Music can set a mood, materialise emotions and act as a powerful expression of identity. Consequently, taste in music has influenced the success of romantic relationships, formed bonds between strangers, acted as a medium for activism, and reflected the values of a community.
Such characteristics of music were particularly evident in Australian colonial society. The Irish appeared to be the leaders. United by more than their chains, they sang the traditional songs of Ireland and so kept alive their connection to their homeland in their heart.
With time, new local verses were made to old tunes and subsequently spread from mouth to ear and from ear to mouth, often through different nationalities. From the sharing came the songs of melancholy, such as Bound for Botany Bay. Also came the songs of rebellion, such as Wild Colonial Boy, which were created and sung in defiance of the risk of flogging and hanging.
As Australia opened up, it was the bush that came to hold a special place in the colonists’ hearts. Here, where no laws ran, emancipists, bolters, and even free settlers were able to sing their songs with comparatively immunity. They used their freedom to enshrine and celebrate the memory of the great bushrangers, like Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, that had become the heroes of colonial society.
Even after transportation came to an end, the bush continued to hold a special place in Australian music history. The men of the nomad trades, the Aboriginal droving hands, the shearers, jackaroos, bullockies and travelling saddlers, were great diffusers of songs. In addition they composed their own. As beautifully stated by bush music historian J.S Manifold, a song that had been heard from the homestead piano may be amended in the jackaroos barracks, re-amended in the men's hut, and then passed in a condition recalling the axe in the proverb;
"It's had two new blades and three new handles, but otherwise it is just as it was when grandfather bought it."
It was from such amendments that the bush music attained its distinct Aboriginal fingerprints. Some of the influence came in the form of Aboriginal words, which dominated the lyrics of tunes like Waltzing Matilda. Additionally, Aboriginal clapping sticks and didgeridoos found their way into bush bands.
Bush music held a special place in Australia right up to World War 2. Post War, things began to change. People in the cities started looking at the bush as a place that was punished by droughts, fire and the harshness of nature. Consequently, it no longer had that image of freedom that it once had.
Aside from the bush's newfound oppressive associations, the bush songs themselves had little relevance to changing issues of Australian society. Songs celebrating bushrangers were not important to a people no longer suffering at the hands of a corrupt authority. Furthermore, to a youth starting to feel sexually empowered, the image of four handsome chaps from Liverpool singing about love was more appealing that old bearded hermits singing about the nomadic life in the wilderness.
The new generations cast aside their didgeridoos and lagerphones (bottle top instruments) and embraced the guitars and drums of Great Britain. The unique musical charge was headed by the likes of Rolf Harris whose "tie me Kangaroo down, sport" raised suspicions that kangaroos are to Australians what sheep are to New Zealanders. Complimenting Rolf were the Bee Gees; an act of three brothers who wore trousers five sizes too small resulting in their voices being five levels too high.
Also wearing trousers on the small side was Shirely Strong; the lead vocalist of the band Skyhooks. Shirely was a loud-mouthed larrikin with a passion for surfing, womanising and practical jokes. His band's repertoire included "Ego Is Not A Dirty Word", "Why Don't You All Get Fucked", the leer on "Women In Uniform" and "Smut", or the sad man on "All My Friends Are Getting Married."
Finally, Joe Dolce took the piss out of his Italian ancestry with "SHADDAP You Face"; a novelty ditty that toped the charts world wide and has since been voted the worst No. 1 song in British pop history. This was an impressive achievement considering it beat Rolf Harris's interpretation of Stairway to Heaven.
Away from the eccentrics, Australia was producing rock bands championing working class values. The Easybeats proved worthy of their sire by glorifying end of week boozing with "Friday on my Mind."
Rising above them all was the great AC/DC. Their philosophy towards music was simple; sing about electricity and sex, or even better, use electric terminology as an analogy of sex. After AC/DC’s rein, sticking something in your fuse box gained a whole new meaning as did being a member of upper class society and having big balls.
Fellow hard rock band, The Angels, produced a sentimental song which included the lyrics "Am I ever going to see your face again." Australian yobbos responded by shouting the reply: 'No way, get fucked, fuck off'; thus elevating the song to icon status in the Australian music scene.
The melancholy that defined the early Convict music remerged with Australian artists singing about the Vietnam War. Cold Chisel's "Khe Sahn" became an immortal tune that triggered empathy for Australian servicemen's sense of anguish.
Both serviceman and footballers were the inspiration for Mike Brady when he created the immortal "Up there Cazaly" in the 70s. Roy Cazaly was a South Melbourne ruckmen in the 1920s and 1930s who despite his small stature, had incredible athletic prowess. His team mates, and later the public, would yell 'Up there, Cazaly' to encourage him to leap higher for hit-outs and marks. The expression entered the vernacular when used as a battle cry by World War II Diggers.
The 80s was a particularly dynamic era in the creation of unofficial national anthems. In 1984, Men at Work revived the nomadic spirit of wandering with the travelling song "Down Under". Men at Work later claimed that their song was being critical of Australia and wasn't nationalistic at all. It seems that when they were singing, "I come from a land down under where beer does flow and men chunder" , they didn't expect Australians to see the lyrics as a something to feel patriotic about.
In the lead up to the bicentennial, Midnight Oil took up the campaign for Aboriginal land rights with their "beds are burning." Another 80s band, Icehouse, captured the isolation, harshness and sense of eternity of the Australia with "Great Southern Land."
Midnight Oil - Beds are Burning
Gangajang captured the heat and humidity of Queensland with 'This is Australia." Even though most Australians have never seen "lightening crack over cane fields" the song continues to resonate with them. Paul Kelly perfectly captured the spirit of larrikinism when he sang of "throwing his hat in to the ring.. and melting wax to fix his wings" as he did all the dumb things.
Just as the cities changed their music tastes after World War 2, so did the bush. So much so, bush music was renamed country music. As well as changing the name, the story telling elements mostly faded away and were replaced themes of skinny dipping, and being from the bush and being back in town. Furthermore, instead of using lagarphones, banjos, hitting sticks and bones, bush/country musicians picked up guitars.
The most successful country music artist was Slim Dusty. Like many Australians, Slim found his inspiration in beer. His songs" Pub With No Beer" and "Id love to have a beer with Ducan", were not only hits in their own lifetime, but have also achieved immortality across the generations.
Following in Slim's shoes was John Williamson, who first came to prominence in the 80s with the song "True Blue."
Some of the story telling and political elements of early colonial music survived in the music of Red Gum. Their song, I was only 19, told the story of a 19 year old who found himself in the Vietnam war, where his mates kicked a land mine on the day that mankind kicked the moon.
Redgum - I was only 19
Without doubt the most successful bush song of the last 50 years has been I am Australian, written by Bruce Woodley of the Seekers and Dobe Newton of the Bushwakers. Like the traditional bush songs, it has a story telling structure, and it uses the structure to weave together all the various threads that make up Australia. So popular has it become that it is has been pushed as an alternative to the rather souless Australian national anthem.
""Shouting", or rather its meaning, is peculiarly Australian. The shortest and most comprehensive definition of "shouting" is to pay for the drink drunk by others." Drinking
"Australia has been hailed as a saviour of our soi-disant movie industry. So it could be, irrespective of its box office earnings, if it leads to recognition that we don't have a film industry, despite expenditure over 20 years of $1.5billion in subsidies and perhaps another half billion in tax concessions." Movies
are very difficult to impress; even if you do manage to impress them, they may
not openly admit it." Social Rules
"a confused mix of landscape, animals, and Aboriginal culture, with a kind of Bible overtone." Painting
determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish
with all the tools in a machine shop" Wisdom
"Gallipoli tends to seem strange to outsiders, as it appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat, but in essence it is rather a commemoration of those who died serving Australia in battle, be it warranted or not." Anzac
“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.” Australia Day
declared, confidently, that an immense number of women were dying for his diminutive
highness, but became terribly angry, when an ugly, red-nosed publican with a hump-back,
pretended to recognize him as an organ grinder strolling about with a monkey." Egalitarianism
"Yet there are some like
me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the
prophets come" Poetry