The ‘bush ballad’ is a style of poetry that attained great popularity in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, becoming an important emblem of Australian literary and popular culture. Generally narrating a story – often an exciting action or adventure – and frequently humorous in tone, the bush ballad almost invariably employs a straightforward rhyme structure and depicts the characters and scenery of rural Australia. Thought by many to convey an authentic expression of the national spirit, the bush ballad enjoyed particular popularity in the decade leading up to Federation in 1901.Though the vogue of the bush ballad subsided in the early twentieth century, the ballads of the 1890s have continued to exert an influence on conceptions of Australian identity and Australian poetry, and the bush ballads of writers such as A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson remain among the best-known works of Australian literature.
The development of the bush ballad was influenced by the large corpus of popular verse and song circulating in the Australian colonies throughout the nineteenth century. European migrants brought popular and traditional songs and ballads as part of their cultural baggage, and some of these works were adapted to suit Australian contexts. One of the most notable adapters of songs was the entertainer Charles Thatcher, who had a successful theatrical career in the goldrush era, performing parodies of popular English songs with new lyrics about life in the colonies. Songs and verse about life in Australia also appeared in nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals, and there is evidence to suggest that these works were regularly performed in areas where few other entertainments were available. Thematically, the songs dealt with aspects of life and work in the Australian bush, the nature of the land, the relations between white settlers and Aborigines, and celebrated outlaw figures such as bushrangers and convicts.
In the 1880s and 1890s, requests for the lyrics of ‘bush’ songs began appearing in journals and newspapers, and the first dedicated collection, Old Bush Songs, an anthology edited by A. B. Paterson, was published in 1905.