What is a Bush Ballad?
The Bush Ballad is a style of folk music and poetry, celebrating life in rural Australia, with a focus on simple rhymes and driven by narrative.
The Bush Ballad first emerged in Australia when English and Irish colonists settled, bringing with them their history of folk music and hymns.
Many early Bush Ballads were first passed orally by prisoners shipped to Australia, from 1788. These works featured tales of outlaws and rebels fighting against government oppression and the hardships of life in the Outback.
In Britain, popular music began to emerge in dance halls from the 1830s, however the distance between Britain and Australia meant that this culture did not spread. Instead the early folk traditions continued to evolve and grow in popularity. During the 19th and 20th centuries, these poems and songs were heralded as an authentic expression of national identity.
The Bulletin launched its first periodical in 1880, intended as a political magazine. It featured a number of Bush Ballads alongside cartoons and features. Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson, a celebrated Bush poet, published various collections of Bush Ballads, including Old Bush Songs (1905) which is considered a seminal work of Australian verse. Banjo Paterson himself would engage in a friendly rivalry with Henry Lawson, competing to write the best Bush Ballad. Banjo would write the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda, which was often called Australia’s Unofficial National Anthem.
Bush Ballads in the modern era are often featured at Australian Country music festivals and continue to be a popular expression of rural life. As Australia’s population has continued to diversify, there is also a growing influence from Filipino and Chinese poetry.
Bush Ballads are a non-prescriptive form, meaning there is no “right way” to write them. Instead there is a focus on simple rhymes. These poems were often written by people without access to formal education, and for a similar audience, so one’s use of language should be considered in this context.
Bush Ballads are also narrative poems, meaning they focus on a story, rather than just describing a scene.
Bush Ballads are intended to be authentic, so not everyone can write a true Bush Ballad. You need to have experienced rural life in some capacity.
Bush Ballads are poems of hardship and grit, though this does not mean they are all sad. They range from humorous to melancholic and every emotion to be found in a life filled with hard graft and heat.
For the poet writing Bush Ballads, it is worth listening to the huge archives of Bush Ballads recorded as songs over the years. To this day, awards are still given out for Bush Balladeers, meaning there is a consistent stream of new, quality poetry of this form to be enjoyed.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.