‘THE WESTGATE BRIDGE DISASTER’, Ken Mansell
15 October 1970 is infamous as the date of one of Australia’s worst industrial disasters. A span of the Westgate Bridge, then under construction, collapsed. 35 workers plummeted to their deaths below. Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 played havoc with plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy. The annual pilgrimage of remembrance to the memorial plaque was cancelled, but the anniversary was still appropriately observed, with the Memorial Committee’s live stream Facebook event, 3CR’s documentaries from 1990 and 1995, Channel 9’s documentary feature, and Sam Wallman’s magnificent eight-panel artwork.
Over the years, images and memories of the Westgate tragedy have evoked the most wide-ranging emotions, not least among songwriters. I was one of a number of songwriters who responded to the tragedy with a song of lament or a lyric of judgement. Westgate Bridge songs were written by Lyell Sayer, Don Henderson, and Phyl Lobl soon after the event, and by Mark Seymour in 2006. [i] Here I will describe the history of my own song about the Westgate Bridge, written and sung fifty years ago and still not completely forgotten today. But first a brief outline of my apprenticeship in song-writing.
In 1963, while still at school, I discovered folk music, initially the commercialized folk music of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio heard on the radio. In a Melbourne bookshop (Cheshire’s) I found copies of the left-wing American folk magazine Sing-Out! My conservative world-view was gradually transformed. I was introduced to the work of folk luminaries Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to the musical heritage of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or ‘Wobblies’) and the Civil Rights movement, to the folk traditions of England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia, and to the topical and political songs of American singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Malvina Reynolds. Only weeks after starting at my first job (a tedious clerical position at Kraft Foods in Port Melbourne) I wrote my first serious song The Voyager, bemoaning the January 1964 collision of two Australian warships off Jervis Bay. More songs followed over the next two years, many of them written in clandestine fashion ‘in the boss’s time’. Several of my songs were published in Wendy Lowenstein’s Australian Tradition magazine and I performed others at the first (1967) and second (1968) National Folk Festivals.
In 1969 the New York radical newspaper The Guardian published The Vietnam Song Book, edited by Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber (both of whom had been prominent with Sing-Out). I was thrilled to discover my own song about the May 1965 visit to Melbourne of the American warship U.S.S Vancouver had been included, along with the compositions of other Australian singer-songwriters – Don Henderson, Clem Parkinson, Glen Tomasetti, Gary Shearston and Jim Allen. The words that appeared in the book were as follows:
There’s commotion at the wharf
All to see a warship off
That seeks a small assistance in the escalation game
They say they won the battle
For our land of the Wattle
So at Canberra great commitments are promised in our name
Chorus: Bombs are showered in our name
Who doesn’t feel the shame?
Don’t listen to what these Yankees say
Protest if you can
We’ll drive them from our land
Demand negotiations or we’ll all be blown away
Some say there was a time
Of a bravery sublime
For on our own we could not have saved the Coral Sea
But the years have passed and gone
Another kind of war is on
Now they say that we should stabilize Dictator Marshall Ky
The Vancouver will be floating
Across the Southern Ocean
While many of our countrymen couldn’t give a damn
They say us folks down under
Shouldn’t stop to wonder
About the nature of relations that we have with Uncle Sam
They’re here to show their strength
With this vessel of great length
To celebrate amongst us this anniversary
Meanwhile our army boys are used as pawns and toys
To stem a revolution as foreign mercenaries
Unfortunately, two mistakes detracted from my contribution. Firstly the false title ‘S.S. Vancouver’ (with the ‘U’ missing). The remark that the above words had been written in 1965 was also false, although possibly my own fault, not the fault of the editors. The words I wrote in May 1965 were completely different to the published version. The U.S.S Vancouver, a troop carrier, had taken time off from serving in the Vietnam War. She docked at Port Melbourne from May 12-19, 1965 to celebrate ‘Coral Sea Week’. I immediately wrote a song ‘sending up’ the pomp and pageantry of the Coral Sea celebrations. The song was not very political and not obviously anti-war. For instance, this 1965 version failed to mention the commitment of a battalion of Australian combat troops to Vietnam (announced by PM Menzies on April 29), and ignored the refusal (May 13) of berthing assistance to The Vancouver by Melbourne tug men. Worse, my satirical treatment could be interpreted as enthusiasm for the U.S Navy. Wendy Lowenstein, acting as go-between for Barbara Dane in 1967, was horrified when I offered this version of the song for the book and insisted I re-write the words. This I did. In 1965 I was politically wet behind the ears and barely knew where Vietnam was, let alone know who ‘Dictator Marshall Ky’ was. The 1967 version of my song reflected both the horror of the war and my commitment to protest against it. More ‘Vietnam’ songs were not forthcoming from me however. How could one possibly encompass the scale and devastation of this war in a mere song? Fired by rage, I, along with thousands of others, took my protest to the streets.
PART ONE – THE SONG
THE BAKERY FOLK NIGHT
In February 1969, the Monash Labor Club and the recently-formed ‘Revolutionary Socialists’ (‘Rev Socs’) established an off-campus political centre in an old bakery building at 120 Greville Street Prahran. I was drawn into this circle of mainly student radicals. I moved from 57 Palmerston Street Carlton (SDS headquarters), and lived at ‘The Bakery’ from April to September 1969. In June 1969 Dave Nadel and I organised a regular Friday night folk music ‘coffee lounge’ in the shopfront at ‘The Bakery’ and persuaded some of Melbourne’s folksingers to perform there. The Folk Night was not hugely successful because it proved impossible to cater to all tastes. One song that went over very well however was The Rebel Girl, regularly performed by Gayle Williams and myself. I had heard The Rebel Girl sung on a Folkways record of songs of IWW bard Joe Hill (sung by Joe Glazer). The version performed by Gayle and myself was a hammed-up, slightly more exuberant, version of Glazer’s treatment and we altered the tune in some ways. (See below for an extended comment on the song’s controversial lyrics).
‘The Rebel Girl’, performed by Gayle Williams and Ken Mansell
Gayle and I also regularly performed Ewan McColl’s Ballad of Ho Chi Minh at ‘The Bakery’ folk nights. McColl wrote the song in 1954 to celebrate the military victories of the Viet Minh over colonial French forces. The song had become popular again in the sixties, especially among those of us who supported the National Liberation Front against American aggression. The song was particularly popular at ‘The Bakery’. People would swarm in from the backroom and down their beer glasses so they could participate in singing the chorus – ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’.
THE BALLAD OF HO CHI MINH (recorded live by Darce Cassidy at ‘The Bakery’ circa August 1969)
Later, on 8 May 1970, at the first Vietnam Moratorium, I performed the Ballad of Ho Chi Minh from the main platform in the Treasury Gardens, and to an audience estimated at 80-100,000 people. Glen Tomasetti, the designated singer, had not shown up, and when M.C Sam Goldbloom asked for a replacement, I cheekily thrust myself forward. My performance prompted only scowls from the not insignificant number present who considered such an open, unabashed identification with the ‘enemy’ to be quite inappropriate for the occasion and totally out of step with Moratorium policy.
THE BAKERY SONG GROUP
Many of us who reached adulthood in the sixties, and were radicalised by our very personal relationship to the Vietnam war, did not really believe, as I am sure the radicals of the Depression generation believed, that the ‘working class’ could take matters in hand and make a revolution. I identified strongly with the working class, but with the working class as it used to be, the working class portrayed in labour histories or in the industrial folk songs I had learned from A. L. Lloyd and Ewan McColl records. I had very little faith that the workers of the sixties’ consumer society could be revolutionary. We certainly wanted ‘revolution’. Every conceivable alternative to the ‘workers’ was entertained in the ‘New Left’ pantheon – Che Guevara, Mao, Frantz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse, ‘Danny the Red’ Cohn-Bendit, the new ‘student vanguard’. The militancy surrounding the imprisonment of Clarrie O’Shea in May 1969 changed that view and we tended to swing to an opposite romantic position that the workers were about to rise at any moment and realise their historic mission. After all, hadn’t that already happened in Paris in May 1968?
By January 1970, the people supporting the ‘Maoist’ group around Albert Langer and Michael Hyde were clearly dominant at The Bakery. A new organisation, the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA), was established with an orientation to the ‘working-class’. Despite my growing disillusionment with the Maoist scene, particularly the increasingly strident Stalinism of some, I continued to be involved at ‘The Bakery’ until around November 1970. About August-September 1970, a WSA working group was set up to learn and sing ‘workers songs’. Most of these were old Wobbly (IWW) songs, or union songs of the Almanac Singers, such as –
I don’t want your greenback dollar
I don’t want your diamond ring
All I want is the right to live mister
Give me back my job again
THE ALMANAC SINGERS
‘Miners Lifeguard’, from The Original Talking Union and other union songs (with Pete Seeger and chorus), Folkways FH5285.
Our choice of song material reflected a general cultural cringe in the youthful Australian left towards American radicalisms, and that included our fond regard towards American IWW songwriter Joe Hill and his ilk. The cringe towards the U.S was not total however. Having read Ian Turner’s books on the history of the Australian labour movement, I was very aware of the IWW presence in Australia. In mid-1969 I was introduced (by Jill Jolliffe, who owned Alice’s Restaurant Bookshop in Greville Street) to octogenarian cobbler Bill Genery. Genery, an autodidact, amateur astronomer and entomologist, lived above his bootmaker’s shop in Greville Street on the western side of the railway line. He had been a member of the IWW in Melbourne around the time of World War One. In June 1969, I interviewed Bill for about three hours, using my lumbering old National reel-to-reel tape recorder. Bill had a huge store of wonderful stories from his radical youth which he recounted with glee. Drawing only on his memory, he proceeded to sing IWW songs without missing a beat or a word (throwing in his own freshly-minted composition about Clarrie O’Shea for good measure). The reel-to-reel tape of the session became a valued possession. Folklorist Peter Parkhill was excited by the recording. He urged me to offer it to the National Library. Eventually I did so. The interview with Genery is now available on the NLA website.
On the day the Westgate Bridge collapsed – October 15, 1970 – I was working as a proof-reader’s assistant at The Age in Spencer St. Suddenly, we all heard a dull crashing thud, and rushed to the Spencer Street window. The gap in the bridge could be seen against the grey sky. After that, even in the reading-room, work was impossible. That night I took a tram to my parents’ home in Burwood. I had bought a copy of The Herald in the city and spent the journey reading the newspaper’s horrific front-page report. One particular quote that kick-started the creative energies of my angry muse like a spark-plug was the comment by a company director lamenting the loss of ‘two engineers’. The words started forming in my mind. I had taken out a piece of paper and had about two-thirds of the song written before the tram reached Burwood. It is impossible to know in retrospect whether a tune formed in my mind before, during or after the words were composed. What came first – the chicken or the egg? Did I fit the words to the tune, or the tune to the words? It is likely I was searching for a suitable tune even while still on the tram, and that my choice of a tune influenced the structure of the lyrics. I am inclined to believe that I already had the tune of ‘The Blantyre Explosion’ in mind. This mournful ballad about a nineteenth-century Scottish coalmining disaster, which I knew from Ewan McColl’s sensitive rendition, fitted perfectly. The melody had the right ‘feel’ and presented itself as ready-made. [ii]
“THE BLANTYRE EXPLOSION”
Ewan McColl, The Work of the Weavers (British Industrial Ballads), Vanguard Records, VRS-9090-B. McColl’s cover notes included the following – ‘Unlike many pit-disaster ballads which take the form of the Irish “come-all-ye” songs, “The Blantyre Explosion” is in the tradition of the South-West Scottish Elegy’.
Ewan McColl, Folk Songs and Ballads of Scotland, Oak Publications, New York, 1965.
My choice of a dying Westgate worker as the ‘voice’ of the song, speaking in the first person, was no doubt a conscious incorporation of the key motifs of the Dying Stockman/Dying Miner/Dying Cowboy (‘Streets of Laredo’) song cycle so familiar in English and Scottish ballad tradition.
Oh, time is a power that is precious and golden
That’s needed so much by a working-class bloke.
It’s ours in the cradle then sold, seized and stolen.
If you’re caught off your guard it is snuffed at a stroke.
Oh time is our own when we wake in the morning,
When stomachs are empty we clock on each day.
And high on the scaffold you are given no warning;
If a pylon comes crashing it will take you away.
There are men with more time than they know what to do with;
Who decided one day that a bridge we would build.
We rushed the job through to save costs on its finance;
The structure it split and cost thirty-five killed.
It’s safe in the boardroom when wind a bridge seizes.
When you hear the bolts snapping you can’t strike for more pay.
They can hire more and fire more, start again when it pleases,
But the man who builds bridges, he is crushed in the clay.
The concreted decks bore down hard on the girders;
The foremen were blind when we looked down with fear.
While experts debate, who will punish these murderers?
‘It’s tragic; some say, ‘we lost two engineers’,
For each one that forgets us there’ll be two who’ll remember
That profit, the culprit, in its greed was revealed.
Though many will stand by me, now I’m only an ember,
The lips of the judges have a price, and are sealed.
You can speed through the Westgate, AItona and Newport,
Past widows and children whose memories can’t fade,
And use it for business or use it for pleasure,
Spare a thought for the men from whose flesh it was made.
Don’t wait for the inquest or coroner’s verdict;
Don’t send for the priest to place me below;
But tell all my mates, if there’s any still breathing.
To fight for the day when our time is our own.
Westgate Bridge Disaster
PART TWO – THE E.P RECORD
MAKING THE E.P RECORD
I sang my new Westgate Bridge song to other members of ‘The Bakery’ ‘workers’ song’ group in October 1970. They were impressed and suggested that I make a record of the song. I also introduced the song to members of the Film group at the Victorian Labor College, where I had attended classes in Economics in 1969. The Film group, which showed labour and left-wing films at the College rooms in the basement of the Trades Hall, had decided to make its own film about the Westgate Bridge tragedy. Economics lecturer Bob Dorning, who was involved with the film project, told me the lyrics of my song captured the real ‘politics’ of the Westgate Bridge story and offered to help with the production of the record. Bob and others at the College (including Ted Tripp and Chris Gaffney) had decided to publish a monthly journal called Tocsin. Joining this new venture was the pretext I needed to make up my mind to leave ‘The Bakery’ scene for good.
A word often heard in Melbourne’s folk music scene (especially the Victorian Folk Music Club) in the sixties was the word ‘ethnic’. The word denoted the quality of any musical performance that avoided the slick commercialism of Tin Pan Alley while retaining the authentic attributes mythically associated with an original anonymous ‘folk’ version. An ethnic performance could be quite unpolished, even dreadful, but commanded respect if it was ‘authentic’ (a concept I suspect had been borrowed from existentialists in some Greenwich Village folk haunt). My vinyl E.P of 1971 – ‘The Westgate Bridge Disaster and other songs of labour’ – was definitely ethnic. The shoestring budget made sure of that. The most difficult thing was finding musicians who were good – but also willing to perform for nothing. I approached Gayle Williams, Sylvester K. (‘Cronin’ on the record) and Ian White, and all consented. The second most difficult thing was coaxing them into one spot at the one time to record.
My friend Jim Raabe made his house in The Grove, Coburg available one day in February 1971 for our recording session. This turned out to be unbelievably ethnic. No flash commercial recording studio for me! The tape recorder (the same machine used to record Bill Genery in 1969) was placed on Jim’s carpeted lounge room floor. I can vaguely remember singing into a microphone but other technical details elude me. The tinny sound quality of the final product left a little to be desired but we had achieved the most important thing – authenticity.
I took the reel-to-reel tape we had recorded in the loungeroom at Coburg down to Armstrong Studios in St Kilda Road and they converted it into a master tape. I made a booking with Astor Records (somewhere in Moorabbin) and paid for 1000 vinyl E.P copies of the record to be made from the master tape. The brand name of the ‘record company’ on the disk was the somewhat pretentious ‘Dialectic Records’. Meanwhile, my Tocsin comrades Bob Dorning and Derek Brown were helping to produce the record cover. I wrote the text, and chose quotes from Karl Marx and IWW leader Tom Barker, for the back of the cover. Bob took the photo of the bridge and, with Derek, worked on the design. I cannot remember where the cover was commercially printed. It was printed in flat sheets and needed folding and sticking with glue. I wrote descriptive notes about the songs. Seven foolscap pages, printed on yellow paper and run off on the Gestetner machine at the Labor College, were enclosed as sleeve notes inside each record cover. The words of my Westgate song were included in the sleeve notes. This would not have been the first appearance of the words however. They were first published in the March 1971 issue of our roneod publication Tocsin. [iii]
I cannot remember how much I charged for the record. We were all too busy in 1971 ‘making revolution’ to establish an efficient distribution process. I took copies of the record to Socialist Left (ALP) parties. I tried to elicit interest from the unions. I seem to remember the BLF took some. I made an appointment to see John Halfpenny, Victorian Secretary of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU), at his office in Victoria Parade. When I returned a few days later he handed back the record and said his union could not support a song that criticised foremen.
EP VINYL 1971
Westgate Bridge Disaster and other Songs of Labour (1971)
CONTENT OF E.P RECORD
(Note: Avoiding sexist language should be uppermost in the minds of songwriters. This was not so obvious to me in early 1971. This record, like many other cultural products of the period, is a testament to how much we men still had to learn).
Westgate Bridge Disaster
A worker lies in the mud and dying. He summons the strength to issue one last lyrical tirade against the employing class. The songwriter has stretched the limits of poetic licence by placing in the mouth of his stricken worker some of the essential tenets of historical materialism (Marxism): labour power, exploitation, capital and capital accumulation, surplus value, profit motive, alienation, finance capital, hierarchical division of labour, solidarity and workers control, class power (There are men with more time than they know what to do with; Who decided one day that a bridge we would build. It’s safe in the boardroom when wind a bridge seizes. They can hire more and fire more, start again when it pleases). The worker is unequivocal in blaming the profit motive, the capitalist system, and calling for militant action. There is sympathy towards the widows and the dead, but the tone is otherwise vengeful. The views expressed in the song were extreme but there was warrant for them.
With the Bolte Government’s Royal Commission still in session, Bob Dorning pinpointed the responsibility of big business, with its imperative of early completion dates and speedy construction, for the collapse. The Commission concentrated on the responsibilities of individuals and ignored the power of employers to coerce their employees. The profit motive was ‘effectively the culprit.’ [iv]
For the sleeve notes of the record, Bob and I provided an explanation of the bridge collapse. This was a revised and shortened version of Bob’s Tocsin article. I reproduce this version here:
On October 15, 1970, the Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring many others. Bolte’s Commission of inquiry has since rattled on in a haze of jargon; part-hidden to the confused eye of the public. The parties before the Commission have argued superficially that the immediate cause of the collapse was the removal of bolts. This view ignores the haste and carelessness involved in the project, the furious attempts by the contractors to make up lost time at the bidding of the huge industrial interests who had initiated the Bridge project and who were demanding an early completion date. The collapse is only the climax of the Bridge story, not the story itself.
In 1957, ninety firms located in the western suburbs formed the Western Industries Association to jointly promote their expansion. They knew that a bridge which helped to link these suburbs with the more populous eastern side of Melbourne would end their isolation from this major area of labour supply and markets. For a long time, the people of Williamstown had wanted a bridge to replace the ferry. Now, Ampol, Angliss, ACI, BP, Caltex, Coles, Esso, ICI, CSR, International Harvester, Mayne Nickless, McPhersons, Myer’s and Rheem pushed for it. In November 1965, the Western Industries Association had the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority registered as a private company and its liabilities were guaranteed by state parliament. The Secretary of the Western Industries Association, Vian, became Vice-Chairman of the Authority.
The Lower Yarra Crossing Authority, secure as a front for big business, began construction in 1968 with two main contractors – John Holland and Co., and World Services and Constructions Pty Ltd. World Services fell behind schedule and lost the contract and Hollands were commissioned to complete the erection; they were able to demand a $20,000 per month fee and no-liability clause. This meant they would be liable only in cases of ‘obvious negligence’. The construction costs were borne by the Authority, which accepted these terms because it sought an early completion date. The interest charges on loans that had been taken out amounted to $1 million for every six months of delay, and it was therefore necessary to get those tolls coming in as soon as possible. The Authority was bound to meet its obligations like any private company, despite the fact that it was guaranteed by Parliament.
World Services’ schedule lag had meant that Hollands were hired to swiftly complete the outside span on the Footscray side of the river. This operation proved difficult and was bungled, leaving one of the two long, thin, steel structures spanning a 350-foot gap, nine inches higher than the other. To overcome this, a decision was made by Hollands to place seventy tons of concrete on the higher half-span to cause it to sag. But three weeks after this, when the concrete was removed, the half span was shown to have been deformed and a buckle had appeared. The engineering firm responsible for the supervision of the construction program, Freeman and Fox, made the decision to remove this buckle, though uncertain whether the methods they proposed would be successful. And they made sure this uncertainty was confined to the boardrooms, otherwise the workers might have all walked off! Initially, the bolts joining the half span were removed. The buckle at first flattened out, then deepened and spread. The feverish replacing of bolts was to no avail and the span crashed. While the half-span had been bolted securely to the other, it was supported. When the bolts were removed, it fell, dragging the other with it.
The responsibility is clearly spread, but profit is effectively the culprit. The Lower Yarra Crossing Authority required the Bridge built on time. John Holland and Co. accepted the rewarding terms offered for speedy construction. Freeman and Fox were partners in this. This diversity of responsibility will be used by the Commission to direct the blame at no-one. Under capitalism, profit comes first. The needs and safety of workers come last. Socialist society, wherein the anarchy of capitalist production will have been abolished, will be administered by the workers themselves. They will be able to stop work until they are convinced their safety is not threatened. After the Westgate disaster, increasing numbers of workers have realised the necessity to demand the nationalisation of the construction industry without compensation under workers’ control.
Fifty years on, academic authors Sarah Gregson and Elizabeth Humphrys have subjected the investigative process and subsequent conclusions of the Royal Commission to an even more withering sociological assessment, questioning its finding that industrial action had contributed to the disaster, its focus on engineering flaws, its diluted criticism of the employers. Instead, they convincingly trace responsibility to ‘the ‘social relations of capitalism’, the productive and financial pressures at its heart, and the managerial tendency to prioritise completion over safety. [v]
The Ballad of Quality Control (or The Sweet Biscuit Sampler)
The Ballad of Quality Control (or The Sweet Biscuit Sampler) was written in 1965 and was based on my experiences at Kraft Foods in Port Melbourne where I started my first job after leaving school in December 1963. Working as a purchasing clerk in the office, I felt I had little in common with the mainly ‘middle-class’ office staff. I would often retreat at lunchtimes to the Kraft factory roof overlooking the Port Melbourne docks and sing the song I had composed at my office desk – in the ‘bosses time’ – earlier in the day. I increasingly identified with the ‘blue-collar’ workers in the factory, particularly those on the production line or in the store. In a book of mainly psychological writings about ‘Alienation’, I read a piece written by Marx on the alienation of the worker under capitalism. I simply related these ideas to the situation I knew the workers at Kraft had to endure and changed the cheese factory to a biscuit factory. The only ‘poetic licence’ in the song is that my lyrics have the worker sampling biscuits, whereas Kraft employed technicians to taste cheese for quality. I think that I might have been trying to make the point that even the task of ‘quality control’, which would have originally been performed by Connoisseurs of Taste had, along with everything else, been reduced by the logic of capitalism (systematised by Taylorism) to a purely mechanical operation. The tune used was an original. Kraft was a U.S-owned firm, so I threw in a jibe at the Yanks. I sang the song at the first national folk music festival, the Port Phillip Folk Festival (Easter 1967), in the singer-songwriters’ workshop chaired by author Alan Marshall.
‘This song portrays the alienation of the worker as a producer under the capitalist system of commodity production for exchange. The word alienation has become a cliché, but here is alienation as it was defined by Marx in his works. Under the exchange system, the worker alienates his labour power as a commodity, alienating himself from his own product and ultimately from himself. Workers married to a conveyor belt are not the only ones who are sacrificed on the altar of gold. Under the wage system, all workers are alienated. And there can be only one solution – the self-emancipation of all who work for their living, under the leadership of the revolutionary socialist party.’ (Sleeve notes, Westgate Bridge Disaster and other songs of labour, 1971).
I work as a sweet biscuit sampler, day after monotonous day
Oh, give me the old outback damper, take these Yankee cookies away
These symmetrical odourless biscuits, in their shiny pink cellophane
Do I care if they rot in their packets, or never bring profits again?
“THE BALLAD OF QUALITY CONTROL” by Ken Mansell.
Bump me into Parliament
A dinky-di Australian song attributed to IWW sympathiser Bill Casey and sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Written in 1911, the song soon became immensely popular and known throughout the Australian labour movement. (Folklorist Warren Fahey has noted the song’s wide circulation in 1919). In the post-WW2 period, the song appeared in the songbooks of the Australian Student Labour Federation and the Eureka Youth League. We decided to give the song a more upbeat treatment than the versions we had heard. I suspect that this was related to the vehement contempt many of us felt towards Whitlam and his parliamentary ALP cronies who were seen then by many of us as having been instrumental in the ALP ditching its few remaining socialist objectives. I’m not sure from where I took this particular set of words.
‘This song was the most notable Australian contribution to the IWW’s Little Red Song Book (Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent). IWW stump-orators had been convicted for blasphemy over it. Later, the words were modified – at least in official publications. It was written by Bill Casey, a ship’s fireman, whom Guido Baracchi once called ‘the philosopher of the proletariat’. Casey belonged to the One Big Union League and was later Secretary of the Queensland Branch of the Seamen’s Union. He visited the USSR in 1921 but never joined the Communist Party. Casey died in 1949. At the time Casey wrote his song, 1911, the labour movement and the party which supposedly pursued labour’s interests had long since become permanently inflicted with the parasitical growth of the middle-class parliamentarian. The parliamentarians utilised the party machinery for their own opportunist purposes.’ (Sleeve notes, Westgate Bridge Disaster and other songs of labour, 1971).
Come listen all kind friends of mine I want to move a motion
To make an Eldorado here I’ve got a bonzer notion
Bump me into Parliament – bounce me any way at all
Bump me into Parliament on next election day
Some very wealthy friends I know declare I am most clever
While some may talk for an hour or so, why, I can talk for ever
Bump me into Parliament – bounce me any way at all
Bump me into Parliament on next election day
Oh, yes, I am a Labour man, I believe in Revolution
The quickest way to bring it on is talking Constitution
Bump me into Parliament – bounce me any way at all
Bump me into Parliament on next election day
“Bump Me into Parliament” by Ken Mansell
The Rebel Girl
A song written by Joe Hill in February 1915 to honour his friend and IWW comrade Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), and (in his words) ‘to line up the women workers in the One Big Union.’ The movement of Women’s Liberation, a mere fledgling in 1970, began to develop rapidly in 1971, simultaneously with the circulation of my little E.P record. I would have been vaguely aware, when I chose to record The Rebel Girl, that I was vulnerable to feminist criticism. One interpretation that I soon needed to confront was the suggestion that Hill had patronised female workers, seeing them as a mere back-up to the male-dominated IWW, like a glorified women’s auxiliary. I accepted this criticism, but still believed it was important to point out that Hill’s words were undoubtedly well-intentioned and progressive for their time, in so far as the Wobblies, and especially Hill, were streets ahead of their time in encouraging women to be politically and industrially active. [vi]
American bluegrass performer Hazel Dickens has updated the words of Hill’s original version. She has changed them significantly, removing the patronising element and arguably improving the song. Dickens performs her updated version on the CD Don’t Mourn – Organise! (Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill), Smithsonian Folkways, 1990. To quote from the sleeve notes of the CD:
‘Joe Hill adapted the melody of “The Rebel Girl”, at least in part, from a popular tune, and the words, though progressive at the time, reflect the attitude that the role of women was secondary and supportive to that of men. Joe Hill actually wrote a great deal about improving the conditions and recognition of women workers – he thought of ‘the rebel girl’ as working together with ‘the fighting rebel boy’. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said the song had not ‘the best of words or the best of music’. For current audiences, the song as Joe Hill wrote it, sung for the first time at his funeral, is outdated.’
‘The most renowned of all Wobbly bards was Joe Hill, a Swede who emigrated to the U.S in 1901 and joined the IWW in 1911. His songs, such as ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ and ‘Casey Jones – Union Scab’, became loved and were sung wherever the IWW’s little red songbook was produced. His songs were widely known in Australia too. However, the copper bosses of Utah were determined to get Joe Hill out of the way. He was framed on a murder charge and executed on the morning of November 19, 1915.’ (Sleeve notes, Westgate Bridge Disaster and other songs of labour, 1971).
There are women of many descriptions in this wide world as everyone knows
Some are living in beautiful mansions and wearing the finest of clothes
There are blue-blooded queens and princesses with charms made of diamonds and pearl
But the only and thoroughbred lady is the Rebel Girl
SOUND – THE REBEL GIRL (see also above)
The Commonwealth of Toil
A song written by Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) to the tune of ‘Darling Nellie Gray’, an anti-slavery song composed by B. R. Hanby and popular with the Northern forces in the American Civil War. Chaplin, a commercial artist, poet and pamphleteer, joined the IWW in 1913 and worked as one of the editors of its publications. His many creations included the most famous American union song, ‘Solidarity Forever’. ‘The Commonwealth of Toil’ first appeared in the fourteenth edition of the IWW songbook (April 1918). The ‘Darling Nellie Gray’ tune was also used for the Australian bush folk song ‘Another Fall of Rain’. The words and music of the song were published in Therese Radic’s compilation Songs of Australian Working Life (Melbourne, Greenhouse Publications, 1989) where it was described as ‘one of the great labour anthems’.
In the gloom of mighty cities, midst the roar of whirling wheels
We are toiling on like chattel slaves of old
And our masters hope to keep us ever thus beneath their heels
And to coin our very lifeblood into gold
“THE COMMONWEALTH OF TOIL”
PART THREE – THE MANY LIVES OF A SONG
Australian Tradition was a small folk song magazine published by Wendy Lowenstein in the sixties and seventies. As its title suggests, the magazine was devoted to Australian folklore. Wendy published two of my songs (The Voyager Disaster, 1964; Barbara, 1965) but not my Westgate Bridge Disaster. Don Henderson’s The Westgate Bridge Disaster was published in the December 1970 issue; Lyell Sayer’s Ballad of the Westgate Disaster, and Phyl Lobl’s Westgate, were both published in the June 1971 issue. In the December 1973 issue, the two authors of an article about Australian political songs of the sixties and seventies wrote –
‘‘Ken Mansell of Melbourne classifies himself as a political songwriter, that is he considers his songs as a political tool to highlight the class struggle and to raise class consciousness. A perverted viewpoint to those who subscribe to the ‘art for art’s sake’ ideal. Yet it is interesting to note that of all the songs written about the 1970 Westgate Bridge Disaster in Melbourne, Ken’s song set to the traditional tune ‘The Blantyre Explosion’ is the most powerful. This could probably be because there is a total identification and sympathy with the working class…’ [vii]
Over the years my Westgate song was occasionally heard on radio 3CR, particularly The Concrete Gang, the program of the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF).
Historian Verity Burgmann has used my Westgate song as a resource for some of her lectures in the Politics Department at the University of Melbourne.
THERESE RADIC 1987-89
In September 1987 I received a letter (dated September 9) from Michelle Johnston, Editorial Assistant at Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd (Bridge Road Richmond), seeking permission to reproduce my song (words and music) in a book entitled Songs of Australian Working Life by Therese Radic, an academic in the Department of Music at Monash University. Assuming the music they had in mind was the tune of The BIantyre Explosion, I readily gave permission. I soon received another letter from the publisher, enclosing proofs of the words and music (including guitar chords). (Asked to check the proofs, I duly corrected about thirty typos and spelling mistakes).
Much to my astonishment the music sent to me was a version of The Young Trooper Cut Down in his Prime rather than The Blantyre Explosion. The former tune (and the slightly altered words) had been submitted to Radic by her Monash University colleague Graeme Smith. Graeme had taken liberties in submitting for publication a tune that I never had in mind when writing the words. ‘Folk Process’ or not, the song had never been sung to his tune. I believe The Blantyre Explosion is perfect in capturing the sad but defiant mood of the lyrics. I regret that I did not have the time to have a little fight with the publisher over this matter. I never spoke to Therese Radic about this. It is possible she had never heard my E.P record. Her book, originally due to appear in March 1988, was published in April 1989. A note at the back of the book read ‘The tune used by Mansell is The Blantyre Explosion, a Scottish coalmining disaster ballad included in Ewan McColl’s collection Scotland Sings (Oak, New York, 1965) and is related to the tunes used for The Unfortunate Rake ballad group, of which the best known is The Streets of Laredo. The tune included here, however, is one written by Graeme Smith and is based on The Young Trooper Cut Down in his Prime’.
Music adapted from ‘The Young Trooper Cut Down in his Prime’ by Graeme Smith.
3CR DOCUMENTARY 1990
In 1990, in preparation for the twentieth anniversary of the Bridge collapse, Peter Bell and I conducted interviews with men and women who had worked on the bridge or experienced the disaster first-hand. The interviews were with Joe Staats, Ray Lindholm, Dave Robson, Andy Anderson, Anton Herbert, Bryan Barmby, Chris Shacklock, Jim O’Neill, Eddie Halsall, Margaret Halsall, and Tom Watson. From the recorded interview material, Peter, Dora Berenyi and myself (with the help of 3CR) produced a thirty-minute documentary program The Westgate Bridge Disaster – Twenty Years On. In the documentary, the interviewees discuss the conditions on the site, the technical problems that caused the bridge to fall, the reasons why the workers were not pulled off the bridge when it became obvious that something was seriously wrong, and the limitations of the eventual Royal Commission Report. The documentary was broadcast on 3CR on October 9, 14, 16, 1990. We placed an advertisement in The Age Green Guide of October 11, 1990 which read ‘Goes to air on Sunday October 14, noon, 3CR. Interviews with survivors and other workers on the bridge, excerpts from the Royal Commission report and original music by Ken Mansell.’ A copy of the reel-to-reel tape of the documentary program was retained by 3CR.
DAVID MULLHALLEN 1990-91
On June 19, 1990, I wrote to David Mulhallen, producer of the weekly ABC radio program Songs and Stories of Australia. I enclosed two copies of my E.P Westgate record in the hope that the ‘Westgate Bridge Disaster’ track might be played on air. Mulhallen replied, thanking me for having given him another idea for a program – ‘Disasters’. He wrote again on May 27, 1991, apologising for not yet using my song: ‘In the making of the program on “disasters” I found that the style and sound of your song did not fit the rest of the program. That is not a point of criticism, simply of suitability within the context. I look forward to playing the record at a suitable time in a future program.’
PEGGY SEEGER 1991
In 1991, Marie Goonan and Wendy Lowenstein (in her role as convenor of Arts Action for Peace) organised a social gathering at the Jika Jika Centre in Northcote to welcome the visiting folk icon Peggy Seeger. I sang my Westgate song and presented Peggy with a copy of the E.P record. I seem to recall I had already – years before – presented Peggy with a copy of the record – when she and Ewan McColl gave a public lecture at the Melbourne office of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) during their November 1976 Australian tour.
RON EDWARDS 1993
On May 17, 1993, I wrote to eminent Australian folklorist Ron Edwards, enclosing a copy of my E.P record, and informing him that my Westgate song was not listed in his mammoth and comprehensive Index of Australian Folk Songs 1788-1988. (The Index did however list two of my other songs, Barbara (1965) and The Voyager (1964), both published in Australian Tradition). The Westgate Bridge songs by Phyl Lobl, Don Henderson and Lyell Sayer were listed in the Index however, no doubt because they had all appeared in Australian Tradition. Edwards replied positively on October 12, 1993. My Westgate song had not made it into the Ron Edwards song ‘Index’ but it did pop up unexpectedly one afternoon in 1993, as an item on a Northcote shopfront’s acoustic music program.
‘TINK AND PETER’ NOVEMBER 1997
When Peter Bell and Elizabeth Gooding released their CD Selections from ‘We Only Work Here’ in November 1997, they included the following words in the sleeve notes: ‘The relative turbulence of social and political change in Australia in the 60’s and 70’s engendered a move toward songs that did more than merely pass comment or complain. Several writers and bands (in both acoustic and rock fields) succeeded in weaving together satire, realistic economic analysis, and visions of radical alternatives, with lyrical and melodic quality. Performing and recording as “Tink and Peter” in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and along with bands like Redgum and writers like Ken Mansell, we helped to break new ground in writing songs that went far beyond the defensive-sounding ‘protest’ category. For example, Redgum’s first album vividly portrayed factory workers imprisoned by an economic relationship (The Killing Floor), and Mansell’s ‘Westgate Bridge Disaster’ was a brilliant poetic insight into the politics that contributed to the deaths of 35 men.’
PETER BELL 1997-1998
Peter Bell and I joined forces to publicly perform my Westgate Bridge song in the late nineties – once in 1997 to a memorial gathering in the Commercial Hotel (Yarraville), and once at the Melbourne Docks during the 1998 MUA strike.
HUGH ANDERSON 1998
In March 1998, I received a cheque in the mail for $7.50 from well-known folklorist and author Hugh Anderson. The letter was addressed (and the cheque was made out) not to myself, but to ‘Dialectic Recordings P.O Box 461 Daylesford 3460’. I was bewildered. Only when I opened my copy of the February/March (1998) issue of Folklife News (newsletter of the Victorian Folklife Association) and saw the advertisement for my record did I understand. Anderson was responding to an advertisement for the ‘historic recording’Westgate Bridge Disaster and Other Songs of Labour available from ‘Dialectic Recordings P.O Box 461 Daylesford 3460’. I had nothing to do with placing the ad. I suspected it was the doing of the editor Alan Musgrove, as I had given Alan a copy of the record in January (1998) and we possibly discussed the idea of giving the old record some publicity. Dialectic Records was so long ago I had forgotten how and why we chose the name. In some Marxist frenzy, no doubt. The name was the result of a whim, and only used once. Dialectic Records ceased to exist in 1971. When I went to deposit Anderson’s cheque in the Castlemaine branch of the National Bank I had the dickens of a time persuading the Bank Manager that ‘Dialectic Recordings’ and myself were one and the same person, and that the cheque could be deposited in my account. In the end I had to show him the record as proof! He finally consented, even if he did think I was a ‘nutcase’. I wrote to Anderson, introduced myself, and offered to personally deliver the Westgate record to his home, 38 Canning Street North Melbourne. I thus began a brief and tumultuous personal and professional association with Hugh Anderson.
MARK GREGORY (UNIONSONG) 2003
On November 2, 2003, I was visited by Mark Gregory, then contemplating a PhD on the subject of Australian political and industrial songs, who conducted a recorded interview about my involvement in the ‘sixties’ folk scene. I subsequently discovered my Westgate song was one of about 800 union songs uploaded onto Mark’s impressive ‘unionsong’ website.
LYNN BEATON CORRECTS HISTORY 2007
Thirteen years ago, the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (ASSLH) published a book of essays about the historic triumph of the Australian union movement in winning the 8-hour (work) day. Lynn Beaton, now deceased, contributed an article on the battles for shorter hours in the Victorian Branch of the Federated Furnishing Trades Society.[viii] Lynn introduced her subject by inserting, at the very top of her article, the opening verse of my Westgate Bridge song. Clearly believing that my theme of stolen time had something to do with her own theme of time (and perhaps also to render the verse ‘politically correct’), Lynn inserted the word ‘folk’ for ‘bloke.’ The phrase ‘a working-class bloke’ became ‘working-class folk’ (without the ‘a’). Attached to the verse at the top of Lynn’s chapter was a footnote – ‘K. Mansell. The Westgate Bridge. Folksong’. It is possible, even very likely, that Lynn imagined she was engaged in a perfectly legitimate act, given words of a ‘folksong’ are fair game. My song, however, is not a folk song, nor is it ever likely to be.
Lynn changed the meaning of my words, or placed words in my mouth that I, the songwriter, would never have uttered. If I had thought it was appropriate to change ‘bloke’ to ‘folk’ I would certainly have done so. My song was a depiction of what feasibly, within the limits of poetic licence of course, may have issued from the mouth of a stricken worker minutes after the collapse of the Westgate Bridge on October 15, 1970. The song definitely stretches the limits of poetic licence – a worker who had come down with the bridge is highly unlikely to have reached the rhetorical heights attributed to him – but can you imagine a working-class bloke lying in the clay beside the fallen span actually using the phrase ‘working-class folk’? If you can, you and I are not talking about the same working-class. Lynn may have wished to remove the ‘sexism’ supposedly implicit in use of the word ‘bloke’ by suggesting there could (or should) have been female workers on the bridge. She may have wished to sweep working class women into the song’s discourse. There were, unfortunately, absolutely no women working on the Westgate Bridge. If there had been I would have made sure my stricken worker was a woman.
Lynn’s substitution of the plural term ‘folk’ demolishes the song’s most important theoretical message – the theft of labour time from the individual exploited worker. The reference to time in the first line of the song is a reference to the labour power of the individual worker (in this case truly a ‘bloke’). ‘Time’ is, in essence, ‘labour power.’ It is ‘golden’ because it possesses the unique quality of creating value, surplus value. To attach some amorphous notion of ‘folk’ to this most fundamental of all Marxian concepts renders it meaningless. In my version of the song, the time that is ‘needed’ by the worker is qualitative: control over the use of his labour power (leading to industrial freedom – ‘the day when time is our own’). This has nothing to do with the length of the work day (a quantitative concept), eight hours or otherwise. In this sense my song, even if it had been unaltered, was an inappropriate choice to introduce Lynn’s article, given her article was about shorter hours.
3CR OCTOBER 15 2020
3CR broadcasts 1990 documentary Westgate Bridge – 20 years on (see above) to commemorate fiftieth anniversary of the disaster.
RECORDER DECEMBER 2020
Recorder (Melbourne Labour History Society) publishes articles Westgate Bridge 50thMemorial Tribute by Serge Zorino and Westgate Bridge – Songs of Lament; Lyrics of Judgement by Ken Mansell.
[i] Lyell Sayer’s Ballad of the Westgate Disaster, Don Henderson’s The Westgate Bridge Disaster,and Phyl Lobl’s Westgate were all published in Tradition magazine (see below). Mark Gregory’s Union Song website has published four of the Westgate songs (Mansell, Henderson, Lobl, Seymour). Mark Seymour’s song ‘Westgate’ was released in 2007 but performed as part of We Built This City theatre production in late 2006. Other Westgate songs include the Martin Ryan composition recorded by Shirley Jacobs (1974), and When Paddy jumped over the Bridge by The Cobbers. This latter song celebrates the moment on November 15, 1978, when Bridge worker Paddy Hanaphy became the first person to cross the finally completed bridge. (‘As the last span fell into place, a working man was first’).
[ii] The disaster described in this song occurred at Messrs. William Dixon’s colliery, High Blantyre, near Glasgow, on October 22, 1877. Of the 233 men and boys working in the pit at the time, 207 were killed. A large proportion of the dead were Irish. The folklorist A. L. Lloyd wrote – ‘the management were felt to be much to blame, their economies resulting in poor ventilation and little inspection.’ The version printed and sung here was collected by Lloyd in 1951 and first appeared in his 1952 collection Come all ye Bold Miners. Lloyd’s 1978 edition has the following note: Melody and fragmentary text from R. Greening Glasgow February 1951. Additional text from Mrs Cosgrove of Newtongrange, Midlothian 11 May 1951. ‘The Blantyre Explosion’ is a sprig off the same (ultimately Irish) tree as ‘Lost Jimmy Whalen’, a persistent ballad in the American North-East. According to Lloyd, the song spread to America and a version was collected by Samuel Bayard from a singer in Pennsylvania. See A. L. Lloyd, Come all ye Bold Miners – Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1978 edition.
[iii] The first page of the sleeve notes provided two postal addresses – a Brunswick address and a Balmain address. This would suggest the Sydney Trotskyist group ‘Workers Action’ had agreed to distribute the record.
[iv] Robert Dorning, The Bridge Disaster – Minus 35, Tocsin, No. 3, March 1971.
[v] S. Gregson and E. Humphrys (2020) ‘The West Gate Bridge collapse: how disaster happens’ in P. Sheldon, S. Gregson, R. Lansbury and K. Sanders (eds) The Regulation and Management of Workplace Health and Safety: Historical and Emerging Trends (London: Routledge).
[vi] One can debate whether Hill’s words are sexist. I don’t believe they are, but this is irrelevant here.
[vii] Colleen Burke and Declan Affley, ‘Australian political songs of the sixties and seventies’, Australian Tradition, December 1973, pp. 29-30.
[viii] Lynn Beaton, Time after Time, Battles for shorter hours in the Victorian Branch of the Federated Furnishing Trades Society, in J. Kimber and P. Love (eds.), The Time of Their Lives – The Eight Hour Day and Working Life, ASSLH, 2007, pp. 99-109.