Bush songs or bush ballads are a folk music and poetry tradition in Australia's outback. The rhyming songs, poems and tales often relate to the itinerant and rebellious spirit of Australia, a young country. The lyrical tradition of bush songs was born of settlers and influenced by Aboriginal society in the geographical areas referred to as The Bush. The performers are sometimes referred to as bush bards.
Many of the songs were composed in the 19th century and passed on through the generations. Several collectors have catalogued some of the songs. John Meredith's collection, assembled in the 1950s when he bought himself a very large tape recorder and carted it around to record people who had memories of the old songs, became the basis of the collection in the National Library of Australia. Earlier collections, such as Banjo Paterson's 1905 The Old Bush Songs, include only the lyrics and no musical notation; however, for some of the ballads a particular folk tune is suggested (see image of "The Dying Stockman" next section below).
Characteristics of Musical Bush Ballads
The songs tell personal stories of life in the wide open country of Australia. Typical subjects include mining, raising and droving cattle, sheep shearing, wanderings, war stories, the 1891 Australian shearers' strike, class conflicts between the landless working class and the squatters (landowners), and outlaws such as Ned Kelly, as well as love interests and more modern fare such as trucking.
Although not technically bush ballads, there are also numerous sea shanties formerly sung by whalers and other sailors, as well as songs about the voyage made by convicts and other immigrants from England to Australia, which are sung in a similar style.
While subject matter may be constant, musical styles differ between traditional and contemporary bush ballads. Exemplars of the traditional bush ballad style include Slim Dusty's When the Rain Tumbles Down in July or Leave Him in the Long yard which have strong narrative in verses plus choruses set to a Pick n' Strum beat. Contemporary bush ballads may employ finger picking and strumming rock styles.
Australia's musical traditions include the English, Scottish, and Irish folk songs of the convicts, as well as the work of pastoral poets of the 1880s. There was also a hymn singing tradition brought by missionaries in the 19th century. and the convict songs of those incarcerated on the island. The represent attempts to European cultural forms to the Australian environment.
The distinctive themes and origins of Australia's bush music can be traced to the songs sung by the convicts who were sent to Australia during the early period of the British colonisation, beginning in 1788. Early Australian ballads sing of the harsh ways of life of the epoch and of such people and events as bushrangers, swagmen, drovers, stockmen and shearers. Convict and bushranger verses often railed against government tyranny. Classic bush songs on such themes include: The Wild Colonial Boy, Click Go The Shears, The Eumeralla Shore, The Drover's Dream, The Queensland Drover, The Dying Stockman and Moreton Bay.
Later themes which endure to the present include the experiences of war, of droughts and flooding rains, of Aboriginality and of the railways and trucking routes which link Australia's vast distances. Isolation and loneliness of life in the Australian bush has been another theme. For much of its history, Australia's bush music belonged to an oral and folkloric tradition, and was only later published in print in volumes such as banjo Paterson's Old Bush Songs, in the 1890s.
The songs often discuss the hardscrabble life and struggles of the Aussie battler. The songs are often ironic and humorous as with Beautiful Land of Australia chorus:
Waltzing Matilda, often regarded as Australia's unofficial National anthem, is a quintessential early Australian country song, influenced more by Celtic folk ballads than by American Country and Western music. The lyrics were composed by the poet Banjo Paterson in 1895. This strain of Australian country music, with lyrics focusing on strictly Australian subjects, is generally known as "bush music" or "bush band music".
The ballad genre continued in Australia after popular music took hold in Great Britain. "The oral ballad tradition centered on rural areas had been dying out in England for a generation as a consequence of the land clearances, industrialisation and urbanisation, found a new lease of life in the Australian bush, and one suspects that these traditional and reworked ballads were also sung in the early "free and easys." While popular music in England had begun to develop in the working-class music halls during the 1830s and 1840s, the spread of popular music in Australia was still in its infancy."
The diversity in Australia has increased, but even in the 1920s Poncie Cubillo introduced the rondalla with their Filipino string band in Darwin. The ballad tradition has grown to include some of these influences including Chinese and Filipino. There were also the Italians growing tobacco, the de Bortoli family, in "Texas in Queensland", adding to the amalgam of folk tunes and Tex Morton hillbilly tunes. Morton, a country music singer originally from New Zealand, released a number of Australian-themed 78s between 1936 and 1943 (including "Dying Duffer's Prayer," "Murrumbridgee Jack," "Billy Brink The Shearer," "Stockman's Last Bed," "Wrap Me Up in My Stockwhip and Blanket," "Rocky Ned (The Outlaw)," and "Ned Kelly Song"), which can be considered to have been inspired by the bush ballad tradition. However, Morton sang without an Australian accent and his yodeling style was closer to that of the American singer Jimmie Rodgers than earlier Australian folk singers.
Later influences from American cowboy and country songs and 1950s rock 'n' roll led to the performance of bush ballads being influenced by and combined with these forms. With the advance of technology and mass communications, the bush ballads were joined on the modern Australian music scene by rockabilly, country music, blues, Texas swing, bluegrass, trail songs, and country pop.
Country and folk artists including Slim Dusty, Stan Coster, Rolf Harris, The Bushwackers, John Williamson, Graeme Connors and John Schumann of the band Redgum have continued to record and popularise the old bush ballads of Australia through the 20th and into the 21st century - and contemporary artists including Sara Storer and Lee Kernaghan draw heavily on this heritage.
Ashley Cook, a contemporary balladeer, sings about topics relevant to life in agriculture and mining work in Australia's outback: Cattle, Dust and Leather and Blue Queenland Dogs. His song "Road to Kakadu" laments the slaughter of water buffalo in Northern Territory in the 1990s to control the Brucellosis disease. Beneath the Queensland Moon covers the life and death as a drover.
The genre has been influential and inspirational in theater and movies. Since the mid-20th century, bush songs have often been performed by bush bands, such as The Bandicoots or Franklyn B Paverty. Female bush balladeers have also been studied.
A number of awards have been set up to recognize bush balladeers. Jeff Brown was nominated for a Golden Guitar Award in the Bush Ballad of the Year category for a song he recorded In the wings of the yard in 2008. Past winners of the Country Music Awards Australia Bush Ballad of the Year include Anne Kirkpatrick and Joy McKean. The Stan Coster Memorial Bush Ballad Award is presented in several categories. 2007 winners included Reg Poole for male vocalist of the year for ‘A Tribute To Slim’, Graham Rodger for Songwriter of the Year ‘The Battle Of Long Tan’, and Dean Perrett for Album of the Year ‘New Tradition’ The publishers of the Balladeers Bulletin magazine also hold a "Bush Balladeer Starquest" competition. At the 2008 36th Country Music Australia Awards held in Tamworth, Amos Morris became the youngest artist ever to win the Golden Guitar trophy for the Bush Ballad of the Year category with Sign of the Times. 
Some examples of popular bush ballad poems and songs include:
- The Wild Colonial Boy
- Click Go The Shears
- The Eumeralla Shore
- The Drover's Dream
- The Queensland Drover
- The Dying Stockman
- Moreton Bay
The Bush Bards:
- The Ballad of the Drover by Henry Lawson
- On the Range by Barcroft Boake
- The Man From Snowy River by Banjo Paterson
- Waltzing Matilda by Paterson
- Clancy of the Overflow by Paterson
Modern writers and singers:
- When the Rain Tumbles Down in July by Slim Dusty
- Leave Him in the Longyard by Kelly Dixon (versions by Slim Dusty and Lee Kernaghan)
- Three Rivers Hotel by Stan Coster (versions by Slim Dusty and John Williamson)
- 'Ballad of Camooweal sung by Slim Dusty
- The Biggest Disappointment by Joy McKean (sung by Slim Dusty and Troy Cassar-Daley)
- Mallee Boy by John Williamson
- Diamantina Drover by John Williamson
- Banjo Paterson (1864–1941; he was a poet and bush ballad collector, but not a singer)
- Jack O'Hagan (1898–1987)
- Jeff Brown
- Slim Dusty (1927–2003)
- C. J. Dennis (1876–1938)
- Warren Fahey
- Phil Garland (from New Zealand)
- Edward Harrington (1896–1966)
- Gordon Parsons
- John Williamson (b. 1945)
- Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–1870)
- Barcroft Boake
- John Shaw Neilson (1872–1942)
- Henry Lawson (1867–1922)
- Shirley Thoms
- Yvonne Bradley
- Francis McNamara
- Lex Banning (1921–1965)
- Clive James
- Geoffrey Lehmann
- Kenneth Slessor
- David Campbell (poet)
- James McAuley
- Francis Webb (poet)
- Ulf Stenback (Swedish nyckelharpa player in New South Wales)
- Stan Coster (1930–1997) (Australian country musician)
Collectors of bush songs
- John Manifold (balladeer and collector)
- John Meredith
- Les Murray
- Banjo Paterson
- Bill Scott (author) (balladeer and collector)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bush ballads.|
- Kerry O'Brien 10 December 2003 7:30 Report http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2003/s1007523.htm
- "The Australian Bush Balladeers Association". Bushballadeers.com.au. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- Heart of Country 19 February 2002 Australian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.abc.net.au/tv/documentaries/stories/s454792.htm
- Sydney by Sally O'Brien page 24 Lonely planet guidebook http://books.google.com/books?id=dnUYVikeJwYC&pg=PA24&dq=bush+songs#PPA24,M1
- "Bush songs and music - australia.gov.au". Cultureandrecreation.gov.au. 1 March 2011. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- Producing an Australian popular music: from Stephen Foster to Jack O'Hagan Stratton, Jon 1 January 2007 Journal of Australian Studies
- "...he had established the first band of any note in Darwin the Cubillo Brothers...Mixed Relations By Regina Ganter, Julia Martinez, Martínez Fernández, p. 43 http://books.google.com/books?id=e2CEwLi684wC&pg=RA1-PA44&dq=Poncie+cubillo#PRA1-PA43,M1
- The Road to Kakadu Ashley Cook hosted by Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKP9t-thgnQ&feature=related
- The 'country' in contemporary Australian women's country music: gender, history, narrative.(Cultural narratives) 01-JAN-06 Journal of Australian Studies
- Keeping bush ballads alive and well By Rachel Wells 17 May 2005 http://www.theage.com.au/news/Arts/Keeping-bush-ballads-alive-and-well/2005/05/16/1116095902715.html
- "The focus is on ballads, a poetic form which has had a distinctive and enduring relationship with country music in Australia." Manifold: Brisbane and the 'myth' of John Manifold Australian Literary Studies 01-OCT-03 http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-19874044_ITM
- "Manifold's papers in the Fryer Library show the extent of his involvement with Brisbane-based political and cultural groups: the Brisbane Realist Writers Group; the Queensland branch of the CPA and its various cultural sub-groups (particularly the Communist Arts Group); his bush band, 'The Bandicoots'; the Federation of Bush-Music Groups; the indigenous support group ABSCHOL; 'fellow-traveller' organisations such as the Queensland division of the Australia-China Society; and various mainstream literary groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Queensland), of which he was president in 1964. " Some versions of Manifold: Brisbane and the 'myth' of John Manifold 01-OCT-03 Australian Literary Studies
- "The discussion of Australian women performers will begin by noting the career of Shirley Thoms, who began her career in the mid-nineteen-thirties, will consider the work of a range of contemporary performers, and will conclude with a brief consideration of the work of Indigenous singer-songwriter Yvonne Bradley." The 'country' in contemporary Australian women's country music: gender, history, narrative.(Cultural narratives) 01-JAN-06 Journal of Australian Studies
- "The Australian Bush Balladeers Association". Bushballadeers.com.au. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- " Jeff says it's important to keep the old yarns alive through country music ballads. 'It's our heritage really and it needs to be kept alive somehow and the old bush ballads are the way to do it.'" Balladeer ready for a golden time at Tamworth By Scott Lamond 9 January 2008 Bundaberg Wide Bay Rural Report, ABC Rural Report
- "Bio". Deanperrett.com. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- "RUM ENTERTAINMENT NEWS FEB 07". Rumentertainment.com. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- "The Australian Bush Balladeers Association". Bushballadeers.com.au. 30 September 2011. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- Country Music Australia Awards website http://www.country.com.au/index.cfm?page_id=1002&news_display_year_5608=2008&display_news_id_5608=2762
- "Australia's Culture Portal". Cultureandrecreation.gov.au. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
- Banjo Patterson, song writer, 76; Australian, Author of Many Favorite Bush Ballads, Dies -Ex-Army Lieutenant WAS WAR CORRESPONDENT He Reported Bc;er Campaign, Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion 6 February 1941, Thursday Obituary New York Times, p. 21 http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10A11FF3E5E167B93C4A91789D85F458485F9
- "Songs and stories by bush balladeer John Williamson from his time spent on Cape York won over a crowd of up to 1000 people at Cooktown's highway-opening party... the triple Golden Guitar-winning country star was in top form, chatting about the local content in songs from his Gunya in the Gully album." Bush ballads bless highway MON 10 April 2006 The Cairns
- "Another bush poet who died by his own hand on Brighton Beach near Melbourne some years earlier." The tragic exit for the poet of the stockwhip.(Barcroft Henry Boake) 01-JUL-06 Margin: life & letters in early Australia http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-17635121_ITM
- "By now he started to write bush ballads of his own in the style of Adam Lindsay Gordon." The tragic exit for the poet of the stockwhip.(Barcroft Henry Boake) 01-JUL-06 Margin: life & letters in early Australia http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-17635121_ITM
- "Francis McNamara, the convict balladist and satirist,... his work became widely known since 1979, and while specialists in early Australian writing do not agree that McNamara wrote all of the ballads that have been attributed to him, his authenticated "A Convict's Tour of Hell", is one of the great finds of recent years." http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-9774625_ITM
- "His interest in collecting Australian bush ballads and songs resulted in several anthologies and essays, most notably The Penguin Australian Song Book (1964)" Some versions of Manifold: Brisbane and the 'myth' of John Manifold 01-OCT-03 Australian Literary Studies