Button Grass Serenade was previously known as Slap Dash with name being changed after some changes in the lineup. The band was formed in 2002 to present the Traditional Country Dance music of rural Tasmania circa 1840-1950. This little known music and dance tradition had all but retreated to lounge rooms and veranda sessions by the 1960s and was completely overlooked by the folk revivalists of the 1970s. It was not recognised that our own villages and valleys had preserved a unique folk music developed through a century of isolation.
The roots of Tasmanian folk music were, European parlour music of the early 19th century, mid nineteenth century ball room dances such as the Varsovienna, the Schottische, the Polka- Mazurka, Waltz etc, English, Scottish and Irish country dance music and fiddle traditions, American Minstrel and hoedown music brought to Tasmania during the American civil war era when many whalers and sealers waited out the war on the Bass Strait Islands. Tasmania also preserved some German and Swedish music brought by 19th century immigrants and mine workers. For a century these tunes and dances were passed from one generation to the next. They developed into a local equivalent of Bush music. From the American and English tinged music of Cape Barren and Flinders Islands to the Irish and German flavoured music of the far South something in the playing style created a Tasmanian idiom. This was an elegant, simple, energetic and often sentimental music full of the relaxed feeling of quiet valleys, orchard lined hills, off-shore islands and villages of simple wooden homes.
In 1999 a movement to revive this music began. Local musicians Steve and Marjorie Gadd sifted through John Meredith’s Tasmanian field tapes and began tracking down older musicians and playing with them, learning and transcribing their tunes.
They then formed the Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble in order to teach their own music to young Tasmanian musicians. In a State where cultural excellence is often determined by how well performers can copy imported trends The Tasmanian Heritage Fiddle Ensemble has emphasised to celebration of local cultural identity.
The ensemble played to rave reviews; at The National Folk Festival, The Franklin Apple Harvest Festival 3 years running, At The Cygnet Folk Festival over four years and At the Taste of the Huon Festival. They have supported the Wrigley Sisters from the Orkneys and played numerous other venues. A highlight for the ensemble was to host a four-hour heritage concert covering folk music in Tasmania from the convict era to the 1970s bush revival. This concert funded by Festivals Australia and supported by the National Library, allowed the ensemble to share the stage with accordion and fiddle players in their 80s, demonstrating the continuity of tradition.
In 2003 Steve Gadd determined that the next stage in reviving Tasmanian traditions would be best served by the creation of a virtuosic quintet capable of playing in authentic colonial styles for dances but also capable of developing the music as a living art form. Slap Dash was established as a group of professional musicians that could bring a knowledge of Classical, Jazz, Gypsy, Bluegrass and Celtic music to the local material. Going back to the roots of the simple local music and drawing out elements of European parlour music, melancholy bushranging ballads, Irish dances and American hoedowns the group have created an idiom called ‘Buttongrass Baroque”.
This style maintains the authentic Tasmanian feeling of the music but takes it to a level where it can be appreciated by audiences more attuned to classical and jazz performance styles than to folk music.
Slap Dash took their name from a Music Hall ballad that was altered by local singers early in the 20th century to tell the tale of a tragedy associated with child labour at the Hobart brickworks. Button Grass Serenade was later chosen as the term Buttongrass refers to a distinct button-like grass that covers the plains and mountain plateaus of Western Tasmania. Since the 1970s the term Buttongrasss has referred to Tasmanian string-band music drawing comparisons with Appalachian Bluegrass music with which it shares a vague family resemblance.
The band has worked closely with the Folk Federation Dance group to search out and revive local dance traditions and variations. They presented Tasmanian Heritage music and dance at the National Folk Festival In Canberra 2005.
Button Grass Serenade offer the following performances
- Authentic traditional Community dances with lively music, early rural costumes and mad cap antics. With callers and if required, demonstration dances by Folk Federation dancers.
- Concerts featuring art arrangements of traditional music as well as wild improvisations on local tunes and tune set forms. Original songs dealing with Tasmanian history are included.
- The narrative play, “Beneath These Mountains”, written by Steve Gadd, depicts the lives of actual traditional musicians from rural Tasmania. In this work members of Button Grass Serenade speak in the voices of those musicians of yesterday describing their work, the natural settings of their valleys, villages and islands, and focus upon the role of music and dance in their lives. Each ‘character’ introduces the tunes collected from them or from their region. This play-concert has been performed at The Mountain Festival, The Tamar Folk Festival, the Maldern Folk Festival and the Major's Creek Festival as well as being performed for educational purposes in schools in Melbourne and in regional northern NSW.