The memories came rolling in like a cyclone in slow motion as I read the notice in the shop front window of Mareta's Shamrock Café: WOOL SHED DANCE TONIGHT…I didn’t read any further; my eyesight turned to mist as I became engrossed in recollections of the REAL wool shed dances of fifty years ago…
I am the pianist in a four-piece dance band called The Syncopated Sinners. We do a variety of gigs: a regular date on Saturday evenings with the Young Anglicans; constant bookings during the “ball season” from various fund-raising organisations; and numerous out-of-town bookings for the most enjoyable, the most colourful, most physically exhausting and the most financially rewarding of all: the wool shed dance. The year is 1952. As a matter of fact, we have a wool shed dance tonight. In about fifteen minutes the other members of the band will be tooting me to come outside and join them in the drummer’s car. We will then zoom off to a wool shed situated about a hundred kilometers from this town. The trip will be over dusty corrugated roads to a small farming settlement, typical of the rural districts of Australia. This one is in the west of New South Wales.
While we’re waiting, let me tell you about the boys in the band. There’s me on piano; Cec Black, a professional trumpeter from Sydney who came to our town because his wife opened up a business here; Brian Sealey, a migrant from England, who plays a mean B-flat alto sax -he works in the local pharmacy; and Bill Campbell-Hicks, a local Stock and Station Agent, who also runs a flying school…he’s our drummer. They’re a great bunch and we have a lot of harmonious times together, both on the stand and off. Well, there’s the toot. I’ll grab my gear and we’ll join the crew. Let’s go!
Wow! That was a bumpy ride: We just made a speedy dash over about ninety-five kilometers of dusty corrugated country roads and here we are at the wool shed. Hey! What a welcome! Look at those shining smiles, listen to those shouts of welcome and here come the helpers. They grab our instruments, music stands etc. in their eagerness to have us all set up so that the dancing can get underway. Can you hear that din inside the wool shed? I mean, the chattering of voices mixing with the clang and clatter of cutlery. They are the sounds of the supper preparation: the ladies of the auxiliary are joyously at work preparing the feast, which they always provide for band and dancers at the “interval”.
As we enter the hall, see how comfortably the well-swept grease-stained floor blends in with the bunting and coloured streamers strewn across nails on the walls and dangling from the ceiling. Can you sense the subtle smell of wool and sheep? It somehow seems to be quite compatible with the scent of the women’s perfume and the hair slick which shines brightly on the hair of the men. And how about the naked lights hanging from the rafters? I think that crystal chandeliers, in all their expensive glory, would be out of place here, don’t you?
Ah, there’s the bandstand, a small improvised timber stage in the distance. We still have a short walk to reach it as, like a company of royal dukes, we acknowledge the welcoming greetings of the locals: the women with dainty coloured ribbons in their hair and all wearing a dazzling array of “best dresses”. Some wear long evening frocks, some mid-length party frocks: none of them would be out of place at a palace garden party, I reckon! See how the women’s eyes shine with anticipation, their lips parted in friendly smiles or compressed in shy reserve. And the men: the married or “taken” ones standing with their partners, the single unattached “colts” lounging around individually or in groups. They look so fresh and well scrubbed, even a bit sheepish as they furtively eye off their prospective dance partners.
"OK lads; we’re all set up and ready to go. Let’s start with the usual opening bracket: a quickstep, a slow foxtrot and finish with a quickstep. Numbers 2, 10 and 15: *Somebody Stole My Gal* followed by *Stardust*, and a big finish with *12th Street Rag*".
This bracket is an opening routine that we almost invariably follow. It’s a ritual, really, with which the dancers are familiar and to which they will usually tolerate no variation. A field of trotters going through their paces is a brilliant scene, but from my vantage-point here on the piano stool I can see a racing, whirling mass of dancers doing the rounds of this country wool shed and, well, it’s a scene that almost defies description. Just look at that couple there: judging by their stylish reversings and intricate variations of dance steps I’m sure they imagine themselves to be the local version of the internationally famous dance stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
We’re into the second chorus of the last quickstep of the bracket and just look at them go! They always do this: quicken up the tempo and expect us to do the same to keep up with them.
"Hey, hurry it up, carntcha?!"
"Yeah! Play ‘er faster, mate!"
"I’ll just have to put them right, fellers.…Listen, Jack, you know that we always play strict dance tempo, so get back into rhythm or you’ll get a heart attack!"
How about that applause! We always win that strict tempo argument to the acclaim of the rest of the dancers, so let’s have a short break and then, on with the show….
Here we are, back again on the stand, having been outside for a “noggin” or two. The law forbids drinking in the hall, so everyone brings a supply of “the doings” in their sedan, ute (utility truck) and sometimes (truly) horse and buggy. It’s customary to invite the band out for a bit of “bush” hospitality and tonight has been no exception.
The next bracket is an old-time waltz followed by a jazz waltz (a slow version of the old-time waltz) and ending with a quickstep. We musos really like this bracket because the dances involved are so graceful and old world. The bearing of the male partners is elegant, the frocks of the girls swirl and the collective image is one of flying colours made possible by the moderately fast three four tempo of the old-time waltz. *One two three/one two three….mmm sweet songs of love were sung/remember that morning in May/You told me you loved me/When we were young one day*.
Just a short break here before the final number of the bracket…
"Excuse me, please, folks: the final number of the bracket is a Spot Dance. The prizes are a box of Red Roses chockies for the lady and a packet of golf tees for the man. Stop when the music stops and the winners will be the couple nearest to the spot."
See how they swing into this waltz. You’d think they were competing for a million quid! Well, that’s it. "The spot is that light hanging from the rafter nearest the door into the supper room. And the winners: John and Jodie L’Estrange. Give ‘em a hand!"
John and Jodie’s faces shine with pleasure as they claim their prizes. It’s always like that and the crowd’s applause is loud and long.
The rest of the evening will be taken up with a series of brackets which will include the tango (very popular), more quicksteps, foxtrots, slow foxtrots, the beautiful old Pride of Erin (usually to the tune of vintage Irish songs such as *Come Back To Erin* and *When Irish Eyes Are Smiling*) and one of the most popular, the Progressive Barn Dance. This version of the barn dance involves a series of simple steps, which take the dancers in a circle around the floor; at the end of each movement they progressively change partners. Many romances have developed from friendships created during the course of this particular dance. These activities will take us to suppertime.
"I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m feeling quite exhilarated what with all the atmospherics of this wool shed dance. Let’s go to supper…"
Boy-oh-boy! The supper table is really creaking: home-made sandwiches and cakes of all types and sizes; bowls of savoury biscuits; a variety of fruits and lots of other goodies prepared by the “ladies of the auxiliary” to be consumed by dancers and band members and then washed down with cups of steaming Billy Tea.
"We’ll show our appreciation by leaving not a crumb behind, eh fellers?"
Here we are back on the stand with about an hour left before we play our final bracket. Already the dancers are showing signs of tiredness from the exertions of the last couple of hours, but we know from experience that they will not give up: they have by now really got into the swing and soaked up the atmosphere of their favourite function. To end the show now would bring on cries of protest…
"Hey! It’s too early!"
"C’mon you blokes. We’re just starting to enjoy ourselves!"
"Whaddya want? More money? Come on, let’s keep it moving!"
And so we bow to the wishes of our dancing throng and, picking up the momentum generated by their collective sense of enjoyment, we play on through a series of brackets. These include -the fever of the tango (*Blue Tango* is a great favourite of the day); -the romance of the waltz (how they love to twirl around to the lovely strains of the popular Strauss waltz number, *The Blue Danube*); -the Pride of Erin (and everyone singing to the tune of *When Irish Eyes Are Smiling*); -and the fun of the progressive barn dance (there they go, stepping and turning, changing partners as they progress and everyone lustily singing... *Gee but it’s great/after staying out late/walking my baby back home/arm in arm/over meadow and farm/walking my baby back home…*).
The evening has been rolling on in this happy fashion, but now it’s time to signal the end of the show….
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of The Syncopated Sinners, I would like to thank you all for helping to make the evening such a big success; but it’s time to say goodnight, so please take your partners for the last dance".
Well, we’ve just finished off with a quickstep, a slow foxtrot and an old-time waltz, the final one to the strains of *Goodnight Sweetheart*.Did you notice the dreamy look in their eyes as they danced the final number, cheek to cheek, and whispered the romantic words of the song to each other?….
*Goodnight Sweetheart, all my prayers are for you/Goodnight sweetheart, I’ll be watching o’er you/Tears and parting may make us forlorn/But with the dawn/A new day is born/(so I’ll say) Goodnight Sweetheart, sleep will banish sorrow/Goodnight Sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow/Dreams enfold you/In them, dear, I’ll hold you/Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight*.
And so, having packed our gear and said our good nights, we’re all ready to head back to town. It’s after midnight, but I reckon we’ll meet tomorrow for a game of golf about 8 a.m. Where do we get the energy? Well, we ARE young musicians and we NEVER fail to be enlivened by the festive atmosphere and the unique environment of a good old wool shed dance.
"Okay, fellers. Let’s go!"
A tap on the shoulder brought me back to 2005. It's Mareta from the Shamrock Café….
"Ye look a bit startled , me bhoy! What ye bin up to, now?"
Drowsily I replied, "I've just been to a wool shed dance in the west of New South Wales."
Mareta looked after me in astonishment as I turned and slowly plodded off into the morning.
(c)Patrick Talty 2005