John Meredith (1920–2001) was born in Holbrook, New South Wales. He left school at the age of 14, did odd jobs and eventually found work with the local chemist. In 1944 he rode his bicycle to Melbourne, where he lived for two years. He joined the Russian–Australian Friendship Society and became an ardent socialist, later joining the Communist Party of Australia. After further travels he settled in Sydney where he worked for a pharmaceutical company. He played the accordion at Eureka Youth League dances, belonged to left-wing choirs and began collecting Australian songs. In 1953 he formed the Bushwhackers, who appeared in the musical Reedy River and won great acclaim. They introduced bush dancing to Sydney, performed in country towns and made a number of recordings for Wattle Recordings. The Bushwhackers broke up in 1956. Meredith spent the rest of his life collecting folksongs and folklore in all parts of Australia, writing books on colonial history and folklore, and managing a small farm in the central Highlands. In his retirement he lived at Thirlmere, before eventually returning to Holbrook.
Along with Russel Ward, Nancy Keesing, Douglas Stewart and Edgar Waters, Meredith pioneered the collecting of bush music and ballads in Australia. He first used a tape recorder in 1953, when he recorded an old shearer, Jack Lee, and from then on he spent most weekends recording old singers and musicians. He abandoned field recordings in the early 1960s, but resumed his travels in 1981 and continued to collect widely until 1995.
Books written by Meredith include:
Folk Songs of Australia and the Men and Women who Sang Them
The Wild Colonial Boy: The Life and Times of Jack Donahoe 1808?–1830 (1960)
Frank the Poet: The Life and Works of Francis McNamara (1979)
The Last Kooradgie, Moyengully, Chief Man of the Gundubgarra People (1989)
Dinkum Aussie Rhyming Slang (1990)
Breaker’s Mate: Will Ogilvie in Australia (1996).
Meredith sold his original collection of field recordings and notes to the Library in 1966. In 1983 the Library learnt that Meredith was resuming his collecting and offered its support. For the next 12 years it paid him an annual grant and supplied him with a tape recorder and tapes. The recordings arrived regularly between 1987 and 1995. Meredith began transferring his correspondence and papers in 1985 and instalments continued until 1999. An exhibition of Meredith’s photographs entitled Real Folk was held at the Library, and the photographs were acquired between 1990 and 1993. Following Meredith’s death, further papers and manuscripts were received from his executors.
The original collection (TRC 4) comprises 31 reels recorded in 1953–56 in Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Mudgee, Gulgong, Lithgow, Wallerawang, Holbrook and elsewhere in New South Wales. They feature over 100 singers, musicians, writers, story-tellers and informants, including Sally Sloane, Jack Luscombe, Frank Hardy, Alan Marshall, Jack Lee, Duke Tritton, John Manifold and Bill Scott.
The 1981–94 recordings (TRC 2221, 2222, 2590, 3000) consist of 556 reels and 17 cassettes. The early ones were mostly made in New South Wales, especially Mudgee, Gulgong and Thirlmere, but they eventually covered all states. Meredith recorded people living in Broken Hill, Orange, the south coast of New South Wales, Rockhampton, western Queensland, Australian Alps, central Victoria, Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island, south-eastern Tasmania and many other areas. As well as folk songs, dance music and recitations, the recordings contain a great deal of oral history. Examples of subjects touched on are Aboriginal beliefs, droving, forest use and environmental issues.
The photograph collection comprises 2600 negatives taken by Meredith while making his field recordings between 1953 and 1992, and 254 prints made by Meredith for the exhibition Real Folk, originally displayed in Mudgee and then at the Library in 1989–90. They were taken in all parts of Australia and comprise portraits of folk and bush musicians and their instruments.
Personal Papers and Manuscripts
The papers of Meredith, which date from 1948 to his death, occupy 30 boxes. They are divided into the following series:
- General correspondence
- Personal documents
- Newspaper cuttings
- Business papers
- Field notes
- Published writings
- Unpublished writings
- Miscellaneous papers.
Most of the correspondence dates from 1979 to 2001. Among the correspondents are Hugh Anderson, Shirley Andrews, Gwenda Davey, Ron Edwards, Mary Gilmore, Nancy Keesing, Wendy Lowenstein, Keith McKenry, Alan Scott, Bill Scott, Graham Seal, Chris Sullivan, Edgar Waters and Rob Willis.
Personal photographs of Meredith, his friends, many of his field trips, and the Bushwhackers can be found in both the personal papers in the Manuscripts Collection (MS 1007) and the Pictures Collection (PIC 8573, PIC 8901). The Real Folk photographs are held in the Pictures Collection at PIC/8039 (negatives) and PIC P1 (prints).
The recordings made by Meredith are housed in the Oral History Collection at TRC 4, 2221, 2222, 2590 and 3000. They have all been catalogued. The Real Folk photographs are held in the Pictures Collection at PIC/ 8039 (negatives) and PIC P1 (prints). Most of the prints have been individually catalogued and digitised. The personal papers and manuscripts are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 1007. A finding aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-244971588/findingaid.
Summaries of the Meredith oral history, photographs and manuscript collections are contained in Folklore Collector, Photographer, Writer, Performer: John Meredith, A Tribute (2006)
Bradley, Kevin, (ed.) Folklore Collector, Photographer, Writer, Performer: John Meredith, A Tribute, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2006.
Cranfield, Mark, Fifty Years of “Crashing and Jingling”, National Library of Australia News, vol. 14 (8), May 2004, pp. 36–7.
Meredith, John, Real Folk, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1995 (with introduction by Daniel Connell).
Parkhill, Peter, John Meredith and the Men and Women who Sang and Played for Him, Australian Folklore, no. 15, 2000, pp. 1–15.
Waters, Edgar, Oral history interview with John Meredith, 1995, ORAL TRC 3225
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)