Letters From Quotidia Episode 187 With My Swag All On My Shoulder, Lady Godiva and the Emperor

Letters From Quotidia Episode 187 With My Swag All On My Shoulder, Lady Godiva and the Emperor

Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 187 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.

This week I continue the Irish-Australian connection with a song made famous by The Seekers, that Aussie folk-pop group popular throughout the English-speaking world in the 1960s The song for this post has had a chequered career. It’s called With My Swag All On My Shoulder, and derives from an earlier song, Dennis O’Reilly. And now I let the site mainlynorfolk.info take up the tale: Shirley Collins recorded Dennis O’Reilly in a two day session in London in 1958 for her 1960 LP False True Lovers. Alan Lomax commented in the album’s notes:

Dennis O’Reilly is an instance of the speed with which folk songs are travelling nowadays. It began its life as one of the many songs of the Irish immigrants to Australia. Mister Goodwin of Leichhardt, New South Wales, picked it up on the Nambucca River of NSW and, when he was 73, sang it for Cecil English and John Meredith. From them it passed into the repertoire of Edgar Waters, the Australian ballad collector, who brought it to England and taught it to Shirley Collins. My guess is that from her record it will pass into the repertoire of the young folk singers on this continent. I first came across With My Swag All On My Shoulder from my copy of Paterson’s Old Bush Songs in the mid-1970s.

This song, the tune of which is a variant of ‘The Boys of Wexford’, was collected by John Manifold from Father P.P.Kehoe of Kyabram, Victoria in the 1950’s according to folkstream.com An American writer on history, James S. Davis,  has published an exhaustive historical account on the song on the site http://www.hhhistory.com which I recommend, where he writes:

The Victoria Gold Rush increased Australia’s population by 163 percent from 1851 to 1861, making the 1850s perhaps the most pivotal decade in the continent’s history since the arrival of the First Convict Fleet in 1788. Many British, Irish, and Scottish fortune seekers who could not pay for passage signed on as crew for ships heading to Melbourne. Usually, they were expected to make the return trip to England as well. However, when they reached Port Phillip Bay, it was common for the sailors to fling themselves from the ships and storm ashore to seek their fortune. Contemporary sources speak of upward of 100 ships desolately anchored in the bay without crews. Some captains gave up in disgust and went to the goldfields themselves.

Yeah, that sounds about right! However, during those years, an event took place that shaped the history of Australia. It is known as The Eureka Stockade. I find it interesting that the song makes no mention of this, but that may be the subject for a future post. Here is a potted account of that rebellion and I take this from the National Museum of Australia site:

The gold miners revolted against the authorities attempts to levy hefty licence fees and this culminated on 3 December 1854 with the storming of the rebel miner’s encampment where 300 mounted and foot troopers as well as police attacked the stockade killing at least 22 diggers with the loss of six soldiers. The police arrested and detained 113 of the miners. Eventually 13 were taken to Melbourne to stand trial… but the citizens of Victoria were opposed to what the government had done…and one by one the 13 leaders of the rebellion were tried by jury and released. The upshot: the licence fee was removed, twelve new members were added to the Victorian Legislative Council, four appointed by the Queen and eight elected by those diggers who held a miner’s right. It was a victory for the miners and was one of the key steps to Victoria instituting male suffrage in 1857 and female suffrage in 1908.

In the development of democracy in Australia, this, IMHO, was of more moment than all of the gold dug up in that decade. The song references the spending sprees of diggers who struck gold– I made a fortune in a day and spent it in a week. The image of an Australian bushman with his swag on his shoulder and billy can in his hand is an enduring one and it lives on in legend- and songs such as Waltzing Matilda- as he tramps the bush tracks of Australia under the constellation of The Southern Cross which, in my imagination, fell to earth towards the end of 1854 and was sewn, by resourceful women who supported the miner’s rebellion, onto a piece of fine woollen cloth to become the defiant flag of the Eureka Stockade. [insert song]

You know, for just a moment there, I toyed with the idea of postulating, rather pretentiously, a post-modern take on two well-known stories that many of the visitors to Quotidia will be familiar with: The Emperor’s New Clothes and the tale of Lady Godiva’s ride through Coventry. The first is a literary folk-tale by Hans Christen Andersen and Wikipedia give the plot thus:

Two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. Finally, the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They mime dressing him and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretence, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. Although startled, the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever.

The Lady Godiva story has several variants, but basically it goes: Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to lower the taxes. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as ‘Peeping Tom’, disobeyed her proclamation in what is the most famous instance of voyeurism.

I decided to fuse the two stories by having the infamous Tom appear in both. I also determined to have the Lady Godiva and the Emperor apotheosised among the stars above. I was going to strain credulity even further by citing quantum mechanics and the many worlds interpretation of the universe where just about everything imaginable takes place in one of the infinite iterations of reality.

So, can you handle the truth? Trying to awaken my snoozing muse, I strummed a series of chord progressions and rescue arrived in a little bridge comprising just four D chord variants which prompted the words, Everybody knows the Emperor has no clothes to pop into my head. After that, I just had a bit of fun piecing together the rest of the song. But feel free to go with the quantum mechanical explanation if you wish. [insert song]

I haven’t worked out yet what next week’s offerings are so, the following, from the site Poem-a-day by Newark poet Dimitri Reyes is tendered: Oye! This is an Apartment Building Ode/ But not just any ode, an ode about breathing, /walking, jumping skipping, running people/an ode to the time when we’d remember what/ odes felt like to read outside/ An ode about/ oding so hard it boxes itself into a sonnet/ Harder than bus stop benches and hard rail/ seats, taxes and systemic poverty. The oding/ of this poem is an apartment building sonnet/about people stacked up like bricks like words/in a sonnet. People that will tap your shoulder/to make sure you’re listening to the fact that this/poem is a token, a favour, a shirt off their back./Oye, this is The Apartment Building Ode//  

Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.

Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.

For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.


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