Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Book Review - Who wrote the ballads? : notes on Australian Folksong by J.S. Manifold

Who wrote the ballads? : notes on Australian Folksong by J.S. Manifold

Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1964

John Manifold was a committed Communist, and that informed most all he did and achieved. This fact certainly informs this work, and is both its strength and weakness.

When Manifold returned from England after the War, he began a process of collecting the old bush songs, to recapture the original voice of the lower classes. Manifold himself had heard some of these songs as a youth in the 1920s, as -ironically given his views- he was the son of one of the great pastoralist families of Victoria's Western District and listened to the shearers and other station workers sing in the evenings.

Manifold has applied his musicological and historical brain to the question of where and how the traditional songs originated and produced an interesting book about many of Australia's famous songs. After a short opening that shows how ballads developed in the old countries, Manifold looks at what remains of the earliest Australian folksongs, which are often incomplete or bastardised. He is correct in his description of why they only survived that condition: the ruling classes of the early colony had no interest in folksong, as they were producing and consuming more "literary" verse and song, and the folksongs were for the great part what Manifold calls "treason" songs. These songs may have included songs and ballads that had been banned in England, and soon came to include local songs with lyrics that would have been dangerous to commit to print, or indeed sing in public.

As the convict era passed, many of these songs passed too into history, to be replaced by bushranger ballads, which Manifold goes into in some detail, comparing the differing versions now extant of the Ben Hall Ballads and Bold Jack Donahoo and showing how both the words and the tune changed as the ballads progressed through both space and time.

At the same time those that lived and worked on the great homesteads and squatter's runs were singing their own ballads. The stations had their own hierarchy, with the owner or manager at the top playing and singing town tunes, the jackaroos, who would sing theatrical songs and were heavily influenced by Gordon and those that followed, and then the working men - shearers and shepherds - from which many of the true Australian folksongs sprung. Manifold shows well how these men took old Irish, Scottish and British tunes and ballads and made them their own.

The next third of the book is taken up with the Australian literary ballad. Manifold is unsure why the ballad form became such a staple of Australian poetry, but points to Gordon as the progenitor of the form, moving through to Paterson as its greatest exponent. Interestingly, given his outlook, Manifold thinks much more of Paterson than Lawson; not only as a poet, which is fair enough, but as a "representative" of the labouring classes, which Paterson really wasn't. Lawson, as a "representative" of the selectors, wrote more of the hardships of being on the bottom of the heap, although to be fair to Manifold, Lawson's best writing was prose and so does not fall within the purview of this book.

The last section of the book deals with the current (as at the early 1960s) state of ballads -  Manifold railing against the influence of those who would "commercialise" the singing of the old songs - and with the future of folk music - Manifold believing that only a socialist realignment of society would regenerate the esprit de corps that would be needed for these types of tunes to be generated anew. This section verges on propaganda, expounding the excellence of Chinese cultural policies (!), and not adding to the earlier sections of the book.

Despite such personal quirks, Who wrote the ballads? is an interesting look at early Australian poetry and folksong, and worth digging out for those interested in the subject.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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