Producing an Australian Popular Music: From Stephen Foster to Jack O'Hagan

By Stratton, Jon | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2007 | Go to article overview

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. … 

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