General articles


RICHARD FOTHERINGHAM takes a fresh look at the story behind the George Wallace song ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’, written in the early 1940s and famously sung by Jenny Howard in various Tivoli revues.


Brown Slouch Hat ButtonCover of Jenny Howard’s own copy of the sheet music for ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’. Courtesy Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum, Brisbane.In the 2011 Spring issue of On Stage, the late Eddie Trigg published an account, titled ‘“A Brown Slouch Hat”—70 years on’, of the creation (words and music) of the famous song and march by ‘Australia’s favourite comedian’ George Wallace Senior. Trigg was for many years the Australian correspondent for the British Music Hall Society’s newsletter The Call Boy, and his papers (and a complete run of copies of that newsletter up to his death), both now in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, are a wonderful resource for charting the history of the Australian and British popular stages.

Trigg’s account of how ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ came to be written and first performed was based in part on interviews he conducted in 1982 with the English-Australian singer and stage comedian Jenny Howard, who claimed Wallace wrote it for her and, indeed, her portrait is on the cover of the sheet music published by Frank Albert and Co. However, in researching Jenny Howard for a forthcoming Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entry, I discovered that the story of ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ was significantly different. (Howard’s papers, now held by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum in Brisbane, together with Trigg’s account and newspaper sources, are the basis for my version of what happened, below.)

A Brown Slouch Hat—80 Years On

Jenny Howard (1902–1996) visited Australia briefly in 1929 for the Tivoli Vaudeville Circuit and returned in 1940, living and performing here for the Tivoli and elsewhere for more than forty years. She was a major star of Australian popular stage entertainment during the Second World War and after, but her enduring gift to her adopted country was the prominence she gave to George Wallace’s patriotic song ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’.

In interviews late in her life, Howard offered several conflicting accounts of its creation, starting with a backstage discussion c.1941 about the need for nationalistic Australian songs like the English ones she was singing in the early war years. She claimed Wallace then offered to write one and, when she returned three hours later for the evening performance, he already had completed the words and picked out the melody for her on the stage piano.

Jenny Howard also said that George Wallace told her he’d never had a song published, that she rang the major music publisher Frank Albert (1874–1962) who said, ‘reverse the charges and sing it to me’, and that publication quickly followed. However, some of this account relates to an earlier song of Wallace’s, ‘They’ll Shine Again’, which he himself claimed would rival ‘The Lights of London’ and which was published by D. Davis & Co, not Alberts, that year. (‘They’ll Shine Again’ was also about the plight of London during the ‘Blitz’). The report of this in the Melbourne Argus on 8 March 1941 added ‘It will be featured by Jenny Howard at the Tivoli’.

The history of ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ is more complicated. It was written more than a year later, after Pearl Harbour and when Australia itself was under threat. It was recorded on 25 November 1942 at Columbia Records’ Homebush Studios in Sydney and released in February the next year as a 10” 78 rpm record on the cheap Regal Zonophone label. However the singer was not Jenny Howard but a 16-year-old Sydney-born soprano, Myree Parker, accompanied by the band leader George Trevare and his ‘Australians’. Trevare was also presumably responsible for the ‘intimate’ arrangement (piano and strings) and slow march beat, while the classically-taught Parker’s singing is operatic and restrained. In spite of this odd choice of singer and style, this is still the best-known version and was later digitised for CD release.

At that time, Parker was singing with Trevare’s band at Sydney’s Prince Edward Cinema Theatre. A week later, the better-known 17-year-old singer/comedian Joy Nichols, who was also appearing onstage with Parker at the Prince Edward Theatre, was reported to be going to sing it (or, possibly, Parker was, with Nichols joining in the chorus) on the 2GB Sydney radio Colgate Palmolive Youth Show which Nichols compered. 1 December 1942, the date of that broadcast, was probably the song’s public premiere. At about the same time, Parker also featured in a new radio program Over Here (‘dedicated by Australians “over here” to those “over there”’) produced by Charles Chauvel, where ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ almost certainly was also broadcast.

Jenny HowardJenny Howard singing to the crowd during the lunch hour Victory Loan Rally in Collins Street, May 1944. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Myree Parker (b. 15 November 1926) was a child prodigy who started singing in public as early as 1940. A reviewer for Wireless Weekly enthused: ‘Australia has been described as a “gold mine of beautiful voices.” An outsize nugget has been found in the 13-year-old soprano, Myree Parker, heard in “Young Australia” last Sunday. This uncannily-poised little singer will be watched with great interest’. Parker married in 1947 (the certificate gives her full name as Myree Alberta Margaret Parker); she seems to have given up her professional career after then, although she did return occasionally to the live stage for several years c. 1952–54 using her maiden name and again singing with the George Trevare Orchestra. Others, including the well-known soprano Joan Blake, also sang ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ on air and Blake recorded it later in the war years. This version is accompanied by piano and strings with ‘brass fanfare-like interjections’ (giving a more ‘military’ sound), but is also in a slow tempo. Blake’s singing is relaxed and in a more colloquial music theatre style than Parker’s.

Jenny Howard was also not the first to sing the song in front of a live audience. That honour went to the soubrette Bubby Allan who worked extensively with George Wallace during the war years. Allan and Wallace both performed in the 1942–43 Tivoli Sydney pantomime Cinderella where, in scene 7, Allan as ‘Dandini’ sang ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ … ‘with the ensemble’. On the day the show opened, 26 December 1942, Wireless Weekly reported that the song had been ‘specially written for her by George Wallace’ (my italics).

Finally, Jenny Howard’s claim that she persuaded Frank Albert to publish ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ is also at best a confusion with another occasion. The last piece of evidence is a surviving copy of the sheet music, also published by Alberts, which has an identical cover page except that Allan’s photo is in the bottom left hand corner instead of Howard’s. Presumably the image of Bubby was replaced, for a later print run, by one of Jenny, then a major star at the Tivoli theatres. The first report of Howard singing it is in Keep ’em Happy at the Brisbane Cremorne in March 1943. Subsequent newspaper comments that year, in Melbourne in May and Sydney in June, both still regarded the song as new and mentioned that Howard would feature it in a forthcoming Tivoli show, Red, Hot and Blue. The later printing by Alberts states prominently ‘Sung by Jenny Howard, English Comedienne on Tivoli Circuit’, but also mentions in small type that it was available on ‘Regal-Zono—Myree Parker, Vocal/Mastertouch and Broadway Rolls’. Bubby Allan is not mentioned.

Jenny Howard never recorded ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’, but nevertheless was central to its enduring popularity. She sang it throughout the later years of the war on Tivoli stages, at military camps and Victory Loan rallies, and afterwards at senior citizen and Returned Services League (RSL) events as late as the mid-1980s. Fittingly, her ‘faster and more lively’ version has been recovered from a recording of a concert she appeared in at the Canberra Theatre in 1982, accompanied by the Duntroon Military Band. This was digitised after her death and is available on a CD sold with Frank Van Straten’s definitive study Tivoli (2003). Howard’s ‘speech-like delivery’ emphasises Wallace’s words and, in comparison to Parker’s and Blake’s comparatively restrained versions, her ability to ‘sell’ a song with uninhibited energy and passionate belief is evident. She overstated her part in George Wallace’s creation but, thanks in part to the prominence she gave it, ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ is part of the enduring repertoire for brass bands, particularly at Anzac Day parades.

Thanks to Liam Viney, Professor of Music at the University of Queensland, who provided the analysis quoted above of the three recordings by Parker, Blake, and Howard respectively.


Listen to recordings of ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’

Myree Parker, vocals, with George Trevare and his ‘Australians’ (recorded 1942)


Joan Blake, vocals, with unnamed orchestra (sung on the radio program ‘Song of Australia’, 1945)


Jenny Howard, vocals (recorded 1982)