John Meredith was born in 1920, in Holbrook, NSW and raised in modest circumstances. His father was often away droving sheep - "Out along the lower Darling River and on the Murrumbidgee, down Balranald way where he was born".
His mother looked after John and six more on a small block with "an old cow and a few chooks". He remembers that she sang a little as she worked and she entertained the kids with readings from Australian books and magazines such as the Bulletin.
His father played the button accordion, an old and much patched "Mezon Grand Organ" model he probably learned to play whilst away droving and when he was at home he played the popular songs and dances of the Bush. He also played the mouth organ, using a tin pannikin as a resonator or playing the bones as he played on mouth organ. He died when John was only nine years old, but many of his tunes stayed in John's mind.
John's mother encouraged him to learn the button accordion at fourteen with the promise of a brand new "Melba" model. He learned to play from the locals as well as learning some tunes from the gramophone. At seventeen or eighteen he began to assist with the playing at local dances and later would play for the entire evening if no other musician was available.
John rode away from Holbrook on his pushbike after WWII, eventually riding down to Melbourne and then as far as North Queensland, working at various bush jobs. When he first settled in Sydney (around 1950) he was interested in international folksongs but he also had a copy of Paterson's "Old Bush Songs" and started searching at the Mitchell Library to see if there were tunes for these.
He soon found this unsatisfactory due to vagueness of tune details and identity. In 1953 he bought a tape recorder (then very bulky, inconvenient and expensive) after a friend told of an old shearer she knew who still sang the old bush songs. After recording him, John sought out and found more informants around Sydney.
In June 1953 John formed a performing group to present this material with himself playing button accordion, Brian Loughlin introducing the Lagerphone (now sine qua non for Bush Bands) which he and John had met up with in Holbrook earlier that year and Jack Barrie playing the Bush Bass (a tea chest against which a broom-handle is pivoted to control the tension of a stout string). Later that year, they formed the nucleus of a band for the New Theatre's Sydney production of Dick Diamond's play Reedy River, along with Chris Kempster and Harry Kay.
This group changed from the Heathcote Bushwhackers to The Bushwhackers, the band which launched the performing revival of Bush Music and inspired a myriad imitators. To contain and train them a club was formed: The Bush Music Club. John was also involved in the Australian Folklore Society, aimed to be the study and collecting arm of Australian folklore, but by 1958 this had merged in function and reality with the Bush Music Club, which performed, collected, published and promoted from under the one hat.
The Bushwhackers made records for Wattle Records (1955 to 1957) and their Bush Songs helped keep the wolf from Wattle's door for a few years. (Their 78 rpm recording of The Drover's Dream, with Alan Scott singing, sold 20,000 copies in 1956!)
John shared collected material and contacts with Nancy Keesing (who, with Douglas Stewart, greatly expanded Paterson's Old Bush Songs and published Australian Bush Ballads) and with Russell Ward who published The Australian Legend in 1958 as a doctoral thesis. Both relationships proved rewarding on both sides.
In the latter part of the 1950s, John spent all his weekends and spare cash in collecting - mostly west of the Blue Mountains, under difficult conditions. The isolation which saved these songs from mass media influence also fought against him. The Meredith Collection, held by the National Library, contains over 1,000 items and their preservation is a monument to John's endeavours, perseverance and skill.
Within the Bush Music Club John was a mover and innovator. He was the driving force of The Bushwhackers, 1953 - 1957, doing three or four engagements a week as well as radio performances. He was M.C. of the Club and closely involved in the Australian Folklore Society. During the week he sought out old-timers around the city and at weekends he lugged his 20 kg recorder west of the mountains to rural hamlets - where he often had to first arrange a supply of 240 volt a.c. before even starting to record!
He was (1956 - 1961) Editor of Singabout, the only regular publication for Australian Folklore in those days. He had the ideas which led to the Club's first two books Songs From The Kelly Country and Songs From Lawson. He encouraged the formation of similar groups in other states and the bush music clubs of those states made valuable contributions to our folklore.
The Bushwhackers was the archetype of all Bush Bands. All current Bush Bands interpret their model, including the well known Bush/Rock group that appropriated (approximated?) their name.
From the 1960s, John increasingly concentrated on writing books. Folksongs Of Australia and the men and women who sang them, volume 1 is one of the major works of the Australian canon and the second volume, published by the University of NSW in 1987 continues John's excellent work. His many other books have covered a wide area of Australian lore, language, personalities and events, while John's collecting and writing work is a model for a whole generation of folklorists.
John's contribution to Australian folk lore, heritage and tradition was recognised by an Order of Australia Medal in 1987 (for which much of the original version of this item comprised the citation) and, in 1992, he was made a Companion of this Order.
John Meredith opened our eyes to the unsuspected wealth of real Australian tradition and heritage that has never been recognised or embraced by the authorities. Along the way he taught all the newer collectors what there was, how to find it and how to collect it - and taught the rest of us how to sing and play it. John's other legacy (besides the great body of song, music and folk lore now lodged with the National Library of Australia) is the dedicated body of collectors that are carrying on the work he started. They will miss him, we will miss him but we are all grateful for a lifetime of dedicated work.