had joined the march. By this time there were 23,000 returned soldiers and some engaged in officially sanctioned thuggery. The Government was still unsure what to do with veterans in the 1930s when the ‘New Guard’ arose from their ranks.

The Government used the WPA to censor publication of the anti-conscription arguments of a man named Heather, who lost a leg early in the war. Returned soldiers were more noticeable for disrupting anti-conscription meetings than for protesting the war, but there was a Returned Soldiers’ Anti-Conscription League. [vii]

Women flocked to voluntary war work. The Government gladly transferred work of caring for the wounded for example, to the Red Cross. Women were militarised without necessarily wearing uniforms, not least of all by encouraging men to enlist, or indeed by punishing ‘shirkers’ by giving them ‘white feathers’. Vida Goldstein expressed dread at the thought women might have sent their sons away because of their fondness for bands and uniforms.

Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst critiqued the war from a left wing perspective. Modern feminists might conclude that they did not question the traditional roles of women so much as advising women to think before committing their sons to the war. Clearly however they were conscious of bias against women and campaigned for women’s rights and advancement.

In 1917 there were strikes over food prices and the cost of living. Australian Worker warned of the ‘sweating of women and children deprived of their bread winners’ and unionists noted that ‘we do the paying, we do the slaying’. Adela Pankhurst led the Women’s Peace League in a demonstration in Melbourne in August 1917. Some 15,000 marchers chanted ‘We Want Food and Fair Play’ and sang ‘The Red Flag’. They smashed windows and pelted police with gravel. Unions stopped essential services. Scabs from rural areas camped at Taronga Zoo and the SCG. Strikers returning to work later were victimised, demoted and had their wages cut. The war was enlisted for class warfare.

Music in support of the war

Music was used for recruitment purposes and in the military. Marching bands lifted the spirits of soldiers. Bugle calls marked the periods of the day, especially Reveille and the Last Post played over graves. There were concert parties by troops and visiting civilians. Soldiers sang to express emotions such as isolation from home, pride, disdain of the enemy, contempt for the illogical actions of the high command and disillusionment with the life for which they had volunteered.

In the Centenary context, music is almost exclusively understood as these types of ‘martial’ music and the larrikin parodies of the egalitarian ‘Digger’. Special compositions have certainly expressed the tragedy of the war for individual service personnel and their families, but they do not question the idea of the centrality of the war to Australian nationhood and identity, and convey perhaps an overall sense of grandeur.

There have been a few attempts to take the opportunity of the Centenary to remind us that dissenters were active in the period but these writings and their subjects have remained largely invisible, as though the commemorations were only for those ‘in’ the war. [viii] And if dissenters were made invisible in the war years, they might also have been rendered silent, making them and their songs difficult to locate.

During 2015, an exhibition with the title ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ was held at the Percy Grainger Museum in the University of Melbourne. The curatorial staff kindly sent me the list of tunes on the iPod tour. I do not intend any criticism by observing that the list includes some 20 tunes none of which expresses dissent from the war’s aims. The closest the tunes come to dissent is when they express the poignancy of loss.

During her lifetime, Cecilia John recognised that music is not necessarily accessible to all. She established a ‘People’s Conservatorium’ to broaden opportunity. Cecilia John again!

Music against the war

For musicians, people who question war in general, who are sceptical about the ways the Anzac legend has been used, or who wish that the Centenary events could have a more inclusive focus, there is a challenge to produce alternatives.

The protests of 1914-1918 should not be viewed through modern frames. The context was different. Rallies were held in halls or parks and these were often denied to protestors. There was no television or ‘social media’. The youth and feminist revolutions were still five decades away and Australia was culturally less diverse. Today we have a rich culture of using songs around social and political protest movements. At rallies there are chants ready for improvisation: ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ rhymes nicely with ‘war’, ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ with ‘radiate’. Marches begin or end with music and amplifiers are available.

Movements of previous generations did not use songs the way we do. In our media rich age we accept that the days of the town hall meeting are over. Pictures from 1914-1918 show that rallies were dominated by men dressed in suits and felt hats. There is no carnival atmosphere to these sombre occasions and no children. Grief was borne more privately then and so the grieving were not expected to speak about their losses. Anyone questioning the war might be considered to be trespassing in these areas and so ill-mannered.

Of the songs which I have found, many ‘might’ have been used by protestors.

Protestors sang some songs – such as the National Anthem – to show that they were not disloyal but that they wanted war supporters to analyse the war motives critically. Joining in these songs could ‘disarm’ the militarists to an extent. Given that rallies became very violent at times, attempts to establish common ground were tactically judicious.

The Government assumed that serving troops would favour conscription. Editor of The Worker Henry Boote pointed out that while some 20% AWU members enlisted, only 2% MPs and 2% of the chamber of commerce did. Despite Hughes’ nom-de-guerre of ‘the Little Digger’ he might not have understood the troops well. They barely supported the plebiscites and Hughes was so embarrassed that he did not want the figures to be published as a whole.

While serving troops might not have been comfortable with being tagged as opponents of the war, their songs certainly expressed contempt for the way it was being conducted. The Folkstream website has a page of ‘Anti-Conscription Army Songs’ including ‘Solidarity Forever’, ‘Never Goes’, ‘Bump Me Into Parliament’ and ‘The Button That He Wore’. [ix] In the song ‘The Digger’s London Leave’ there is a strong consciousness that the values of British society had been replaced with something better in Australia.

Similarly ambivalent perhaps were songs of loss and grieving. Laments for casualties implied that the cost of the war was too great. There could be a sentiment that no more men should be sacrificed. There was an element at the time which urged women to bear their losses proudly and not to mourn dead sons and husbands. Women’s roles then were quite different to the expectations of the early 21st century. It must have taken some courage for two women to write and publish ‘Dear Anzac Pal’. It must also have taken courage for managers of music halls to allow anti-war songs.

Several pamphlets from the time suggest that words in verse form were used to express dissent. The CWA of South Australia printed a leaflet ‘A Song of Peace’ which was left on public transport. [x] The poster ‘Blood Vote’ appeared in the Australian Worker 12 October 1916. [xi]

The Victorian Women’s Ant-conscription League published songs which were also authorised by Vida Goldstein’s Women’s Peace Army. These included ‘Toilers of the Nations’, ‘Australian Hymn of Freedom’, ‘God Save the People’, and ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son To Be A Soldier’. [xii]

‘I Didn’t Raise My Son To Be A Soldier’ is particularly interesting. [xiii] Searches for both sheet music and for recordings lead only to an American song ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’ which was popular before that country entered the war in 1917. It sold 650,000 copies in 1915 in the USA. There were many parodies of this song such as ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Coward’, so obviously the tune and lyrics were recognisable to the general public. ‘Boy’ was later changed to ‘Son’ during the Vietnam years, possibly to avoid offending Black Americans.

Searches for the lyrics produce three variations. There is the American version, the lyrics published by the Victorian Women and yet another version possibly from England around 1900. I looked for the English version to see whether the local variation resembled that, but my search was, if inconclusive, interesting as it says a good deal about folk music processes.

A librarian at the National Library found that Hamish Imlach recorded the song with ‘Son’ in the lyrics. In the sleeve notes to the album, Imlach attributed the song to ‘Little Englanders’ people opposed to Britain projecting its power around the world, specifically towards South Africans. I eventually found a thread on Mudcat Cafe. The song does not have a chorus but each verse begins with the title line, while the American and Australian versions have choruses. In reply to my enquiry, Ewan McVicar revealed that some time in the 1970s Imlach was trying to reconstruct a song from fragments. McVicar rewrote the lyrics according to Imlach’s thoughts. So this version describing events of 1900 originated no earlier than 1970. [xiv]

Cecilia John [xv] is the name most frequently associated with the song here. [xvi] We can be confident that the song was sung at protest rallies and that authorities found its popularity troubling because it was banned under the WPA. How effective the ban was is difficult to assess. At one rally at least, military authorities threatened to arrest anyone who sang the song but when hundreds immediately broke into the song, arrests were not made. However homes were searched, mail opened and protestors harassed because they might be harbouring the lyrics sheets. [xvii]

The lyrics in the ‘Australian’ version which attracted the attention of the authorities who suspected the singers of disloyalty included the following chorus.

‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier

I brought him up to be my pride and joy

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

The nations ought to arbitrate their quarrels

It’s time to put the sword and gun away

There’d be no war today if mothers all would say

I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier!’

Today we might want to change ‘mothers’ into ‘parents’, or possibly ‘fathers’.

‘I Didn’t Raise My Son To Be A Soldier’ was potentially the song most likely to survive and form part of a tradition of anti-war protest, but it seems to have largely been forgotten. While other songs such as ‘The Red Flag’ have survived and been used, their focus has been both broader in content and more likely to be used by a specific section of society. Anti-war songs today tend to be those which can be adapted to the latest crisis and can be learnt quickly for marches rather than town hall meetings. They have more in common with the advertising slogan than the longer appeal to emotions. While it is possible that further research could reveal other songs of the 1914-1918 period which express dissent from the war, it might be difficult to fit these to twenty-first century expectations.


Antiwar Songs at

Australian Government ‘Songs of war and peace: from Heroes to Loss and Protest’,

Beaumont, Joan 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest

Damousi, Joy 1995, ‘Socialist Women and Gendered Space: Anti-Conscription and Anti-War Campaigns 1914-18’ in Damousi and Marilyn Lake (eds) Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Oakleigh Melbourne

Evans, Raymond 1995, “‘All the passion of our womanhood’: Margaret Thorp and the Battle of the Brisbane School of Arts” in Damousi and Lake (eds) Gender and War

Fahey, Warren 1989, The Balls of Bob Menzies: Australian Political Songs 1900-1980, Angus and Robertson, North Ryde

Galvin, Patrick 1962, Irish Songs of Resistance (1169-1923), Oak NY 1962 (3rd print).

Gowland, Pat 1980. ‘The Women’s Peace Army’ in Windschuttle, Elizabeth (ed) Women, Class and History: Feminist Perspectives on Australia 1788-1978, Fontana, Melbourne

Holden, Robert 2014, And The Band Played On, Hardie Grant Melbourne (‘How music lifted the Anzac spirit in the battlefields of the First World War’)

Honest History

Inson, Graeme and Russell Ward 1971, The Glorious Years of Australia from the Birth of the Bulletin to Versailles, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane

Lake, Marilyn 2013, ‘Fractured Nation’, Honest History, 6 October

Newton, Douglas 2014, Hell-Bent: Australia’s leap Into the Great War, Scribe, Brunswick Victoria

Roweth, Chloe and Jason ‘The Riderless Horse’,

Shute, Carmel 1995, ‘Heroines and Heroes: Sexual Mythology in Australia 1914-18’ in Damousi and Lake (eds) Gender and War

Smart, Judith 1995, ‘Feminists, food and the fair price: the cost of living demonstrations in Melbourne, August-September 1917’ in Damousi and Lake Gender and War

  • Digger Songsd. Allans Music Australia, Melbourne

[i] I am a former academic with a strong interest in folk music. I busk, perform at folk festivals when opportunity arises and write songs. I write articles and reviews for Trad & Now and online publications. I gave a paper at the 2014 AFN Conference. The Paper was called ‘We were on the Cornwallis: an exercise in tracing the provenance of folk tunes’. As a result of AFN posting the paper online I have been contacted by some ‘new’ distant cousins.

I was also contacted by a woman from Devon who had made a bonnet for my great great great great grandmother Mary Horrell in a project called ‘Roses from the Heart’. Hobart conceptual artist Christina Henri invited people to make bonnets for the thousands of female convicts transported to Australia. The song ‘A Bonnet for Mary’ is on

I noted in the song I composed for the 2014 paper, ‘Coal River Pilot’, that there was no school at Newcastle when William Eckford and his family were exiled there. Newcastle East began in 1816 and 5 of the original 17 pupils were Eckfords. The school which has an ‘Eckford House’ celebrated its bicentenary in February as the oldest continuously run school in Australia. I marked the occasion by writing the song ‘Jane, Jane, What Did You Learn?’ also on soundcloud.

I have used the information from Damousi and Lake’s Gender and War and elsewhere to write some songs that seemed to be needed. Available at listed as tracks of ‘The Sheep Teacher’. See The Last Man and the Last Shilling, The Peace Angel, War to End All Wars, Conscription of Wealth! and The White Feather Brigade. The first three are available on the ‘Bleatings’ CD, The Sheep Teacher © Tony Smith 2015.

[ii] Special thanks for assistance to: Kiah McCarthy (Grainger Museum), Chloe Roweth, Mark Gregory, Bruce Watson, Danny Spooner, John Shortis, Professor Grace Karskens, Professor Joan Beaumont, Professor Peter Stanley, Professor Marilyn Lake, Professor Douglas Newton, Meg Rigby, Danelle Edmondson, Rachel Pryor, Krysia Clack, Chris Scobie, Nicholas Wall, Ewan McVicar, Kerri Ward and especially Gene Smith.

[iii]; The term ‘Anzackery’ is used there to draw attention to ways the Centenary could be used for political ends.

[iv] Michael Leunig SMH 18 April 2015

[v] Marilyn Lake 2013, ‘Fractured Nation’, Honest History, 6 October; see also Douglas Newton 2014, Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap Into the Great War, Scribe, Brunswick Victoria, which casts some doubt on the notion that Australia was innocently answering the call of the mother country.

[vi] Patrick Galvin 1962, Irish Songs of Resistance, Oak, NY, p.59:

O did you hear the Members cheering, cheering? O did you hear the Members cheering?

As Asquith told them of the shooting, shooting The Irish scum that stopped recruiting

When Paddy Pearse fought and died And noble Plunkett lost his bride –

To set the Members cheering, cheering Sure soldiers must be shooting, shooting

To cool such wicked Irish pride Ye’ll not forget the Members cheering!

[vii] Our first landlord Jack Dobbie was an original Anzac and when he returned he joined an organisation called Anzacs for Peace.

[viii] There are some. See for example Paddy Gourley 2014, ‘Lest We Forget Comes Out of the West’, Honest History 7 October, Review of Oliver, Bobbie and Sue Summers (eds) Lest We Forget: Marginalised Aspects of Australia at War and Peace,

Also ‘Marginalised Remembrance’, Honest History, review

[ix] Anti-Conscription Army Songs 1917,

[x] Dowlingville Branch CWA of SA, A Song of Peace, ‘Please leave this card on seat’.

[xi] In ‘Blood Vote’ a woman expresses her guilt at having condemned a man to death by voting for conscription.

[xii] Women’s Anti-Conscription Songs 1916, Victorian Womens Anti-Conscription League, Authorised by Mrs Bremner and Miss Hilda Moody.

[xiii] Or ‘Boy’. The cover on the sheet music (Lyricist Alfred Bryan, composer Al Piantadosi) has ‘Boy’ in the title. Here the ‘Son’ song was banned under the WPA. I have heard recordings of ‘Boy’ but not ‘Son’. The ‘Son’ lyrics distributed by the Women’s Ant-Conscription League fit well enough with the Boy tune, except for the first verse which seems awkward.

[xiv] The Mudcat Cafe,, Ewan McVicar says that Hamish Imlach used a 6/8 rhythm quite different from the strict march tune of the American song.

[xv] Gowland, Pat, ‘John, Cecilia Annie (1877-1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 9 1983, MUP.

[xvi] Canberra’s Chorus of Women was apparently ‘considering’ performing the song in a concert, or so claimed ‘Gang-gang’, Canberra Times 10 November 2014.

Also from the 2016 conference …

Paper presented by Sandra Nixon at National Folklore Conference – The
Early Days of the Bush Music Club as illustrated by Singabout – the
Journal of Australian Folksong, 1956 to 1967.

Meeting the very friendly giant: being an international participant at the American Folklore Society Conference, 2014.

Jeanette Mollenhauer

When I first enrolled in doctoral studies at the beginning of 2013, I was given numerous pieces of advice from those who had travelled this road before me. One of those comments was this: “make as many useful contacts as you can”. To that end, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend two international conferences in 2014, the second of which was the American Folklore Society (AFS) Conference, with the assistance of their International Travel Stipend.

The AFS has a number of annual grants, designed to assist as many scholars as possible to attend a conference. The International Travel Stipend varies in the monetary amount provided, depending on the beneficence of AFS donors, but I was fortunate enough to apply in a year of fiscal abundance. A recipient must reside and study outside of the United States, and the application process involves outlining one’s area of research, how attendance at the conference will benefit that research, and how one will disseminate information gained at the conference upon returning home. For me, studying in the field of ethnochoreology, I sought to make contact with other dance researchers, and I undertook to present a report on the conference both at the Australian Folklore Network Conference in Canberra, April 2015, and in a written article (ie, this one) for Australian Folklore.

The 2014 conference was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in early November. Santa Fe, and indeed, much of the state of New Mexico, has been influenced by Native American, Spanish and Anglo-Celtic residents. Thus, the theme of the conference was “Crossroads”, reflecting the multifarious networks existing within the local population. My research area of traditional dance practices in a post-immigration environment fitted this theme well, and my paper proposal was accepted for presentation.

The town of Santa Fe is not large; the population is around 82, 000 people[i]. The town is serviced by a small airport which can allow planes carrying around 50 people to land; otherwise, more flights go to the larger airport at Albuquerque, an hour’s drive by the airport shuttle. The town’s elevation is over 2000 metres which, while not really placing anyone at risk of altitude sickness, means that staying hydrated is essential, and the local organising committee ensured that all delegates were aware of this need. All of the buildings in the town centre have been constructed in the adobe style of the Native American population. The hotel in which the international stipend recipients were accommodated was also owned and staffed by Native American persons, so we were able to experience their style and hospitality.[ii]

The day before paper presentations got underway, two pre-conference excursions had been organised. I was too late to book a seat on the “High Road” tour, but still chose to book for the “Fibre Arts Tour”, which took us to a number of weaving mills and fabric centres so we could see the Native American patterns and techniques. We enjoyed a spicy lunch at a popular local restaurant and of course this was a means of meeting fellow delegates in an informal setting, prior to commencement of the conference itself.

The Conference

The same evening, after the tours had finished, the official opening session was held, which was, for the most part, ceremonial in nature. The following morning I was up early to attend a “first time attendees” breakfast, to which all newcomers were invited. Members of the AFS Board actively took it upon themselves to engage us all in conversation. One Board member, who had, some years earlier, spent time in Melbourne, was very excited to find me: someone with whom he was able to discuss cricket, a game with which he’d become enamoured during his time in Australia[iii]. We were also given advice about choosing which sessions to attend, and the acceptability of the pastime of “panel-hopping” was explained.[iv] I had already perused the program in its online format, and made some preliminary choices about which sessions to attend, based on a list of priorities: a) what would be of direct benefit to my research, b) what was of general interest to me and c) what would provide a cross-section for presentation following my return to Australia. I will briefly outline some of the papers I heard, using this system of prioritisation.

There was only one dance-specific session, in which I presented my own paper, and unfortunately this was at 8am on the final day so attendance at this session (and, I later discovered, at all the sessions in this timeslot) was quite poor. The other presenters spoke about a group called the Green Grass Cloggers and Bulgarian Recreational Folk Dancing in the USA. However, I noticed there were multiple sessions entitled “Migrations and Adaptations”, and there were several dance papers tucked away in these sessions. One concerned the importation of the “Crossed Scissors” dance when the Danzaq people migrated from Peru to the USA, and how this dance had some changes applied to it in a post-settlement context ( very relevant to my research!). Another dance paper was that presented by Carol Silverman[v] on the role of dance amongst the Romani community in New York, again highly relevant to my current project.

The sessions called “Migrations and Adaptations” illustrated the multifarious ways in which the processes of immigration and re-settlement may be approached by scholars. Some focussed on issues of space and place, such as for the Cherokee people across the USA. Another paper examined works of visual art produced by an immigrant from Haiti who now resides in North Carolina, and how the artist represents the Haitian community in its new context. One of my favourites was that of a folklorist employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who described her role in determining the “cultural competence” of the linguists employed by the FBI. These linguists are often assumed, by FBI agents, to be capable of imparting a deep level of cultural insight which may affect the agents’ dealings with victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crimes. The folklorist is involved in mediating between the linguists and the agents and developing a program to assist agents in dealing with people from an increasing number of cultural backgrounds in the course of their work. A final favourite was about the township of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which bases its tourism industry on Laura Ingalls Wilder. However, the town has a large population of Hmong persons, who came there because they believed the values reflected in Wilder’s writing were congruent with their own. Now, when tourists watch a re-enactment of stories from Wilder’s books, they are just as likely to see Hmong actors as Anglo-Americans: a novel twist to the concept of the globalisation of American culture.

I chose to attend the session entitled “At the Crossroads of Folklore and Health: Character, Caricature, Characterization” since I have worked in social policy research, including some health-related projects, and was interested to hear such topics from a folklorist’s perspective. The papers covered topics such as internet representations of those who claim there are dangers in receiving the HPV vaccine, and narratives of African American women who suffer from diabetes. I was, most of all, interested in the paper called “Disability and Inclusion: Myths and Mascots”, which examined the trends to exoticise and sentimentalise persons with (in particular) Down syndrome. The choice of persons with disabilities to be Homecoming King or Queen has become a popular one in recent times in the USA, but Olivia Caldeira[vi] does not believe this does the person with a disability any real service, nor that the role and the attendant publicity reflect the reality of the person’s life.

Several sessions were chosen simply to provide a broad sample of the AFS smorgasbord. “Folk Narrative, TV and Gender” included papers comparing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with Little Red Riding Hood and looking at images of motherhood in the television series “Once Upon A Time”. The session about the folklore of work included a paper on applied folklore from Thomas McKean[vii] on two projects in Scotland in which older men who have skills in wooden boat building are passing on their skills to unemployed youths and some ex-prisoners, thus using traditional artistic practices to engage with disenfranchised members of the local populace.

Each time slot had up to twenty concurrent sessions, making it impossible for anyone to do more than skim the surface of this conference. I was, therefore, not able to attend sessions devoted to, for example, Mormon folklore, the Cold War, American barns, Animal Folklore, Tourism, Autobiographical Artifacts, Agriculture, Foodways, Cultural Sustainability, Poetry, Pottery or Building Networks for Social Justice or any of the multiple other topics on offer. Such is the nature of the friendly giant that is the AFS; no one could say there was not a broad range of topics covered at the conference.

Two of the invited speakers are worthy of attention here. The Presidential Invited Address was given by Simon Lichman from Israel, with the very long title “Prayer Carpets and Apricot Stones: How Folklore is used in ‘coexistence education’ between Israeli and Palestinian communities and its potential application to other multicultural settings and conflict situations.” The hall was packed and the audience captivated for a full ninety minutes as we heard about his school-based program. He goes to one school (eg Arabic) and over a period of weeks, asks the children to ask their parents/grandparents what games they played as children. The children then share what they’ve learned with each other. The program can also include song, dance and foodways. Then, he runs the same program in a Hebrew school. Finally, he organises a day when one group visits the other group’s school, and they teach each other their folkloric traditions. Often, parents and grandparents are involved with this day of sharing as well. In this way, he is developing inter-community understanding amongst children, which he hopes will bear fruit in the future as these children treat each other, hopefully, as friend rather than enemies. Upon finishing, Dr Lichman received a standing ovation from the entire audience who appreciated the potential benefits of this tremendously important applied folklore project being carried out in a sensitive and volatile environment.

Simon Bronner[viii] needs no introduction to folklore scholars, having been the author of many works in the field. He provided a review of most common keywords in AFS conference abstracts, first from 1989-2004, which are listed here:

  • Feminism & Sexuality
  • Performance & Communication
  • Ethnography & Field Research
  • Identity
  • Tradition, Authenticity & Heritage
  • Politics
  • History
  • Community
  • Space & Place
  • Artist/Performer/Life History

He then provided a list from 2013-2014 for comparison:

  • Ethnography & Field Research
  • Pop culture
  • Performance
  • Tradition & Heritage
  • Space & Place
  • Gender, Feminism & Sexuality
  • Politics
  • Documentation
  • Sustainability
  • Identity

While it is interesting to note the commonalities, that is, feminism and sexuality, ethnography and field research, identity, tradition authenticity and heritage, politics, space and place and performance, it is also worth noting the differences between the two lists. History, community and artist/performer/life history have slipped away, while pop culture, documentation and sustainability have appeared. While he did not dwell on reasons for these changing trends, Bronner did suggest that folklorists should seek to explain the phenomena they uncover through a psychological lens: to understand the human behaviour behind the folkloric practices. Perhaps someone in the Australian folklore academy, who has been in the field for much longer than I have, could do a similar study within the local context.


I described the AFS, in the title of this short paper, as a “friendly giant”. The organisation is a huge one by Australian standards, and the conference is a concentrated opportunity for scholarly interaction. Several hundred papers in three days, plus concerts, meetings and meals is a strain, but a worthwhile one. I derived great benefit from individual papers and from the deliberately fostered atmosphere of encouragement and camaraderie, for which the AFS is to be congratulated. As an Anglo-Australian, I relished the opportunity to be viewed, albeit for a few days, as an exotic and interesting “other” by delegates and by staff in the hotel and local shops, who are apparently fascinated by the Australian accent. I would wholeheartedly recommend attendance at an AFS Conference, at least once in a lifetime, to any Australian folklore scholar.


[ii] The Hotel Santa Fe Hacienda and Spa.

[iii] I am no expert about cricket, but he was just glad to find someone who knew anything about the game!

[iv] Over the three days, many delegates ran in and out of different sessions in order to hear papers of particular interest to them.

[v] University of Oregon. Carol has written an excellent book entitled “Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora”, a copy of which is in the National Library, Canberra.

[vi] Memorial University of Newfoundland

[vii] University of Aberdeen

[viii] Penn State Harrisburg

Click go the Shears and the 1891 shearers strike

by Mark Gregory (2014)

When I discovered that Click go the Shears was first published in 1891, I felt sure this was more than a coincidence that this was no coincidence. The 1891 strike has long been described as the defeat that led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Shearers and their union were huge news around Australia that year.

Every weapon at the command of the Queensland Government, including the army, the police and large numbers of special constables were drafted to protect and transport “free labour” to help beat the strike. The wealthy squatters had amassed millions of pounds to defeat the union and the arrest and imprisonment with hard labour of 13 leaders in the old convict prison of St Helens in Moreton Bay was a glaring example of what Doc Evatt called “injustice within the law.”

Evatt was analysing the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their transportation to Australia. In that case the magistrates used a law hastily passed to stop a strike for pay and conditions by sailors in the navy. In Queensland it was the same as the prosecution used a law by then defunct in Britain to stop the shearers strike. As Helen Palmer put it in her 1950s ballad: “the squatters owned the court”.

The song is political in the way that Tom Roberts 1890 painting “Shearing the Rams” is political. In many details the song follows the story that Roberts paints of the work in the shearing shed. The shearers with perhaps the ringer in the foreground, the tar boy – sweeper up “awaiting in demand”, the “boss of the board … with his eyes everywhere” are all present in the work. The painting was first shown publicly it met with a mixed reaction, one critic writing in the Melbourne Argus that the depiction of workers at work, the subject matter of the painting, prevented him from considering it as great art.

Roberts reply was that had he been a poet he might have described the process of shearing from the gathering of the sheep together to the many jobs entailed in the shearing shed and the importance of the best shearer (the ringer) but being a painter he shortened the story somewhat. The painting of course became one of the most admired and important Australian paintings of that era and I think what it depicts in the shed tallies very close to what is in the verses of the song. The most important people in both painting and song are the shearers, the boss of the board is looking on “with his eyes everywhere”, the painting could have been affected by hearing the song or the song could have been composed by someone who’d seen the painting – they are related in sentiment and time one on show prior to the 1891 Queensland shearers’ strike and the other appearing in print in the last month of that year, after the strike had collapsed. Both are iconic Australian cultural works, both have appeared on stamps! That they depict workers at work say allow us to claim the importance of workers to the way much of Australia saw itself at a time when economic depression was making life difficult for workers and their unions.

The song published towards the end of the 1891 in the Bacchus Marsh Express is not titled Click go the Shears, even though seven of the eleven verses are clearly recognizable as the song that was first recorded in 1952 and thought to have been first published in 1946. This iconic shearers song is a graphic description of labour and rank in the shearing shed, a comment on the political economy in a colonial epoch where “colonial experience” is a given and is accorded a resigned mockery. “The colonial experience is there of course / with his silver buckled leggings he’s just off his horse”. Unlike later published versions he whistles a tune ‘I am a perfect cure” at tune that is traceable in the newspapers of the time. Apart from the boss of board and the colonial experience the shed is peopled with workers just as in Roberts’ painting. The song too, like Roberts’ painting, was commemorated in a series of stamps.

Between 1891 and 1946 the song was transmitted orally versions were published in at lease three newspapers. After Burl Ives’ 1952 recording of it for broadcast by ABC and distribution in record shops on bakelite 78s, the song was also collected and recorded by folklorists. The original publication specified the tune as “Ring the bell, Watchman” a song that had been popular in Australia since the 1860s.

In 1946 Percy Jones also specifies that American Civil War song as the tune. The 11 verses of the original had been winnowed down to 7 by the time Jones came across it and began teaching it to school children. Among the incomplete versions recorded in the field were 2 verses of the original that are missing in Jones version. The singers knew the song as Click Go the Shears, and recognised the second verse of the original as the chorus. The song was also published in two newspapers under the title The Shearer’s Song in the late 1939.

In 1945 the Melbourne newspaper the Australasian published a request for the words of the song:

What this request indicates is “Old Timer” knew some of the words of the chorus and we read the variant line “Click go the shears, click, click, click; short are the blows and the hand works quick …” a year before Percy Jones published his version. By the way Jones didn’t give the song a title, until it was published in his Burl Ives Folio of Australian Songs in 1953.

Exonerated by the discovery of the earliest published of the song between is the accuracy of the memories of the bush singers who carried fragments of the song in their repertory. They all sang it to the tune “Ring the bell, watchman”, a tune popular with early dance bands, published in Australia a few years after it was composed in America.

The singers who knew the song and were collected in the field – John White, Mr Sanday of Charters Towers, Tiger O’Shane of Cairns, B. Miles of East Gippsland, Jack Parveez of Charters Towers and Bill Reddington of Gulargambone – had varying recollections of when they first heard the song. In his great index of Australian songs Edwards writes:

At present I am a little inclined to think that it may date from the period 1910-20 if only for the negative reason that none of my informants can recall hearing it before that time.

How the collectors of fragments would have loved to have discovered the 1891 version of the song!

We are left to wonder what conclusion they would have come to. Hugh Anderson tells me that he considers that the find reinforces for him something he has been arguing regarding the provenance of bush ballads since the early years of the Folk Song revival – since the mid 1950s – that what we regard as Australian folk songs may have entered an oral phase but that most of them began their journey as published songs and poetry.

This trajectory is now regarded as quite normal by most folklorists, indeed it is hard to see that it could be otherwise in a community where literacy has been much more common than observers and commentators have previously allowed. The class system is still with us and we still hear the terms “uneducated” and “working class” used as if they were somehow synonymous. One feature of Australian composed vernacular lyrical material is that it has been from the convict times largely about working ways and working conditions. It is because of the workaday character of the songs that they remain important to pay attention and keep alive. Otherwise our culture is a one sided affair where our history is only to be sought in the other vast archive we have in spades, that of dusty and often dry archive of Australian officialdom.

The importance of the National of Australia Library Trove Project is hard to over estimate. Over 300 million pages of Australian newspapers that can be searched and corrected online is a technological marvel. And this huge archive grows every day. The word Troving has now entered the Australian vocabulary of lay persons and scholars alike.

Because of Trove we now have three more versions of “Click go the Shears”, a song that also now has three different titles “The Bare Belled Ewe” published in Victoria in 1891 in the Bacchus Marsh Express, “The Shearers Song” published twice in NSW in 1939 in the World’s News and in the Wellington Express. The next publication of the song was by Jones in 1946 in his article about Australian Folk Songs in short lived Catholic magazine the New Century. Percy Jones had differing memories of his collection of the song.

My view is that the most likely source of Jones’ version of the song came from a clipping of one of the versions published in the NSW newspapers in 1939. However there are other possibilities like this one published in the Melbourne newspaper the Argus on 26 June 1953:

Dr. Jones obtained the words of “Click Go the Shears” from an aged shearer-poet in New South Wales about eight years ago, and set them to the old traditional tune of “Ring the Bell, Watchman.”

“Eight years ago” would have been 1945 – one year before he fist published the song.

Possibly the “aged shearer-poet” referred to Jack Moses the Gundagai journalist and poet most famous for his popular song “On the Road to Gundagai. Jones apparently told the folklorist and collector Chris Sullivan that Moses had given him the song in Sydney in the middle of World War 2. Perhaps Moses had a clipping from the 1939 newspapers. He certainly didn’t claim it his own while his work and as a journalist and popular poet would have quite likely to been interested in any published version of the song.

Another aspect of the existence of 1891 published version of the song is that it would have long been out of copyright by the time the 1939 newspapers published their versions one of which had been requested by a reader, and remembered by another. Perhaps the copyright of the song should be revisited and those who benefited from the copyright be required to return any monies they have been paid over the past sixty years or so. A suitable riposte to the notorious Men At Work judgement over a three note riff!

Tony Smith’s paper ‘We were on the Cornwallis: an Exercise in Tracing the Provenance of Folk Tunes’

Speaker notes ozfolknet

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