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Bush Ballads


Wadsworth, Eric. Old bush songs and tunes are played by musicians dressed in Australian country clothes at Emu Bottom, 19 September 1971. National Library of Australia , nla.pic-an24494848-v

Bush ballads refer to the life of shearers, gold-miners, shepherds and drovers, and infrequently to the lonely lives of women in the outback in the early years of white settlement in Australia.

Reasons for selection

Bush ballads is a term which includes a number of songs written in the nineteenth century about Australian life during the years of settlement of the countryside and the development of the pastoral industry. The most famous of these is the song Waltzing Matilda, often called Australia's unofficial national anthem. Bush ballads have been selected for this Data Bank because they reflect a significant aspect of the Australian experience.

Area where performed

All over Australia

Essential elements of the performing art


Detailed explanation

Bush ballads are today mainly performed in folk clubs, at folk festivals or by professional musicians playing in bush bands or for bush dances. In any case, they may be said to be performed by special interest groups and are sometimes taught by music teachers in schools. One exception is the song Waltzing Matilda which is passed among Australians orally and is known, at least in part, to almost all Australians. It may be sung on a number of occasions of celebration or conviviality or when nationalism needs to be asserted (such as at football matches). Waltzing Matilda will be the song of choice for expatriate Australians living or working overseas when a sample of Australian culture is called for. It is of particular interest for folklorists that the text of Waltzing Matilda was written by a known poet, A. B. (Banjo)Paterson in 1895, but it has unquestionably passed into the folk tradition by oral transmission, such as in families, as well as by other means.

Other well-known titles of bush ballads are Click go the Shears, The Old Bullock Dray, Bound for South Australia, and The Overlander.

Many bush ballads were recorded by folklorists such as John Meredith between the 1950s and 1980s, and are preserved in the National Library of Australia's Oral History Section. There are a number of published compilations and commentaries, and the most influential commentary is Russel Ward's The Australian Legend, first published in 1958 and continually reprinted. Russel Ward's book not only contributed a new phrase to the Australian English language but also described, and helped to perpetuate, the belief that the real core of Australian identity lies in the bush rather than the cities. This belief comes under considerable challenge in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Since bush ballads (except Waltzing Matilda)have largely disappeared from oral transmission, they would have to be regarded as in danger of extinction today.

Publication and textual documentation

MANIFOLD, J.S., compiled
1964 The Penguin Australian Song Book.
Ringwood Victoria: Penguin.

1967 Folk Songs of Australia and the Men and Women Who Sang Them.
Sydney: Ure Smith.

Audio documentation

A number of commercial recordings exist but the most authentic would be the National Library of Australia's audio cassettes from the John Meredith Collection called Folk Songs of Australia.

Visual documentation

The National Film and Sound Archive (now known as Screensound)has some video recordings of bush bands. The National Library holds a collection of photographs of traditional musicians produced by John Meredith and published by the Library under the title Real Folk (1995).

Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

The National Library of Australia in Canberra

Data provider

Dr. Gwenda Davey AM
Honorary Research Associate
National Centre for Australian Studies
Monash University, Melbourne
Address: Clayton, Victoria, 3168, Melbourne, Australia

(Revised in July 2004)
Dr. Gwenda Beed Davey AM
Honorary Research Fellow
Centre of Cultural Heritage in Asia and the Pacific, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University
Address: 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria, 3125, Australia.