Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Provenance of Click Go the Shears

Until I discovered this newspaper publication of the iconic shearers song in 2014, using the National Library of Australia's TROVE PROJECT, there had long been  speculation and argument about where and when it might have been composed. One old shearer recalled hearing it around the time of the 1891 shearers strike, another had heard it during the Great War. None of the singers remembered all the verses but all of them knew that the tune was "Ring the Bell Watchman" (an American song from the civil war period).

The earliest set of words published seemed to be from Percy Jones who published it in a Catholic magazine in 1946. Jones passed it on with a number of other songs to the American ballad singer Burl Ives who toured Australia in 1952 and sang it at his concerts and broadcast it on ABC radio. Thus it was that most Australians first heard the song sung with an American accent. A.L.Lloyd first recorded the song for the American label Riverside Records in 1956 under the editorship of the folklorist Kenneth Goldstein.

The date of publication 1891 is of particular interest to historians because it was the year of the Shearer's strike in Queensland. The considerable forces of three Australian States were pitted against the shearers who were taking a stand for the Eight Hour Day and against a reduction in pay and conditions being demanded by the employers. The leaders of the strike were sentenced to three years incarceration with hard labour on St Helena Island in Moreton Bay, until released in November 1893.

Julian Stuart, one of the legendary strike leaders wrote:

The Shearers' Union Union began in Creswick, in Victoria, in 1886 and in New South Wales the same year ... but it was not started in Queensland until a year later, when the first move was made at Blackall, on the Barcoo. We had heard about the new idea but did not know much about organising; nevertheless when a delegate came along with tickets we generally ruled up and adopted the Union as our new religion. The squatters made big efforts to crush the movement in its infancy and for the first two or three years scarcely a shed was allowed to start without a trial of strength. 

Julian Stuart, "Part of the Glory" (Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1967)

Shearers library at Barcaldine – During the 1891 strike

Before Percy Jones published the song two New South Wales newspapers had published different variants:

The Sydney newspaper the World's News Sep 1939 p. 44. published a version under the title "The Shearer's Song" and shortly after the Wellington Times of 21 Dec 1939  p. 9. published a slightly different version using the same title. It is certainly possible that Percy Jones was shown one of these articles when he visited Sydney in 1940. So it is that we now know that much of the discussion concerning the provenance of the song was pure conjecture. What I find interesting is that all of the old timers who recalled verses from the song knew its tune better than the complete song and yet estimated its age with a surprising degree of accuracy. The lesson is that we should be very wary of the dismissal of the memories of those who preserved what they could recall of the songs that they carefully retained in their repertory and kept in their heads for posterity.    

Some 30 songs and poems were composed in support of the shearers at the time and despite defeat the strike had the political outcome of encouraging the foundation of the Australian Labor Party which would become the first such party in the world to win an election.

T.U.S. Trade Union Shears – Made in a Sheffield Co-op and a favourite of Australian Shearers
 Download "Shearers Strike"  (Songs and poems of 1891 first published in Labour History)

(Notes from Ron Edwards Big Book of Australian Folk Song)

The conditions under which shearers live and work are unique and it is because of these that so many songs have been preserved. A nomadic community, always numbers of men together and generally a fair distance away from the entertainments of the city, these circumstances are ideal for the creation and preservation of songs.

The most popular of these songs today is undoubtedly CLICK GO THE SHEARS, based on a tune popular around the turn of the century 'Ring the Bell, Watchman.' However, the song itself may not be as old as that.

At present I am a little inclined to think that it may date from the period 1910-20 if only for the negative reason that none of my informants can recall hearing it before that time. Quite often a person may not be able to remember the words of a song, but will remember whether or not he has ever heard it, and so far, the earliest date I have for it is from a Mr Sanday of Charters Towers, who first heard it in Collarenebri, N.S.W., in 1923 or 24. He could only remember the chorus, which was similar to that given here and like that also went to the tune 'Ring the Bell, Watchman,' (he could not remember whether the last word was yoe or ewe).

'Tiger' O'Shane of Cairns first heard it while on the track on the way to Cordilla Downs station in South Australia in 1926 or 27. It was sung by a shearing mate, Ernie Clarke, and contained a verse telling how the shearers arrived at the shed or the start of the cut, and of the transport they used. Unfortunately, he could not remember how this verse went.

However, it is worth noting that in Gumsucker's Gazette vol. 4, no. I, 1963 a fragment of the first verse and chorus appeared, with a note to say that it had been collected from B. Miles, Swifts Creek, East GippsIand, who remembered it from sixty years ago (i.e. 1903).


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