Saturday, July 3, 2021



A country’s folk songs, dating from before mass communications and often from areas and situations of isolation, whether in the country, onboard ship, on the goldfields and so on, frequently record in song such things as events, people, feelings, opinions and culture. They can be more than just a rollicking good, traditional song – often they are a glimpse of the past, an insight into a different era, lifestyle, hardship and people. They will also show how far we have travelled. Perhaps in 200 years songs about Covid will have developed the status of folk songs.


The Song:

Australia has its own songs that parallel those of the US where the drovers hit town at the end of bringing in a herd, used their money on alcohol and women, ended up broke and set off to the next herd. The difference in Oz is that instead of drovers we had shearers, the end of the line was not the herd at market but the end of the shearing season and instead of Dodge or Abilene, we have Gundagai and Bathurst.

Why so many songs about Gundagai?

Gundagai is located 390 kilometres (240 mi) south-west of Sydney and is virtually only a fly speck on the map of NSW, with a population of 1,925 according to the 2016 census. It is known for its tourist attraction of the dog sitting on the tucker box (tucker = food; tucker box = food box) and the background to that story and image have been visited before in Bytes:

The statue of the dog sitting on the tucker box, at Gundagai
The story is worth reading, click on the link above.

Sheridan Street, Gundagai, 2019

So why so many songs about Gundagai . . .
Five Miles from Gundagai (aka Lazy Harry’s)
Nine Miles from Gundagai
Flash Jack from Gundagai
The Road to Gundagai

The late and great Australian folk singer Gary Shearston says of the song Lazy Harry:
Maybe this one explains why Gundagai is mentioned so often in the songs of the Riverina shearers. It was a town they had to come through on the way to Sydney from many parts of the Riverina; and maybe a lot of them set off with Sydney in their eye, but found the girls and the beer in Gundagai too tempting.

Australian folk song pioneer A L Lloyd’s similarly comments:
Work like horses, spend like asses, used to be said of the oldtime shearers. They would knock up a sizeable cheque in the shearing sheds, and then set out for a spree in the distant city. The chances were, they'd get no more than halfway before they'd spent the lot. Perhaps that's why the otherwise unremarkable town of Gundagai shows so prominently in the folk song. It lies just about midway between the big sheds of the New South Wales Riverina and the bright lights of Sydney. Many a shearer, making his way towards the capital with his cheque, got no further than Lazy Harry's grog-shop on the road from Wagga to Gundagai.

From The Mudcat CafΓ©:
I had a think about why we hear so much about Gundagai … and bullockies (bullock-team drivers - and I suspect that it is because Gundagai was a natural camping spot for bullock teams plying north to Sydney or south to Albury on the Murray River .. and even on to Melbourne. Gundagai was built where the main southern road from Sydney, what is now laughingly called the Hume Highway, crossed the Murrumbidgee River, the second largest river in the state (and the largest is only just in the state - as it forms the border with Victoria ... but is totally claimed by New South Wales!).

Until 1867, there was no bridge and crossing was by ferry p- a daunting job for a bullock team … probably involving unloading the highest part of the load to lower the centre of gravity … and not upset the ferry. Bullock teams must have spent a long time camped in close proximity and the area became a centre of 'bullocky folklore' - a pretty robust animal! 

It's a rollicking good song with a positive outlook, rather than a bitter or negative one.

Point of interest: Banjo Paterson printed the lyrics in his songbook Old Bush Songs


The Lyrics:

Lazy Harry's

Oh we started down from Roto when the sheds had all cut out
We'd whips and whips of Rhino as we meant to push about
So we humped our blueys serenely and made for Sydney town
With a three-spot cheque between us as wanted knocking down

But we camped at Lazy Harry's, on the road to Gundagai
The road to Gundagai
Not five miles from Gundagai
Yes we camped at Lazy Harry's on the road to Gundagai

Well we struck the Murrumbidgee near the Yanco in a week
And passed through old Narrandera and crossed the Burnett Creek
And we never stopped at Wagga for we'd Sydney in our eye
But we camped at Lazy Harry's on the road to Gundagai

Oh I've seen a lot of girls my boys and drunk a lot of beer
And I've met with some of both chaps as has left me mighty queer
But for beer to knock you sideways and for girls to make you sigh
You must camp at Lazy Harry's on the road to Gundagai

Well we chucked our blooming swags off and we walked into the bar
And we called for rum-an'-raspb'ry and a shilling each cigar
But the girl that served the poison she winked at Bill and I
And we camped at Lazy Harry's not five miles from Gundagai

In a week the spree was over and the cheque was all knocked down
So we shouldered our Matildas and we turned our back on town
And the girls they stood a nobbler as we sadly said good-bye
And we tramped from Lazy Harry's not five miles from Gundagai

Last chorus
And we tramped from Lazy Harry's not five miles from Gundagai
The road to Gundagai
Not five miles from Gundagai
Yes we tramped from Lazy Harry's on the road to Gundagai



Great version by the original Bushwackers & Bullockies Bush Band, from 1973:



Roto is a small settlement situated in the far-west of New South Wales. At the 2016 census, Roto and the surrounding area had a population of 41.

when the sheds had all cut out:
When the shearing season had come to an end and the shearing sheds were no longer operating. Most farmers shear their sheep in late spring or early summer, when the weather turns warmer, to ensure sheep do not get too hot and start to attract flies.

whips and whips of rhino:
The word “rhinoceros” and later the shortened “rhino” was used as a slang term for money or cash from the late 17th century, much in the same way as we use “dough” or “bucks” today. The origin is unknown.

humped our blueys:
Bluey: swag, the collection of possessions and daily necessities carried by a person travelling, usually wrapped in a tied off blue blanket, hence the name.
Humping: Carrying, toting.

three-spot cheque:
A cheque for one hundred pounds or more.

wanted knocking down:
Just had to be spent.

struck the Murrumbidgee:
Reached the Murrumbidgee River, the second longest river in Australia.

Small village, population 505

A town located in the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, adjacent to the Murrumbidgee River, population 3,746.

Wagga Wagga is a major regional city in the Riverina region of New South Wales, straddling the Murrumbidgee River, with an urban population of more than 56,000 as of June 2018, Wagga is the ninth largest inland city in Australia and is located midway between the two largest cities in Australia—Sydney and Melbourne.

shilling each cigar:
Expensive cigar. When I was a kid, before Australia went decimal, we had to learn our currency as 12 pennies make one shilling, 20 shillings make one pound. The amount in pounds, shillings and pence, by way of example as 19 pounds, 7 shillings and 9 pence, was written as £19/7/9. Before calculators, we had to solve maths problems such as take £3/19/4 from £31/3/5.

Another name for swag, hence waltzing matilda was the same as humping a bluey.

the girls they stood a nobbler:
A measure of alcohol.



Shearing shed 1886-1891
As you can see, backbreaking work, no wonder they had blowouts at the end of the shearing season

Shearing shed outback NSW c 1885

The Golden Fleece, by Tom Roberts 1894

Shearing the Rams by Tom Roberts, 1890

Shears made by Robert Sorby, Sheffield, UK, company still manufacturing today.

Shearers sharpening blades in 1915.

Shearers wore moccasins made from old sacks to prevent slipping and absorb sweat, as well as reducing back strain.

The remnants of the "cookie" stove, last used in the 1950s, that helped to feed huge shearing teams.

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