Academic journal article Humanities Research

Laments in Transition: The Irish-Australian Songs of Sally Sloane (1894-1982)

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Laments in Transition: The Irish-Australian Songs of Sally Sloane (1894-1982)

Article excerpt

Irish music in Australia has a strong tradition though it is less thoroughly documented and less frequently the subject of scholarly inquiry than in Ireland, the British Isles and North America. From the earliest days of white settlement in Australia, the Irish represented a significant proportion of total immigrants. One in three convicts transported to Australia from Great Britain after 1798 was Irish. About 20 per cent of these were connected with political and agrarian unrest in England and Ireland and many who survived transportation and incarceration continued rebellious activities directed at the ruling class in Australia. Irish immigration continued to increase in the nineteenth century as a result not only of the famine of the 1840s, but also because of growing persecution from English landlords who raised rents to levels resulting in mass evictions. After 1840, emigration became a vast, relentless national phenomenon. Between 1789 and 1921 about half a million Irish people set sail for Australia.1 Those leaving Ireland turned towards an unknown future half a world away beyond perilous oceans, not expecting to see their homeland again. Oliver MacDonagh, in his book Sharing the Green: A modern Irish history for Australians, asks:

How was it to know that 'home' was much too distant to be seen again, or that one now lived in an expanse into which more than a thousand Irelands could be fitted, or to find the legendary rhythm of the seasons on which so many of the European patterns rested no longer formed the framework of the year?2

The answer to McDonagh's question can be found in the music that developed in Australia, sung by colonial singers within the Irish diaspora, dating from the songs brought by the convicts and sailors who travelled to Australia on the First Fleet. Transportation ballads, which were often published as broadsides (printed on unfolded sheets of paper that could be pasted upon walls or carried easily), were the earliest of these songs, with titles such as 'The Convict Maid', 'The Transport's Lament' and 'The Black Velvet Band'. These were laments with lyrics protesting the innocence of the narrator against the vicissitudes of cruel fate. With so much left behind in the shape of family and the homeland itself, music was the portable, intangible, infinitely expandable mesh in which immigrants carried memories of their cultural identity.

As MacDonagh asserts, the concept of diaspora encompasses more than one homeland and this duality facilitates the development of new songs grafted onto old musical rootstock. Longing for family and 'home' in Ireland is a sentiment regularly voiced today by Australian musicians for sympathetic audiences who are four or more generations removed from their Irish roots, so enduring is the residual dislocation from the mother culture. Songs of protest that travelled with Irish political prisoners transported to Australia were adapted and lived on in the new country, sung as songs of complaint about injustices perpetrated by the colonial government and wealthy landowners. They are still sung, sometimes with modernised lyrics, to equate a contemporary situation with that of the past.

This essay examines laments in transition through the case study of Sally Sloane (1894-1982), a traditional Australian singer whose performance style and repertoire were strongly influenced by the songs she learned, by ear, passed down by her Irish grandmother and mother. These original Irish ballads remained in her repertoire as well as English and Scottish traditional songs, bush ballads and popular music-hall songs learned from the musicians she met throughout her life. Sloane was interviewed and recorded by a number of folkmusic collectors-John Meredith, Edgar Waters and Peter Hamilton, Warren Fahey and Graham Seal, Emily Lyle and Chris Sullivan-from the 1950s until the late 1970s.

The case study of Sally Sloane is derived from my doctoral dissertation, titled 'Redefining the tradition: the role of women in the evolution and transmission of Australian folk music'. …

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