A Movement that sings will never die

Danny Blackman

 Information for this article is drawn from Helen Palmer’s essay “Birth of an Old Bush Ballad”, pp 166 – 169 in Helen Palmer’s Outlook (ed. Doreen Bridges), published by the Helen Palmer Estate, Surry Hills, Sydney, 1982, and from information provided by Tom Bridges.

 Probably the best-known of all Australian labour movement songs, the Ballad of 1891 tells the story of the great shearers’ strike of that year, the critical event that led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

The history of the Ballad is less well-known and often erroneously attributed: on the one hand, it is often described as “traditional” and assumed to have been written by some anonymous bush balladist at the time of the strike; on the other, it is widely believed to have been written for the great 1950s Australian folk musical, Reedy River.

It was in fact written by Helen Palmer and Doreen Bridges (then Jacobs) as an exercise in fusing elements of the ballad tradition with a contemporary musical context, in the context of wider controversy about the history and development of folk songs and ballads. Taking as their starting point arguments about the militant popular origins of folksong and unable to find any ballads about the two great radical highlights of 19th century Australian history, Eureka and the 1891 shearers’ strike, Palmer wrote the lyrics of two ballads[1] commemorating these events. Jacobs set them to music and they were sung by Jacobs’ choir, the Unity Singers.

So prevalent was the view that the Ballad of 1891 was “traditional” that the producers of the first Melbourne New Theatre production of Reedy River in 1953, coming across the words on a roneoed Unity Singers song sheet, adopted them into the show. (The Ballad was subsequently to become the best-known of the Reedy River songs.)

Palmer and Jacobs, who had copyrighted both ballads[2], contacted New Theatre to assert their ownership of the Ballad of 1891 – as they were to do many times over the years when it was included under “anonymous” authorship in songbooks and collections of Australian folk songs.

The Ballad of 1891, as arranged by Jacobs’ son Tom Bridges, is an accepted “common song” of union choirs throughout Australia and is often performed by them, including a performance by massed union choirs at the 2012 National Folk Festival in Canberra.

The Ballad of 1891

Lyrics by Helen Palmer, Music by Doreen Bridges (1951)

(Lyrics reproduced by permission of the current copyright owner, Doreen Bridges.)

The price of wool was falling in 1891;

The men who owned the acres saw something must be done;

“We’ll break the shearers’ union and show we’re masters still,

And they’ll take the terms we give them or we’ll find the men who will!”

From Clermont to Barcaldine the shearers’ camps were full,

Ten thousand blades were ready to strip the greasy wool,

When through the west like thunder rang out the union’s call:

“The sheds’ll be shore union or they won’t be shorn at all!”

O Billy Lane was with them – his words were like a flame;
The flag of blue above them, they spoke Eureka’s name.
“Tomorrow,” said the squatters, “you’ll find it does not pay –
We’re bringing up free labourers to get the clip away!”

“Tomorrow,” said the shearers, “they may not be so keen –
We can mount three thousand horsemen to show them what we mean”.
“Then we’ll pack the west with troopers, from Bourke to Charters Towers –
You can have your fill of speeches, but the final strength is ours!”

“Be damned to your six-shooters, your troopers and police –

The sheep are getting heavy, the burr is in the fleece!”

“Then if Nordenfeldt and Gatling won’t bring you to your knees,

We’ll find a law,” the squatters said, “that’s made for times like these!”

To trial at Rockhampton the fourteen men were brought;

The Judge had got his orders; the squatters owned the court –
But for every one was sentenced, a thousand won’t forget
When they gaol a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet!

[1] The second was the Ballad of Eureka, which is sung by the Sydney Trade Union Choir to an arrangement by Tom Bridges

[2] Palmer indicates this was done “more to test the workings of the …(copyright)..system than anything else”.