Photo of Miriam Jones and her band Catgut
Recording date:

Enjoy bluegrass and old time tunes selected from our Oral History and Folklore Collection by 2015 National Folk Fellow Miriam Jones, and performed by her band Catgut.

Transcript for Miriam Jones: Bluegrass and Old Time Music in Australia

Host: Kevin Bradley (B)

Speakers: Miriam Jones (M), Kieran Owens (K) (speaks twice), Audience member (A)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 24/11/2015

B:         Good evening everybody, welcome to the National Library. Put my glasses on, I always forget that. As we begin I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank the Elders past and present for caring for this land that we are privileged to call home. I'm Kevin Bradley, I'm senior curator here in the Special and Unpublished Collections, and I'm delighted, I am really delighted that so many of you have come to join us this evening to hear from the 2015 recipient of the National Folk Fellowship, Miriam Jones.

But before we hear from Miriam, I'd like to tell you a little bit about the fellowship and announce next year's Fellow. So the annual Folk Fellowship is offered jointly by the National Library of Australia and the National Folk Festival. Inaugurated in 2004, the Fellowship offers a unique opportunity for the recipient to discover and explore the most significant folklore and related collections in Australia to create their own artistic work.

And I love telling people about the collections. Our manuscripts collections consist of a vast amount of social documentary materials other people can bring to this. Our photographic collection contains many hundreds of thousands of images, our pictures collection generally.

Our oral history and folklore collection particularly contains the largest collections of field recordings and documentation of Australia's folk heritage. I was going to say in Australia, but I think in the world. And, as you know, the Folk Fellow undertakes research to create a performance at the National Folk Festival and a presentation which you're all present at tonight. But even while Miriam, our 2015 Folk Fellow is reaping the benefits of her research work and I've just seen her playing at Harrietville and I think she played at the front here in Canberra the other day, all of which has been great, the Folk Fellowship of that [unclear 1:58] panel which consisted of myself, National Folk Festival director, Pam Merrigan, National Folk Festival Board Member, Graham McDonald, all chaired by the capable, as always, brilliantly capable, Dr Patricia Clarke, have been weighing up the 2016 applicants. And I'm very pleased to announce that the 2016 National Folk Fellow will be Chris Sullivan for his project, the Good Old Concertina. Congratulations Chris. Over there.

So back to tonight's event. Miriam's love of traditional music grew with her studies in Sydney, where she began to play fiddle with the subversive folk band, The Lurkers. With her old time hat on, Miriam plays fiddle with the old-time trio Catgut, who join her tonight. Now bluegrass and old time music are two musical sub-genres which developed in the United States around the middle of the twentieth century. They draw their style and legitimacy from a mixture of traditional music and creative commercial musical development and strong links to local identity. Miriam will tell us a little about how this American music finds its way to Australia, but arrives here at the same time as the Australian folk music revival as is underway and Australian country music is becoming more self-consciously Australian. The music develops here in Australia from both camps but in some ways makes its own identity, somewhere between the two. Miriam's Folk Fellow explores the fertile ground on which bluegrass and old time music fell in Australia and reveals the individuals who shaped its performance in Australia. Miriam's work in the National Library of Australia's oral history and folklore collection reveals the peculiarly Australian adaption or adaptation of bluegrass and old time music in Australia. So, please join me in welcoming the 2015 National Folk Fellow, Miriam Jones and Catgut.

M:        Thank you very much everyone, I'm going to start with a song. (Tune playing). Thank you. Thank you so much, everybody, that was a song written by Mike Hayes. So before I tell you a little bit about that specific song, I thought I'd just start by telling you about how I'm going to structure my lecture/performance tonight and where this all came from. So I'm sure maybe half of you in the audience know a lot about bluegrass and old time music and country music and half of you might not know very much. So I really appreciated Kevin's introduction where he gave you a little overview of where that music came from. But I'll just start quickly by telling you about its origins and how it arrived here in Australia. I'll just have a little drink.

So in the 1920s there were some record companies in the States looking to expand their markets. It exhausted what they already knew and so some people went south and decided to record some southern rural white musicians. I don't think they had much hope that that music was going to really sell very well but surprisingly people really liked it and so they went about recording all these people who had a specific authentic sound or a sound that they considered authentic and that they thought the audience would consider authentic.

So through this process bands like the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers are the people like that, began to be heard on the radio in America. And a little bit later or around the same time these bands started coming out of the radios in Australia 'cause that was when radio became a common household item so this kind of music like the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, all this kind of stuff was being heard by people in Australia. And the Hayes Brothers are a really good example of ... so Mike Hayes wrote the tune that we just played and him and his brother, Pete Hayes, they were really ... I can never think of another word, they were really instrumental in (chuckling) creating a bluegrass sound in Australia. And so they were growing up in the '40s in Victoria in Bacchus Marsh and then later on in Melbourne they were listening to people ... the kind of people I just mentioned as well as people like Buddy Williams and Tex Morton and Smoky Dawson. Australian country singers who were influenced by that American model. But at that time it was all known as hillbilly music.

Then later on in about, say, yeah, the '40s, this music, bluegrass, started to become popular and it was ... it's often attributed to a man called Bill Monroe who took that sound, that mountain sound, that had the banjos and the fiddles and maybe double basses, maybe dulcimers, lots of different sounds and he added the Scruggs style banjo which, if you look at Kieran's banjo ... Kieran, come and show your banjo.

K:         Don't mind the spaceman on the side.

M:        (Chuckling) This is called a clawhammer banjo but ... and this is probably more similar to what people would have played in those recordings in the '20s. But then people added a big resonator to the back so it got this much louder and more cutting sound and started playing it with this rolling three-finger style rather than ... show the clawhammer style. (Tune playing) So he's going like dum-di-di-dum-di-di-dum-di-di-dum-di-di-di. The bluegrass style is more of that Beverly Hill, Hillbilly style rolling thing that you might be familiar with.

So, anyway, and we're up to Mike Hayes who wrote that tune and that specific song he wrote way after he was in a performing bluegrass band with his brother that was in ... it was about the 1990 floods in Nyngan, central New South Wales, and as well as being a Bluegrass musician he was a Fairfax journalist. So I guess that brought together two parts of his life, that song. I think we're going to play another tune for you now. This one was a set of tunes; the first is called ‘Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat's Eye’ (chuckling), and the second is called ‘The Old Clog’. And if you're familiar with the folk ... to say the folk scene is very broad but parts of the folk scene, ‘Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat's Eye’ is a pretty popular tune and it's played by Irish players and Scottish players and all kinds of players.

But it has a really interesting history which I'll briefly tell you about. So in the late 1700s there was a really brief seal trade in Tasmania and that brought lots of American and European sealers to Tasmania. And some of these sailors stayed on and formed relationships, some contractual, some probably forced with Aboriginal women. And eventually this community settled in in the Bass Strait Islands and then Cape Barren Island. And in the 1930s there was a community hall built in Cape Barren Island where they held community dances. And it had this really interesting musical development because the sealers had brought instruments along with them and so maybe had a bit of American and English instrumental song style already and then through listening to the radio in the '20s and '30s they began to incorporate other songs like [unclear] Rogers and people like that. Yeah, so it's pretty cool as an Aboriginal community in Cape Barren playing, I think, something that sounds a bit similar to Appalachian mountain music, they had clogging and yeah. That was recorded in 1967, a band called the Brown Boys. And so this is from their recording. (tune playing) Oh, right, Kieran. Oh, this is my sister, Naomi Jones, by the way (chuckling). (Tune playing)

Thanks very much, everyone. I forgot to say, there were two tunes in there, you probably picked that up. The second one was called ‘The Old Clog,’ which was also from Cape Barren. Cape Barren Island.

So next ... I forgot to say before as well, that I'm not really structuring our music chronologically, it's more musically so it's to do with the flow of the music and also our tuning because we play instruments that annoyingly need to be re-tuned every couple of songs. So I'm, kind of, jumping a few decades ahead now to the 1960s and this was a bit of a strange tune to put on our album that we made for the Folk Fellowship but we really liked it and it has some interesting connections with the history of bluegrass and old-time music in Australia. So it's called ‘Sailor Home from the Sea.’ It was written as a poem, written by the poet Dorothy Hewitt, who was a feminist and a communist, although she led a ... left the Communist Party, as a lot of people did. And this particular setting of the tune was set by Bill Bury and it was released in the 1964 edition of Australian Tradition which was, as you probably know, a really popular magazine at the time and it often published tunes and songs. And, yeah, so, as I said, it wasn't really written ... it's not written as a bluegrass tune or an old time tune but the recording in the archive was played by Kath Lumsden on her banjo and the Lumsdens were really a prominent folk family in Melbourne, and they were more of the school of thought that said Australians should collect Australian music and perform Australian music and construct Australian folk identity rather than turning to this foreign American music and taking it on. And in fact in the manuscripts upstairs there's a great quote from David Lumsden, the Lumsden son, that's like, we've been playing the banjo for a number of years now, but now there's this crop of pseudo scrub-style banjo players appearing and hopefully they don't spread like wildfire (chuckling). So he was not impressed with the rise of bluegrass.

But they were big fans of Pete Seeger who was really influenced by that Appalachian tradition from the southern states of America and the eastern states of America and they fundraised for him when he was appealing against his indictment at the House of Un-American Activities and, yeah, so there are some ... and some bluegrass bands from Melbourne actually rehearsed at their house so they weren't totally against it but (chuckling) they definitely wouldn't be considered bluegrassy by any means. So, yeah, we're going to play ‘Sailor Home from the Sea’ for you. We also thought it'd good to put it in because there aren't that many Australian women who crop up in the history of bluegrass in this country so wanted to put ... just put one of them in. (Tune playing)

Thanks very much, everyone. So we're going to play something a little bit different now. I mentioned the Hayes Brothers before, and we're going to play another ... we're going to play a tune of theirs, the Hayes Brothers rather than that tune of Mike Hayes that we played earlier. And they released the first Bluegrass LP in Australia, that was in 1966 and it was called the Hayes Brothers and the Bluegrass Ramblers. And they put a little bit of Australian material on it as in Australian tunes that they'd bluegrass-ified, and these included ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ... we're not going to play Waltzing Matilda (chuckling), and this ... someone's clapping. We're glad as well. This one's called, ‘Where the Lazy Murray River Rolls Along.’ And it was a Buddy Williams song and Buddy Williams was one of these people who took the American singing cowboy model and adapted it to an Australian setting, so he was really influential to a lot of people who played bluegrass. Yeah, but people didn't really react very well to their Australian bluegrass stuff, they preferred the stuff that standard American, so after their first album the Hayes Brothers jump ship on the Australian bluegrass material and kept on playing their standard American numbers. But, yeah, here it is. ‘Where the Lazy Murray River Rolls Along.’ (Tune playing) I'm just going to introduce you to these guys before I go any further. This is Kieran Owens on the banjo.

K:         Hi there.

M:        Nick straight on the guitar. We play as Catgut but tonight we're here as Miriam Jones (chuckling). (Tune playing)

Thanks everyone. I'm going to attempt a tune and talk at the same time (background music). Oh, I was going to say, it decided to behave but then it ... so, on the CD that we put together for the Folk Fellowship, and we tried to put on original material by Australian artists. But bluegrass and old time music are at their ... they're a shared tradition. Despite the fact that they have a commercial history, they are practised as a folk tradition and so they're shared repertoire. And, as Kevin said, I was at Harrietville Bluegrass Festival, Mountain Grass on the weekend. Kevin was there as well and it's really fantastic because you come together and you meet people from Victoria and from Tasmania and from Canberra and you say, oh, do you know, ‘Arkansas Traveller,’ and Kevin's like, yeah, I know ‘Arkansas Traveller’ and then we put ‘Arkansas Traveller’ together. And that's how people ... that's how the community's nurtured, through playing these shared tunes. And so the next tune we're going to play is called ‘Arkansas Traveller’ (chuckling) and this particular version is from Dan O'Connell folk club recording from the 1980s. And it was played in the folk club by Nick Deer, Tony O'Rourke and John Fitzgerald. And they did a really cool arrangement of it. A lot of times people really try and emulate the American sound in Australia, but these guys put together their own arrangement of it which we liked, so we're going to play ‘Arkansas Traveller’ for you now. I'll just have a little tune first. (Tune playing)

Thank you. The next song we're going to sing for you is also one that's not by an Australian composer, it's by John Prine, it's called ‘Paradise.’ And I really like this ... we already played this song before I heard it in the archives when I was doing my research, but I really like it for a few reasons, one of which is that it seems to symbolise some of the intermingling of what Kevin mentioned earlier about the ... how bluegrass ... because it was such a niche genre when it arrived here in the late 1940s, it couldn't really find its own coherent home outside of other musical genres, not that music genres are ever really isolated from one another, but in particular when it's so small. So bluegrass players had to play in the folk clubs. I'm sure they liked playing in the folk clubs, I think they had to play in the folk clubs. They played in the folk clubs and they also found work with country musicians and so the genre kind of spanned across a number of different musical scenes. And Danny Spooner, I'm sure some of you know Danny Spooner. Does anyone know Danny Spooner? Yeah, Danny Spooner. So he remembers ... oh no, Pete Hayes of the Hayes Brothers remembers when Danny Spooner introduced John Prine's tunes into the folk clubs in Melbourne in the '60s. So we have a British folksinger who's introducing an American song into the Melbourne folk club. And then these guys were really interested in bluegrass, like, oh, that's a cool song, we're going to play that song. And the versions that they're all actually quite a lot of people who have recordings of it in the archives but I listened to two in particular, one by [unclear] and one by the Hamilton County Bluegrass band, who are a New Zealand bluegrass band. But they played at the National Folk Festival, I think in 1971 and so we took a little bit of their version. I actually met one of the Hamilton County Bluegrass people on the weekend and told him about how I'd listened to him in the national archives, so it was pretty cool. So here is ‘Paradise’ by John Prine. (Tune playing)

Thank you. Okay, we're going to play for you now a set of tunes. The first is called ‘Red River Waltz’ and we're going to invite Naomi up again to play with us, do a little twin fiddle bass. And ‘Red River Waltz’ is a Stripling Brothers tune. The Stripling Brothers were some of those early musicians to be recorded in the 1920s in the States. They're from Alabama. And if you explore the oral history and folklore archives, which I think everyone should, you will hear that a lot of people from the '30s onwards were playing Stripling Brothers waltzes in Australia, particularly waltzes. I don't know if there are anything but waltzes 'cause I've never heard something that's not a waltz from the Stripling Brothers. But this particular recording was from Cecil Chapman who lived up in the Kempsey area and was family friends with Slim Dusty. And then we've done something a little bit cheeky, we're going to put one of our own tunes on the end, it's called ‘Dangar Falls.’ Does anyone know where Dangar Falls is?

A:         Yes.

M:        Eh, so many people.

A:         Dorrigo.

M:        Dorrigo, that's right. And if you are a bluegrassy person you'll know that there's an excellent bluegrass festival at Dorrigo. And we played there once or twice and Kieran wrote a tune after one of the festivals after we went for a swim in the beautiful and freezing Dangar Falls. So that's going to come after the ‘Red River Waltz,’ which are pleasantly both water themed, I just realised (chuckling). (Tunes playing)

Thank you very much. That was a tune written by Kieran Owens, ‘Dangar Falls.’ So, I think we need to have time for questions pretty soon so maybe we'll play one last tune for you. Do ‘Auctioneer’? So this one, again, jumps forward into the '70s and '80s. I'm going to play a tune by the Flying Emus, or actually I think [unclear] knows the Flying Emus. Does anyone like the Flying Emus?

A:         We do.

M:        Awesome. So, as you may know, a few members of the Flying Emus started out as band members of Slim Dusty's touring band. So, again, you can kind of see how people who are interested in bluegrass and the members of the Flying Emus were definitely interested in bluegrass kind of found work, working with country musicians, but then again those guys would go to the bluegrass society in Sydney which was more founded on a folk club kind of model and run in that kind of fashion rather than a bluegrass fest ... country festival fashion. So they spread themselves across those worlds. But, yeah, they started out touring with Slim Dusty's band and then they formed the Flying Emus which was a country, bluegrass, pop crossover band and so they really spanned a huge variety of context. They were playing in inner city pubs in Sydney and then they'd play in outback Queensland and then ... yeah, with Slim Dusty. They started out as his support band so that the guys who were in his band could keep travelling with him. So this one is called ‘Auctioneer’ and it's about someone losing their land due to drought and financial troubles. And, yeah, written by John Cain. So here is ‘Auctioneer.’ It was very cool at the National Folk Festival when we played ... we did a similar kind of presentation to this one and the Flying Emus happened to be at the Folk Festival and it was their very last public performance ever, apparently. Maybe they'll get back together again, but they decided to come to the festival and play some shows and they came and watched us and, yeah, it was pretty special. (Tune playing)

Thank you. Now it's time for the questions.

B:         It is indeed. Thanks Miriam. It's a great joy to be a part of all these Folk Fellowships. You can watch all this stuff develop over a year and then it results in a performance just like that and I think that was both really exciting and very informative. So thank you very much again.

M:        Thanks Kevin.

B:         Now, you have a chance to interrogate Miriam about the things she found and what it was like working in the collection, what was there. Raise your hands, there's some microphones to the side and just state your name when you ask the question. I'm here.

M:        James.

A:         Thanks. James Ashburn, I'm one of the people who knew people like the Lumsdens when they were middle aged parents. Miriam, where was bluegrass strongest in Australia around that time?

M:        Mm. Well I think that Melbourne was really a stronghold. Given that the Hayes Brothers were based there and then there was another group called the Hawking Brothers who were known as a country band but also played a lot of Bluegrass and there were these weekly sip and picks, I think they were called, where people would get together and listen to records and try and figure out what was going on. Yeah, so I think that Melbourne was the real strong point at that time but then later on with the advent of the Sydney Bluegrass and Old Time Society then maybe, yeah, Sydney kind of caught up a bit, but that was a few decades later. That's my understanding, but if anyone was there at the time (chuckling), I'm very willing and interested to hear what you have to say.

B:         Any more questions?

A:          Yeah.

B:         Over here.

A:         I probably don't need a microphone.

B:         You do need a microphone, Janet. It's for the tape (chuckling).

A:         I'm Janet Harris, I'm just a great lover of bluegrass. So I wondered if you could throw any light on bluegrass in New Zealand since you mentioned the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, who ... I come from New Zealand and I do remember them when I was young but ...

M:        Okay.

A:         ... has there been a common ... a history in New Zealand similar to that in Australia?

M:        I ... my short answer is, I don't know because I haven't looked into that history, but I know ... because I met Paul Trim who was the banjo player, is the banjo player with Hamilton County Bluegrass Band on the weekend I know that they're still playing as a band, you know, four decades, five decades later and there are some younger generations of players that are playing with them. But that's pretty exciting. And I remember reading a little story in one of Slim, Dusty and Joy McKean's books about their life, where they talk about going to New Zealand and they've taken this band along and they were really excited about the sound of ... their fiddle player who was Alan Swanson and they were like, oh, I've got this great kind of bluegrassy country sound, we're going to really impress these New Zealanders. And then they got to New Zealand and they heard the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, they heard Colleen Trenwith playing the fiddle and they were like, oh shit, these guys are really good (chuckling). And then Slim Dusty went about trying to convince the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band to come to Australia as his touring band, which they did. And so they have a long history of being in Australia. And the only other thing I can tell you about New Zealand bluegrass is that, do you know a fiddle player called George Jackson? Yeah, he's a young fiddle player in Australia but he's kind of best of the best and he's made (chuckling) Australia his home for the last 10 years or so. Yeah, but he's part of a ... seven generations of New Zealand fiddlers, but now he's here in Australia. So sorry, I can't tell you much more.

A:         No, that was great.

B:         At the back.

A:         Thanks. Alan Payne. Could you tell me who was in the Flying Emus besides John Cain?

M:        Yes I can. So there was his sister, Genni Kane and then there was Ian Simpson, who's a banjo player from Western Australia and alongside, well Paul Trenworth from the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, Trev Warner from South Australia, Chris Duffy, I think, is originally from Sydney. Yeah, they were kind of the first batch of Australian Bluegrass banjo players. So, yeah, Ian Simpson, and then Michael Vidale on bass and Mike Kerin on fiddle and Mike Kerin played for a really long time with Slim Dusty. Yeah.

B:         The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, were they based in Melbourne for a while in the early '70s?

M:        I'm not sure if it was Melbourne in particular but they were definitely ... oh I think they were based in South Australia for some time, but they definitely made Australia their home for a while and were travelling back and forth between New Zealand and Australia and, yeah, touring specifically as part of Slim Dusty's band, yeah.

A:         I used to hear them in the early '70s in Melbourne.

M:        Right. Maybe they lived there or maybe they were travelling from Adelaide. I'm pretty sure they were in Adelaide for a little bit, but yeah. Did you like hearing them? Were they a good band?

A:         Ah, yes, you took me back down memory lane there.

M:        (Chuckling)

A:         I've got one question, can you lower it a little bit. Is it true that you've sold out entirely of Rabbit on the Road ...

M:        (Chuckling)

A:         ... a little commercial plug for that, I think, and how has the Fellowship changed the sorts of way you perform the music you're doing?

M:        Part A, no it's not true.

A:         Aha.

M:        So lucky, everybody, if you like the music we played you can get a copy of the CD we made as part of the Fellowship and we're also selling our own CDs which have a lot of original tunes and some old timey tunes on them. And part B, how has it changed the way I played? I think the best part about it was that now I feel really much more connected to a tradition that exists here. Even though I don't really feel like the tradition is its own unique ... when I get the presentation at the national lots of people ask me afterwards, oh do you think there's a distinctive Australian bluegrass style. And I don't really think there is, apart from some people playing in Australian bands and using Australian themes and writing their own songs. But it's really exciting anyway to be a part of something and realise that all these people around you that you see at bluegrass festivals were innovators, you know, a few years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, even like 60 years ago and being able to feel connected to all that, as people who also write in that tradition but try and make it their own as well.

B:         Right. Well, thank you all for being here. Miriam, thank you for facing all the questions and giving us a great performance. If you'd like to come down and talk to Miriam and Catgut after this and buy CDs off them, you can, of which there are plenty left, apparently.

M:        Oh no, just enough .. there might not be enough (chuckling).

B:         It won't be for long. That's fantastic. So thank you again ... join me again in thanking Miriam and Catgut.

End of recording