Wongawilli Colonial
Dance Club Inc.

PO Box 463
Warilla, 2528


Brian Godden     phone: 02 42967780

Introduction to Australian Folk Music

compiled by David De Santi

Dancing, singing and music have been essential to the party spirit as long as we can remember and the European settlers of Australia were no exception. Dancing, singing, reciting and music for the white settlers became an integral part of the lives, whether it was in a grand Colonial Ball in the city, a celebratory end of sheep shearing season Woolshed Dance or simply a gathering of friends and family for an evening's entertainment in a kitchen or round a campfire.

The songs, dances, poems and music reflect the hopes, humour, disappointments and the perseverance of these pioneers in a distinctive and characteristic Australian manner.

Music and Instruments

Many of the folk dances which appeared in Australia had their traditional tunes and characteristic rhythms. In the earliest days of European settlement social dance music was provided by regimental bands and at less formal functions by a fiddler, perhaps accompanied by whistles, fifes or flutes.

The large influx of migrants from 1851 due to the 'gold rushes' provided further musical traditions to enrich the dance music. Military bands, brass bands, the German Band and string bands were immensely popular for formal city balls and functions.Bush communities were different with the dance musicians usually w&127;ithout any formal musical training.

However, tunes were often learnt from music played by visiting town bands or other locals who played from printed sheet music.

These musicians who played by ear had a mixed repertoire with a core of British and European folk tunes, and snippets of popular music from travelling shows and music halls.The inherent characteristics and special rhythms and tempos for particular dances were generally accurately handed down but the melody passed on aurally tended to change and develop.The basic instruments used were button accordion, anglo-concertina, fiddle, tin whistle, harmonica and whenever available a piano.

The piano was common in pubs, public halls, schools as well as homes.The folk revival of the late 1950s began with the aims of reviving the music and instruments of the past. However as time has passed the repertoire and instruments of the new 'bush bands' have generally followed an Anglo-Celtic style with an obsession for revived British and Irish music which is inconsistent with Australia's past folklore influences from many nations.

The original 'Bushwhackers' Band' of Sydney, formed in 1952 was led by John Meredith and Brian Loughlin and reflected the instrumentation that any band in the bush could have had and folk festivals around the country which actively support the bush music tradition. A listing phone was introduced by a rabbit poisoner at a talent quest/concert at Holbrook (NSW). John's brother Claude was impressed with this broom handle with bottles tops and made one for himself. John introduced it to the band and it has since become an integral part of a 'bush band'.

The Australian Folksong

What is the earliest Australian folksong in English? The convicts, and the early settlers, and even the troopers did sing and doubtless much of what they sang was rude, and irreverent.The guess is that the first Australian folk song to be sung here was 'The Transport', also known as 'Botany Bay'. This is not the comic song of later years but a simple hard edged ballad presenting the harsh realities of transportation and effects on the unfortunate convict's family and loved ones.Broadly speaking there are three main groups of songs.

First are the true Australian folk songs, concerned with Australia and Australians that originated with the folk and then passed into the folk heritage and have been collected and published in recent years. These songs are not just about the bush but include bawdy songs and children's rhymes.

Secondly there are the British and Irish folk songs that came here with the settlers along with their customs. Many of these have become part of our culture and have also been collected in the field.

The third grouping falls into two divisions. First there are British folksongs that happen to be printed on the same broadsides as ballads concerned with matters pertaining to Australia. A number of these have also been collected.The final group of songs from the revival era of Australian bush music can be considered due to their content and style.It was in the late 1880s that the first printing of bush songs occurred, but the first systematic collection was by A.B. Paterson in 1898.

The first edition of 'Old Bush Songs was in 1905 and since then there have been many collections from other contributors. They include songs of convicts, bushrangers, and gold-seekers; of law-makers and law-breakers; of teamsters, drovers, stockmen, shearers, strikers, and sporting life.


Modern bush dancing is a city based development from the folk revival of the 1950s. The majority of the dances were folk dances from Great Britain and Europe, while the others were from the Australian tradition.

Colonial dancing actually describes the social dance fashion of town and country of the 19th Century.From the time of earliest settlement the older country dances were rapidly replaced by new dance fashions constantly arriving in the colony and adopted by all classes of society.

As early as 1820, the waltz and quadrille had been established alongside these country dances, jigs and reels. By the 1850s the scene was dominated by further quadrilles such as the Lancers, Caledonians and Parisian, with the Alberts, Fitzroy, Waltz Cotillion and others to follow. Also fashionable were the Waltz, Galop, Polka, Schottische, Polka Mazurka and Varsoviana.

In a few country areas some of these dances have survived and are still being danced by local communities. Fortunately they are being preserved for future generations.

Collecting of the Tradition

Over the past years we have all become aware of the importance of our physical environment. Equally important is the preservation of our cultural environment or Folklore.

A number of voluntary collectors such as John Meredith, Ron Edwards, Alan & Bill Scott, Rob Willis, Shirley Andrews, Dave de Hugard, Chris Sullivan, Mark Rummery, Barry McDonald, Brad Tate, Mike Martin, Alan Musgrove and Peter Ellis to name a few have for some years been travelling all over Australia recording our many areas of folklore, from native Australian to those who came from other lands after colonisation.

Thanks to this hard work many of the bush dances, songs and music can now be enjoyed and played.

The National Library of Australia has supported this preservation and collection.It is also important that dissemination occurs to musicians, dancers and the public generally to continue the living tradition. There are a number of organisations and folk festivals around the country which actively support the bush music tradition.

References & Further Reading

  • Take Your Partners - Shirley Andrews, 1979
  • Two Hundred Years Dancing - Shirley Andrews, Peter Ellis, 1988
  • Folk Songs of Australia, Vol. 1 & 2 - John Meredith, Hugh Anderson, R. Covell, P. Brown, 1985, 1987
  • Bush Dance - Lance Green, David Johnson, 1987
  • Overlander Songbook - Ron Edwards, 1971
  • The Story of Australian Folksong - Hugh Anderson, 1955
  • The Penguin Australian Songbook - John S. Manifold, 1964
  • Australian Bush Ballads - Douglas Stewart, Nancy Keesing, 1955
  • Collector's Choice, 3 volumes of over 500 tunes - Peter Ellis
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