Author's Note: The main image depicts the Strikers' library at Barcaldine during the 1891 Shearers' Strike. Shearers were instrumental in spreading Australian traditional music across the country: in many country towns, often music was played and danced to in the wool sheds. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 1891.
Many styles of traditional music have been almost swept away by the tide of history, and Australian traditional dance music is no exception. Unfortunately the style never really had the revival it deserved. Various factors from cultural cringe to the dominance of other styles (specifically Irish) meant that the music has become largely hidden in the archives of the National Library for decades. With some notable exceptions, there are few groups focused on the renewal and revival of the style. Even then the aural traditions associated with it have largely disappeared.
What is Australian traditional dance music?
Australian traditional dance music is steeped in the social history of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution. In this period, the movement of people and culture was faster than ever before. This gave rise to various “dance crazes” that would come and go, sweeping throughout the world from Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, to America, Latin America, and even some parts of Africa. Many of these new dances originated in Continental Europe, or just east of there. The Waltz from Germany is a prime example, as is the Schottische also from Germany, the Mazurka from Poland, the Varsovienna from the ballrooms of Paris, or the Polka, apparently born in the revolutionary circles of Bohemia.
In this period of history, when transportation of people and ideas was more widespread than ever, cultural mingling flourished. New dance tunes and steps travelled everywhere, but more often than not these crazes came and went. Sooner or later people would refer back to their older traditions in dance and dance music.
An example of this is to be found in Ireland, where many continental European tunes arrived and were taken up. In most parts of the country these tunes and dances are no longer a strong part of the style, with players instead choosing the older Irish dances (jigs, reels, etc.) in their place. Apart from isolated pockets that retain these nineteenth-century tunes (notably the Mazurka remaining an important dance tune in Donegal and the Polka remaining popular in Sliabh Luachra), the music and dances of this era largely faded from public attention. This was a common enough trend worldwide.
In Australia it was a different story. Migration was often so mixed and made up of many formally urban-living migrants that it was much harder to retain the older tunes and traditions from one's homeland. Instead, people enthusiastically took up the modern music of this era.
What we have been left with as a dance music tradition is not a style based so much on the older Irish, Scottish or English traditions entering the country, but instead the modern styles of music that were sweeping through those lands as much as anywhere else in the western world.
So in other places, these nineteenth-century tunes often died off as people would hark back to older traditions. In Australia, they thrived and survived for a long time.
Why don’t we hear it anymore?
Unfortunately a serious revival never hit the country as it did in other parts of the world. When radio hit Australia, there was a tendency for radio stations to refuse to record and air older local tunes - in contrast and as an example, radio stations in America often wholeheartedly took up recording local artists, leaving a mass of archival recordings. Furthermore, the Bush Bands of the 70s may have led a fashionable song movement for the time, but only a handful of them actually paid any attention to the type of dance music historically played in Australia, choosing instead a largely Irish-based repertoire.
Finally, the older generation of musicians were few and far between by the time people went out to record them in the field or attempted to start revivals of the music. Consequently, many of the revival attempts have lacked a direct link to this older generation.
That being said, it is important that the music is revived, not for the sake of nationalism or any type of national identity. More to the point there is something very individual to the sound of Australian traditional dance music.
One point already made is the attention Australia gave to nineteenth-century dances and their respective tunes, as opposed to other parts of the world where these tunes simply died off. This was obviously due in a large part to the mix of cultures that took place in the colonisation of Australia. A style of dance music that emerged from such a back and forth between different peoples is an interesting concept in and of itself.
Another is that the growth of button accordions at the time managed to crush many of the minor tunes that were moving through the country. Consequently, if one wanted to play a sad or melancholy tune they would be more often than not limited to major keys. This led to a certain pathos in the style of many of the tunes.
Finally, we are yet to hear many good recordings that represent an honest take on the music that would have been played 100 years ago in Australia. In interviews scattered throughout library archives, older musicians give endless descriptions of dance bands containing a number of accordions, concertinas, whistles and fiddles. Unfortunately, by the time people went out collecting tunes, almost all of these bands had completely disappeared.
Can it be rebuilt?
At this moment in time, folk and traditional music are experiencing renewed interest. Cajun bands, Bluegrass and American Old Time, “Celtic” fiddle and various ballad singing duos are scattered across Melbourne and Australia. In many ways it is a prime time for a revival of Australian traditional music; however, there are still substantial barriers in the way.
For one, many young people still feel a certain cultural cringe against Australia’s traditional music. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that various nationalist artists built a wall of embarrassing and objectively bad music for young people to cringe at (think Rolf Harris and associates). This is a problem many traditions have faced, if you are making music for the sake of nationalism it hardly has to be good, just nationalistic.
Competing traditions of American country and Irish fiddle music have also muddied the waters to the point that many young people simply don’t believe Australia had its own style. Young people here have taken up these traditions and made their own interpretations, and for good reason: there is good music to be found there. People should hardly have to drop their love of other music from around the world; a revival of Australian traditional music should not have to cut across this.
Where the hell are all the old players?
The strength of other foreign traditional styles now popular in Australia lies in them having some form of direct connection to the original context inherent in whichever music. You can find recordings of Tommy Jarrell, James Scott Skinner or Michael Coleman more easily now than ever before through the internet.
A link to these older players who were instrumental in the development of their respective styles is one of the best tools a new player can come across. Australian fiddle music, though, is completely void of this link for most people.
There are some historic barriers that explain this. It is a fairly young style and had a fraction of the time to develop that American, Irish or Scottish dance music did. The cultural cringe as explained before led to a number of problems in the acceptance of the style. More importantly however, by the time collectors ventured out to take field recordings of the old players, most of them were dead or had not played for decades. Of the ones they found, virtually all of them were long past their prime, some of the most choice players being on their way to deaf or post strokes or arthritic.
There are no players recorded that come close to the quality of playing and social impact of Jarrell, Skinner, or Coleman. Instead there are countless recordings of old players explaining that the best traditional musician they had ever heard had died half a century prior to the collectors making tapes.
The framework for what these older quality players may have sounded like is hidden throughout field recordings. If a revival of Australian traditional music is to happen it must be based on these. Players interested in the music need to search through archives to find a colloquial style.
This form of aural learning is the only way an honest interpretation of traditional music can take place. The alternative is that people learn primarily through sheet music and fall back on pre-learned styles. This would lead to people playing Australian dance music in either a classical modern way, or interpreting the tunes in an Irish/American/etc. style. Simply put, this would sound horrible - imagine hearing someone play through an entire book of American tunes while playing them in an Irish style. A few tunes here or there may work well but all in all the music would sound dishonest, in comparison to an American player ripping through the same book.
Today the main barriers people face stem from this: there is little opportunity for people to learn the style aurally through field recordings and other direct sources. Even if you are keen to learn Australian traditional music from direct sources, there is little online.
The vast majority of recordings are stored in the National Library archives in Canberra with a fraction digitalised and available on the internet. If you want a recording digitalised and sent to you, often it will come to a cost of around $15 or $20 for a two-hour recording. There are literally thousands upon thousands of field recordings in the library, meaning it is simply not affordable to access the necessary amount of recordings to flesh out one’s playing.
Even then, the recordings are almost always delivered in blocks of 30 minutes to an hour or more per track; finding individual tunes in these blocks of recordings can be a nightmare. There are people working to rectify this, but I would assume cut backs and a lack of funding are butchering the process. Compare this to the website slippery-hill.com, where aspiring American fiddle players can hear enough field recordings to last a lifetime, and you will understand the depth of the problem.
How can we rebuild and revive the style?
Fixing the lack of primary sources and readily available field recordings will require an army of people digging through archives, sharing footage and recordings amongst themselves. Leading up to this though, good quality recordings from players who are able to honestly reproduce Australian traditional music need to be made to inspire a new generation.
This can come alongside jam sessions in schools, homes or pubs, where aural learning is the order of the day. Finally, linking this music to dance events would give a new generation of players a level of context to the tunes they are learning.
There is a sound there, sometimes hidden deep, sometimes screaming at you to take note. The players are rough and their playing is hardly polished but there is a music, steeped in social history, that is completely its own.
Look up Colin Charlton’s reel, try to get your hands on Walley Febey’s mazurka, or Ernie Goodman’s waltz. Try to find and hear the mix of beautiful old Tasmanian tunes of the Dawson family, or Eileen McCoy (her playing brilliantly mixing with the sound of the 50s and 60s country music and touring show groups), the almost Cajun-type wail coming from Stan Treacy’s fiddle, and the strength of his playing. Check out Frank Collins’ 78s, a third-generation Australian player with a wealth of Scottish tunes and perfect bowing; and The Brown Boys, an aboriginal family from Cape Barren island whose repertoire was partly built from passing New England whalers. Find recordings of Tom Walsh, a farmer from Trentham (an hour north of Melbourne), whose family has continued the music down the ages, even until now.
Find old players with music you’ve never heard before, listen, learn and accept them and their playing in all its arthritic passion. More importantly, if what you hear strikes a chord, search for that lost sound they’ve all been reaching for.