My son came home from school last week singing Down by the Bay, and we made a recording here.
I cannot recall hearing this song while growing up in the 1980s in Australia, but apparently most kids in North America know it thanks to Raffi Cavoukian (his version here).
Sometimes in interview Raffi has mentioned World War I origins for the song, which is supported by the 1968 publication, Sally Go Round the Sun, where the song is credited to Songs and Slang of the British Soldier by John Brophy and Eric Partridge in 1930.
The absence of the song (to my hearing at least) in Australia is unusual, as much of the repertoire of Australian children’s entertainers, like the Wiggles, came from the UK and the US.
Sadly there was no copy of the 1930 text online, so I had to wait until going to the library today to further research its origins. I found the 1930 text, but it had several titles, including The Long Trail (which is online, a 1965 re-print).
One of the reasons I wasn’t having luck with the search is because the song in this book is titled Down by the Sea, and the singer talks about their wife, rather than their mother.
Searching for the 1930 words led me to More Tommy’s Tunes, which is a 1918 sequel to Tommy’s Tunes, published by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham (2nd Lieutenant Royal Flying Corp) in 1917.
The version in this book is titled Way down yonder in the Cornfields and begins with the line “OLD Mother Riley’s got a farm”, but has the familiar call and response structure with the sea and the watermelons.
No doubt this book was widely printed during the war, but it was special to be able to hold a tattered copy in my hands and think about how much improvised song would have been used by the men and women going through the horrors of Word War I to keep their spirits up.
Unfortunately this is where the trail goes cold. It would seem most likely that this version has it’s origin in pre-war American song, either music-hall or from an African-American song, but I cannot find any reference to this.
I know that there is some association with watermelons and racism, however, none of the versions of this song that I have found indicate that racism is present in this song.
In the absence of comprehensive liner notes for this album, I’m compiling some commentary on each of the tracks in this post. The album results from my attendance at the ‘Return to Tipperary’ weekend at St Clements Retreat in Galong, New South Wales in November 2022. I provided some music during the event and the collected songs here relate in some way to the talks given, discussions I had over the weekend and subsequent research about the connection between Ireland, Australia and the Catholic Church. One of the attendees from the event, Michelle Rainger, put together this report.
There are a few songs that I performed over the weekend that are not on the album due to copyright challenges, including ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, ‘Raglan Road’, and ‘John O’ Dreams’. I have found that most folk writers are happy to approve published covers, but once they pass on and the large rights agencies get involved, the money they ask for a single song is more than I’ll ever recover from album sales.
1. Shores of Botany Bay
This song wasn’t performed over the weekend, but tells the emigration story of an Irishman to Australia. The author is unknown, though Duke Tritton did claim to add an additional verse. There are some indications that the destination was originally ‘Amerikay’. More detail about the song’s history here.
2. A Long Way to Tipperary
I had not really listened to this song’s lyrics before trying to do a recording for this album. I had put it in the general basket of twee condescending English songs about Irish people. On a more detailed listen, the lyrics are quite racist. For the album I have re-written the lyrics and put the song to a new minor key melody.
3. Battle of the Dardanelles
One of the great things about conferences attended by people passionate about the topic is the conversations held during the breaks and over meal times. One of the attendees mentioned to me that a song had been known in her family and sung by her father, but that no members knew the full lyrics. With a bit of selective searching on Trove, I was able to track down the song as published in 1915 and solve the family mystery for her. The song is also known as The Dying Solider and Banks of the Murray.
4. The Answer’s Ireland
Having attended the online memorial for John Dengate for the past three years, I was very happy to hear that past events of this type at St Clements (under the title ‘Shamrock in the Bush’) had John Dengate in attendance as bard. I sang this song on the last day of the conference and am very appreciative of Dale Dengate’s approval to put my recording of this song by John on the album.
5. The Gallway Shawl
This was one of the first Irish ‘standards’ that I committed to memory and it is frequently part of my sets at folk festivals. Sadly the author of this fine ballad is unknown.
6. Ned Ryan’s Castle
Ned Ryan is the whole reason for the existence of the St Clements Retreat in Galong (established by the Redemptorists in 1918) and also the reason that a conference on Irish history is so suitably held there. Ned was a convict, deported in 1816 for his part in a minor act of vandalism against the English in Clonoulty. After serving his time as a convict, he established himself and a large family in Galong. On the passing of his last descendent, John Nagle Ryan, the land (and his castle) was bequeathed to the Catholic Church.
7. Antiphon for Psalm 89
This Antiphon (short introduction to a Psalm) originated in Bangor, County Down, Ireland around 700 A.D. I thought my simple setting was suitable to include on the album given the strong Irish Catholic thread that is woven through the history of the Irish in Australia.
8. Ned Kelly’s Armour
One of the most fascinating presentations given over the weekend was Dr. Richard Reid’s discussion of his role in curating the ‘Not Just Ned’ exhibition at the Australian National Gallery in 2011. Getting several suits of Kelly armour in one place was no easy exercise! I wrote this song in response to repeated attacks on me and others by a handful of zealots who wish to paint a ‘black and white’ view of the history of Irish persecution in Australia.
9. On Carden’s Wild Domain
Having both His Excellency Tim Mawe, Ambassador of Ireland to Australia, and his wife Patricia McCarthy with us over the whole weekend was a fantastic surprise. During his stirring speech at the conference dinner on Saturday night, Tim recited this poem by Reverend Timothy Corcoran. He also generously reminded me which poem it was several months later when I asked him via Twitter because I had forgotten. The poem had come from an effort by the Irish government in the 1930s to collect songs and stories from school children. The broader story of John Rutter ‘Woodcock’ Carden’s abduction of Eleanor Arbuthnot in 1854 could warrant a whole album on its own.
10. The Kelly Gang
I discovered this song in Trove while researching the other Ned Kelly song on the album. It only appears in print because the author of the 1898 article is attacking the quality of Australian ‘bush poets’. I guess that backfired for him.
11. The Vow of Tipperary
I found this song by Thomas Osborne Davis while looking for the origins of the well known song Silevenamon. Rather than re-record the very well known Tipperary song, I went for this one by Davis, which seemed to have been lost to history.
12. The Second Coming
I had recorded this poem by William Butler Yeats some months before this album was envisaged, but as I was doing an album focused on Ireland, I had to include something from my favourite Irish poet. I had discussed the ideas in this poem in a previous post.
13. The Parting Glass
While the origins of this parting song appear to be Scottish, it has been well and truly adopted by the Irish. It was also popular (and out of copyright) long before Ed Sheeran sang it.
In conclusion, I want to express my thanks to all of the attendees and organizers of the event at Galong. Especially to Cheryl Mongan and Dr. Richard Reid for inviting me to provide music for the event.
While doing some research before making a recording of Kate Rusby’s version of Daughter of Megan, I stumbled upon this very strange story published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine in 1854.
The story is titled “The Secret of Stoke Manor” and starts out claiming to tell the history of the Willoughby family of Stoke. The first chapter (starting on page 728) in the story tells of a young Welsh girl, Gwen Gryffyd, being kidnapped by a Viking on the day of her planned wedding to an old Saxon Earl.
I was so taken with the prose and the story that I made a full recording of the text here.
The implication in the story is that Gwen is THE ‘Daughter of Megan’ or ‘Merch Megan’ in Welsh and quite possibly is the one that the Air of the same name was written for. Kate Rusby does not sing her song to the tune of the Air, and it isn’t even clear if the 1812 lyrics have anything to do with the tune (other than suggesting they could be sung to it). The lyrics that Kate sings are more of a simple case of unrequited love, rather than an epic tale of Viking kidnapping.
So the questions I have as a ballad researcher are as follows:
Who wrote this story published in 1854?
Is the story based in fact?
A True Story?
I’ll start with the easier question, as the text of the story is full of names of places and people which should be relatively easy to find. Megan Gryffyd and her husband Rees ap Gryffyd appear on Ancestry.com but I’m not keen to pay for access.
Early in the story, Earl Wulfstan of Thorpe Combe gets mentioned as the old man to whom Gwen is to be wed (at some great financial advantage to her father). The only recorded Wulfstan of this time is a bishop who died in 1095, Wulfstan II. Worcester is not so significantly far away from Wales that maybe the Earl was confused with a Bishop? But this already smells of someone looking for names to put in a story that fit in the right historical timeframe. Thorpe Combe does not seem to be a place.
Rees (or Rhys) ap Gryffyd
Rees is Gwen’s father and is a somewhat blustering but diminished figure in this story, making me wonder if the author is female. There are many Welsh people called Gryffyd as it means strength in Welsh. Gruffyd ap LLwelyn was king of Wales from 1055 to 1063 so Rees could certainly have been his son, however, there is no other source linking him to Vikings.
Ollobrik the Viking
I can find no reference to an Ollobrik, or any reference to a Viking taking an oath not to remove his helmet. Maybe that is where the inspiration for the Mandalorian TV series came from? There are some parallels to the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ story here. The text makes the bold claim that Ollobrik was recorded in William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book as Ollobius de Merlitor. I guess people couldn’t easily do text searches of the Doomsday Book back in 1854.
As mentioned earlier, there are some Ancestry.com reference to these people, including a link to this Magnus, King of Norway. However, the other details do not line up with the name Ollobrik. I suspect that the only source for the Ancestry entry is this story.
Having given up on finding corroborating evidence of the named people in the story, I had a look for some of the place names. Coel-Heffyd is mentioned frequently, but does not appear to be real Welsh at all. Merlitor is not to be found and neither is St Colva’s. The Llanwillin, possibly meant to be a river, is also not to be found. My only conclusion here is that all the place names are made up using words that look a bit Welsh.
For this question, a bit of a look at Blackwood’s Edinburgh is worthwhile. According to Wikipedia the magazine ran from 1817 until 1980. The magazine was no stranger to controversy, apparently causing a duel between John Scott and Jonathan Christie in 1821. While Percy Shelley and Samuel Coleridge both wrote for the magazine, they had sadly passed well before 1854. Advocate for women’s rights, John Neal, did write for the magazine and was still alive in 1854, but does not seem to have form writing Viking stories.
Both John Lockhart and John Wilson wrote for the magazine but died in 1854. This could explain why no further articles of Willoughby family history are published, but neither man has a connection to Wales that I can find. This leaves a check through other known writers for Blackwood’s who were alive at the right time and had at least some form in the style, or a connection to Wales.
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Mary Margaret Busk
Margaret Oliphant (wrote 120 books!)
Elizabeth Clementine Stedman
Without further clues, this is where my trail on possible authorship runs cold.
Based on my short investigation, I suspect this is a piece of Scandinavian inspired fiction with no basis in history, other than setting the story within some well known landmarks (like the Oath of Sarum) and the invasion of William the Conqueror ( my great-great-etc illegitimate grandfather).
Please let me know if you have any other details about this story.
Some further searching has revealed the author of “The Secret of Stoke Manor” (of which the Ollobik/Gwen story is a part) to be George Cupples of Edinburgh. Though he did not give his name to the Blackwoods publication, this Journal from Oxford includes a note listing George as the author, and blames procrastination for the non-completion of the story.
This Halloween I decided to have a go at recording 30 ukulele songs on the themes of Halloween. Around half of the songs ended up being written by filkers and the other half a mix of my own songs and parodies and some classic Halloween material.
You can listen to the full playlist of songs here. My son Rowan and I also did a live stream on midnight of 30 October (Australian time) including some of the songs.
Somewhere in history, before commercial Halloween became a night of cheap costumes and free candy, the festival carried some useful messages for humanity. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of the various pagan origins and Christianised/Commercial descendants of the festival; however, some summarised ideas follow.
Remembering Our Ancestors
As I was setting up the backdrop for our live stream, I realised that I have no photos of my grandparents on display in the house. This is partially due to the problematic relationship with my parents, however, each of these four people contributed to my genetics and also to the person I am, through their words and actions and the lives they led.
It was only much later in life that I looked into the Danish heritage of my maternal grandfather, Reginald, and his time in the Australian Army. My memory of him on the occasions that I would stay with him and his wife Veronica during the holidays was him getting up at 6am and meticulously hand rolling the 10 cigarettes he would smoke during the day at work, the smell of tobacco still gives me a sense of calmness.
Reginald was always gentle and kind with me but lived with a weight of family history. His wife Veronica was the one who would make an effort to take me to movies and musical theatre, to teach me to sculpt and paint and gave me a desire to find a preciousness in art that was available to those who cannot afford ‘genuine’ precious things. Sadly it was Veronica who passed away from throat cancer long before Reginald. Veronica and her sister Betty came from abject poverty, children of a deserting English merchant Navy man who abandoned the family when they were young.
I was only with my paternal grandparents at a very young age, as after we left New Zealand when I was four they would only visit every few years. My grandfather, Mick, was the grandson of an Irish linen maker from Maghera who was exiled to New Zealand because of his relationship with the young tutor to his younger brothers. I knew none of this connection to Ireland until an uncle, Bruce Clark, sent me a copy of the history of the family business. It was through researching the historical newspapers of New Zealand that I discovered that Mick was a regular entertainer at social events in Whangarei before the war. My lasting memory of him was his obsession with watermelon, frequently smuggling seeds from Australia back to New Zealand in pill canisters.
My grandmother, Stella, who we were always told was ‘Italian’ when I was growing up, actually came from the Croatian Island of Bra? and was part of a significant immigration of Croatians to New Zealand, mostly coming in search of a fortune digging for Kauri Gum. It is probably Stella’s staunch Catholicism that meant I was allowed to be born, rather than terminated as an underage, unwanted, pregnancy.
Whether or not you believe in an after-life or the ability of those who are gone to tangibly engage with the world, they certainly live in our heads. They live as examples, as voices, as feelings. Halloween can be a time to acknowledge where we came from and the things of those who have gone that we choose (or cannot help choosing) to carry with us.
Clearing out the Dead
One of the songs that I did was by Lee Gold, a summary of the Wild Hunt led by Odin and recounted in Norse mythology. This idea that the gods ride the earth to capture the souls who have died during the year and carry them to their doom is a repeated motif across Europe. This theme is also reflected in Damh the Bard’s Samhain Eve song. There can be a connection here to the Scots/Irish tradition of setting carved heads with lanterns outside the house so that the hunt would not accidentally take the souls of those within.
Guisers and Gifts
Several of the songs I recorded relate to people either play acting, or actually being something other than they appear. Talis Kimberley’s Velvet and Mike Whitaker’s Cry of the Wolf both deal with shape shifting, as does Beauty and the Beast in a slightly different way. As humans we have an innate knowledge of the otherness that lives within us. In some ways it is liberating to pretend to be that other, in other ways it can be terrifying.
Across Europe, the tradition of children dressing up and going door to door asking for food or money and threating consequence if the gifts are not sufficient is prevalent. It lives on in the plastic commercial incarnation of ‘trick or treating’. For much of history, the time after harvest led to winter, and a knowledge that cold and hunger would likely take several people in a community, it makes sense that gifts would be given in the hope of survival.
For quite a few years I have done a Christmas song challenge, and I love the hope of a returning sun that lives within the Yule tradition, but it was exciting to tackle a different festival this year. Unfortunately the trick or treaters in town are going to have a difficult time tomorrow with a 99% chance of rain.
There is no shortage of male singer/songwriters in the folk scene in Australia, so I was very honoured to be invited to play at Folk by the Sea in beautiful Kiama this year. The festival last ran in 2019, so just like our Irish and Celtic festival here in Yass, it had been three years since musicians have had the chance to get together and share honest, meaningful music with each other and a live audience.
I shared the stages with some true giants of the folk scene, people such as Judy Small, who I unfortunately did not get to see in concert due to scheduling, but did get to hear her parody song at Russell Hannah’s parody concert, and Enda Kenny, whose song-writing and delivery are superb. He was introduced as the ‘finest Irish songwriter living outside Ireland’, which I think is a little unfair, ‘finest living Irish songwriter’ would be more accurate. Russell forgot Enda at the parody concert, but Enda did do a marvellous parody in his main concert based on ‘My Way’, but about the Evergiven.
The reason I was invited to perform at the festival was Rod Cork, who passed in February this year. I did not know Rod personally at all, but he listened to a set that I played in Yass at the Turning Wave Festival in 2017. Rod came up to me afterwards and gave me his card and suggested that I apply to perform at Folk by the Sea.
I did apply in 2018, and again in 2019 but was not invited to perform both times. Rod explained the competitive nature of artistic selection boards for festivals and suggested I continue to apply. I don’t have visibility of the inner-workings of the festival artistic board, but do wonder if my selection was a parting consideration for Rod. In any case, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to perform in 2022, and very thankful to people like Rod who encourage people starting out on their folk journey.
It was fabulous to get the chance to perform my album of Cicely Fox Smith poems in the Anglican Church by the sea (built in 1843). After joining the shanty session run by the Redfern Shanty Club earlier in the day, it was wonderful to take these fine poems out for a run again in an appropriate setting. The acoustics of the church meant that amplification was entirely un-necessary, and the beautiful wooden ceiling is built like an inverted boat.
The Dixie Chooks were on immediately after me in the church, so I got to hear this fine duo for the second time in a week (as they also opened the Yass Irish and Celtic Festival last weekend). Sometimes as a fellow performer there is an inclination to stay around out of politeness to listen to other performers, but in the case of Wendy and Moira it is an absolute pleasure to hear to their harmonies and mastery of several stringed things.
I have greatly missed the sound of forty musicians on bodhrans, fiddles, concertinas, flutes, guitars, mandolins, pipes, harmonicas and banjos belting out hour after hour of Irish tunes. It was fabulous to hear that sound in our small town of Yass again after a three-year absence due to the plague.
As a songwriter, I also love the chance to hear what others from across the country have been writing or adding to their repertoire. While the factory floor of Twitter, Instagram, Zoom, YouTube and Facebook have provided an alternative for artists during these times of isolation, they do not come close to the experience of being in the same room with an audience and other performers.
Friday night opened at the Lovat Chapel (formerly St. Augustine’s) with the ‘just in time’ Dixie Chooks, having hit petrol trouble at Gundagai. Although I’ve had the chance to hear Wendy and Moira several times before, the superb guitar skills, soaring harmonies and guaranteed humor always make it worthwhile to catch them again.
As an avid listener of Triantan for many years I was excited to hear the new incarnation of 2/3rds of them (Anthony Woolcott and Miguel Heatwole), with Sophie Moore. Fabulous vocal harmonies and an eclectic mix of material, including Baterz’ Giant Squids, a song from Tolkien and some 80s punk ballads. The addition of Sophie Moore’s beautiful soprano makes for some enchanting listening. However, the group may need to find a new name as ‘Songbrother’ probably doesn’t fit anymore!
Miguel asked me to record the concert for them, the video is available here.
The rest of the Friday evening was a somber occasion, with a memorial concert for Annie Waterhouse, who passed unexpectedly only months before the festival. Annie was a major supporter of the festival and a key member of the committee, her loss was deeply felt. I sang this re-write of the famous poem by George Washington Johnson for Annie at the concert.
While there were a few performers that I missed due to scheduling, I was able to hear the angelic voice of Shona Williams at 10 in the morning on Saturday, in a newly flooded (broken dishwasher) Yazzbar. Shona is a joy to listen to as an unaccompanied singer.
After hearing Shona I was back to the Lovat Chapel to launch my second album of songs about Yass, Peace in the Valley. It was also an opportunity to sing my song about the Sisters of Mercy that came to Yass in 1875 and were responsible for building the Chapel and running the Mt Carmel school. I had been scheduled to sing it there in 2021, to commemorate the last sisters leaving Yass, but the event was covid-delayed.
It is worth a special mention for Keith and Liz Lovell, who run the Lovat Chapel venue as volunteers. Having a great MC can make the experience much fuller for both performer and audience and Liz does a wonderful job (promoted to National Folk Festival MC this year!).
Having missed Nerida Cuddy at previous festivals, it was wonderful to finally hear her in person, with such wholesome and evocative songwriting and a fine voice. One of Nerida’s songs, Virtual Folk Club, closely tracks my own strange experience in 2020/2021 with international Zoom-based concerts and music clubs.
One of the best surprises of the weekend was ducking into Trader &Co. at 8pm on Saturday for some dinner (delicious beef in Guinness). The schedule had ‘Open Mic’, but instead Mad Kelpie Playdate did an impromptu concert of fabulous pipe tunes. A brief snippet up on my Facebook page here. After the set they were joined by others for a session, which Paddy Conner told me went until 1am.
Other highlights over the weekend included fine songs from Christina Green. I had greatly enjoyed the Irish chant that she sang for Annie’s Memorial Concert, so was happy to be able to catch her set at the Australian Hotel on Saturday night. Despite some competition with the rowdy sports-ball watchers in the bar, Christina shared some fabulous songs. Hearing David Game and Jenny Gall sing and play as a duo was also a pleasure, having previously played with them in the local Céilí band.
As at any festival, there were many other great acts that I missed this year. Jose Garcia of Tidal Moon did an excellent job getting the best sound out of the Lovat Chapel, but I was sad to only catch him and Tidal Moon singing at partial sounds checks.
Janno Scanes, as festival director and president of the committee did a super-human job putting the festival together this year. The hurdles have not been minor, and it is a significant achievement that the festival went ahead despite weather, sickness, bureaucracy, and great loss. Melita Simmonds also managed to be simultaneously in 4 venues capturing the festival, you can see her fine work on the festival Instagram and Facebook pages.
Hopefully at the 2023 festival, the plague will be a bad memory, and we will welcome back performers from across the globe, to the finest festival, in the finest little town on earth.
Since 2018 I have been setting the lyrics of children’s books by Julia Donaldson to music and publishing them on my un-monetized YouTube Channel. This started out because I noticed the link between Phil Ochs fabulous setting of Alfred Noyes poem ‘The Highway Man‘ and Julia Donaldson’s book, The Highway Rat.
This type of transformative use of material is usually covered by Fair Use or Fair Dealing copyright laws, depending on the country the copyright is held in.
These videos became very popular, with the Highway Rat video having over 38,000 views when it was removed by Julia’s Publishers (Scholastic and MacMillan).
The first video to be removed, on 11 January 2022, was a song version of Superworm. When I approached the company (Webapio) that had issued the copyright strike, they directed me to Scholastic, who not only confirmed their intent to remove the video, but stated that I had to take down all of my song adaptations of Julia’s work.
It was not until I took down the videos that I started to get messages from distressed parents whose young children were watching these videos daily. As a parent to children on the Autism spectrum, I know how critical a song can be in managing the anxiety of kids (and parents) who live with this condition.
The whole situation left me feeling terrible. I know that authors should, and have a right to, make money from their work. However, in this instance, the works created by me were transformative and were not monetized on YouTube. The Publishers had the option to claim Content ID and generate revenue from the work, but instead went down the path of copyright strikes, putting all of the content on my channel at risk.
I have written the letter below in the hope that Julia Donaldson will eventually see it and maybe re-consider her direction to Publishers around fan-created material that is not being used commercially.
29 July 2022
To: Julia Donaldson
Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH
I’m writing this letter to you,
In the hope there is something that you can do,
To stop your publishers from hunting me down,
To cancel the songs that I freely passed around,
I know that the Gruffalo belongs to you,
And the mouse and the snail and super worm to,
Yes the witch and her broom, and the man made of stick,
Are all from your musings, it’s not a fight that I pick.
I never sought profit from the songs that I wrote,
Just a melody stream on which your words could float,
As I know there are children with needs quite unique,
Who respond better to singing, than to things we speak.
Your publishers just like that selfish old rat,
Seek to pillage the highway, and make the world flat,
Filled only by things that they made and control,
Robbing the world of its magic and soul.
Thankyou for listening to the words of a snail,
For I know the world’s so hard to turn, like a whale,
But creations of fans, make the world full and fine,
And the benefits come back to authors in time.
Yass, New South Wales,
ozfolklounge 'at' gmail.com
I recently did this recording of a song about Ned Kelly written by Australian singer Trevor Lucas in the 1970s. The song was performed by Fotheringay in the UK (played here without Trevor, who passed in 1989) and later picked up back in Australia by Redgum.
I had heard this song some 25 years ago at a local musical production about Ned Kelly in Queensland. I’m not sure who wrote the musical, or if it was associated with Redgum or Trevor Lucas, but this song featured in it.
Like any folk hero, the stories that sprung up about the bushranger Edward Kelly during his criminal career and soon after his hanging in Melbourne in November 1880 were not always factual. The idea and image of Ned Kelly has continued to be used by various parts of society for all manner of reasons.
I’m writing this blog post because someone commented on my video upload with this:
“The song is well done, but the words are based on a load of mythological nonsense, that does not reveal the true nature of Ned Kelly.”
And then again on someone else’s comment:
“But the words are based on fictitious rubbish.”
I thought it would be instructional to go through the lyrics of the Trevor Lucas songs and have a look for this ‘fictitious rubbish and mythological nonsense’.
I won’t bother with the chorus, as it doesn’t really say anything disputable. But will go through the verses.
Eighteen-hundred and seventy-eight, Was the year I remember so well. They put my father in an early grave And slung my mother in gaol. Now I don’t know what’s right or wrong But they hung Christ on nails. Six kids at home and two on the breast: They wouldn’t even give her bail.
So was Ned Kelly’s mother made a widow by the police and trying to raise six children and refused bail? The fact that Ned was one of 7 children is not in dispute, and the story of his father John ‘Red’ Kelly being deported from Ireland for stealing pigs is also not up for debate. This excerpt:
“the officer in charge of that district . . . should endeavor, whenever they committed any paltry crime, to bring them to justice and send them to Pentridge even on a paltry sentence, the object being to take prestige away from them, which was as good an effect as being sent to prison with very heavy sentences, because the prestige those men get up there from what is termed their flashness helped them to keep together, and that is a very good way of taking the flashness out of them.”
of direction from the Assistant Chief Commissioner to Police in the area that the Kellys settled in makes it very clear that the effort to keep them and those like them in poverty was carefully thought out. The impact on Ned, his brothers, sisters, father and mother was very real. To be of a convict background, and Irish, in the Australia of the 1870s meant that a peaceful life, surviving off the fruit of honest labour, was near impossible.
Update: Thanks to Sam’s post below, here is a link to an instance of Ellen Kelly being given bail from May 1878. Of course, this doesn’t prove that she was not refused bail on another occasion, given her frequent run-ins with the police.
You know I wrote a letter ’bout Stringy Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I’m not a murdering man.
I didn’t want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonigan.
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun.
There is no debate here, the Jerilderie Letter is real, copies exist and it has been analysed in detail. You can read the full text of the letter here. A brief excerpt below, which confirms that in at least Ned’s own mind, he saw his life played out as part of the ongoing English oppression of the Irish people.
What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys, even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect, is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do without the public assisting them.
You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne Gaol.
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail.
But no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars.
It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who’ll hoist the flag of stars.
Or course Ned Kelly was hung at Old Melbourne Jail on 11 November 1880. Saying that he had ‘iron mail’ is a poetic license stretch as his armour was plate metal, most likely ‘bush forged’ from stolen plough mould boards.
Whether Ned Kelly was brave, or fought bravely, is a matter of opinion. It is clear from history that Ned’s life was a result of English power and money seeking to ensure that the children of Irish convicts could never prosper in the country.
I am no historical scholar, or expert on Ned Kelly, but I have read many of the stories, plays and song that appeared in Australian newspapers in the 140 years since his death, and feel I can say with some confidence that the accusation that this particular ballad is ‘fictitious rubbish’ is absolutely false. I am happy to look at any evidence presented to the contrary.
I did think I had finished my research on Colin Dryden, but this week I received an email from Jean Memery, with the attached collection of stories from the residents of Beechworth in Victoria, from the time that Colin spent there before departing Australia in 1986. I have only included the stories shared by those who have passed on, or who have given permission for their words to be shared.
(Content below, as provided by Jean, more to come as permission is obtained)
I first met Colin at Colleen Millerd’s little brick house in Albury and she assures me it was 1980 because she still had her panel van then. Colleen was a devotee of the Albury Folk club and it was probably there or at one of the neighbouring folk festivals that she met Colin and gave him a room to camp in. At the time Colleen was a hard- working Psych nurse at the mental hospital in Beechworth and Colin’s lifestyle became an irritant. She remembers Colin, in an inexplicable fit of pique, drunkenly damaging her van, possibly at Nariel Folk Festival. Much as she loved his singing and respected his deep knowledge of so many songs, it was time to move him on. Steve and Fred came to her rescue and brought Colin to Steve’s red-roofed house, known as Southfork, in Stanley. (We were addicted to Dallas at the time).
Steve McGuffie’s Story
Stanley is a little village up a winding road in the hills about six miles from Beechworth. Colin stayed at various camps along this road over the years before he left. Steve, an electrician by trade, was a party animal, the town stud for many years, pub patron and had been a talented Aussie Rules footballer. His house was welcoming and he had a good heart and a finely tuned sense of humour. My favourite McGuff story about Colin was when Colin’s fiddle was smashed to smithereens, probably run over by accident. Steve gathered the pieces together and reassembled the jigsaw with superglue. Good as new!
Peter Goonan’s Story
Beechworth’s pub culture was, and possibly still is, legendary: four pubs for a town of 3,500 and the Stanley pub was noteworthy for its wild publican, former milkman, nicknamed John Silver, probably for his silver hair. He sometimes had cricket matches from the bar and out into the street. In this rich mix, Colin met Peter Goonan, another psych nurse and bon vivant. Peter lived along the Stanley road, closer to Beechworth, in a house where a woman had been murdered by her partner’s cranky son, in the chookhouse, to be precise, hence the names the Homicide Hilton or Murder Mansion. Colin was a good fit and Peter had wheels and a thirst.
One night, Peter had to supervise a ward on night shift and he didn’t have time to drive Colin home so he took Colin to work. Peter recalls that Colin was more trouble, wanting a drink, than all the patients and staff combined, all night. Pete was very happy to ‘discharge’ Colin the next morning!
Peter was renowned as the chief wrangler of the Free ‘N’ Sleazy, an anarchic open mic session, very different from the current sedate versions. Everyone got equal treatment and time and I remember one professional outfit who wanted to monopolise the stage. Peter rattled his tambourine at them, sent them off (in high dudgeon) and enthusiastically welcomed the worst singer in the world to thunderous applause! Colin was equally well-received and he seemed to enjoy playing with anyone who cared to join in. He loved variety and gave everyone’s performance his close attention, including old Ray, who could render Waltzing Matilda unrecognisable.
When Peter’s lady, known to us as Dolly Partner, insisted that Colin be moved on, Peter arranged for him to stay at Peter Fartusczinski’s shed, still along the Stanley road, and checked that he was warm and fed. A few rabbits perhaps…
Kissy was another Psych nurse and pub patron: Free ‘N’ Sleazy at the Commercial, lock-ins at the Nick, spit and sawdust at the Empire and fluorescent lighting at the Hibernian, which made us all look like corpses. Much has now been swept away in a wave of gentrification. Kissy fondly recalls Peter’s big old red flatbed truck, with Colin on the back to mind the beer as they speared off to another party. One night Kissy saw Peter take a corner too sharply and Colin fell off but the beer survived… and Colin was none the worse for wear.
Ewan Paterson’s Story
Dr Ewan Paterson was the town’s dentist, a town councillor, Labor Party stalwart and a hobby farmer who hosted ratbag cricket matches in summer. He was worried by Colin’s missing teeth so made him a set of false teeth. One Easter as we walked up to see the Golden Horseshoes Festival parade, we spotted Colin come flying out of the Empire bar and hit the deck. We rushed over to check if his false teeth were broken but he’d wisely stored them in his pocket. No harm done.
Jack and Jai Smith’s Story
When they weren’t moving around the country, my brother, Jack and his son, Jai, lived in my childhood home in Beechworth. They regaled us with the story of coming home to the sound of the shower running. Jack blamed Jai and rushed in to turn it off, only to be confronted by Colin, lathered up in all his glory. Harmony was restored. Jack was particularly fond of Turning Steel because when he moved to Melbourne he worked in a metal-spinning business. Jai remembers Colin at one of his kiddy birthday parties but is not sure if Colin sang for him amid the paddock cricket, beer, food and a spectacular dogfight!
Marie Coombe is Peter Goonan’s older sister and my old bridesmaid. She’s a gentle and generous soul and remembers Colin coming to her house for a shower and to wash his clothes. As Marie says, the house was full of grog but Colin never touched it and remained steadfastly sober for his visits. She also loved his singing at her nephew’s wedding.
For most of Colin’s time around the area I lived in a little brick cottage in Last Street: the Last Resort. Jack Smith and I used to host the Waifs and Strays Christmas. This became so popular that we had to ban refugees from family Christmases until after 4pm. Colin was a founding member of this event. He also regularly attended St Patrick’s Day parties and from time to time stayed in a spare room, either the Dollies’ Room or the Spiders’ Room. Once he rolled up on the kitchen floor in a freshly washed doona, which made me rant and rave, only to find him vehemently defended by little Jai. On my birthday I remember Colin’s present of a bracket of songs at the Albury Folk Club. Some mean-spirited souls put him last on the programme and then tried to incapacitate him with drink but Colin resisted and delivered a wonderful performance.
Looking at the very few photos of Colin from those days, I began to realise that except when onstage, he was a self-effacing man and an observant bystander. He was gently amused by our antics, like the Cops and Robbers party for Ewan’s and my birthday at the Stanley hall with outrageous fancy dress, or the tragic scenes when we flew home penniless in Jack Tully’s light plane from far-flung country horse races. I like to think that those years were a happy time for Colin.
As with almost all Yeats’ poems, there is a feeling that a deeper magical meaning lies behind the words. When I went looking online, I couldn’t find any good discussion on the meaning of this poem. This one was particularly dreadful (What do they teach them at these schools?). This analysis talks about the two trees in the Garden of Eden and then a loose reference to “pagan rituals, mostly likely Druid or Wiccan”. I can hear Yeats rolling his eyes.
It also irks me that students forced to read Yeats in high school or university are now turning to canned essay responses like this, rather than imbibing the words into their own soul and skimming from the resulting broth. Even worse, I pity the poor postgraduate student armies forced to mark these canned essays against a Rubric.
Here is the poem in full:
The Two Trees
BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart, The holy tree is growing there; From joy the holy branches start, And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit Have dowered the stars with metry light; The surety of its hidden root Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head Has given the waves their melody, And made my lips and music wed, Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves – a circle – go, The flaming circle of our days, Gyring, spiring to and fro In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair And how the winged sandals dart, Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass The demons, with their subtle guile. Lift up before us when they pass, Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows That the stormy night receives, Roots half hidden under snows, Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For ill things turn to barrenness In the dim glass the demons hold, The glass of outer weariness, Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go The ravens of unresting thought; Flying, crying, to and fro, Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind, And shake their ragged wings; alas! Thy tender eyes grow all unkind: Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
I split the poem into four line stanzas for ease of singing, in the original publication the poem is split into the light/dark parts. There is no escaping the duality concept at the heart of this poem, it is even in the title. From the first line it is clear that this isn’t a poem about trees, but about introspection and the human condition.
Yeats had a concept that involves two cones, and the idea that a continuous spiraling of one cone upwards against another cone downwards results in the cyclic nature of all things in the universe, from the spinning of atoms, to the rise and fall of civilizations. Some discussion of the Gyre here and on Niamh Butler’s blog here.
There are several historical trees which might be relevant to this poem. Some have connected it to Kabbalah of Hebrew esotericism, but this is a single world tree, having the same challenge as the Nordic Yggdrasil.
We have a more recent example in the Two Trees of Valinor that form part of Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth. Tolkien is said to have connected these silver and gold trees with the Trees of the Sun and Moon that Alexander the Great encountered when he traveled beyond India. It is well known that members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, that Yeats was a member of, included significant amounts of eastern mysticism in their studies, and it is likely that Yeats would have read this text.
In fact, Yeats references these Silver and Gold trees by their apples in The Songs of Wandering Aengus. I don’t completely discount the connection with the Tree of Life referenced in the biblical Garden of Eden story, and many other cultures, but the evidence in the poem is not clear to me.
Now to the actual poem. The first part describes the growth of a tree from the heart, reaching out its branches, bearing fruit and flowers and shaking its leafy head. The allusion to physics of wave motion cannot be missed, with references to water waves, sound waves in music and even the different colours of light generated by difference in frequency. I cannot find any other references to trees growing out of hearts.
There are three references which confused me ‘Loves – a circle – go’, ‘flaming circle of our days’ and ‘winged sandals dart’. Winged sandals of course being associated with the Roman god Mercury or the Greek god Hermes who is the guider of souls to the afterlife. The caduceus that Hermes carries features wings and two entwined snakes. Sadly in my song I found a copy of the poem which had incorrectly listed the line as ‘Joves – a circle -go’.
In my side-search to try and makes sense of the ‘Loves’ line, I came across an amazing poem by Australian poet Dulcie Deamer, The Last Lover, published in 1922. Aside from this entry in Trove, I cannot find any other reference to it. Given the circles Dulcie moved in, she must have known of Yeats.
There is book called ‘The Flaming Circle’ by Robin Artisson, and it cannot be chance that this book is about reconstructing the old ways of Britain and Ireland. There is also a reference to the flaming circle in Dante’s Paradiso, and it possibly refers to the idea that the two lights of the sky, being the sun and the moon, chase each other in a circle.
My simplistic reading of the last two stanzas in the first half of the poem is just that our Loves (our desires and fancies) branch upwards in a wild fashion, like fliting birds or spirits. That we reach out for experience in our ignorance.
I will mention here the interesting thought I had about the two cones that Yeats describes in A Vision, as the two parts of the poem could be thought of as one being the upwards expanding cone, and the other being the downward. Just as the cones describe planets and atoms, they could describe the life of a soul. Incidentally, this amazing video by Derek Muller from Veritasium about the Dzhanibekov Effect talks about the serious consequences of this model at the planetary level.
If you look at these two intersecting cones side-on, they look like the Star of David. Maybe the hidden mysteries of the Golden Dawn have been on show in Judaism for centuries.
Incidentally, this symbol was also used by Helen Blavatsky’s Theosophy society, but then again, she seemed to be cobbling together whatever symbols might con wealthy but gullible English men and women out of their money. If you really want to dive down the rabbit hole, have a look at this site.
The second half of the poem has a much more depressing tone, starting off with a ‘bitter glass’ and demons. The verse still speaks of a tree, that has broken boughs and blackened leaves. Some have taken this half of the poem as just an admonition from Yeats to his unrequited love, Maud Gonne, that she should stop looking in the mirror and worrying about her aging appearance. I wouldn’t disgrace Yeats with such a trite and shallow interpretation.
So what is this ‘glass of outer weariness’ that the demons hold up to us? And where do these ‘ravens of unresting thought’ come from? And what was God sleeping for (Odin sleep maybe)? So many questions.
Many of the occultists of the 1800s, in fact many occultists all the way back to Huangdi, were seeking to cheat death, to be immortal. I guess Yeats certainly achieved immortality of a sort. Could it be that this other tree is the mirror tree that grows downwards while our living tree grows upwards. In A Vision Yeats uses the phrase, “all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”.
“As above, so below” is a popular phrase in modern paganism, and was also common among 1800s occultists. It is thought to come from the Emerald Tablet, the foundation of alchemy. The supposed author, Hermes Trismegistus, gives us another link to those winged feet. The epithet is often displayed as a mirrored tree, sometimes the ‘celtic tree of life’, but I’m not sure this isn’t a modern affectation.
Did Yeats think that while our young life was growing and blossoming, another darker tree of death was growing in the mirror. Was his exhortation to ‘gaze no more’ a suggestion that by halting the growth of the dark tree we could live longer, forever even?
We will never know. But I do wish Mr Yeats a very happy 156th Birthday, wherever his winged soul now alights.