Brian Dunnett – Railways and Country Music (2002)

"Railways" a Popular Theme in Australian Country Music

A paper prepared and presented by Brian Dunnett MA (Leisure Research) to the Inaugural Conference of Australian Institute of Country Music held in conjunction with the Toyota National Country Music Muster, Gympie, Qld 23rd –25th August, 2002.

Jazzer Smith in his book "The book of Australian Country Music" tells us that: many Australians now realise that today's fringe country rock is a logical extension of the earliest convict songs and bush ballads. (Jazzer Smith, 1984:P12 )

To these early influences on country music I would argue should be added the songs and poems on of Australian Railways that have recorded many social events and myths for almost 200years.

With this historical background to Australian country music in mind this paper will discuss the representation that railways songs have in Australian Country music and a little of their earlier beginning in Convict Railways, Bush Poetry and Bush/ Folk Music. A more detailed backdrop can be found in the "Trains of Treasure. Exhibition" that can be seen around the wall of the conference hall.
Regardless of your starting point in tracing the history of Australian country music it leads you to an Australian railway influence. If it is convict songs and poems you are introduced to the human propelled railway carts and carriages of place like Port Author. If it's through Tex Morton and Buddy Williams in the 1930's then it is Queensland Railways and their railway cops.

Many Australian convict songs bush ballads and Country Music Songs were written as a direct result of conflict and struggle in Australia's early railways. In those conflicts that are discussed in a bit more detail in my larger paper can be found many of the ideas, attitudes and dreams that are used by bush poets and country music musicians who followed our convict railway poets.

The dream of freedom that is found in many country music songs today can be traced directly to those convict poets, a number whom pushed human powered railway carts.
(See Frank the Poet in-Trains of Treasure Exhibition panel - Convict Power)

The right to be able to do your own thing, to be free of regimentation and orders, to be able to wander in the bush free of leg irons and chains are but a few of feelings of convicts that have grown into Australian mythology.

By the early 1900's convict railways had long been replaced by steam and were acting as a modern communication system and reach large sections of the Australian continent.

Along these new railway tracks flowed the work of bush poets like Lawson and Paterson together with the publications of international writers and the songbooks of overseas musicians.
The "Hillbilly" style of early country music that became popular in the 1930's was not the first direct influence of the U.SA. music on Australian culture and its music.

"The Launceston and Deloraine Railway Line" written in 1871 for the opening of that railway line was among the first musical items that can be found. that has a USA origin. The song was "sung to the tune of "Marching through Georgia" an American Civil war. The song is an example of a musical connection between Australia and the USA. that existed long before any recorded music was heard in Australia. (Adam-Smith,1983, p103).

While most country music historian point to sound records of American hillbilly music introducing Australian country musician to this music style, there is evidence that some hillbilly songs were available in Australia via songbooks and personal contact of musicians long before the 1930's.
During 1917 Strike, in a rush of anti-management feeling that lead to the largest strike in Australia Industrial history. Railway workers were exposed to the song books of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Casey Jones a parody by IWW songwriter Joe Hill, found its way into the Australian Railway System as an anti hero send up those workers who were to close to management. Andy Gray in his book on USA country music draws attention to early country singers with a cowboy connection preforming Casey Jones. In the original version Casey was a legendary engine driver who did everything to support his railway company and keep his locomotive running no matter what happened (Andy Gray 1975, p.9).

This song like many of the other songs in early country music was taken by musicians and used to parody situations that occurred in Australia. Billy Sheehan was one of those songs. This song I believe belongs in the Country music tradition as well as Australian Folk Music where it is often preformed.

On the forty pound rail steamed the C16 commanded by its driver Mr Billy Sheehan
The G.M gave his orders on the strict Q.T. to run a faster schedule than the sprit of P
Keep the regulator open, watch the black smoke e roll,
Pile on all the floor boards if it runs out of coal.
If we don't break the records Billy said to his mate,
Send my Memo care of Peter at the golden gates.

Billy Sheehan, ran a faster schedule,
Billy Sheehan, a mighty man was he.
Billy Sheehan, ran a faster schedule,
Out to break the record of the Sprite of P

(See Trains of Treasure Panel Locomotive Poets)(Track 1 from CD Navvy on the Line)
Early American writer Howard Thorp also point to a railway connection between Cowboy Music and the Hillbillies See Songs of the Cowboys (Thorp,1908, p.4)

The songs of IWW mentioned above introduced the ideas of hobos and train jumpers that were already common at the time in US. Songs with this theme quickly followed in Australia and spread along Australian Railway tracks.

The early1930's saw Australia less isolated than the previous century and commercial music become available in the form of records and radio. As this music began to circulate it began to replace bush poetry as the dominant art form for country people to present their stories.

Australian "hillbilly" singers who are considered to be the pioneers of Australian country music were attracted to the new music styles that they were hearing on records and early radio. These pioneers of Country music copied many of the commercially based Nashville styles of American country music. Part of this involved the adoption of slick new stage identities through American names like, Tex, Smoky, Rocky and Buddy. A young David Gordon Kirkpatrick later took on the name of Slim Dusty that allowed him to take on another persona. (Bear, 2001)

While the pioneers of Australian Country Music were attracted to the new styles that they were hearing, most commenced to write their own songs drawing on their own life experiences of life in Australia.

During 1920's and 1930's many of them were influenced by train travel. By this time trains lines on a state-by-state railway system had crossed the content. Train travel became an every day means of transport linking major cities with the bush for many people. Train travel also became a way of life for country and folk musicians like Tex Morton and Buddy Williams.

The songs that they wrote were not all about the pleasures and delights of travelling by rail. This development of early country music was taking place along side the worst economic depression in Australian history and riding the rattler became a common way for the unemployed to travel. Many young Australians were travelling the countryside in freight wagons. Over 1/3 of the Australian workforce who were on the dole were pushed in this direction. As one of the conditions to collect the dole required single people leave home and seek work from town to town.

The U.S.A. was also suffering from the worldwide depression and songs like, the Hobo's Blue and The Yodelling Railways Blues were in the Hill Billy singer's repertoire. In turn these entered the programs of our early country performers. (See Wilf Caters Sound Recordings (1997).

At the time this experience of the depression in Australia was producing local songs like the " Battlers Ballard" and parodies on the Dying Stockman like the Dying Bagman. These were often preformed in a Hill Billy style around the unemployed campsites that sprang up through the Australia.

In a smaller bush poetry scene, one of the founders of the Australian Bush Music Club " Duke" Trittion was working on depression relief works at the back of Newcastle NSW. Here he wrote his famous railway poem/song " The Sandy Hollow Line." (See Trains of Treasure -1930's panel).

However, the song of them all to come out of this period was Tex Morton's "Sergeant Small". Tex had personal experience as a "train jumper". Between jobs with his travelling circus he would hitch illegal rides on freight trains as a way to get from place to place. If caught by the local police he would end up with free board and breakfast in the local lockup. (Jazzer Smith. (1984:p.14)

The experience of train jumping in varies parts of Australia provided him with the background for several railway songs including Sergeant Small, Freight Train Yodel and Railway Bum. At the time, it was hard enough for most country music musos to get a job but this was particularly hard time for Tex Morton when he found himself with a commercially banned record, "Sergeant Small" a song that radio stations didn't want anything to do with. (Hear Trains of Treasure and Railway Voices CD).

But like the poems of the convict - "Frank the Poet", Tex Morton's song was passed around the Australian bush by word of mouth and became one of Australia popular ballads of the day.

Riding down from Queensland on a dirty timber train,
We stopped to take on water in the early morning rain,
I saw a hobo coming by he didn't show much fear,
He walked along the line of trucks, saying any room in here,
When I pulled the cover back saying throw your blankets in,
He dropped his billy and his roll and socked me on the chin

I wish I was 14 stone and I was six feet tall
I'd take a special trip up north, to beat up Seargent Small.

(Tex Morton 1938) (See Trains of Treasure -1930's Panel). (Hear CD Trains of Treasure and Wedding Parties, Any thing)

Other country musicians joined Tex Morton in condemning railway cops attacks on the unemployed. Buddy Williams was one and he began to preform Wingie the Railway Cop. (Buddy Williams, 1936).
These songs of early country music enforced the poor image of Australian Railways in the mind of Australians many performers and writers turned to road songs to provide a more popular images of freedom that motor transport was promoting.

This poor image of railways was to continue into the Second World War Australian troops being prepared to fight the Japanese were moved North on Queensland Railways, the old Ghan and N.T. Railway line. Country music was taking hold and many of those involved in it moved north with the armed services and their support.

Early women country music performers like June Holm known at the time as Australia's Yodelling Cowgirl was one of the many young women who joined Red Cross Entertainment Units to entertain the troops. June's popular show for the troops included "She'll be Coming Round the Mountains." (Jazzer Smith. (1984:p.111)

This song became the basis for a wartime railway parody which was sang on the Darwin Railway after it was bombed. " She'll be coming round the union." In this use of the word union, the union referred to a railway junction. See Australian's Forgotten Volunteers (J.Y Harvey, 1992).

Other Country Musicians of the time who joined the services, Buddy Williams, was one of those and this helped to spread country music on troop trains that took weeks to reach their destination.
A new era for Australian Railways had not yet arrived in the mid 1950's so we were still hearing new country songs based on the pre-war concepts like "Going to ride that rattler home." (Partell, 1956)
Steam Railways were under going massive changes in the post war period and a new image of the giant steam locomotives captured the sprit of the nation. These symbols of power reach their height with the building of 38 Class Locomotives in NSW and the Spirit of Progress in Victoria. See cover of the Great Aussie Train- Koala Records.

In a world created by images and myth these powerful locomotives and those who drove them assumed a special role. Railway management and conservative governments with their own interests in mind promoted locomotives in the media as icons of their power.

In many cases railway workers who built these giant machines went along with the myths of the press and radio but put their own slant on things. In the case of one of the largest locomotives built in Australia 3801 railway worker actions extended to raising financial assistance that allowed two railway mechanical fitter songwriters to produce a high quality commercial disk of a country song titled 3801. (See Trains of Treasure Recording – 3801)

The Australia wide Bi-centenary Celebrations in 1988 saw this giant steam locomotive from the post war era cross the Australian continent and this song could be heard on radio and TV outlets as the trains movements were followed. In the glare of publicity about this historical train journey many other songwriters tried to write ballads on the story of this locomotive

But few could capture the feeling that these two mechanical fitters who had severed their apprenticeship in Australian Steam Railways had for this famous locomotive.

In the Golden age of steam there was a beauty queen
Roamin' around the countryside. She was a drivers dream.
Workin'days and workin' nights. Up before the sun.
They all tried to get aboard thirty-eight o one.

(Ron Russell and Ray King, 1987)(Track 3 CD)

The next era of the Australian Railway Story to impress country music after the post war boom was the push to establish a standard railway gauge (4'8") throughout Australia. This period commenced in the late 1950's but it wasn't till January 1970 that the first freight train ran from Brisbane to Perth on a standard gauge line.

In 1977 Glenn Bain a lead guitarist of the era released a single "Steel Railway Blues" (Jazzer- Smith, p.235)

The influence of railways on country music at times was often coming through the back door via the various institutions like the Railway Institute and the Railway Hotels that we were associated with our country railways. What town in the country with a railway line did not have a railway hotel?

In the 1960's Jazzer Smith points out that country publicans took to country music in a big way. The Railway Hotel at Currabula was one of those to become a major venue for the country music. To this railway hotel could be added dozen others that were being exposed to country music.

A well-known country singer Dick Parry had a job preforming on the Old Ghan between Adelaide and Alice Springs. (Jazzer Smith, p116) See John Williamson Video The Way it Is for other information on the old Ghan Railways Also check out the music of Ted Egan.

A job on the old Ghan (before the standard gauge) was still an adventure for the train crews. Taking up a working shift, on the old Ghan route crews could be away for weeks due to floods and wash a ways. Much of that time stranded in the bush was spent in the local Railway Hotel. Thus railway hotel entered the mythology of the country music and poem. WG Howcroft bush poet tells it this way.

When Joe was a young un, his cheeks flecked with down,
He drew his first paycheck to head into town.
Then up spoke his father "Son heed my words well –
Keep clear of the girls at the railway hotel'

WG Howcroft Winton Qld

It was not long after the Indian Pacific came into operation in 1970 that Country Music took to fresh look at Australian railways with the realise of Joy Mc Kean's composition "The Indian Pacific". The song went on to win an award at the Sixth Country Music Awards at Tamworth in 1978. The song recorded by Slim Dusty was the top selling song of the year. (See Slim Dusty Web Site – Slim Dusty Awards)

A new image for Australian Railways was in the making. Slim Dusty had shown an interest in railways in the post war period when he was building his career. Right from the beginning as an entertainer Slim (Dusty) preferred Australian Bush Ballads and he proudly continued to sing them in every nook and cranny of this gigantic continent (Jazzer Smith. (1984, p.13). Several railway related songs appear on his earlier albums and many of his successful tours included large Australian Railway towns like Peterbrough SA. See "The long and dusty road". (January 2000 SMH Weekend Magazine) See Appendix 1 for list of Slim Dusty's songs with a railway theme. (Hear CD The Indian Pacific)

Several other country music performers took up the Indian Pacific theme Interest in crossing the country by rail grew once the standard railway gauge was established from the east to the west of Australia. Hear "Half way to Sydney". Dead Ringer Band.

Country music performers after travelling these tracks began to take up other themes associated with this railway line. In 1981 Nancy Cohen song the "Tea and Sugar Train" that supplied workers needs along the track was recorded by a number of Country music artists (Smith, J, p.101)

One of these groups was Dr Age who Jazzer Smith indicates was Australia 's youngest country music group. They released a single Tea and Sugar Train and Australia for Mac Records (Smith, J, p259) No date given.

During this era, Don Gresham who is described as "a true country man" by Jazzer -Smith (1984,p274) in time was to team up with long-term railway man Les Denton. With Les Denton's words (which are based on his railway life in Queensland and Victoria) and Don Gresham's years of experience in country music they gave us the:

The Great Aussie Train

"Travelling around by the Great Aussie Train
Travelling around every state
From Sea to Mountain and over the plains
Yes Travelling by Train is really great."
(Les Denton-1983 Hear CD The Great Aussie Train)

Look at Australian railway songs and poems and you will see that they are mainly drawn from the world of work. The first women's song to appear in the research of these songs and poems was "The Ballard of Janet Oakden". Written in 1975 it was presented in a country style. The song provides us with the background of the struggles for women railway workers to become train drivers in Australia. This song again points to the role the influence that conflicts have had on the content of the songs.

They raised up great objections why she can't drive a train,
"You can't lift up the engine or undertake the strain,
of toting all the firemen's gear upon your fragile back
What happens if your nails should break, your make up –up starts to crack."
(Pip James 1976) (Hear Trains of Treasure CD)

Other songs about women railway workers have followed. See the 2nd release of the Trains of Treasure recording for the Railway Widows Blues – (John Warner 1996)

Another aspect of country music and railways is that whole families of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders over the years began to work for Australian Railways and sang about their experience of them.

Many leading country music singers and performers have an aboriginal ancestry. A recent study of Aborigines in country music was made by Clinton Walker (2000). The book" "Buried Country" tells us a lot of the story of Aborigines relationship with country music. A subject that I am sure this will be further investigated by this Country Music Institute.

Walker gives five good reasons as to why Aboriginal people became involved with country music. The first of these he points out is that most Aborigines still live outside Australia's major cities, it was about all they ever heard. Certainly, the only live music they experienced apart from that of their own making were the touring country shows of the likes of Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty.
Some Aborigines and their songs that have been influenced by their railway background and experience of travel on them including the following;

Jimmy Little who early in his career sang a song about the Broken Hill Comet that service Broken Hill by rail from 1939.

Troy Casser Daley mother once work in the railway refreshment service on the North Coast of NSW to help support the family and help to Troy get started in country music. Troy takes up the theme of railways in his album "Big River" with a track called "Trains". (Hear Big River CD Troy Casser Daley.)

This song is about his personal and family experience of trains. Any one with a railway family would relate to what he describes as a "Life time love of trains." That began with his mother taking him on the occasional trip in the railway dinning car.

A similar theme of family love and influence on the children of railway workers can be found in John Williamsons " Railwayman". Dad was a railwayman, Granddaddy was too and Laurie the focus of the song of course wanted to drive a train from a young boy. )Hear Railwayman John Williamson)

Another connection between Aborigines country music performers and railways was a tour by an Alice Spring Aboriginal group along the new Ghan Railway line from Alice Springs to the South Australian Boarder for National Rail. The objective of the tour was to warn Aboriginal people in the area about the danger of crossing railway tracks or camping on them. Graham Archers song " Don't sleep on the Track was written specially for this task (Source CAAMA Alice Springs)

A detailed study Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders railway families and their country/ railway music is being conducted by Karl Neuenfeldt (Dr.) Senior Lecturer, Contemporary Communication, Central Queensland University, Bundaberg, His work I am sure will make an interesting paper for a future conference of the institute.

Let me now draw you attention to something that is currently happening in the Australian Railway Story that I feel is important and will be of interest to country musicians and poets.

A new chapter in the Australian Railway story is opening and should provide opportunities for the growing band of country musicians, writers and performers (and others) who wish to include a railway song/poem or two in their repertoire.

The Alice Springs-Darwin line is the first major Australian Railway link to be built for over eighty years and rumours are that a second line up through western Victoria, NSW and Queensland is on the drawing board.

A railway heading south from Darwin was commenced in 1878 and played a major part in the defence of Darwin during the Second World War before it closed in the 1970's. But it never made Alice Springs.

Plans for this new Darwin Alice Springs line will see the line open in late 2003. The work sites are currently attracting teams of modern day navvies who are laying the tracks and building the new bridges to span some of Australia's wildest rivers. Visitors to these areas are already feeling the excitement around this Railway Line building up.

However if the history of railway development in Australia is any indicator it won't be all plain sailing, as many social issues have yet to be addressed. Turning the first sod in Alice Springs earlier in the year John Howard was meet by local Aboriginal people demanding work on the line. The line through the desert will be laid through Aboriginal lands and the traditional landowners to my knowledge are still seeking agreements with the private companies and governments for jobs and job training for their people.

Disputes between the aboriginal owners of the line may not be the only source of social challenge that will generate new songs and poems of the outback. While this paper was being prepared details of the gung ho approach to preparing the new track has seen the destruction of a major section of the habitat of the Gouldian Finch a rare out back bird. (Hodge. 2002, p3)

The Australian Railway Historical Society, the Bush Music Club, the Rail Tram and Bush Union and the Australian Bush Poets Association are hoping to publish a book of Australian Railway songs, poems and stories for the opening of the new line.

This group is egger to include the work of other musicians working in other areas of music who have something to say about our railways.

It is felt that a book of Australian Railway Song Poems and stories will have a wide appeal to Australian and overseas readers. The fifty significant songs, poems and stories will be drawn from both historical and contemporary sources, including country music and bush poetry. A leaflet on this project is available.

It would be good if some organisations from the country music scene formal joined this group. Over 250 railway songs and poems have been brought together at the moment for the consideration of the judges including a selection of country music Other title are still being sought.
In conclusion let me wish the Institute, of Country Music as a new educational body, all the best in their efforts to become established. I feel that you will have an important role in shaping the future of Australian Country Music.

The paper was supported by visual material from " Trains of Treasure" an exhibition of railway songs and poems that was brought together as an Arts and Working Life project of the Australia Council, ACTU, Railway Unions and rank and file railway employees. The Exhibition when created for touring during Australia's Bi-centenary Celebrations 1988 was known as the Railway Unions Cultural Exhibition but was soon referred to as " Trains of Treasure" the title of a popular song written by poet Denis Kevans who worked with the research team.

Several sound tracks were present from the CD's Trains of Treasure and Railway Voices that accompany the exhibition. ( See web site for full details).

The track "The Great Aussie Train " was taken from the audiotape of the same name that was produced by Don Gresham (Deceased) from the words of Les Denton retired Station Master). Noela Gresham who continues to operate Koala Records supplied the copy of the tape. PO Box 186 Murwillumbah, NSW. 2484.

Phil Hayward (Department of Contemporary Music Studies, Macquarie University Sydney who together with Geoff Walden from the conference committee found time to read the paper and suggest relevant changes (see references) provided several other examples of material.

Adam-Smith,P(1983) When We Rode the Rails, Lansdowne, Sydney.
Bearup, G (2001) ' The long and dusty road in Good Weekend, SMH, January 20th, Sydney.
Foley, Paddy (19--) 'Please Explain' in Bitomsky and Mylne, (1995) Living on the Line Copy p154, Right Publishing Company Brisbane
Harvey,J.Y., (1992) Australian's Forgotten Volunteers- Interstate Railwaymen at the Top End of the Northern Territory, Australian Railway Historical Society, New South Wales Division.
Gray Andy, (1975) The Great Country Music Stars, Hamlyn Publishing Group New York.
Partell,Les (1956) " Going to ride that rattler home." in Smith Jazzer ( 1984) The Book of Australian Music Berghouse-Floyd- Tuckey Publishing Company, Sydney. p229.
Wilfred C. Knight (1930) 5603 The Locomotive Journal Sydney
Meredith,John, and Whalan, Rex,(1979)Frank the Poet, Red Rooster Press, Melbourne.
Smith , Jazza, ( 1984) The Book of Australian Music Berghouse-Floyd- Tuckey Publishing Company, Sydney.
Stone,Walter, Slected,(1977) The Best Of Banjo Paterson, Ure Smith Press, Sydney
Thorp, Howard.N, (Jack) (1908) Songs of the Cowboys Clark N.Potter Inc Publishers New York.
Warung Price (189-) Convict Days, Australasian Book Society (Republished) Sydney
Walker,Clinton (2000 Buried Country, Pluto Press, Sydney.
Watson, Eric.(1983) Country Music in Australia Cornstork Publishing , Sydney.
Trains of Treasure on line Web site references Exhibition Panels
Trains of Treasure Recording CD
Rail Tram and Bus Union 83-89 Renwick St Redfern, NSW 2016. Ph 93192096
Railway Voices Recording CD
Rail Tram and Bus Union 83-89 Renwick St Redfern, NSW 2016. Ph 93192096
Example of other recorded songs referred to and their source
Indian Pacific (w Joy McKean) Slim Dusty
Half Way to Sydney (w.Chambers Family) Dead Ringer Band
Trains (W. Troy Cassar Daly ) Troy Cassar Daly.
Runaway Train (w Kasey Chambers) KaseyChambers.
Sargent Small(w Tex Morton) Wedding Parties Any thing.
Railwayman (w John Williamson) John Williamson)
Billy Sheenan –From Navvy the Line Larrikin Records PO Box 162, Paddington NSW, 2021
Appendix 1- List of Slim Dusty items with railway theme, album source, date first realised.
Morning Mail- Album Title -An Evening with Slim and Joy May 1966.
Glory Bound Train, Album Title Glory Bound Train June 1971
Second Class Wait Here, Album Title Me and My Guitar September 1972
Indian Pacific, Album Title On the Move August 1977.
Droving By Train, Album Title Sprit of Australia May 1979.
Old Sunlander Van, Album Title The Slim Dusty Family Album December 1980.
Last Train to Nowhere, Album Title "Live" Across Australia January 1986
Glory Bound Train, Album Title "Live" Across Australia January 1986
On the Night Train, Album Title Stories I Want to Tell January 1986
The Sunlander Album Title Regal Zonophone CollectionAugust 1996.
The following items for their content to be checked:
Wagon Trains North, Album Title Dusty Tracks August 1973
My Old Midnight Special, Album Title Neon City, August 1988
Roaring Wheels, Album Title Regal Zonophone Collection August 1996
Abalinga Mail Album Title '99, October 1999

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