How would you research convict music? Through police reports, of course!
Robert Williams, a black, with a shining face, was charged by constable Orr, with being drunk, and playing the tamborine in Kent-street, at the hour twelve, to the tune of “Darby Kelly O,” surrounded by a motley group of thieves, prostitutes, sailors, &c.
POLICE INCIDENTS. (1834, February 20). The Sydney Herald, p. 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12848737
Apart from the remarkable music manuscript of the Scottish convict fiddler, Alexander Laing, there are very few sources of information about the music or songs which convicts themselves played, sang, and danced.
People wrote songs about convicts, particularly after the convict era ended, for example, the well known ballad Botany Bay (Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-addity) was composed for a burlesque drama in the Gaiety Theatre, 1885.
This resource draws primarily on the newspaper accounts from the early colony between 1803 and 1840. Many of these reports come from the court transcripts taken when convicts appeared before local magistrates, charged with various offences. It presents a list of the music and songs which the convicts themselves performed. Often the stories were embellished by the journalists for comic effect. It is worth noting that most of the constables, known as ‘charleys’, as well as the journalists, were convicts or ex-convicts.
Theatre was a focal point of popular culture, supplying many of the songs and tunes which people took to their hearts and embraced as their own. A large proportion of tunes now regarded as traditional folk music came from 18th and 19th century theatre productions. This is apparent in many of the convict references where the songs and tunes were drawn directly from well-known plays, melodramas, and pantomimes.
Many thanks to Trove at the National Library of Australia for making these newspapers readily available online. This is an ongoing project with plans to considerably extend the resource.
Arranged in order of number of references via Police reports:
*denotes the tune is also in Alexander Laing’s music manuscript
Judy Callaghan/Meet me by Moonlight alone (song)
Oh no, we never mention her (song)
Paddy Carey *
My Heart for Love is Beating
Down Derry Down
Flow on thou regal purple stream
Jack’s the Lad
My Heart with Love is beating
My Lodging is on the Cold Ground
Saint Patrick was a Gentleman
We’re a’ noddin’
All Around My Hat
Canst thou say farewell love
Cease Your Funning / Constant Billy
Come under my Plaidie
Glasses Sparkle on the board
Hot Cross Buns
How happy I could be with either
Jack’s Alive *
March to the Battlefield
Master Adam was First inventor of Kissing
Merrily Danced the Quaker’s Wife
Merry Month of May
My love is like a red, red rose
My Name D’ye see’s Tom Tough
My Pretty Page
My Village Fair
O Lady Fair
Oh say not woman’s love is bought
Old Blind Joe the Fiddler
Paddy Ward’s Pig
Poll of Plymouth Dock
Saint Patrick’s Day in the morning *
Unfortunate Miss Bailey
Wake Dearest Wake
Other tunes with convict connections