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More than a Life: John Meredith and the Fight for Australian
Tradition. By Keith McKenry. 2014. Harcourt North, Australia: Fanged
Wombat Productions. ISBN: 9781925078145 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Gerald Porter, University of Vaasa
(gerald.porter@uwasa.fi).

[Word count: 1056 words]

Few traditional singers, and even fewer field collectors, have their
life stories published, but, as the subtitle of this bulky volume
suggests, this book is more than just a biography of the person who
is unquestionably the most important song collector in Australia in
the Anglophone tradition. John Meredith (1920-2001) was at the very
center of the struggle for the recognition of a distinctive
Australian song culture in English. This led him first to take part
in the larger progressive movements of the left in the 1940s and
later to contribute substantial song and oral narrative archives to
the National Library in Canberra, first through recordings and later
also on film. Keith McKenry, who was himself a friend of Meredith and
has been active in developing folklore policy in Australia, is
ideally placed to document both the man and the movement.

The early part of the book is based on Meredith’s unpublished
autobiography, called “More than a Life,” which McKenry adopted as
the first part of his own title. It is an appropriate one, because
following the narrative of Meredith’s activities is exhausting: in
addition to being a tireless collector of songs and recitations, he
was a housebuilder, a smallholder, a rabbit catcher, a poet, and for
many years an assistant in a pharmacy. He also played the accordion
in Australian’s first folk band to have a large following, The
Bushwackers.

Meredith had two active periods of song collecting, as a young man in
the 1950s and from the 1970s onwards after he retired. Each resulted
in a volume entitled Folk Songs of Australia. McKenry calls the
first, published in 1967 and reprinted many times, “easily the most
important single volume in the Australian folk song revival” (229).
It was co-written with the prolific writer and collector Hugh
Anderson, who, more than ten years earlier, had published the first
substantial book of Australian folk songs to include music. They set
the pattern of concentrating on the singers and their milieu, both
personal and social, rather than analyzing the songs at length. The
second volume included songs collected from outside the state of New
South Wales, to which the first volume was confined. During this
second and most intense period of collecting, which began in the
1980s, Meredith started to record on film as well and to include
aborigines and performers in other languages than English.

Because of his strong commitment to the idea that the Australian song
culture in English was as distinctive as the aboriginal one, Meredith
sidelined the songs of Irish and Scottish origin which came with the
early migrants. He sought the outback and bushranger narratives of
the early settler days, with particular emphasis, of course, on Ned
Kelly, and the songs of occupational groups like shearers and cane
cutters, but also industrial songs like those of the gold miners.
These union songs, often including thick descriptions of working
processes and political conflicts, were far from the wacky
stereotyped male discourse of the media and the tourist industry at
the time. The second book still had a masculinist emphasis, but this
was modified when they were printed alongside songs by numerous
outstanding women singers whom Meredith encountered, like Sally
Sloane, Mary Gilmore, and (singing in German) Toni Seidel.

One of the shearers’ songs, “The Union Boy,” appears on the CD
enclosed with McKenry’s book (it includes ten traditional songs and
five instrumental pieces as well as performances by members of the
Bushwhackers, together with two poems by Meredith, read by McKenry).
In his interest in occupational songs Meredith had been anticipated
by Burl Ives, who produced an Australian LP after his 1952 tour of
Australia and popularized the song “Click Go the Shears” (also
included on the CD), and by A. L. Lloyd, with whom Meredith had a
running feud over plagiarism and fakery, though McKenry shows that at
the same time he was himself borrowing stanzas from Lloyd’s printed
versions of songs (177). This book is no hagiography: McKenry
documents his enraged responses to various proposals from the
National Library and the Victorian Folklore Society (251), and in
particular to the way the American folklorist John Greenway had
belittled Australian folklorists and used his recordings without
acknowledgement as the basis of his own performances in Australian
Folksongs and Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways)(192). McKenry rightly
calls Meredith “a good hater” (185).

In writing Meredith’s contentious and fragmented life, McKenry faces
the difficulty that any biographer has in attempting to construct a
rational and coherent subject. Instead he concentrates on laying bare
many of the underlying progressive positions that Meredith adopted.
The most overt of these was his early allegiance to the Communist
Party, which he never abandoned even though he let his membership
lapse (176). A chapter is devoted to the fact that he was discreetly
gay at a time when it was still a criminal offense in most Australian
states. Other defining practices are scattered through the text,
often showing his increasing concern for the environment: his early
comments on soil erosion as he travelled around Australia; his
aspiration to self-sufficiency by running a smallholding, selling his
produce at country markets, building his own house, using his
pharmaceutical experience to concoct “all manner of useful potions
and liqueurs” — and refusing to learn to drive in one of the most
car-bound nations on earth (46 ff., 53, 247).

Some reservations remain. The book runs to nearly five hundred pages.
It is sometimes weighed down by detail and it is often difficult to
get an overview of the central theme of Meredith’s role in the
recognition of a distinctive Australian tradition. Discussions of why
he was reluctant to print Anglo-Celtic, bawdy, music hall, “composed”
and contemporary songs, as well as recitations, and why he was highly
unsympathetic to the folk revival are widely separated (133, 207-8,
320 ff.) and are not included in the (usually accurate) index. The
index also falls down on its song listings: many of the those
discussed and in some cases quoted in the text are not mentioned at
all, so it is difficult to trace the often radical discussions of
songs such as the “Eliza Wells” group of murder ballads (350) or the
performing context of the “splendid” occupational song “Jog Along
till Shearing” (115). These, however, are minor grumbles about a
biography that is unlikely ever to be superseded.

———

Read this review on-line at:

http://www.jfr.indiana.edu/review.php?id=1802

(All JFR Reviews are permanently stored on-line at

http://www.jfr.indiana.edu/reviews.php)

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    Bert: The Life and Times of A.L.Lloyd by Dave Arthur pp. 456

    Due for release on 31 May 2012 published by Pluto Press

    Review by Mark Gregory

    The name Bert Lloyd or A.L.Lloyd is well known by folk song lovers in many countries. He occupies a special niche in Australia because he knew, sang and recorded many of the old bush songs.

    After many years of writing and “some twenty-five years in gestation”, Dave Arthur’s biography of Lloyd is about to be published by Pluto Press. In it the breadth of Lloyd’s contribution in a number of his chosen fields, translation, radio documentary, ethnographic film, industrial song, folklore, poetry, broadcasting, magazine journalism, teaching and radical politics is explored. In close to 500 pages Arthur offers a riveting story of a man, his friends, relations, triumphs, tragedies, his wide ranging influence and his ideas.

    Departing from London and bound for Sydney in 1924 aged sixteen Lloyd’s first work experiences were as a station hand in NSW, far from the bustling city where he grew up. His six years in the bush were leavened by a growing interest in recorded classical gramophone music and a kind of distance self-education through his borrowings from the Sydney Public Library.

    He returned to London at the beginning of the depression in 1930 and soon became involved in radical politics courtesy of the Communist Party, an organisation of which he would remain a member for the rest of his life. An early and lifelong friendship was struck up with another A.L., the historian A.L.Morton who wrote ‘A People’s History of England’ published in 1938.

    Lloyd’s first publications were a chapter in a 1935 booklet ‘On Revolutionary Art’ and his translation of the Spanish poet Lorca’s ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter and Other Poems’, published in 1937 while he was working on a whaling ship.

    A year later he had written a radio script ‘Voice of the Seamen’ which was accepted for broadcast by the BBC. The radio production created “an outcry from the ship-owners, and questions were raised in the House of Commons.” Perhaps this documentary, using working-class language, can be considered the first of a number of ‘Lloyd controversies’.

    Arthur describes Llloyd’s first encounter in Britain of “working-class people doing their own thing, singing songs … a thriving folk culture on his own doorstep.” This was a regular Saturday night session in a pub called the Eel’s Foot. After this experience Lloyd organised for the BBC “Direct Disc Cutting” van to record an evening in the pub on 13 May 1939. The recording was broadcast on 29 July, as Arthur remarks the BBC’s “first full-length programme of genuine traditional singing.”

    In October 1939 Lloyd and the historian Igor Vinogradoff began work on “the marathon drama documentary series The Shadow of the Swastika” a series which was “re-enacting in dramatic form the fantastical history of the Nazi Party and its Leader.” BBC research at the time showed that 12 million people tuned in to listen to this “vast and complex story.” The script was edited and published as a book in 1940, and recordings of the 9 programs were made for the “Ministry of Information”.

    This program may have helped Lloyd get work with the famous Picture Post magazine, but his open membership of the Communist Party stymied a continuation of his contract with the BBC, despite his having written eight scripts and translated two plays in a period of seven months. As Arthur puts it “he was certainly earning his £6 a week.”

    At the end of 1949 Lloyd’s bar from the BBC was officially removed. By this time he’d published two important books related to folk music. His 1944 ‘The Singing Englishman’ and his 1945 ‘Corn on the Cob: Popular and Traditional Poetry of the U.S.A.’ were both eye-opening for the lay reader, introductions to Lloyd’s concept that folk music was not impossible to revive. Arthur writes “it’s largely because Bert wrote The Singing Englishman at a critical time and nudged open the folkloric floodgates that the folk revival developed the way it did.”

    By 1952 Lloyd had published another collection ,‘Come All Ye Bold Miners’, and compiled in 1959 (with Vaughan Williams)‘The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’. The folk revival was underway and Lloyd’s part in it was unmistakable. In his introduction to Arthur’s book, Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson writes “I first saw the name A.L.Lloyd on The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in the school library, and thank heavens it was there. Not only did it give the school’s budding folk singers better verses for ‘John Barleycorn’ or ‘Banks of the Sweet Primroses’, it was consulted by the music department, and spared us having to sing the more prim Victorian versions of our national folk songs in class.”

    Between the early 1970s and 1980s Lloyd and the documentary filmmaker Barrie Gavin made “seven films over eleven years”, among these BBC productions some were shot in Eastern Europe where Lloyd had musicologist and folklorist contacts. One was shot in the United States about Lloyd’s friend Doc Watson: ‘Three Days With Doc’. Another was a documentary about Bartok the Hungarian composer and folk song collector: ‘The Miraculous Circumstance’ and another a film about the Hebrides: ‘And Still We Sing’. That the BBC ran with such material attests to the extraordinary influence of Lloyd at the time.

    Although I didn’t meet Bert Lloyd till 1969 Arthur’s biography makes me realise that I had some kind of early contact with him from around 1950 with a memory my mother singing ‘Hallelujah I’m A Bum’ from his ‘Corn on the Cob’, a book I have to this day. And in 1958, like Bert and Charlotte, I as a fourteen year old from the fens joined the same Easter demonstration with a thousand odd people on the first Aldermaston March described in the book. On that three day march from London to Aldermaston I heard the peace movement hymn ‘H-Bomb’s Thunder’ a song I carried to Australia and sang on many ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches in the 1960s.

    I once asked Bert what he thought was a particular trait of his singing style and he said it was his breathing, he learned to make each breath go a long way. Lloyd describes his approach to singing the Australian bush workers’ song ‘Across the Western Plains’ writing that he tried to release the song from its hobbles. As Arthur reveals he didn’t aspire to teach people how to sing but he enjoyed singing so much himself that it was pretty hard to resist his appeal.

    I recorded him singing Australian songs with Martyn Wyndham Read and Brian Mooney in the Singers Club in London in 1970. Australian historian Ian Turner was in the audience trying to stop the interruptions of a tipsy friend of he’d brought along. When Bert launched into one of his stories those interruptions changed to helpless laughter and Turner’s friend suddenly became as enchanted as anyone else.

    Lloyd’s engagement with and interest in so many aspects of his time are among the reasons that the long title of his biography is so apt. Long time admirers of Lloyd may find it strange that he came to admire the work of Bob Dylan for example or had such an interest in the use of electric instruments to deliver centuries old ballads and tunes to large concert audiences. The biography covers such matters in detail documenting yet another side of Lloyd.

    Dave Arthur’s biography is well worth the wait and he and Pluto are to be commended for this excellent biography.

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