Verandah Music

Edited by Graham Seal and Rob Willis, 2003

Curtin University Books

Since discovering the National Library of Australia's Sharing the Harvest about a year ago, that double CD has been a particular favourite of mine.  Containing songs and instrumental tunes (99 tracks in total) from John Meredith's 1950s field recordings, this is an excellent selection of the old bush-style singing, recitations, British ballads and dance music (and it's still available through the National Library of Australia).  Personally, it presented an opportunity to hear the classics of Australian traditional folk-music - for which the original 1950s vinyl releases and later cassette compilations are now all but unobtainable - and also a chance to hear antipodean singing accents in English close to that of my native New Zealand (from which no such releases of field recordings have emerged).  The magnificent performances of Edwin Goodwin, Sally Sloane, and Duke Tritton were all there, plus good surprises, like Ernie Sibley's bizarre recitation Snakes.

One of the small problems of Sharing the Harvest though, was its lack of background information about the performers and the songs in the liner notes.  This was solvable by consulting the 1967 book Folk Songs of Australia and the Men and Women Who Sang Them (John Meredith and Hugh Anderson), which documented the life stories and music of all the performers.  But would everyone who bought the CDs know this, or even be able to get a copy of this out-of-print volume?

There is certainly no such problem with the latest such release, Verandah Music, edited by Graham Seals and Rob Willis, and published by Curtin University Books.  This comprises a large-format softcover book (160 pages) and 2 CDs (45 tracks), which are stored in plastic sleeves inside the back cover.  Cover pictureThe book itself is brimming with biographical details, photographs, and a smaller quantity of lyrics and musical information.  It is structured into 47 chapters, each of which deals with a particular performer or musical group.  These chapters are the work of the editors and a further 20 contributors, who include John Meredith, Warren Fahey, David Di Santi, Peter Ellis and others of similar eminence.  Each track on the CDs corresponds to a particular chapter - mostly a field recording of the person in question, except in several cases where a 'cover' version by somebody else is used.  In three cases, performers in the book do not appear on the CD in any form.

Verandah Music surveys a broad range of traditional Australian folk music.  Though the older English-language traditions of bush-singing and bush dances predominate, these are contrasted with other traditions found in Australian: religious hymns, Maltese ghana music, army songs, gumleaf instrumentals, children's rhymes, ailan music from the Torres Strait and other such delights.  Included is the music of several recent immigrant groups, such as the Italians, Maltese and Spanish, which I presume follow the traditions of their original countries fairly closely.  There isn't any traditional Aborigine music, though some performers have Aboriginal backgrounds.

The book reflects a desire on the part of the editors to group together - under the umbrella-term 'verandah music' - these disparate types of Australian folk music.  Even though this term is used throughout the book, I found it was never really explained in any definitive way.  Is it an expression in common usage, or a recent invention?  This doesn't matter much I suppose - it is certainly evocative, carrying connotations of locale, climate, ambience, pace of life, and social attitudes.  I would say the most crucial connotation is in suggesting a certain scale of music-making - in the words of the editors:

'It is local music, usually played for intimate gatherings of family, friends and colleagues, or for the community…'
(Perhaps the only instance where such a secular-sounding term was not, in my opinion, entirely appropriate was when applied the music of the religious-orientated kores of the Church of Torres Strait Choir Group, and their lush natural harmonies.)

Conceptually, Verandah Music is performer-centred in its structure, much like Meredith's 1967 book, though by comparison far less concerned with the minutiae of the songs themselves.  Instead we are given a personalised blend of oral history, musical background, anecdotes and photographs, with each short chapter relating how the authors/collectors befriended the performers and were introduced to their music.  In a way, the book contains not just the life-stories of the singers, but also a glimpse into folklore collecting in Australia and how it has been undertaken in the last 40 years.  Of course the lives of the performers stretch back much further, to the 1920s in some cases, and encompass intriguing fragments and corners of Australian history.

For the most part, this is engrossing reading.  However, leafing through Verandah Music and listening to the CDs, I must admit to craving a wider perspective at times - or perhaps just more detail of the traditions each singer or musician drew from.  For instance, I could imagine a history of music-making from the Torres Strait area would make a fascinating book in itself.  This is not really a criticism, because Verandah Music is obviously not meant to have this function.  Rather, it presents samples of different music, presumably to stimulate curiosity and further interest, which is how it worked for me.  And to satisfy further interest, there are comprehensive references to each chapter, which include books, articles, recordings and even the archival codes for the oral history recordings that are quoted.  So, if extra background is wanted, one is well directed - even though you'd have to be in Australia to access most of it!

Onto the music itself.  I think the editors and collectors should be congratulated on bringing such a wide, yet cohesive set of recordings together.  I won't cover all the tracks on these CDs, but instead try to suggest the excellent range of material on offer here.

To begin with the songs and recitations in the old bush-style, we get a good representation of the understated Australian style - applied to some fairly eccentric stories and inventive humour.  Consider Simon McDonald's seemingly plaintive Old Man Kangaroo, about two hungry bushman's struggle to overcome a kangaroo, a task at which they eventually succeed in grisly fashion, by cutting off its tail!  Jim Bennett's Bald Headed End of the Broom, taken from a home self-recording, warns boys away from the woes of marriage:

With a wife and sixteen half-starved kids,
You'll find it is no fun,
When the butcher comes to collect his bill,
With a dog and a double-barrelled gun.
At the other end of the scale, there is a sincere version of The Broken Down Squatter by Jack Herlighy (completed by Paddy Glynn) and the nicely-paced recitations of Tom McCarthy and Don Trindall.

In several cases traditional bush songs are performed in 'hybrid' styles, which seem to have become 20th century traditions in themselves.  The influence of Country and Western styles is evident in the simple and effective 'hillbilly' playing of The Backblock Shearer, with Max Dyer on guitar.  The Flash Sydney Shearers, played by Pat Nightingale on rudimentary steel guitar in waltz-time, is another quite natural transformation.  The most unusual version is Herb Patton's Jacky Jacky, a multi-track recording of this classic folksong with gumleaf, accordion and guitar, and new (politically topical) verses.

On Sharing the Harvest, some of the old-style dance tunes were played pretty raggedly by their often elderly performers, with the accordion and melodeon players generally fairing better than the fiddle players.  With Verandah Music, the performances are much tighter overall, with some beautiful tunes and subtle playing.  The polka styles of accordionists Dave Mathias and Harry McQueen were both compelling and strikingly different.  The accordion playing of Ma Seals also stood out - her brief piece, The Waltz Mazurka, is rightly described in the book as 'a beautiful and strangely haunting air'.  The driving ensemble playing of the Wedderburn Old-Timers and more relaxed style of the Dawsons of Franklin, were both impressive and made me want to hear more.

There were some unusual hybrid styles in evidence with the instrumental dances too.  Eileen McCoy (and band) waltzed in a very appealing style, featuring fiddle and accordion, but also what sounded like slide guitar.  The mandolinist Val McGinness, who has been playing in the Darwin area for 60 years, was also interesting, his group playing an uptempo tune, Ali's March, in a unique, quasi-string band style.

For me, one of the most intriguing sub-genres of this collection were the urban folksongs, army songs and parodies of the 20th century.  Here, popular music has a had an interesting influence - being both adopted as a playing style, and used as the basis for parody and subversion.  At the instrumental end of the spectrum, this process was fairly straightforward, as in the Jack Lilford Band's highly danceable version of Marching Through Georgia.  Virgil Reuten's playing of Georgia on My Mind on gumleaf has to be heard to be believed, with dramatic slurs and 'blue notes'.  The highly accomplished sound of Seaman Dan's ensemble is also worth mentioning, delivering Forty Fathoms (his own song about the pearl-diving trade) in Melanesian ailan style, which smoothly blends ukulele and guitars.

The two army songs here are delivered with gusto on the one hand (On the Shores of Milne Bay by Jack Lynch) and deadpan humour on the other (The Army Song by the Bill Case Band).  At a cursory listen, the classic Army Song seems a straightforward number, here driven along by its simple piano accompaniment, 'til we begin to hear its complaints against army life:

Now they give us only biscuits, and they say they're mighty fine,
One rolled off the table and it killed a pal of mine.

Now I went to the canteen to get a bottle of grog,
And all I could get there was a sickly chocolate frog,
So we are finished with the Army…
The two most unusual songs in this category of 20th century folksongs would have to be Ultimo, sung by Lola Wright, and The Pyjama Girl Song, sung by Ken Pellow.  Ultimo is a Sydney suburb, and the song features some interesting imagery about the clandestine abortion trade which used to be carried on here:
Down in the dell where the girls drink Gilbey's Gin - to make them thin,
Fried fish and chips are the only flowers that grow - in Ultimo
Ken Pellow's song, to the tune of Funiculi Funicula, concerns the sordid, bizarre tale of a (perhaps fictitious) wife-murderer Antonio Agostini who recommends:
If you want to lead a life free from worry, strife and strain,
Liquidate the wife and pour the body down the drain.
There are three older British folksongs included in the collection.  My Love is for a Sailor Boy is sung by Val Turton, with a plain, effectively dispassionate delivery.  The short tale of highwayman Dick Turpin is given in similarly undramatic, but more humourous terms by Maysie Tucker.  The song Lovely Nancy is also included, sung by Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton, in a 're-singing' of Sally Sloane's version.  Strangely, this track was followed by a brief, quickly-fading excerpt from the original, which I must admit I found quite tantalising in comparison.  Here was the spine-tingling, slow delivery of Sally Sloane, which contrasted somewhat with the sweet harmonies that had come before.  There is also a repeat of My Love is for a Sailor Boy, by the group Touchwood, which though accomplished, was again a little sweet for my taste.

(There are four other cover versions on CD 2, which I thought complemented the field-recorded material much better.  These versions seemed to be included partly because of a lack of field material, though this was clearly not the case with Lovely Nancy and My Love is for a Sailor Boy.  Perhaps also because the other tracks were ensemble efforts that leaned towards the instrumental traditions, I found them more successful.  In some cases, I imagine their members had actually played with the original performers and understood the traditional style thoroughly - this would presumably be the case with Wongawilli, which includes collector David De Santi.  In the case of the two British songs though, I'm not so sure - the delivery and harmonies of the recent performances sounded far more contemporary than traditional.  In the introduction the editors explain the inclusion of all these tracks as showing that 'the music… is not archaic', but is being 'kept relevant and appealing' and I think in most cases they prove their point.)

Moving now to the music of more recent immigrant groups in Australia.  Not being conversant with the musical styles presented, I have less to say here, but many of the pieces were striking to my ears.  Most intense and dramatic of these would have to be the Maltese track in the ghana style - a 20-minute excerpt from an hour long fatt entitled Story of Ninu Galea Il-Kalora.  The song is an epic account of the singer Salvu Galea's father's journey to Australia and is accompanied musically by three intertwining guitar parts.  (A translation of lyrics can be found in an appendix in the book).  The other standout song was by the De Bartoli Family Band.  This piece, entitled The Migration Song, fused Italian lyrics, Queensland 'hillbilly' guitar and mellow accordion into an unassuming, but perfectly formed combination.

Although the CDs contain a wonderful collection of material, they would also be the focus of my only criticisms of Verandah Music.  This mainly comes down to the lack of a printed track-listing to refer to - a fairly obligatory feature I think it's fair to say.  Though the tracks are printed on the CDs themselves, this is a little inconvenient if you want to remind yourself who you are listening to!  In the end, I printed out a listing from the book's website (more on which below).  This solved the immediate problem.  However I also wouldn't have minded some more information on the recordings themselves.  Although the source (whose collection each track comes from) is printed on the CD - there is no comprehensive listing of the 'who's, 'where's and 'when's in each case.  In some instances, this could be found in the references or roughly guessed from the text, but a complete listing would have been welcome and probably would have only taken up a page or two.  And although most of the ensembles are fully credited, in certain cases (Jindi, Touchwood, Emu Creek and Wongawilli) they aren't.  I suppose its easy enough to find out this information on the internet - but it would have been easy enough to print it in the book too…

The final aspect of Verandah Music I must mention is the website -  Here one can find not only a description of the book, the contents page and track listing, but a range of extra material.  This includes transcriptions of traditional dance tunes, images from old songbooks and a trade union broadside.  There are also four RealAudio clips, additional songs by Sally Sloane (Ramblin' Sailor) and Pat Nightingale (Drover's Dream), a fragment of an interview with Eileen McCoy and Uc Da Loi, a song about the Vietnam War by Tub Matheson.  (For some reason, I'm not sure why, this track is not on the CD, even though Tub Matheson has a chapter devoted to him in the book).  There are also links through to selected articles in the online folklore e-zine 'Simply Australia', dealing with certain performers.  From perusing this site, there are available various other RealAudio clips, including some that feature on the Verandah Music CDs.  These are also worth listening to if you want to get a taste of the material before purchasing the book.  The Verandah Music website also includes selected photographs, contact information and other links (including Musical Traditions).

Overall I think Verandah Music is very good value - as a collection it whets the appetite for more.  Although I have outlined some minor areas where I thought there was room for improvement, they were far outweighed by the stories of such a wide array of interesting people and their music.  Well done and thank you to everyone involved!

Note: Verandah Music can be obtained fairly easily through internet bookshops in Australia for AU$49.95, or try:  If you live outside Australia, ask the retailer to deduct the GST component, which will knock about 10% off the list price.

Michael Brown - 12.3.04

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 12.3.04