|Title||Surname First Name|
|The Man from Snowy River||Paterson, A. B., 'Banjo'|
|The Silent Shearer||Paterson, A. B., 'Banjo'|
The ‘bush ballad’ is a style of poetry that attained great popularity in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, becoming an important emblem of Australian literary and popular culture. Generally narrating a story – often an exciting action or adventure – and frequently humorous in tone, the bush ballad almost invariably employs a straightforward rhyme structure and depicts the characters and scenery of rural Australia. Thought by many to convey an authentic expression of the national spirit, the bush ballad enjoyed particular popularity in the decade leading up to Federation in 1901.Though the vogue of the bush ballad subsided in the early twentieth century, the ballads of the 1890s have continued to exert an influence on conceptions of Australian identity and Australian poetry, and the bush ballads of writers such as A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson remain among the best-known works of Australian literature.
The development of the bush ballad was influenced by the large corpus of popular verse and song circulating in the Australian colonies throughout the nineteenth century. European migrants brought popular and traditional songs and ballads as part of their cultural baggage, and some of these works were adapted to suit Australian contexts. One of the most notable adapters of songs was the entertainer Charles Thatcher, who had a successful theatrical career in the goldrush era, performing parodies of popular English songs with new lyrics about life in the colonies. Songs and verse about life in Australia also appeared in nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals, and there is evidence to suggest that these works were regularly performed in areas where few other entertainments were available. Thematically, the songs dealt with aspects of life and work in the Australian bush, the nature of the land, the relations between white settlers and Aborigines, and celebrated outlaw figures such as bushrangers and convicts. In the 1880s and 1890s, requests for the lyrics of ‘bush’ songs began appearing in journals and newspapers, and the first dedicated collection, Old Bush Songs, an anthology edited by A. B. Paterson, was published in 1905.
The Australian bush ballad was also influenced by the popularity of the literary ballad, which was widespread in the English-speaking world in the late nineteenth century. The English poet Rudyard Kipling and the American writer Bret Harte were particularly well known exponents of the literary ballad, and their poems of frontier and colonial life written in simple verse provided models for the Australian balladists. Perhaps the most significant pioneer of the Australian bush ballad, however, was Adam Lindsay Gordon, whose Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published just before his death in 1870. Although Gordon’s ballads more frequently centred on the action of the race track than the bush itself, his hugely popular poem ‘The Sick Stockrider’, and the anti-bushranger ballad ‘Wolf and Hound’, showed that the ballad form could provide an effective vehicle for the articulation of bush settings and characters. Gordon’s fame grew steadily through the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and his work had a strong influence on the poets of the 1890s.
Another catalyst for the development of the bush ballad was the rise of periodical publications sympathetic to Australian nationalist sentiment. Foremost among these was The Bulletin, a weekly journal founded in 1880, which developed an avowedly nationalist and radical-democratic agenda and built up a large circulation, particularly in regional areas, over the following decades. Many of the leading exponents of the bush ballad – writers such as ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Henry Lawson, Barcroft Boake, Edward Dyson, E. J. Brady and Will Ogilvie – first established their literary reputations in the Bulletin’s pages. With its emphasis on the bush as a distinctively Australian setting, the bush ballad was perfectly suited to the Bulletin’s efforts to forge a national literature, and the journal’s views on what constituted ideal Australian qualities and values were important for the thematic range of the bush ballad form. The increasing popularity of the bush ballad led to other opportunities for these poets, sometimes referred to as ‘the Bulletin school’. In 1896, the emerging Sydney publishers Angus and Robertson published a number of works by the Bulletin’s balladists – including Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River and other poems and Lawson’s In the Days When the World was Wide – with great commercial and critical success. The Bulletin would continue to foster the emergence of writers working in the bush ballad or comic vernacular verse traditions into the twentieth century, with later popular writers including W. T. Goodge, Thomas E. Spencer and C. J. Dennis.
One of the chief characteristics of the bush ballad was its emphasis on rural Australian life – the society, characters and environment of ‘the bush’, ‘outback’, or ‘back-blocks’ – as the quintessential Australian experience. Yet there was considerable variation in the representation of bush life within the ballads, as different poets brought different perspectives and influences to their use of the form. Many of the best-known bush ballads – such as Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ – narrated exciting adventures that celebrated the Australian bushman as a heroic figure; like Adam Lindsay Gordon, Paterson and many other balladists of the 1890s shared a love of horses and horsemanship that provided an important theme in their balladry. In other ballads, there was a more reflective and even elegiac tone, and the loneliness and hardships of bush life were emphasised – Lawson’s ‘Andy’s Gone With Cattle’ and Boake’s ‘Where the Dead Men Lie’ are examples here. Still other ballads were broadly comic works, concerned with narrating humorous situations arising from the pastimes, attitudes and idioms of bush society – see Paterson’s ‘The Man from Ironbark’ or Spencer’s ‘How M’Dougall Topped the Score’. In many bush ballads, too, it is possible to read an element of nostalgia: the balladists sought to celebrate bush traditions as central to the Australian experience at a time when increasing modernisation and urbanisation was profoundly changing the economic and cultural life of the newly formed nation.
Even at the height of their popularity, the bush ballads were not without controversy. While some praised the ballads for providing an authentic expression of the ‘real’ Australia, others felt that some works portrayed bush life in overly romantic terms. In 1892, the Bulletin played host to a famous poetic debate between Lawson and Paterson (and subsequently other verse-writers) over the relative merits of life in the bush as opposed to life in the city, with Paterson defending the virtues of bush life while Lawson dwelt on its hardships. Other writers lampooned the pervasiveness and narrowness of bush themes in the literature of the time. In response to one journal’s request for a poem ‘describing and embodying Australia’, the writer and public servant R. H. Croll penned a satirical quatrain entitled ‘Australia (In Contemporary Literature)’:
Whalers, damper, swag and nosebag, Johnny-cakes and billy-tea,
Murrumburrah, Meremendicoowoke, Yoularbudgeree
Cattle-duffers, bold bushrangers, diggers, drovers, bush racecourses,
And on all the other pages horses, horses, horses, horses.
Modern critics have pointed out that the balladists of the 1890s were by and large professional or semi-professional writers who lived and worked in cities like Sydney and Melbourne, and whose knowledge of the bush and its culture was therefore not entirely reliable. The literary quality of the bush ballads, too, has often been called into question, although poetic excellence was perhaps not the primary consideration of these verse writers. It is fair to say that in the 1890s ‘the bush’ was chosen as the imaginative territory through which to construct and explore Australian identity and values, and the bush ballad, a simple verse form that could be read and understood by all, was an important instrument for this larger project. Recent criticism has drawn attention to the fact that the bush ballad constructed a somewhat exclusionary view of national identity, one which primarily focused on and celebrated the virtues of Anglo-Celtic men living in the bush, at the expense of women and of other ethnic groups in Australian society. It is certainly true that some bush ballads presented racist caricatures of minorities such as Aborigines or Chinese Australians, reflecting the popular prejudices of the time. It has also been suggested that, along with the rest of the consciously nationalist literature of the 1890s, the bush ballads contributed to the process of Aboriginal dispossession, by seeking to naturalise the relationship between the European-Australian ‘Bushman’ and the land.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the bush ballad has been an important one for Australian literature. The genre is still seen to provide a distinctive and uniquely Australian literary form, and the ballads of the 1890s continue to influence debates on Australian identity. The bush ballad remains a popular compositional mode, and is widely represented at events such as folk festivals and literary competitions.
Suggested Further Reading
Butterss, Philip and Elizabeth Webby, ‘Introduction’, The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads (Ringwood,
Victoria: Penguin, 1993), pp. xvii–xxvi.
Fahey, Warren, and Graeme Seal, eds., Old Bush Songs: The Centenary Edition of Banjo Paterson’s
Classic Collection (Sydney: ABC Books, 2005).
Horgan, Mark and Michael Sharkey, ‘Vision Splendid or Sandy Blight? The Paterson-Lawson Debate’, in
Ken Stewart, ed., The 1890s: Australian Literature and Literary Culture (St Lucia, Qld:
University of Queensland Press, 1996), pp. 66-94.
Keesing, Nancy and Douglas Stewart, eds. Australian Bush Ballads (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1955).