Producing an Australian Popular Music: From Stephen Foster to Jack O'Hagan
Stratton, Jon, Journal of Australian Studies
I need to start by defining what I mean by 'popular music'. Iain Chambers argues that in popular culture there is a 'mutual involvement of industry and culture, of commercial production and popular taste (1)' and that this is typically the case in 'popular music'. In Chambers's argument, popular music is bound up with processes of industrialisation and capitalistic commodification. The impact of commercialisation is commonly considered fundamental: for example, in their discussion of popular music in Australia, Jeff Brownrigg and Marcus Breen write that a 'commercial imperative is usually evident in popular music'. (2) In Chambers's more developed definition, popular music is also imbricated with forms of mass reproduction and, linked with these, the massification of audience. My purpose in this article is not just to track the history of the development of popular music in Australia, but to think about the particular elements that characterise Australian popular music.
Writing about popular music in an Australian context, Bruce Johnson makes these connections clear:
The urban 'mass' consumption of music was expanded with the growth of public dance halls from the teens of the century. Sheet music was another important medium, available at retailers, but the latest song would also often be published in newspapers or professional magazines. The player piano provided a medium for the delivery of music to the untrained and helped to democratise its domestic enjoyment, as did the wireless when it arrived officially in 1923. (3)
As Johnson goes on to mention, music recording was also slowly becoming crucial to the generic formation of popular music, because of its role as a means of dissemination.
Because Johnson's primary concern is with jazz and dance music, he mentions the importance of dance halls but leaves out the most important place where audiences got to hear new and established songs being performed: the vaudeville theatre. As we shall see, popular theatre in Australia, first in the form of minstrel shows and subsequently, from around the 1880s and 1890s, in vaudeville, was central to the spread of new music. This music spread first to the new, industrial working class--the middle class were, in the main, listening to light European classical music and parlour songs. The music played in vaudeville was predominantly American leavened, with some English material.
There were good reasons why Australian popular music in the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly derivative, and that an identifiably Australian urban popular music did not appear until the 1920s. When it did, that music was primarily the work of Jack O'Hagan. O'Hagan's music was founded in the idiosyncratic combination of selected American songs and English songs, and the vaudeville and music hall traditions which had given a context for them--the Tin Pan Alley tradition which had transformed early twentieth-century American vaudeville, and the Australian bush ballad tradition. O'Hagan's most enduring song is 'Along the road to Gundagai', published in 1922. With its jaunty melodic tune--located more in English music hall than American vaudeville--along with its bush theme but, as Richard Waterhouse points out, in the 'carry me back' genre of American minstrel songs most importantly established in the 1850s by Stephen Foster, the longevity of 'Gundagai' is largely due to its synthesis of key elements in the Australian popular music formation. (4)
Urban music from the 1840s
Let us begin, then, by going back to the 1840s. At this time:
a number of Sydney publicans began to advertise 'free and easys' in their hotels--in effect these constituted colonial versions of English music halls. By the end of the decade these had become so popular that after dusk the music of fiddle and drum was heard issuing from most of the pubs in Pitt Street. (5)
The term 'free and easys' came from the United States, which suggests that even this early there was a strong American influence on musical entertainment. Richard Butsch writes about the United States that:
In the 1840s, when minstrelsy swept the country, saloons offering musical entertainment also began to appear. By the 1850s there were numerous places variously called free-and-easies, music halls and concert saloons. (6)
Waterhouse goes on to write that it would be another twenty years before such places became popular in Melbourne. The mention of 'fiddle and drum' suggests that it was traditional Irish music being played in these Australian proto-music halls.
In England, the music-hall tradition is usually linked with Charles Morton's renovation of the Old Canterbury Arms in Lambeth in 1849. However, the key elements were in place by the 1830s and 1840s. During this period, traditional songs were slowly replaced by new songs written specifically for performance in this new space. Thus, for example, Peter Bailey mentions 'a song from the late 1830s which tells of a concert-room romance, "Don't tell my mother, she don't know I'm out"'. (7) In Australia there was some original composition from around the middle of the century. Jennifer Hill writes that concert programs from 'before the 1850s show that songs, especially comic songs, were often composed for local concerts or performances in theatres or taverns'. (8) Later, new Australian material was produced. Hill tells us that a collection put together by George Loyau, The Sydney Songster, was published around 1869. Showing the appropriation of minstrel songs, this contained 'several blackface minstrel songs, including "The ham fat man", written and sung by Mr Walter Cassell, at the Sydney concert rooms and "Steam up", composed and sung by J.S. Brice, Negro melodist'. (9) Although there were a significant number of Australian-composed songs, the 'favoured genre was still the ballad'. (10)
An important function of Australian cities was to service the bush. This applied as much to workers as to goods and services. Waterhouse reminds us that 'the Australian workforce was mobile in geographic terms, as men drifted from city to bush and back again in search of employment'. (11) There was, then, very little in the way of a core, long-term urban working class to supply either audience or entertainers to the developing Australian 'free and easys'. At the same time, 'out in the bush the itinerant workers still gathered round campfires and in huts to sing ballads about convicts, bushrangers and drovers'. (12) The rural, oral ballad tradition that had been dying out in England for a generation as a consequence of the land clearances, industrialisation and urbanisation, found a new lease of life in the Australian bush, and one suspects that these traditional and reworked ballads were also sung in the early 'free and easys'. While popular music in England had begun to develop in the working-class music-halls during the 1830s and 1840s, the spread of popular music in Australia was still in its infancy.
Turning to the Australian middle class, it would seem that, if anything, they had a taste that was more conservative, more high-brow than in England. Humphrey McQueen tells us that about 700,000 pianos were imported to Australia during the nineteenth century. (13) John Whiteoak refines this, writing that imports of 'pianos increased in Melbourne alone from 1,248 in 1881 to 5,170 in 1889, and there were at least ten local …
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Publication information: Article title: Producing an Australian Popular Music: From Stephen Foster to Jack O'Hagan. Contributors: Stratton, Jon - Author. Journal title: Journal of Australian Studies. Issue: 90 Publication date: January 2007. Page number: 153+. © 1998 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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