Before the invention of the gramophone and radio at the turn of the twentieth century, music was a do-it-yourself affair and a very popular form of social entertainment. Everyone was expected to be able to join in – either on an instrument or singing. Yet there was high demand for those who were genuinely musically talented. Skilled instrumentalists and accomplished singers were very desirable for any special event.
POSEY RUSSELL: Moruya district had its fair share of local talent, particularly in female singers. An early popular singer was Miss Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Russell (1851-1905). Born at Kiora, she was the eldest daughter of an English-born father who, as a convict, was originally assigned to John Hawdon, and his Irish-born wife. Posey contributed actively to the district’s musical events for years.
It was said that when Posey sang in Wamban she could be heard downstream at Kiora.
MAUD BATT: Musical life in Moruya improved greatly when, by the late 1890’s, there were musical concerts held once a month in the Mechanics Institute, which had impressive acoustics. Miss Maud Batt (1881-1939) developed her singing talents in Moruya at this time before going on to a modestly successful career in Sydney, where she was frequently the key attraction in ‘concert entertainments of a popular character’.
Maud’s fame was undoubtedly enhanced by her unusual vocal range. Often called a ‘lady baritone’ but more accurately a ‘lady bass’’. She was able to sing songs an octave lower than they had been written. One of her performance favourites was Sweet Genevieve (written 1869, and more recently recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds).
EVA MYLOTT: A contemporary of Maud’s became famous internationally. Eva Mylott (1875-1920) was born to the then owners of much of Tuross Head. Her father was wine and spirit importer Patrick Mylott, and her mother Mary was from the prominent local Heffernan family. Realising the quality of his daughter’s contralto voice, Mylott moved his family and his business to Sydney so his daughter could pursue singing lessons. Among the protégés of Nellie Melba, Eva became a well-known opera singer in both Europe and America.
Before Eva Mylott left Australia to continue her studies in England, she was described in a newspaper article
Miss Mylott, like so many, of the daughters of the Emerald Isle, is fair to look upon, a fact which should stand her in good stead in her professional Career. ‘ Of good stature, dignified and graceful in movement, and’ possessing a. pretty petite face, whose pure complexion is set off by luxuriant auburn tresses’, she is sure to make an impression wherever she goes.
Australian Star Saturday 16 August 1902, page 9
Eva Mylott is also known as the grandmother of actor and director Mel Gibson.
Marie Narelle: It was Eva’s cousin, Catherine Mary ‘Molly’ Ryan (1870-1941) who had moved to the Cobargo area, who was to become even more internationally renowned as the ‘Queen of Irish song’. Her stage name, inspired by the name of the Aboriginal ‘Princess of the Moruya tribe’, was Marie Narelle. A soprano with a passionate delivery, she famously shared concerts with a young John McCormack, among others.
More than simply entertainment: music expresses the cultural and social influences that inspired it. The Ryans and Mylotts were of Irish immigrant background – with musical traditions to match. Along with British and Scottish tunes, Irish songs formed part of a widely shared folk repertoire in the colony: Marie Narelle sang both Scottish and Irish songs (and some opera) in her concerts. After hearing Marie Narelle during her tour of Ireland, Irish social reformer Michael Davitt commented that
it took an Australian to teach the Irish to render their own songs.
Marie Narelle had her own explanation for why there were quite a number of internationally famous singers from Australia at the time (including Nellie Melba and Ada Crossley).
She claimed it was the result of the Australian personality: born of being a natural people … free in all we do and say … I think that is freedom … that makes us good singers.
We are lucky to be able to hear Marie Narelle’s voice today as she made many recordings with Thomas Edison over a nine year period; purportedly the first soprano ever recorded. The include Wearing the Green, Silver Threads Amongst the Gold, and The Bonnie Lochs of Loch Lomond.
Even though they moved away to pursue international careers these singers retained ties with their country of birth. On tours home to Australia, both Eva and Marie returned to sing before loyal audiences in their hometowns and on the south coast.