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Music and Song

On the diggings, music and song were omnipresent. At night, when people had finished the day’s work and had attended to their chores, the sounds of singing and musical instruments were audible. In the twilight hours, Edward Snell observed that ‘every here and there the noise of a flute or fiddle playing Nancy Dawson, Jack’s the Lad, Paddy will you now, and similar tunes’ could be heard which made ‘the place quite lively.’

Music performed a variety of functions on the diggings. Not only was it a means of pleasure and enjoyment for many, but it also relieved the monotony and arduous work of mining life. For some, it was perceived as a better pastime than the consumption of alcohol, as it did not lead to immorality or uncivilised behaviour. Music was also a means of connecting with, and reminiscing about, people and places far removed from the goldfields, of things left behind. One person suggested to potential immigrants to the fields that:

persons who can perform on musical instruments should not leave them behind, for ... a little music will contribute infinitely better than the coarse excitement of alcohol, to beguile the twilight hour. It will, more ever, create pleasing associations and remembrances of absent friends and scenes far away.

While well-known songs were performed on the goldfields, newly composed tunes were also popular, offering people a change from the familiar whilst also giving expression to their unique experiences. Often, the new tunes spoke of freshly obtained freedoms, such as Mary Helena Fortune’s Song of the Gold Diggers:

Hurrah for the free new land!
And hurrah for the diggers bold!
And hurrah for the strong unfettered right
To search in the hills for gold!

Dig! ’till each pore its tribute gives
Which the burning forehead craves
But never a lingering look cast back
To the land where we were slaves!

Breathe for a moment, one glad breath
Throw up the shadeless brow;
Where is the paid taste – master’s eye?
We were never men ‘till now!

In 1855 James Mulholland published a collection of popular and local songs called the Ballarat Songster. As a testament to the popularity of music and song, many of the tunes were already familiar to the townspeople having appeared, as a weekly supplement for sixteen weeks previously. People paid a shilling each week for the latest edition.

Music was also an important element in entertainment venues – it was a central feature in many hotels, theatres and dance halls. A variety of music was performed, from operatic and classical to colonial and national. In May 1854, Herr Rahm and his minstrels performed at the Castlemaine Hall in full national dress. Performing ‘comic’ and ‘sentimental’ songs, the show also featured Herr Rahm on the ‘celebrated national instrument, the Zitter'.

Laura Donati