Cultural Studies: Australian Folk Songs Research Paper

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Folklore has always been used to pass culture and historic information of communities from one generation to another. According to Bohlman (78), folklores were used to entertain the audience, pass cultural practices, and impart desirable knowledge to the young members of the society.

Members of society used folklores to educate the younger generation to understand what the community cherished and what was abhorred. Through this, they would grow up knowing their culture, ethics, and other issues that were considered important for the development of children. Folklore includes tales, proverbs, songs, tongue twisters, and myths.

Australian folklore has attracted attention of many scholars in the recent past. According to Shepheard (34), scholars who have tried to collect folklores from various regions around the world have always found the Australian folklore unique. The kind of message that was contained in the folklores and the way in which it was presented to the audience, had some uniqueness in it.

One of the Australian folklores that have gained popularity among the contemporary scholars is the Australian folksongs. Bohlman (56) notes that the Australian folksongs have always portrayed the culture of this society, the geographical factors, and other issues that are directly related to societal practices. Songs were always meant to depict specific issues that affected the society in one way or the other.

This research will focus on Cape Breton Island’s folk songs. These folk songs are unique, as compared to folksongs in Australian mainland. They present this island as unique in its culture, origin of its people, and its geographic location.

Thesis statement: The Australian folksongs have gained popularity among the researchers around the world. Historians and archeologists have always used these folksongs to trace the history of people in the region. Most of these songs talk about the history of people in this island, their beliefs about their origin, some of their practices, and various issues about their lives in general.

The folksongs were used to entertain members of society. However, specific messages would be passed during the process of entertainment. Each traditional ceremony in the society had specific songs that had to be sung for specific reasons. When a child was born, there would be songs of joy, praising the mother, the child, and the gods who made the process successful.

During marriage ceremonies, there would be songs meant to encourage the newly wedded couple and teach them about importance of the marriage. During burial ceremonies, there would be specific songs to be used to show the grief for the passing away of one of the members of the society. Similarly, warriors had their own songs that they would use to encourage one another in the battle.

This clearly illustrates that the community had a specific song for specific occasions. The natives in this island considered songs an integral part of society used to teach other members of the society and encourage good manners as a way of encouraging a harmonious community.

Literature Review

In this study, the researcher collected information from books, articles, and other relevant online journals. Scholars have written various articles about folksongs that originated from Cape Breton Island.

According to Shepheard (28), these folksongs were always focused on specific issues that affected members of society in one way or the other. Most of the Cape Breton Island’s folksongs have always been considered different from that of other regions around the world.

Although some of these songs originated from England, they evolved, based on the environmental factors in this region. Shepheard (48) notes that some of the composers of these songs were people of lower social class that had suffered from the oppression from landowners and other rich masters, some of whom came from England. This explains why some of these folksongs present sad emotions to the listeners.

Bohlman (112) notes that in ancient times, this region did not have a strong army that could protect it from the aggression of stronger forces. For this reason, in many cases, foreign forces would attack this region, and several people would be killed out of such expeditions. Composers of the folksongs would base their messages on such incidents, trying to reflect on the sad events that led to the demise of their people.

According to Shepheard (48), some of the songs reflected the oppressive rule by the colonizers from England.

This scholar notes that Francis MacNamara was one of the renowned singers in 1820. He was once arrested by the colonial government for a failure to pay tax to the authorities at Cape Breton Island. He composed several songs while in prison to try to give a clear refection of the hardship at these prisons.

The song titled Moreton Bay is one of the most popular folksongs that he composed while in prison. The song was accepted by the society and has been passed orally from one generation to another to present the kind of lifestyle prisoners had to undergo. The following are some of the lines in this song.

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails (Bohlman 19).

This song tries to focus on the tyranny of those who were in authority. The song was meant to pass a message to those in power, that they have a responsibility to those they lead to protect them from any form of oppression. As witnessed in this song, the prisoner was sent to various prisons in this country.

According to Bergerac (51), some of these folksongs were based on the struggle that this community went through while trying to gain independence. During such wars, people would lose lives at the hands of stronger forces. Shepheard (33) notes that some of these songs were used to pass information about class that existed in the society. During this time, people belonged to different social classes.

There were the rich who occupied the highest apex of the social class. There was the second class that entailed well-to-do families, especially that of merchants and military personnel. The lowest class, which was the majority, had people who were struggling to make life work. The following song was very common among the poor members of the society. Henry Lawson developed this song in 1899 to reflect on the social class that was practiced in the society.

Yes, the second class were waiting in the days of serf and prince
And the second class are waiting – they’ve been waiting ever since
There are gardens in the background, and the line is bare and drear,
They wait beneath the signboard; sneering ‘Second Class wait here’ (Bohlman 81).

It is clear that in this community, people belonged to different classes. As demonstrated in this song, the second-class members of the society did not like the way they were treated by the ruling class. The aristocracy in this society raised a lot of hatred as the poor felt that the rulers ignored their interests.

Some of these folksongs have demonstrated that the Australian continent had been explored by world powers, especially from Europe. Cape Breton Island was one of the regions that were exposed to constant external aggression, especially by European forces. Dan Sheahan developed the following song in the late 1890s trying to describe the battle with the French forces. The song was titled ‘The sleeper cutter’s camp.’

My sole address at present is a battlefield in France,
if it is ever going to alter there is only just a chance,
to dodge the ‘Jerry’ rifles and the shrapnel flying around.
I’ve burrowed like a bunny to a funk hole in the ground,
The floor is just a puddle and the roof lets in the damp,
I wish I were in Aussie where the Sleeper Cutters’ camp (Shepheard 92).

This song talks about the battlefield, and the dangers it posed to the people. As Bergerac (52) notes, these songs were developed out of the experience that people had in the society. As demonstrated in the songs above, people were trying to tell their stories through songs. In Cape Breton Island, members of the society would try to compose song either to tell of their unfortunate life experiences, or to rebuke those that were believed to be oppressive.

According to Bergerac (74), the poor members of the society developed most of the folksongs in this region. This is demonstrated by the fact that these songs would always talk about the sufferings that the common members of the society experienced. The songs were full of sad experiences people underwent in the process of earning their livelihoods. It was rare to find songs presenting joy and happiness of the upper class members of the society.

Songs that presented happiness were talking about ceremonies that were organized by all members of the society such as victory at the battlefield, marriages, initiations, or other annual celebrations.

Research Methodology

Research in social sciences uses specific research methods to collect and analyze data to arrive at specific conclusions. As Bohlman (114) says, the research method used would depend on the nature of the data to be collected. In this study, the researcher will use various methods to arrive at the desired conclusion. The researcher will use both primary and secondary sources of information.

The secondary sources of data will be collected from books, articles, and other online sources talking folksongs in Cape Breton Island. The researcher will be keen to collect songs that were developed in this region, focusing on various societal issues. Primary data will be collected from a specific sampled group.

The sampled population will be people from this island or neighboring regions which have received these songs from the previous generations through oral presentations.

The preferred individuals sampled were folklorists, especially those who have worked with this community and have learned these songs, their origins, the purpose, and various occasions when they were sung. The researcher used interviews to capture the desired information. In instances where the researcher could not reach out to the respondents physically, the interviews were collected through phone calls.

The researcher also used questionnaires to collect the desired data. The researcher listened to some of these songs to understand their dialect, tone used, and any form of sarcasm that comes out in them.

During the analysis, various factors were analyzed in these songs. According to Untiedt (67), some of the folksongs that were sung in this region were borrowed from England during the contact that this region had with Europe at those early times. Songs that were borrowed from Europe could be detected by listening to their dialect. It would be easy to determine songs that were borrowed from other regions by identifying their dialect.

As Shepheard (38) says, it is easy to understand the origin of a song by listening to its dialect. Australian folksongs had specific dialects that differentiated it from other songs, especially from Europe. In the analysis, the researcher involved comparison of the songs in order to identify some of the unique themes and styles used in the songs. According to Bergerac (38), songs always reflect the practices in the society.

This means that different songs developed in one society will have some resemblance in the message they present, and the style employed. In this analysis, it would be important to identify some of the common factors in the songs from this region. This means that it would be easy to identify songs that were not originally developed in this society.

In analyzing these songs, the researcher will try to determine the analogy presented in the songs. According to Bohlman (62), songs always undergo some form of transition due to changes taking place in the environment.

However, one can determine what the songs share in common despite the differences that the songs could be having due to the transition. The focus during the analysis will be to determine some of the common characteristics of these songs, the messages they were presenting, and the way this reflected the social structure of Cape Breton Island.


The data collected from the primary and secondary sources shore that Cape Breton Island had a rich cultural practice that were unique. The culture in this region remained intact even after the European invasion in this country.

This is reflected in the folklore songs collected in the country. Based on the themes that are presented in most of these songs, it is clear that most of them were developed to present sorrow that the poor members were subjected to by the ruling class. A number of these songs talk about life in prison, a sign that prison was used to oppress those who tried to fight the ruling class.

As Shepheard (20) notes, most of the folklore songs in this region portrayed prisons as a form of suffering that would be subjected to the poor to make them conform to the demands of the aristocrats. It was common for a song to talk about prisons metaphorically. This means that the term prison would be used to present the sufferings of the people within this community.

The songs that were collected from this community presented some characteristics that are unique to this society. One of the characteristics of these songs was that they were presented orally from one generation to another. During these early times, reading and writing had not been invented. Storage and transfer of information from one generation to another depended on individuals’ memory.

Songs would be passed from generation to another orally. The community would ensure that the originality of the song is retained through the generations, especially the message and style.

The folksongs were based on the cultural practices of this society. This means that the message would present what the society believed in, and practiced. The research by Untiedt (45) shows that folksongs were the best ways that older members of the society used to pass their cultural practices to the younger generation. It was a way of imparting cultural practices on the younger generation.

Analysis of these songs demonstrates the culture that was practiced at this island. Another characteristic of these songs that come out is the fact that they were used to commemorate specific historical events (Shepheard 79). The event could be a victory against a given rival community, an incident that was considered to pass a message to members of the society, or a disastrous occurrence that left members of the society serious affected.

The song would be used as a constant reminder to members of the society of the unfortunate occurrence, and the need to remain focused to avoid a similar experience. It would be a wake-up call to everyone to act in a given manner to avoid the possibility of similar calamities if it is within the control of the community members.

Analysis of these folksongs shows that there was a period when different cultures came into contact in this region. This would be presented in songs that were talking of the same thing but from different perspectives. Although the songs would not be contradicting, it would be easy to realize that the message is presented from different standpoints.

This shows that this island was open to the outside world during these early times, and when these people visited this region, they came up with different cultural practices. This is reflected in these folksongs. The response that was received from the sampled population and the information obtained from the literature reviewed show that some musical instruments accompanied these songs.

Analysis of these songs shows that before the invention of drums, guitars, and other musical instruments, people would use to clap in the process of singing. The instruments were introduced later, and they became very popular in this region. Each music category had a specific style of dancing, and the instruments used were different. For instance, songs that were sung during funerals were always in a somber tone.

Drums were rarely used on such occasions, and the audiences were not expected to dance. In wedding ceremonies or any other celebration, the style would completely change. Drums would be used, besides other instruments, and the audience would engage in dancing and ululation.


It is clear from the above discussion that folksongs were very popular in various communities around the world. Cape Breton Island was one of the regions where folksongs were used for different reasons.

Folksongs were used to pass specific information to members of the society, to teach, warn, encourage, or mourn over various issues in society. These songs presented the cultural practices and beliefs within this society. Although they have undergone a series of transformations, these songs have still maintained their originality.

Works Cited

Bergerac, George. My First Book of American Folk Songs: 25 Favorite Pieces in Easy Piano Arrangements. New York: Dover, 1995. Print.

Bohlman, Philip. The Folk Songs of Ashkenaz. Middleton: A-R Editions, 2001. Print.

Shepheard, Lois. Folk Songs of Australia: For String Orchestra or String Quartet. New York: Cengage, 1999. Print.

Untiedt, Kenneth. Folklore: In All of Us, in All We Do. Denton, Tex: Univ. of North Texas Press, 2006. Print.

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