When I first started to collect oral history, especially old songs and stories (it was back in the 1960s), I figured out that these mostly anonymous, seemingly naive, ditties could be seen as ‘signposts’ to the formation of Australian national identity. Previous collectors, and there had been only a handful since A. B. Paterson published his 1905 Old Bush Songs, had concentrated on Australian bush songs, recognising a certain urgency to gather the remaining songs about shearers, drovers, bushrangers and, to some lesser extent, the gold rush. These were also seen as popular subjects for the folk-singing brigade of the 1950s and 60s, when folk song attained a certain commercial popularity. When I set out, tape recorder at the ready, I headed for mining towns in the Hunter Valley and then Western New South Wales. Small towns, old communities and, at the time, still active mining centres. I was interested to see if there was an industrial folk song tradition in Australia. It proved to be a rich field and over the years I have collected and annotated hundreds of songs related to mining.
Interestingly, the larger early mining camps like Ballarat, Bendigo, Ophir, Hill End and Braidwood usually had what was described as a ‘singing room’. These were often quite large hotels set up with piano and hotel facilities. Songwriters like Charles Thatcher and John Small would perform songs that told of the miner’s life – the upside and downside. They were raucous joints.