Music From my Heimatland- Queensland is Different!!

Music from my Heimatland:  Queensland is Different!!
By Mark Schuster (Toowoomba, Qld)

Although it was early June 1999, the familiar pale blue glare stung the eyes and the slanting rays of late afternoon sunlight still held their characteristic sting.  Shedding my coat at Brisbane airport the soft light and verdant green of the south coast of Kiama was forgotten as I hopped into the ute on the route back to the security and insularity of the Darling Downs.  I was back in ‘Accordian land’- Joh’s country and the most parochial state of them all.

It often pays to shed your preconceptions about Australian music when travelling from region to region, as recent trips to the National Folk Festival in Canberra and the Australian Folk Festival at Kiama drove home.  Hopefully those who heard the music at either venue were similarly struck by the ‘foreign’ nature of what they were hearing, and appreciated the regionalism and diversity of Australian traditional dance music.   It is interesting to explore what these differences are and why they are so – it helps explain who we are – both Queenslanders and Australians in general.

Looking again at the Pauline Hanson political phenomenon, there was an almost exact correspondence in southern Queensland electorates who elected One Nation members and the distribution of German and Scandinavian descendants.  The Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, Crow’s Nest north of Toowoomba, Darling Downs, Kingaroy district, Maryborough and Hervey Bay were all key areas of extensive German and some limited Scandinavian settlement late last century.  The traditional dance music played by the button accordian players of this area is a legacy of this largely pan-Baltic Sea heritage.  German migrants between 1860 and 1910 generally came from northern Germany or Prussia (Poland today) and their names (sometimes ending in -ski or -ske) and solid Slavic appearance belie their origins. Germanic influences in the music are easily traced, but may be difficult to disentangle from the more obscure Scandinavian influences at times.  This is because I’ve never taped any local players with a distinctive “Scandinavian” repertoire, although older German-descended players mention them and the odd Scandinavian waltz persists.

Key differences between ‘southern’ OZ traditional music in general and Queensland traditional music are:

1) Obsession with harmony. Southern OZ accordian players use a single line of melody embellished with ornamentation or octaves and concentrate on rhythm.  By contrast Queensland accordian players usually play two, three or four  notes at a time and carefully harmonise the melody with either right hand, left hand chords or an intricate pattern of both. Southern-style players are found all along the coast of Queensland and the far inland- areas where migration was commonplace. Within the German settlements skilful accordian mastery was regarded as “next to godliness”, and older people still talk with reverence of the old players from more than half-a-century ago.

2)     European cross-row style playing where fingers run between inside and outside row (of two and three row diatonic instruments) to minimise bellows movement.  This style suits the fluent phrasing of Queensland tunes and minimises bellows wear. In our region, on the Darling Downs, if a player “crosses the rows” he or she is regarded as a real player! Actually, if some of the beautiful waltz tunes were played on a single row style, they would not sound as effectively as if cross-rowed. It makes you think that maybe some of the tunes were actually “invented” for two or three-row diatonic instruments.

3)     Kinds of tunes played:

  • Waltzes are profuse, “flowery”, ornate, complex, richly chorded: in a word, schmaltzy.  We are told that some of these waltzes are of German origin, whilst others are “home-grown” German-Queensland tunes. In the Lockyer Valley (undilutedly German) they are simpler than the Burnett (Kingaroy district) where an obscure Scandinavian influence creeps into the music.  Burnett waltzes have a pulse running through them like waves of the sea – is it the Viking or the lake-dwelling Prussian Uckermarker’s trait? Actually some of the waltzes are played almost identically to how the revivalist Scandinavian button-accordianists (durspel spelman) play them on recent recordings!!
  • Schottisches are slow, ploddy and contorted in melody lines, more even in rhythm and less syncopated than southern style schottisches.  Bass chords are often slow and in half-time rather than the 6/8 style of jiggy schottische played down south.  There is frequently a circular-sounding refrain to correspond with the dance.  It is likely that some early German Queenslanders wore clogs when they danced. If they had hopped like Bavarians the clogs would surely have fallen off.
  • Polkas are fast, march-like, strident tunes that lack the hop of the Ballroom polka.  March polkas were easily adopted for the quadrilles such as the Lancers and First Set.    Another style of polka is the heel-and-toe polka – these polkas were probably part of the original three-or four-part Polka ballroom dance.
  • Specialist German dance tunes including ‘Herr Schmidt’, ‘Lott ist Tod’, the Berlin Schottische and a unique northern German-derived (possibly Scandinavian) dance from near Maryborough, the “crab dance”. Although the dances are now gone, the tunes still persist in regional repertoires.
  • German song tunes were often derived from formal folksong including “Roslein Auf Der Heiden” and “Du Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen” but included other little obscure folk ditties like Norm Boughen’s “Unsere Schwartz Katz Hat Junge” (the old black cat’s got kittens) and Ron Kerle’s “Wenn Ist Der Himmel Blau” (an interesting Lancers tune with a double entendre: “ When all the heavens are blue…..then the young billygoat (or lecherer) dances with his ( or your!) young wife”) or “Wenn Der Schneider Reiten Will” (“When the Tailor will Ride”) ;  Archie Niethe’s “Drei Oxen, Vier Pferde und ein Pochalichs(?) Kuh” (Three Oxen, Four Horses and a ? ? Cow) .  Please could anyone enlighten us as to what sort of cow?  Many other German or Australian-German folksongs can still be found and we are currently investigating these. Similarities may be found with southern Australian music as well.

Southern-style Australian music, Celtic tunes, Music Hall and the Ballroom Dance influence.

This repertoire is more common in non-Germanic influenced Queensland . However such was the importance of all four genres of music in Australia that even the most Germanic players may include an Irish-influenced set tune such as “What Would You Do If the Billy Boiled Over” or “Father O’Flynn”. 78 rpm records of Michael Coleman and other Irish musicians ensured that occasional jigs found their way into the quadrille sets.  Other obscure jigs such as those of Alf Radunz’s and Billy Fechner’s were styled in the Irish rhythm but included bluesy notes unique to the double-row or triple-row accordian.  Their origin is obscure- probably they were locally composed by Queensland players.

Unlike southern Australia mazurkas where many Irish-sounding mazurkas are played, mazurkas are few  in Queensland repertoires.   The abundant Varsovianas of the south are rare or absent and in Queensland have been   replaced by the Waltz of Vienna, a waltz-mazurka, which usually only has one tune. In the Lockyer Valley, Vatter Wittekopf is the title given to the “common” varsovienna tune! This certainly shows the influence of Germania in this region.

Southern-style schottische tunes common in the south also may be found in the Queensland repertoire, often with a slightly different rhythm.  Ron Kerle plays many of these schottisches but in a slower, more even rhythm than in the south. Simple waltzes like “A Starry Night for a Ramble” may become complex and ‘chordy’ in arrangement.

In summary, the southern tune repertoire receives the local “treatment” when played by traditional musicians in south-east Queensland.

From Vienna to the Queensland Bush

When we think of an itinerant fiddle player, we generally think of an Irishman.  In the Lockyer Valley there was such a “fiddle master” – Paddy Crowley, but that’s another story.  However in Queensland German fiddle players were not uncommon in the early days of this century.  A very influential itinerant but largely untrained fiddler, Rudolf Meincke, was a major influence on many musicians (both accordian and fiddle players alike) throughout southern Queensland German settlements.  Meincke is still a legend in many rural areas, having spent a few years here and there throughout south-east Queensland. My friends Peter and Ernie Vonhoff  from Goombungee, on the Darling Downs, aspired after Meincke’s brilliant style and play natural exquisite harmonies without tuition.  Alf Radunz and twin brother Otto had one or two unpleasant lessons from the irascible and brilliant Meincke, but thought better of it.  Fiddler Jack Heise from Laidley in the Lockyer Valley has passed his style and violins to his son George, but sadly not his old time repertoire.  Modern Queensland German fiddlers like Peter, Ernie and George prefer to play old time hillbilly tunes learnt from 78 rpm records. The Stripling brothers 78s were, and still are, very popular with musicians and listeners alike.

An entirely separate style of Germanic string music existed in isolated pockets of Queensland- string or zither bands.  Musicians from middle Germany migrated in a religious sect called the Apostolic Church between 1900 and 1914.   These people formed close-knit communities whose second religion was music – bands whose core was 3 or 4 concert-zithers included guitars, mandolins, cellos, bass and violins in complex arrangements which played folk music in written form. Bands sprang up at Mt Beppo in the Brisbane river valley, Binjour Plateau and Malmoe in the central/north Burnett and Bundaberg.  Most players were addicted to music and would play for as much as 3 or 4 hours every day- a long slab out of the working day for cane farmers- but it made good use of the hottest part of the day!   I was lucky enough to come in on the tail end of this wonderful tradition and recorded zither player Robert Pukallus in his twilight years accompanied by the Bundaberg Apostolic String Band in the mid ‘80s. I’m also indebted to the late Ray Greinke (Ipswich) who dubbed some recordings of zither duets from the Burnett for us. One influential player from Mt Beppo, August Gaedtke, even made a series of limited 78rpm records of his zither tunes. Harmony becomes a complex, beautiful web in this ethereal music.

Yet another similar Germanic style that existed in the wilds of central Queensland was the Viennese ‘Schrammel-influenced’ ballroom dance band epitomised by the Netz dance band with its nineteenth century repertoire of waltzes, polkas and gallops.  Philipp Netz and family migrated to Queensland in the early 1900’s and brought a wealth of musical knowledge learnt when touring eastern Europe and Russia as leader of an acclaimed band.  This became translated into a very talented family who played violins, piano, zither, piano accordian and brass in a small bush settlement at Mulgildie near Monto. Philipp was addicted to writing down any tune which took his fancy.  Family anecdote has it that one Christmas day they were seated down to dinner when Philipp heard a tune that took his fancy on the radio. The dinner grew cold as he wrote it out and the family played it that night for a dance.  Philipp’s reams of hand-written music and reel-to-reel tapes of the band  recorded by one of their descendants are a wonderful musical legacy of the remote Queensland bush.

The Brass Band “Tradition”

When you think of brass bands, minds automatically turn towards the Barossa Valley in South Australia. However, in our region brass bands paralleled accordian music in most German- Queensland settlements. Many accordian players doubled as brass players- Norm Boughen played euphonium and cornet in the local brass band and included a few brass tunes in his repertoire including “Abend Glocken”(Evening Chimes). Most brass players could read sheet music- although only just.  There is little doubt that the interchange of musical repertoires from the written brass scores to the aural accordian repertoires was enormous. Glen Marschke, born at Mt Beppo, learnt a number of his “German” tunes by listening to the Mt Beppo Apostolic brass band. Today he plays these tunes on his double-row Hohner accordian. Alf Radunz recalled his brothers making up the majority of the Coolabunia brass band near Kingaroy and related how his mother knew when to put the supper on after band practice- she could hear the boys returning  through the scrub playing away all the way home.  Alf included some of their tunes in his repertoire.  Nearly every German settlement in southern Queensland had at least one brass band – even today, the Apostolic Church of Queensland has a church brass band at Hatton Vale. They still play some of the ‘alte Deutsche’ walzes and marches.

What of the Future?

Currently the cultural landscapes of Queensland are extremely vulnerable. A Queensland Government Discussion Paper entitled “Contested Terrains: Investigating Queensland’s Cultural Landscapes”, stated that in particular, our migrant landscapes need to be understood and their heritage significance identified before development pressure undermines them completely. Unfortunately the passing of time has diminished our very wonderful regional musical traditions. Even in the German-Queensland heartland, the Lockyer Valley, increasing urbanisation from the metropolis of Brisbane is quickly eroding the folkways and musical traditions of these farming communities. For the past 20 years I have collected and recorded these traditions – and in many cases there are now no remaining players in many German-Queensland areas. The tapes recorded are often the only reminder of the once rich traditions that flourished. Few young people are today taking up the button accordian and are now searching for the tunes played by their forebears. Hopefully the efforts can be of some assistance for future performers.

It has been disappointing that generally the urban-based folk movement has ignored the local and regional traditional musics available – and largely played anglo-celtic “imported” bush band material. There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Some bush music enthusiasts are now playing southern Australian collected tunes in south-east Queensland, and it is fervently hopeed that the tide is turning and the folk community will soon start playing our own regional music. It is so unique, diverse and musically wonderful – Queenslanders no longer need to have “the cultural cringe” – we have our own regional music and traditions that need to be cultivated. Certainly Queenslanders are different, as their music has been. Australia is a diverse country with multicultural origins. We must be proud of our musical diversity and foster our unique identity and also encourage others to perform and study our own regional culture.



  1. Jon O'Brien


    this is an interesting website. I play violin, and live on the Sunshine Coast. I play mainly classical music but also like German folk music (no German ancestry, though). You don’t happen to know of any musicians who play German music on the coast do you?


  2. Hi Mark. I have seen you at various venues and recently at Maclagan. Your great performance was talked about at a village for over 50’s (Bridge St. Toowoomba) where my sister resides and residents would like you to perform there. Have you an email address where you could be contacted? Love the music.

  3. Max & Thel NETZ

    Please contact.

  4. Hallo Jon O'Brian. Yes we have musicians for German Musik. on the Sunshine Coast.  Aur\stralien European  Friendship Cllub 7  54 923 825

    • I can totally sympathize with you! I had a similar experience when I was under 5 (can’t remember the exact age) but I remember waking from a nap and co1n2l&#8du7;t find my mom no matter how loud I yelled! I’m so old and that was so long ago I can’t remember much else!!

  5. Elizabeth Lamb

    Hi Mark,
    I have been trying to contact you. Our Logan River and District Family History Society would like you to be a guest speaker at our society. Our memb ers really enjoyed your last presentation May 2011. Will you let me know? Elizabeth Lamb

  6. Hallo Mark
    Sehr gut diesen Artikel zu lehsen. Ich spiele Bass und habe eine Singerin von Deutschland so wie ein Gitarren Spieler. Leider haben wir unseren Handharmonika Spieler verlohren. Ich bin aber sehr daran, die BAND weiter zu fuehren. Wir spielen besonders deutsche alte Lieder so wie Italien und Fench. Hasst Du unter Umstaenden jemand, der freude haette um b ei uns mitzumachen? Bitte gehe mit mir in Kontakt! Danke 54 923 825

  7. Peter Achilles

    Very good

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