Reviewed: The Penguin Australian Song Book. Compiled by J.S. Manifold (Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1964); pp. xi + 180; 9s. 6d. Favourite Australian Bush Songs. Compiled by Lionel Long and Graham Jenkin (Rigby Ltd., Adelaide, 1964); pp. 152; 27s. 6d.
After Percy’s ‘Reliques’ came Lucy Broadwood, Baring Gould, Cecil Sharp and the Oxford Book of Ballads. Then Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and other musicians had their say. For us in Australia the traditional ballad and folk song of the British Isles took on dignity and stature and were admitted to halls of learning and granted academic respectability. Our universities specified—Arts I, English I, ‘The Traditional Ballad’—and to give the course status added ‘Burns, the Folk Poet’. And so the traditional ballad and folk song became urban and urbane and the folk were deprived of the folk song. Are we following this pattern in Australia with regard to our own folk songs?
A.B. Paterson, Percy Jones, John Manifold, Ron Edwards and Dick Diamond and the academics John Meredith, Russel Ward, Edgar Walters have worked on the Australian bush song and ballad. Bush songs can today be the topic for Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures and even doctorates of philosophy but Brumby, Sculthorpe and Hughes have not followed the English musicians’ example.
By horse or Landrover the Australian stockman musters his sheep and cattle and the drover has his 350 sheep behind his prime mover; but the horseman now has his transistor on his saddle and the drover his car radio and both live day and night with the latest American ‘folk’ music. The plain fact is that the old bush songs are now to be heard in candle-lit cafés and not beside the camp fires of the Fitzroy Crossing.
John Manifold offers eighty songs including several versions of a dozen or more. Lionel Long and Graham Jenkin have selected forty-nine songs. Twenty-six songs are common to both collections. In each collection the songs have been grouped. Long and Jenkin have made comments before each song, Manifold at the end of each section.
Manifold in his notes and comments is scholarly, fair to his sources, pertinent, succinct. Long and Jenkin are verbose and incredibly naïve in their prefaces. They should have been more generous in their acknowledgement of sources, more particularly as their published version of the songs is now ‘Copyright 1964’. So, for example, John Manifold, who published the words and music of ‘Moreton Bay’ in Bandicoot Ballads in 1952 seems to have lost his equity in the song, and even his association with the song is not acknowledged by Long and Jenkin.
Manifold has the words of the first verse of each song beneath the music; the music is clearly and correctly printed with a gracious spaciousness; Long and Jenkin have music and words set out separately—a difficult arrangement—and the music is badly printed and inexact. The normal practices of musical notation are ignored. There are definite cases of doubt as to what really are the notes, of insufficient notes in the bar and of words not fitting the musical notation. These are serious weaknesses.
These are songs which must be sung, and sung by groups, if their real worth is to be appreciated. They are songs in which men have shared in the making and in what Kittredge calls ‘the second act of composition’. There are times when the verses stagger me with their barren literary quality and their terrifying and humiliating banality. It is grossly unfair, however, to compare them with the traditional folk songs of other and older settled communities.
Manifold laments the publication of these bush songs, believing rightly that publication stops their artistic growth. Cecil Sharp wrote, ‘the method of oral tradition is not merely one by which the folk song lives; it is the process by which it grows and by which it is created’. To preserve the bush songs, Paterson and his successors believed they must be written down. But once the noting down process began the process of refining the pure gold of the native community art ceased. The handing down of the Australian bush songs by oral communication took place over too short a period for the inferior to be eliminated and for the common man to work that ‘second act of composition’ on the remainder with his, and the communities’, native genius and magic.
It is from the modification and illumination brought about by oral transmission that we now have the world’s great folk ballads and songs. In Australia the printer and the professional singer stepped in too soon. If—on the old bush track, beside the campfires, at the bar of the shearers’ pubs or even with the jackeroos in the homestead quarters—the songs had for another one hundred years been orally transmitted, who knows how fine and how high in the world’s literature might have been the Australian folk contribution?
Viewed as historical data these bush songs are important; they are genuine and honest. Viewed as folk art there are few great songs in either of these collections. Yet I volunteer a personal judgment and suggest that ‘The Streets of Forbes’ is worth more than all the other songs in the two collections and is one of the great folk compositions of all lands.