Hugh Anderson is widely recognised as one of Australia's primary publishers of folkloric material and for his contributions to the study of Australian folklore. To date, he has published over seventy titles across a variety of genres that range from general and local history to literary criticism, school texts, biography, and folklore.
Anderson was educated at the Bendigo School of Mines, Melbourne and Bendigo Teachers' College, and the University of Melbourne. In the year between 1944 and 1945, he worked as assistant surveyor for the Forests Commission, and spent most of his working life as a schoolteacher in Victoria. In the time left over from teaching, Anderson committed himself to collecting and writing about folklore, popular songs, and local history.
At the time when Anderson published his first work, Colonial Ballads (1955), little had been written on the subject of bush and folk songs, and there were few ongoing projects to collect this kind of material. In the prologue to the second edition of this work (1962), Anderson credits Nancy Keesing and Stewart Douglas's 1957 collection of Old Bush Songs as a source of inspiration, and notes he also builds on the work of Vance Palmer, Percy Jones, and John Meredith. According to an early review of Colonial Ballads, 'such earlier collections had emphasized the so-called bush songs which have the bush-ranger, stockman, shearer, swagman, squatter, and free selector as the principal characters, to the virtual exclusion of all others. Anderson gives primacy of position to a couple of dozen specimens of the neglected balladry of the goldfields.'
Anderson's studies of Australian folk songs were the first to consistently include both words and tunes for all the material. His chief innovation was to treat 'folk' materials as literary texts, identifying the individual authors and using standard methods of literary and historical analysis, which was a first step towards making the study of Australian folklore and popular culture a scholarly enterprise.
At the beginning of his career, Anderson focused his research in printed songs, particularly those of goldfield entertainers, and their relation to English and Irish street songs. He based most of his research on archival material such as newspapers and broadsides held in libraries around the country. In successive decades, particularly in the 1980s, he took an interest beyond Australian folklore, and travelled to China at the behest of the Chinese Folklore Society and the Chinese Writers' Association. Anderson is also recognised for his work as a bibliographer.
In the course of his career, Anderson has explored several aspects of nineteenth-century Australian popular and middlebrow culture, which go beyond the strictly folkloric: he has compiled a book of convict ballads as well as a book of sources and popular responses to the Tichborne affair, which revolved around the claim by Wagga butcher Arthur Orton to be the long-lost English baronet Roger Tichborne.
Anderson has further contributed to the field of folklore studies both as a founding member of the editorial board of the Australian Folklore journal, and as a regular contributor to various national and international specialised publications. His writings have also appeared in non-specialist venues. In the 1940s, he contributed pieces to such iconic Australian publications as Meanjin, Southerly, and the old Bulletin. He also wrote for Realist Writerbefore it became Overland, and received support from the Commonwealth Literary Fund.
Since 1979, Anderson has combined his work as a writer and folklorist with his work as a publisher. In that year, he established Red Rooster Press, which specialises in folkloric literature and essays in local history. Some of its more significant publications include works by John Meredith and include The Wild Colonial Boy (1982) and Duke of the Outback (1983). Anderson has lived in Melbourne most of his life. Since 1952, he has been married to Dawn, with whom he has two children. Anderson has widely credited the assistance of his wife as a collaborator to his work.
For his work in Australian history, Anderson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria in 1974. In 1986, he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Government's Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia, which led to his co-authoring Folklife: Our Living Heritage (1987). In addition to these, Anderson has held several positions and honours, including membership of the committee of management of the Australian Society of Authors, and Councillor and Vice‐President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.