There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.
The Lachlan river runs through some of the best sheep raising areas of western NSW. To this region came the tigers of the shearing trade, the big gun shearers. This song pays tribute to their skill. Calling “tar” was not something you shouted out too loudly, according to Duke Tritton [the writer of The Sandy Hollow Line which I have recorded elsewhere on this site.] The tar was to stop the bleeding when a sheep was cut while being shorn. The same tune is used for ‘The Station Cook’ and ‘The Great Northern Line’ one of Sally Sloane’s songs. The tune is from the Scottish song ‘Musselburgh Fair’. From the singing of A.L. Lloyd. (notes taken from website folkstream.com)
Sheep shearing is probably the most iconic activity in rural Australia. At the start of the wool industry in the early 19th century, sheep were shorn with blade shears, similar to garden clippers. The first authenticated daily tally (amount of sheep shorn in a single day) was 30 sheep by Tome Merely in 1835. By 1892, Jack Howe managed a tally of 321 sheep at Alice Downs in Queensland.
In the intervening period, however, the rise of the wool industry meant that new inventions and processes were introduced to make shearing more time and cost efficient. Patents for shearing machines started to be granted from the 1860s and in 1882, a shearer called Jack Gray became the first man to completely shear a sheep using mechanical shears.
The method that most woolgrowers adopt was the Wolseley stand. Frederick Wolseley was an Irish-born pastoralist who had a sheep station near Sydney. His invention was a handpiece connected to a power source – originally driven by horse power, but later connected to an external engine. The handpiece relieved strain on the shearer’s hand and allowed the wool to be clipped up to three times closer to the skin than blade shearing. The new invention horrified thousands of shearers, who feared that the new efficient method would put many of them out of work. Powerful shearers’ unions were formed and a resolution forbidding union members to work in sheds with non-union workers led to a six-month shearers’ strike which crippled the wool industry in the eastern states of Australia. The woolgrowers held firm and eventually the shearers were forced to return to work, but the action laid the groundwork for the labour movement in Australia.
By 1900, machine shearing was the norm, although it was as late as 1949 when Jack Howe’s blade shearing tally was broken by a machine shearer when Dan Cooper achieved a total of 325 sheep by machine. (from the archives of The State Library of New South Wales)
My first encounter with Australian folk music was back in the mid-1970s when I was a part of a folk trio named Currency Folk, with John Broomhall and Kevin Baker. We played a selection of Aussie folk songs here and there in the Wollongong area. On one notable occasion we played for an audience of wharfies at Port Kembla. They were a tolerant and somewhat amused audience as they watched three twenty-something middle-class teachers sing and emote about the struggles of the Australian worker!
From that time, I have grown to love Australian folk song and have sung a number from this vast repertoire in the decades since. At first, in my more ignorant phase as a twenty-something teacher, I thought that Australian folk music was derivative and inferior to the burgeoning Irish Folk revival that was headlined in the late 1950s with The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, continued with The Dubliners in the 1960s, then Planxty and The Fureys in the 1970s.
But, as I like to say, life is a learning process, or you are merely a dead man walking about and taking up valuable space. I have, over the decades, learned something of the subtleties and ingenious adaptations as words and music from other lands have made their way to Australia and been transformed into an authentic homegrown genre.
And talking about authenticity, this song was best performed, IMHO, by an Aussie called Big Geordie Muir, who sang with us in the mid-1990s at The Henry Lawson Club, in Werrington in western Sydney, of which he was the general manager. He hailed from out by Warragamba Dam, and his roots were proudly Scottish. Here is my lockdown version which I present to you, without too much blushing, and only because of the exigencies caused by that bloody virus…