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The Songs They used to Sing by Henry Lawson

 

On the diggings up to twenty odd years ago — and as far back as I can remember — on Lambing Flat, the Pipe Clays, Gulgong, Home Rule, and so through the roaring list; in bark huts, tents, public-houses, sly grog shanties, and — well, the most glorious voice of all belonged to a bad girl. We were only children and didn't know why she was bad, but we weren't allowed to play near or go near the hut she lived in, and we were trained to believe firmly that something awful would happen to us if we stayed to answer a word, and didn't run away as fast as our legs could carry us, if she attempted to speak to us. We had before us the dread example of one urchin, who got an awful hiding and went on bread and water for twenty-four hours for allowing her to kiss him and give him lollies. She didn't look bad — she looked to us like a grand and beautiful lady-girl — but we got instilled into us the idea that she was an awful bad woman, something more terrible even than a drunken man, and one whose presence was to be feared and fled from. There were two other girls in the hut with her, also a pretty little girl, who called her "Auntie", and with whom we were not allowed to play — for they were all bad; which puzzled us as much as child-minds can be puzzled. We couldn't make out how everybody in one house could be bad. We used to wonder why these bad people weren't hunted away or put in gaol if they were so bad. And another thing puzzled us. Slipping out after dark, when the bad girls happened to be singing in their house, we'd sometimes run against men hanging round the hut by ones and twos and threes, listening. They seemed mysterious. They were mostly good men, and we concluded they were listening and watching the bad women's house to see that they didn't kill anyone, or steal and run away with any bad little boys — ourselves, for instance — who ran out after dark; which, as we were informed, those bad people were always on the lookout for a chance to do.

We were told in after years that old Peter McKenzie (a respectable, married, hard-working digger) would sometimes steal up opposite the bad door in the dark, and throw in money done up in a piece of paper, and listen round until the bad girl had sung the "Bonnie Hills of Scotland" two or three times. Then he'd go and get drunk, and stay drunk two or three days at a time. And his wife caught him throwing the money in one night, and there was a terrible row, and she left him; and people always said it was all a mistake. But we couldn't see the mistake then.

But I can hear that girl's voice through the night, twenty years ago:

    Oh! the bloomin' heath, and the pale blue bell,
     In my bonnet then I wore;
    And memory knows no brighter theme
     Than those happy days of yore.
    Scotland!  Land of chief and song!
    Oh, what charms to thee belong!

And I am old enough to understand why poor Peter McKenzie — who was married to a Saxon, and a Tartar — went and got drunk when the bad girl sang "The Bonnie Hills of Scotland."

    His anxious eye might look in vain
    For some loved form it knew!
 

And yet another thing puzzled us greatly at the time. Next door to the bad girl's house there lived a very respectable family — a family of good girls with whom we were allowed to play, and from whom we got lollies (those hard old red-and-white "fish lollies" that grocers sent home with parcels of groceries and receipted bills). Now one washing day, they being as glad to get rid of us at home as we were to get out, we went over to the good house and found no one at home except the grown-up daughter, who used to sing for us, and read "Robinson Crusoe" of nights, "out loud", and give us more lollies than any of the rest — and with whom we were passionately in love, notwithstanding the fact that she was engaged to a "grown-up man" — (we reckoned he'd be dead and out of the way by the time we were old enough to marry her). She was washing. She had carried the stool and tub over against the stick fence which separated her house from the bad house; and, to our astonishment and dismay, the bad girl had brought HER tub over against her side of the fence. They stood and worked with their shoulders to the fence between them, and heads bent down close to it. The bad girl would sing a few words, and the good girl after her, over and over again. They sang very low, we thought. Presently the good grown-up girl turned her head and caught sight of us. She jumped, and her face went flaming red; she laid hold of the stool and carried it, tub and all, away from that fence in a hurry. And the bad grown-up girl took her tub back to her house. The good grown-up girl made us promise never to tell what we saw — that she'd been talking to a bad girl — else she would never, never marry us.

She told me, in after years, when she'd grown up to be a grandmother, that the bad girl was surreptitiously teaching her to sing "Madeline" that day.

I remember a dreadful story of a digger who went and shot himself one night after hearing that bad girl sing. We thought then what a frightfully bad woman she must be. The incident terrified us; and thereafter we kept carefully and fearfully out of reach of her voice, lest we should go and do what the digger did.

I have a dreamy recollection of a circus on Gulgong in the roaring days, more than twenty years ago, and a woman (to my child-fancy a being from another world) standing in the middle of the ring, singing:

    Out in the cold world — out in the street —
    Asking a penny from each one I meet;
    Cheerless I wander about all the day,
    Wearing my young life in sorrow away!

That last line haunted me for many years. I remember being frightened by women sobbing (and one or two great grown-up diggers also) that night in that circus.

"Father, Dear Father, Come Home with Me Now", was a sacred song then, not a peg for vulgar parodies and more vulgar "business" for fourth-rate clowns and corner-men. Then there was "The Prairie Flower". "Out on the Prairie, in an Early Day" — I can hear the digger's wife yet: she was the prettiest girl on the field. They married on the sly and crept into camp after dark; but the diggers got wind of it and rolled up with gold-dishes, shovels, and gave them a real good tinkettling in the old-fashioned style, and a nugget or two to start housekeeping on. She had a very sweet voice.

    Fair as a lily, joyous and free,
    Light of the prairie home was she.

She's a "granny" now, no doubt — or dead.

And I remember a poor, brutally ill-used little wife, wearing a black eye mostly, and singing "Love Amongst the Roses" at her work. And they sang the "Blue Tail Fly", and all the first and best coon songs — in the days when old John Brown sank a duffer on the hill.

The great bark kitchen of Granny Mathews' "Redclay Inn". A fresh back-log thrown behind the fire, which lights the room fitfully. Company settled down to pipes, subdued yarning, and reverie.

Flash Jack — red sash, cabbage-tree hat on back of head with nothing in it, glossy black curls bunched up in front of brim. Flash Jack volunteers, without invitation, preparation, or warning, and through his nose:

Hoh! —

    There was a wild kerlonial youth,
     John Dowlin was his name!
    He bountied on his parients,
     Who lived in Castlemaine!

and so on to —

    He took a pistol from his breast
    And waved that lit—tle toy —

"Little toy" with an enthusiastic flourish and great unction on Flash Jack's part —

    "I'll fight, but I won't surrender!" said
    The wild Kerlonial Boy.

Even this fails to rouse the company's enthusiasm. "Give us a song, Abe! Give us the `Lowlands'!" Abe Mathews, bearded and grizzled, is lying on the broad of his back on a bench, with his hands clasped under his head — his favourite position for smoking, reverie, yarning, or singing. He had a strong, deep voice, which used to thrill me through and through, from hair to toenails, as a child.

They bother Abe till he takes his pipe out of his mouth and puts it behind his head on the end of the stool:

    The ship was built in Glasgow;
    'Twas the "Golden Vanitee" —

Lines have dropped out of my memory during the thirty years gone between —

    And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!

The public-house people and more diggers drop into the kitchen, as all do within hearing, when Abe sings.

"Now then, boys:

    And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!

"Now, all together!

    The Low Lands!  The Low Lands!
    And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!"

Toe and heel and flat of foot begin to stamp the clay floor, and horny hands to slap patched knees in accompaniment.

    "Oh! save me, lads!" he cried,
    "I'm drifting with the current,
    And I'm drifting with the tide!
    And I'm sinking in the Low Lands, Low!
 
    The Low Lands!  The Low Lands!" —

The old bark kitchen is a-going now. Heels drumming on gin-cases under stools; hands, knuckles, pipe-bowls, and pannikins keeping time on the table.

    And we sewed him in his hammock,
    And we slipped him o'er the side,
    And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low!
    The Low Lands!  The Low Lands!
    And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low!

Old Boozer Smith — a dirty gin-sodden bundle of rags on the floor in the corner with its head on a candle box, and covered by a horse rug — old Boozer Smith is supposed to have been dead to the universe for hours past, but the chorus must have disturbed his torpor; for, with a suddenness and unexpectedness that makes the next man jump, there comes a bellow from under the horse rug:

    Wot though! — I wear! — a rag! — ged coat!
    I'll wear it like a man!

and ceases as suddenly as it commenced. He struggles to bring his ruined head and bloated face above the surface, glares round; then, no one questioning his manhood, he sinks back and dies to creation; and subsequent proceedings are only interrupted by a snore, as far as he is concerned.

Little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullock-driver, is inspired. "Go on, Jimmy! Give us a song!"

 
    In the days when we were hard up
     For want of wood and wire —

Jimmy always blunders; it should have been "food and fire" —

    We used to tie our boots up
     With lit — tle bits — er wire;
 

and —

    I'm sitting in my lit—tle room,
     It measures six by six;
    The work-house wall is opposite,
     I've counted all the bricks!

"Give us a chorus, Jimmy!"

Jimmy does, giving his head a short, jerky nod for nearly every word, and describing a circle round his crown — as if he were stirring a pint of hot tea — with his forefinger, at the end of every line:

    Hall! — Round! — Me — Hat!
    I wore a weepin' willer!

Jimmy is a Cockney.

"Now then, boys!"

    Hall — round — me hat!

How many old diggers remember it?

And:

    A butcher, and a baker, and a quiet-looking quaker,
    All a-courting pretty Jessie at the Railway Bar.

I used to wonder as a child what the "railway bar" meant.

And:

    I would, I would, I would in vain
    That I were single once again!
    But ah, alas, that will not be
    Till apples grow on the willow tree.

A drunken gambler's young wife used to sing that song — to herself.

A stir at the kitchen door, and a cry of "Pinter," and old Poynton, Ballarat digger, appears and is shoved in; he has several drinks aboard, and they proceed to "git Pinter on the singin' lay," and at last talk him round. He has a good voice, but no "theory", and blunders worse than Jimmy Nowlett with the words. He starts with a howl —

    Hoh!
    Way down in Covent Gar-ar-r-dings
     A-strolling I did go,
    To see the sweetest flow-ow-wers
     That e'er in gardings grow.

He saw the rose and lily — the red and white and blue — and he saw the sweetest flow-ow-ers that e'er in gardings grew; for he saw two lovely maidens (Pinter calls 'em "virgings") underneath (he must have meant on top of) "a garding chair", sings Pinter.

    And one was lovely Jessie,
    With the jet black eyes and hair,

roars Pinter,

    And the other was a vir-ir-ging,
    I solemn-lye declare!

"Maiden, Pinter!" interjects Mr. Nowlett.

"Well, it's all the same," retorts Pinter. "A maiden IS a virging, Jimmy. If you're singing, Jimmy, and not me, I'll leave off!" Chorus of "Order! Shut up, Jimmy!"

    I quicklye step-ped up to her,
     And unto her did sa-a-y:
    Do you belong to any young man,
     Hoh, tell me that, I pra-a-y?

Her answer, according to Pinter, was surprisingly prompt and unconventional; also full and concise:

    No; I belong to no young man —
     I solemnlye declare!
    I mean to live a virging
     And still my laurels wear!

Jimmy Nowlett attempts to move an amendment in favour of "maiden", but is promptly suppressed. It seems that Pinter's suit has a happy termination, for he is supposed to sing in the character of a "Sailor Bold", and as he turns to pursue his stroll in "Covent Gar-ar-dings":

    "Oh, no!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!" she cried,
    "I love a Sailor Bold!"

"Hong-kore, Pinter! Give us the `Golden Glove', Pinter!"

Thus warmed up, Pinter starts with an explanatory "spoken" to the effect that the song he is about to sing illustrates some of the little ways of woman, and how, no matter what you say or do, she is bound to have her own way in the end; also how, in one instance, she set about getting it.

Hoh!

    Now, it's of a young squoire near Timworth did dwell,
    Who courted a nobleman's daughter so well —

The song has little or nothing to do with the "squire", except so far as "all friends and relations had given consent," and —

    The troo-soo was ordered — appointed the day,
    And a farmer were appointed for to give her away —

which last seemed a most unusual proceeding, considering the wedding was a toney affair; but perhaps there were personal interests — the nobleman might have been hard up, and the farmer backing him. But there was an extraordinary scene in the church, and things got mixed.

    For as soon as this maiding this farmer espied:
    "Hoh, my heart!  Hoh, my heart!
    Hoh, my heart!" then she cried.

Hysterics? Anyway, instead of being wed —

    This maiden took sick and she went to her bed.

(N.B. — Pinter sticks to `virging'.)

Whereupon friends and relations and guests left the house in a body (a strange but perhaps a wise proceeding, after all — maybe they smelt a rat) and left her to recover alone, which she did promptly. And then:

    Shirt, breeches, and waistcoat this maiding put on,
    And a-hunting she went with her dog and her gun;
    She hunted all round where this farmier did dwell,
    Because in her own heart she love-ed him well.

The cat's out of the bag now:

    And often she fired, but no game she killed —

which was not surprising —

    Till at last the young farmier came into the field —

No wonder. She put it to him straight:

    "Oh, why are you not at the wedding?" she cried,
    "For to wait on the squoire, and to give him his bride."

He was as prompt and as delightfully unconventional in his reply as the young lady in Covent Gardings:

    "Oh, no! and oh, no!  For the truth I must sa-a-y,
    I love her too well for to give her a-w-a-a-y!"

which was satisfactory to the disguised "virging".

    ". . . . and I'd take sword in hand,
    And by honour I'd win her if she would command."

Which was still more satisfactory.

    Now this virging, being —

(Jimmy Nowlett: "Maiden, Pinter —" Jim is thrown on a stool and sat on by several diggers.)

    Now this maiding, being please-ed to see him so bold,
    She gave him her glove that was flowered with gold,

and explained that she found it in his field while hunting around with her dog and her gun. It is understood that he promised to look up the owner. Then she went home and put an advertisement in the local `Herald'; and that ad. must have caused considerable sensation. She stated that she had lost her golden glove, and

    The young man that finds it and brings it to me,
    Hoh! that very young man my husband shall be!

She had a saving clause in case the young farmer mislaid the glove before he saw the ad., and an OLD bloke got holt of it and fetched it along. But everything went all right. The young farmer turned up with the glove. He was a very respectable young farmer, and expressed his gratitude to her for having "honour-ed him with her love." They were married, and the song ends with a picture of the young farmeress milking the cow, and the young farmer going whistling to plough. The fact that they lived and grafted on the selection proves that I hit the right nail on the head when I guessed, in the first place, that the old nobleman was "stony".

In after years,

    . . . she told him of the fun,
    How she hunted him up with her dog and her gun.

But whether he was pleased or otherwise to hear it, after years of matrimonial experiences, the old song doesn't say, for it ends there.

Flash Jack is more successful with "Saint Patrick's Day".

    I come to the river, I jumped it quite clever!
    Me wife tumbled in, and I lost her for ever,
    St. Patrick's own day in the mornin'!

This is greatly appreciated by Jimmy Nowlett, who is suspected, especially by his wife, of being more cheerful when on the roads than when at home.

"Sam Holt" was a great favourite with Jimmy Nowlett in after years.

    Oh, do you remember Black Alice, Sam Holt?
     Black Alice so dirty and dark —
    Who'd a nose on her face — I forget how it goes —
     And teeth like a Moreton Bay shark.

Sam Holt must have been very hard up for tucker as well as beauty then, for

    Do you remember the 'possums and grubs
    She baked for you down by the creek?

Sam Holt was, apparently, a hardened flash Jack.

    You were not quite the cleanly potato, Sam Holt.

Reference is made to his "manner of holding a flush", and he is asked to remember several things which he, no doubt, would rather forget, including

    . . . the hiding you got from the boys.

The song is decidedly personal.

But Sam Holt makes a pile and goes home, leaving many a better and worse man to pad the hoof Out Back. And — Jim Nowlett sang this with so much feeling as to make it appear a personal affair between him and the absent Holt —

    And, don't you remember the fiver, Sam Holt,
    You borrowed so careless and free?
    I reckon I'll whistle a good many tunes
 
(with increasing feeling)
 
    Ere you think of that fiver and me.

For the chances will be that Sam Holt's old mate

    Will be humping his drum on the Hughenden Road
    To the end of the chapter of fate.

An echo from "The Old Bark Hut", sung in the opposition camp across the gully:

    You may leave the door ajar, but if you keep it shut,
    There's no need of suffocation in the Ould Barrk Hut.
  
         .    .    .    .    .
  
    The tucker's in the gin-case, but you'd better keep it shut —
    For the flies will canther round it in the Ould Bark Hut.

However:

    What's out of sight is out of mind, in the Ould Bark Hut.

    We washed our greasy moleskins
    On the banks of the Condamine. —

Somebody tackling the "Old Bullock Dray"; it must be over fifty verses now. I saw a bushman at a country dance start to sing that song; he'd get up to ten or fifteen verses, break down, and start afresh. At last he sat down on his heel to it, in the centre of the clear floor, resting his wrist on his knee, and keeping time with an index finger. It was very funny, but the thing was taken seriously all through.

Irreverent echo from the old Lambing Flat trouble, from camp across the gully:

    Rule Britannia!  Britannia rules the waves!
    No more Chinamen will enter Noo South Wales!

and

    Yankee Doodle came to town
     On a little pony —
    Stick a feather in his cap,
     And call him Maccaroni!

All the camps seem to be singing to-night:

    Ring the bell, watchman!
     Ring! Ring! Ring!
    Ring, for the good news
     Is now on the wing!

Good lines, the introduction:

    High on the belfry the old sexton stands,
    Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands! . . .
    Bon-fires are blazing throughout the land . . .
    Glorious and blessed tidings!  Ring!  Ring the bell!

Granny Mathews fails to coax her niece into the kitchen, but persuades her to sing inside. She is the girl who learnt `sub rosa' from the bad girl who sang "Madeline". Such as have them on instinctively take their hats off. Diggers, strolling past, halt at the first notes of the girl's voice, and stand like statues in the moonlight:

    Shall we gather at the river,
     Where bright angel feet have trod?
    The beautiful — the beautiful river
     That flows by the throne of God! —

Diggers wanted to send that girl "Home", but Granny Mathews had the old-fashioned horror of any of her children becoming "public" —

    Gather with the saints at the river,
     That flows by the throne of God!

But it grows late, or rather, early. The "Eyetalians" go by in the frosty moonlight, from their last shift in the claim (for it is Saturday night), singing a litany.

"Get up on one end, Abe! — stand up all!" Hands are clasped across the kitchen table. Redclay, one of the last of the alluvial fields, has petered out, and the Roaring Days are dying. . . . The grand old song that is known all over the world; yet how many in ten thousand know more than one verse and the chorus? Let Peter McKenzie lead:

    Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
    And never brought to min'?

And hearts echo from far back in the past and across wide, wide seas:

    Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
    And days o' lang syne?

Now boys! all together!

    For auld lang syne, my dear,
     For auld lang syne,
    We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
     For auld lang syne.
 
    We twa hae run about the braes,
     And pu'd the gowans fine;
    But we've wandered mony a weary foot,
     Sin' auld lang syne.

The world was wide then.

    We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,
     Frae mornin' sun till dine:

the log fire seems to grow watery, for in wide, lonely Australia —

    But seas between us braid hae roar'd,
     Sin' auld lang syne.

The kitchen grows dimmer, and the forms of the digger-singers seemed suddenly vague and unsubstantial, fading back rapidly through a misty veil. But the words ring strong and defiant through hard years:

    And here's a hand, my trusty frien',
     And gie's a grup o' thine;
    And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
     For auld lang syne.

And the nettles have been growing for over twenty years on the spot where Granny Mathews' big bark kitchen stood.