Article MT065

Harry McQueen

Castlemaine button-accordionist



Harry McQueen, born in 1910 at Daylesford, moved to Castlemaine (Central Victoria) in his youth and commenced playing for dances when he was 16.  mcqueen2.jpg - 17.07 KFor the first few weeks of learning music he dabbled with playing mouth organ, bagpipes and concertina, before learning button accordion.  His grandfather, Jim McQueen, played concertina.  Neither he nor Harry could read a note of music.

The first accordion Harry bought was a chromatic double row Kable International in F and F#.  He started learning and practising at home, but his father unlike his grandfather, could not tolerate the noise, so Harry would go bush behind the rifle range to try out tunes.  Aided by a Scotsman, Dave Richmond, who was a master of the instrument and who showed him certain techniques about rhythm and double stopping, Harry learnt and practised for several weeks.  He then played for his first dance at Faraday but said he was not good enough.  A couple of mates who were learning to dance told him to play Daisy for the Circular Waltz and Ring the Bell Watchman, now known as Click Go the Shears, and Misery Farm for the Barn Dance.  But then the MC wanted a Maxina followed by the Polka Mazurka and none of them had a clue what to play.

Harry decided he needed to go round to various dances at Ravenswood, Lockwood and Woodbrook, where there were good accordionists and sit and listen to what they played.  In the course of seeking out the top players he was told Bill McGlashan was the best, and to look him up.  Harry introduced himself to Mr McGlashan and was invited to sit in at the Happy Jack Hall at Lockwood South.  McGlashan said "My name is Bill, everyone calls me Bill."  That was good enough for young Harry.  Bill took one look at Harry's accordion and asked "What do you need all of those buttons to play music for?  I've only got 10; you've got 20!"  Harry sold his chromatic Kable (much to his regret later) and purchased a 1918 single row Mezon Grand Organ in A, the same as Bill's.  Harry played solo for a few years before forming a trio from 1929 to 1940 and taking up a double row Hohner accordion in C and F.  There are still locals today who say the best accordion players were McGlashan and McQueen and at any hall where either or both were playing you could be assured of a big crowd; elsewhere it would be a poor dance.

Harry recalled the last new tune Bill learnt was When the Moon Came Over the Mountain - this was in the mid '30s.  About that time Bill had been playing free for some years to raise money for the hall.  Both his prize Mezon accordions were stolen.  On account of anybody being so miserable as to do this to someone playing free for a benefit function, Bill McGlashan vowed he would never play again, and he never did.  When in the 1960's folklorist Maryjean Officer was taken to meet McGlashan by Harry, all he would talk about was his vegetables.  Even on his 90th birthday in 1969 he could not be coaxed to play.  Bill McGlashan mainly played around Lockwood South and Maldon in the small halls and schools, and principally at the Happy Jack Hall.  When 16 year old Harry first sat in with Bill it was at the last two dances held in that hall before it was dismantled and moved to Nyah.  On those nights all the main sets (First Set, Lancers, Alberts, Caledonians, Waltz Cotillion, Fitzroys, Exions, and Parisian) were danced plus the old Sir Roger de Coverley.

Harry McQueen not only learnt his material from Bill McGlashan, but he attended other dances, in fact met his wife to be, Olive, in the Maxina in 1934.  He spoke of one special annual event when the Guildford Orchestra comprising some twenty musicians, with two pianos, violins and trumpets, would play for the annual Hospital Ball.  This special event commenced the season and no other ball would dare start before then.  It was the only function the full Guildford Orchestra played at.  It was from this, once a year sitting in the balcony, that Harry learnt the full Maxina tune, several old Schottisches and a Two-step.  It was also from this special ball that Harry learnt some of his Strauss waltzes.

Harry was also good friends with the Swiss-Italian descendants whose forebears settled in the Yandoit district between Castlemaine and Daylesford in the 1860's.  They had brought out several very good tunes from their homeland, waltzes and set tunes in 2-4.  Harry was able to hand on one of the waltzes but we were able to collect the others from his friends, Andy Rodoni and Maurie Gervasoni.  This community had still lived in their stone houses until at least the 1960s and made their own produce in the way of wine and wonderful Bull 'n' Boar sausages (equal parts of beef and pork finely sliced, fat removed and mixed with garlic, spices and claret).  They ran dances in the Gervasoni 'Stone House' at which Harry sometimes played on button accordion and George Wallace on an old harmonium.  Much of the community of Castlemaine would attend these functions, the men hiding their grog under tussocks of grass, but always able to home-in on the exact location in the dark.  There is a famous story of Harry getting high on Maurie Gervasoni's grappa at Yandoit and mixing the time signatures when he played Over the Waves and the Blue Danube in 2-4 for figure 1 of the Alberts instead of in 3-4 for figure 5.

Putting this aside, Harry maintained that one of the secrets to the success of a dance would be the master of ceremonies who would 'call the dances':

I've always maintained that if you've got good music and a bad MC you've got a bad dance.  The MC was 'boss cocky', head man for the night.  One fellow I knew, Gordon Rilen, he was good, he started when he was 11 years old.  His father was a concertina player and he told Gordon to do the MC-ing.  First night he made a mistake in one set and got a clip over the ear!
Harry McQueen would have played old time dance music in most halls from Ballarat to Bendigo.  He began to play for the Fryerstown dance in 1928 and continued there on a regular basis for nearly 61 years.

Of course he played at other venues during this time as well and commented on some of the differences depending on the MC and requirements in particular districts.  At Yandoit they liked their jigs and reels for set dances played real fast, at Metcalfe you had to slow it right down.

Harry also played at Caledonian and old-time functions at Ottrey's Barn, Muckleford to raise money to buy kilts for the Castlemaine pipe band.  He played solo or had supporting musicians as the occasion demanded, Des Skinner, who plays steel guitar with Emu Creek and can be distinctly heard on the Quadrille Mania CD, played regularly with Harry before moving to Finley in NSW and then to Nathalia.  Harry also explained there were more accordion players than pianists.  To get a piano in a dance hall was "Oh, upper class.  It'd cost about sixpence extra to go in."

McQueen's Old Time Dance Band, from 1940-1977 was the finest in the district.  It consisted of Harry as lead on button accordion (he could also play piano accordion), Don Winkleman on piano, Merv Lorraine and Dave Barkla on steel guitars and Charlie Cue on drums.  They cut a small EP record in 1976 and tracks of this are still played over local community old-time programs.  Not long after the musicians disbanded and reformed as the Rhythmaires to play for 50/50 programs.  Harry independently continued to play for old time dances and was joined by his old mate Jack Heagney on violin and Charlie Cue or Jimmy Cole on drums.  If a pianist was required it was usually Jack's sister Marie Allman or Mrs Ayers.  In his later years Harry was of considerable support to the Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo and the Emu Creek Bush Band, often sitting in.  He had also sat in with and aided Tipplers All in its formative time in the mid 1970's and was still learning new tunes such as the Waves of Tory and the Galopede.

Olive McQueen maintained the best years of Harry's life was when we introduced him to the National Folk Festivals and he travelled and performed at workshops and dances with us at Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Alice Springs and Maleny.  He passed away in 1993 at the age of 83.  At one time he regretted having no one to hand his music onto.  When Olive attended one of our dances at Spring Gully a couple of years later she exclaimed (referring to Emu Creek) "It's Harry's music!"

As typical with 'bush musicians' Harry played much popular material from his favourite Strauss waltzes right through to the anonymous material that had been handed down from Bill McGlashan, the Guildford Orchestra and other district players.  Three of his set tunes rank amongst the finest.  One which was used for the first figure of the First Set had the unusual title of God Bless You and Bugger Me.  Harry explained the name; he called in to visit McGlashan who practised in his cellar beneath the house.  mcqueen1.jpg - 13.35 KThis was to spare his family of excessive noise as he punched out his tunes.  However the cellar acted as an amplifier throughout the whole house.  Harry asked the name of the tune being played, McGlashan's daughter responded, pointing down at the cellar, '"God Bless You And Bugger Me".

Of the other more traditional tunes in Harry's repertoire were several good old Schottisches, two Varsovianas, two Polkas, two Polka Mazurkas and several waltzes.  A tune he favoured for the Gypsy Tap was learnt by listening to the Guildford Orchestra, all Harry knew was that it was March in D and, because of the chromatics, it was one dance tune he played on piano accordion.  If Harry didn't learn a new tune in this way in the first sitting he would have to wait another 12 months for the Hospital Ball and the Guildford Orchestra.

He had many stories of the old days to tell about dances, but also had other interesting stories to tell.  He was a butcher by trade, carrying on his father's business and although a small man, he was exceptionally strong.  He told of the days of doing the run in his horse drawn cart through the bush to deliver meat and how a small branch from a pepper corn tree would keep the blowflies at bay.  He had a keen sense of humour and, when first married, his wife wanted to accompany him on the round to meet the people he traded with.  One old lady asked Harry what his wife had prepared for lunch.  He replied dryly 'bread and raspberry jam'.  The lady immediately raced out and abused Olive for not preparing a proper lunch for her husband.

But Harry's best stories were about the dances.  The MC's were strict; the men had a dirty ditty they used to sing to Men of Harlech, which was used as a set tune for the Alberts or Lancers and the old Sir Roger de Coverley.  Their voices would get louder and the words were rough, the MC ordered that tune not be used again.  Harry was so used to playing to the words, which don't exactly follow the proper tune; he could never play the true version.  In days when the halls had their own power plants, sometimes they would run out, someone would drive a car to the doorway and leave the lights on and the dance would continue.  The local constabulary would show a presence at times to ensure all was in order - they'd also check out for sly grog.  Most of the men had it hidden somewhere in or near their vehicles.  One night the copper woke up some kids asleep in the car, there was a hell of a row with the mother.  From that time on all the grog was safely planted under that vehicle.

Alcohol was prohibited for a certain distance from a public hall (I think it was one mile) and in days earlier the distance was different and depended on the venue.  McGlashan was friendly with the local cop who had warned him not to play at the dance the next Saturday night because the 'flying squad' was coming up from Melbourne to get him.  It was the Happy Jack Hall, which was an old assembly hall, attached to the Happy Jack pub and which had a sliding panel between the hall and servery.  A couple of knocks and the panel was opened and a drink could be ordered.  That was normal in the Colonial period until the licensing laws were altered as a result of 'wowserism' sometime after the turn of the century.  However McGlashan ran his dance, without any door fee.  The plain-clothes policemen were there and the MC announced the First Set and all formed up in squares with their partners including the policemen.  Then the MC announced they would take a donation to assist the musicians and the supper.  He held up a shilling for all to see and dropped it in the hat, and then another for his partner and then proceeded around the hall to each gentleman.  After the dance the police told McGlashan they were going to get him for holding dances on licensed premises.  They out with the tape measure, but McGlashan made it by 3 inches between the servery distance of the pub and the hall.

Of course it was illegal to make your own brew as well, and this was traditional with the Yandoit Italians.  The local policeman drove to the top of Yandoit hill and sat within view of all for one hour with his blue light flashing.  An inspection was then held at each farm, but all was in order.

Steel guitarist with Harry McQueen, Dave Barkla, spoke of the small halls they played in and that they might only have room for four sets of four couples in each.  He said if they really got into the swinging in the Alberts or Lancers you had to be careful.  The women's skirts would fly right out and it happened more than once they caught on the barb of the string ends of his steel guitar and the skirts were ripped off.  He also spoke of one night when a young bloke drove his car in through the side door of the hall.  On another night Harry was playing at Ravenswood hall in the bush, his mates were to bring the milk for making the tea and coffee for supper.  They called into a shanty instead, never making it to the dance and consuming the milk and whisky.  One of Harry's jokes was to tell other musicians he'd be playing in B sharp.  Although he played totally by ear he had learnt a dabbling of theory from his wife's uncle who was a steel guitar player.  This was Len Cowling who had the first Dobro in Castlemaine and who actually manufactured three of his own and was ready to set up commercial production until he found out about the American patent and everything then went quiet.  Len, by comparing and using guitar chords, told Harry the chord name of every one of the piano accordion bass keys.  Harry only played piano accordion for special occasions, more as entertainment at weddings and the like.  He preferred the button accordion for dance music because of its bellows punch, although sometimes he might sit in the background and play piano accordion for a foxtrot or modern sequence dance.  Both dance types were against his principle as an old time accordionist, but he would step back and let his band play the occasional modern dance as long as it was only once or twice in the night!

Music was Harry McQueen's life and I found him to be the most knowledgeable and informative on correct tunes for the dances, the steps of the dances and tempo and the calls of the sets.  Know one else came up to Harry McQueen in his field.

One of the world's gentleman and in his own words, like McGlashan, "one of the wee people" (they were both short), the nation has much to thank Harry McQueen for in the tradition, dance-steps and calls, tunes and musical skills that have been recorded and handed on for future generations.  He is the patron of the Emu Creek Bush Band.

A double cassette of Harry's Music titled Harry McQueen: 60 Years of Music was produced by the Victorian Folk Music Club Inc. in 1992 and is still available.  Enquiries to VFMC, GPO Box 2025S, Melbourne 3001, Australia.

Peter Ellis - 13.10.00

Article MT065

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