With the recent death of my friend, Hugh McDonald, I have begun to look more closely at the words of his masterpiece, “The Diamantina Drover”.
It contains many puzzles.
I have heard Hugh say he wrote it when he was 24. He was born in July 1954, so this means it was written in the second half of 1978, or the first half of 1979. Hugh did not join Redgum until 1982 (and the song was first recorded in that year). Hugh’s wife, Rebecca Harris Mason, has confirmed for me that he did indeed write the song well before joining Redgum.
Hugh told me he wanted to write a ‘timeless’ song, as a reaction to the topical nature of so much of Redgum’s repertoire. (Obviously he was well aware of Redgum’s music well before joining the band, as so many of us were.) He wanted to write a song that did not relate to any specific event, political or otherwise. He certainly achieved that. The song is now regarded almost as a traditional folk song. I suspect many believe it was written a lot earlier than it was.
Hugh has also said the song is about running away from life’s troubles. What troubles was Hugh trying to run away from at the time?
The faces in the photograph have faded,
And I can’t believe he looks so much like me.
So, who is ‘he’? For a long time, I couldn’t decide if ‘he’ was father or son. I think he must have been father, but why the surprise? It suggests the narrator felt he had little in common with his own father. Is that how Hugh felt about his own father, the war hero and country doctor?
Also, why not say “I can’t believe I look so much like him”? That would make more sense to ponder the resemblance of the younger to the older. It is very poetic, though, to turn it around like this. It brings to mind the classic Dylan line: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
For it’s been ten years today
Since I left for Old Cork Station,
Sayin’ “I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.”
“Old Cork Station” is a real place. Had Hugh ever visited it? Not that I am aware.
I don’t think he ever visited the Diamantina, either, but he knew of it, and loved the sound of the name. (Rebecca has confirmed this for me also.)
At the time the song was released, Hugh talked about meeting a Queensland drover on a train trip, and dedicating the song to him. Towards the end of his life, however, he admitted there had been no drover, and no train. What there had been was an elderly neighbour, who told stories, when Hugh was growing up in Kerang in country Victoria. (Rebecca tells me the neighbour was actually a logger.)
For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina,
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind.
So the hardship of the lifestyle, rather than discouraging the drover, is actually part of the reason why he stays.
For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
So when will the droving be done? If it refers to an individual season, it is long done. Taken more broadly, however, it will never be done.
(A dray, by the way, is a cart without any sides.)
I find the next lines – the second verse – fascinating.
Well it seems like the sun comes up each mornin’,
Sets me up and takes it all away.
Here the sun is life-giver, but also deceptive. It appears to offer promise, but then lets you down. Daylight is the friend, night is the enemy.
Yet we see this reversed with the next line.
For the dreaming by the light
Of the camp fire at night
Ends with the burning by the day.
Now it would appear that night is the friend – the time for dreams – while the daylight – the burning – is the enemy.
So we see two opposite metaphors employed to express the same emotion – that of dreams and aspirations being nurtured, only to be taken away. The circularity underlines the general ‘dead-endedness’ – the emotional emptiness of the drover – which lies at the heart of the song.
Clearly this theme of shattered hopes was very much on the mind of the young Hugh McDonald. Yet the whole song is, of course, a metaphor. Hugh was not a drover himself. What were the dreams on his mind at the time, I wonder?
We know that he did not enjoy his time at boarding school. His university career was fairly abortive. Would he have loved to be a doctor, like his father?
Sometimes I think I’ll settle back in Sydney,
But it’s been so long it’s hard to change my mind,
For the cattle trail goes on and on
And the fences roll forever,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
Was it too late now for Hugh to turn away from his career as a musician?
I expect if Hugh was here today and asked to clarify some of these mysteries, he would shrug his shoulders nonchalantly and say, “It was a long time ago. Who cares?” (Indeed, I did try to clarify them when he was alive, and that was pretty much the response I got.)
Of course, the song is a timeless classic, and many people will continue to care for a long time.
I think it is pretty safe to say the song was penned in an inspired moment, a largely subconscious act. Hugh probably couldn’t have answered some of these questions any better at the time.
“The Diamantina Drover” is a wonderful song that could probably only have been written by a young person at the height of their imaginative powers.
My dear friend Hugh McDonald died last Friday night.
All those who knew Hugh well knew the end was near, but still it was a shock to receive the news from Rebecca this morning.
Hugh is best known as a member of the former folk-rock group Redgum, and writer of the classic Australian song, “The Diamantina Drover”, but he was, of course, so much more.
Hugh was a great admirer of Henry Lawson, and indeed created an album of songs based on Lawson’s poems. I always felt “The Diamantina Drover” was a “response” to the “call” of Lawson’s “Knocking Around”.
Hugh was one of the few people who made me feel a bit ‘special’. I can’t deny there was an element of bathing in the light of his celebrity. “What does this famous rock star want to hang out with me for?” He was always pleased to see me, ready for a cuppa and a chat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was my poetry that first led me to him. I spent much of the late 70s and early 80s hanging around folk/bush bands, trying to persuade them to put my poems to music. Eventually, after giving up on some of the bigger names, I turned to the smaller fry. Hugh was playing with “Moving Cloud” at the time, and I approached him one evening after a gig at the Dan O’Connell. Somewhat surprisingly, he expressed an interest in hearing my work.
We met a couple of times after that, and he started putting one of my songs – a sort of parody of the life of Captain Cook – to music. He played an unfinished version of the song to me on one occasion, but shortly after he rang to tell me he would not be able to finish the song, as he had received a call from Redgum, and they wanted him to join them.
We lost touch after that, and I followed his career, like so many others, through radio and vinyl. Many years later – long after the breakup of Redgum – we made contact again. I heard him being interviewed about his Lawson album by the Coodabeen Champions on ABC Radio one Sunday night. I wrote to the ABC, they passed my letter on to him, and soon we were back in contact again.
Hugh played at my sister’s wedding – where he was one-man juke box! – and at a close friend’s 50th birthday party.
When I was looking for a music soundtrack for a demo of my collection of poems for children, it was Hugh that I turned to.
In spite of all this, however, it is only in the last couple of years that we have become really close. When Maggie Somerville and I decided to put together a CD based on the work of C. J. Dennis, I persuaded Maggie to record it with Hugh. We recorded it over the following twelve months, and the recording sessions were highly enjoyable – occasionally riotous! – occasions. He also graciously helped us to launch “The Two Bees” at the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival in 2015.
(Hugh was always game to try something new. Here he is playing the saucepan…)
(… and here the gourd.)
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for the last two of these photos, both taken at Toolangi.)
Hugh’s technical mastery was not confined to music instruments. He was a wizard on the computer in his studio, and was always seeking to master new skills. (He also, it must be said, gained great satisfaction from restoring discarded vacuum cleaners to good working order.) Keen to learn another new skill, he offered to make some videos for Maggie and me to help us promote the CD. Apart from the bright red music stand situated forlornly in the middle of the field of vision, he did a great job!
(Thanks to Trevor Pearson for this photo.)
More recently, he has been helping Maggie to complete her second original CD. He was really hoping to complete it before he died. Alas, this was not to be.
Hugh and I were a similar age, and both sons of doctors. (Hugh’s father was a GP in Kerang, a Victorian country town.) Our paths had been very different, however. I had become a doctor myself, while he had followed the path of musician and artist. Hugh was fascinated with science, and medical science in particular. Quackery infuriated him, and he did all he could to expose it when he encountered it. We occasionally reflected on how our lives might have been if he had become a doctor, and I had followed the path of the artist in a more committed manner. I have no doubt he would have made an excellent doctor. He followed the course of his illness and its treatment intensely, and with a degree of detachment that was quite admirable.
It is hard to believe he is gone. I know it will take me a long time to come to terms with his death. I feel a large chunk of me has gone with him. My heart goes out to Rebecca and the rest of his family. Their only consolation can be that they had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing such a wonderful fellow.
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for this photo, too – also taken at Toolangi.)
Report: 2016 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
The festival this year – held last weekend, on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October – faced challenges like none before it. Ever since the festival began in 2008, we have had amazing fortune with the weather. Our luck was bound to fail sooner or later, and this year it failed with a capital “F”.
The trouble began two weeks earlier, with wild winds that brought down nine enormous mountain ash trees at “The Singing Gardens”. It looked for a while as though the festival might not be able to proceed at all. The principal damage occurred to the pump house (see photo below) with damage to 100 plastic chairs and a fridge as well as the pumps. Much of the piping running water from the Yea River to the pond was damaged, and the plastic and clay lining at the bottom of the pond was perforated. (The pond was originally excavated by C. J. Dennis and his wife, Biddy, who named it “Touchstone Tarn”. Iconic photos show Dennis and the English Poet Laureate John Masefield lying side by side on its banks in 1934.)
Jan Williams, owner of “The Singing Gardens” (home of the festival) believed, given the high winds experienced in the weeks leading up to the festival, it would be imprudent to erect the marquee that we have used in recent years. We would simply hold the festival inside the tea rooms. Jan booked the C. J. Dennis Hall across the road at the last minute, in the event that the tea rooms proved too small.
There was also a third exciting possibility. The Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre is being transferred to community control, and we might have been able to hold events there, too.
The weather forecast on the morning of Saturday, 22nd October, was ominous. A smaller crowd than usual (but hardly smaller than expected, given the weather) gathered in the tea rooms for the Festival Opening and Awards Ceremony. Kath Gannaway, representing our major sponsor, Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) opened the festival with eloquence and passion. She spoke of the value of the festival in keeping Australian culture alive.
The announcements of the winners of the Written Poetry Competition followed, together with the awarding of the prizes. Numbers of entries have been down the last two years. This is, of course, a concern, and the reason is not clear. Nevertheless, the winning poems maintained the high standard set in earlier years.
A new award, the Marian Mayne Prize, for the winner of the Adult Open section, was announced last year. (Marian Mayne was Jan Williams’ mother. She died two years ago, leaving a generous bequest for the Adult Open prize.) The inaugural winner was David Campbell, and the winner this year was Shelley Hansen. Unfortunately, the trophy was not ready for last year’s ceremony, but it was on hand this year.
Jim Brown, Secretary of the C. J. Dennis Society, commissioned Joseph Galloway, a practitioner of the art of pyrography, to make the trophy.
Details can be found on YouTube, here:
While Shelley was not at the festival this year, David was. Here is David, with Jim Brown and Jan Williams, being presented with the trophy.
It is a perpetual trophy, and will remain at “The Singing Gardens” with the winners’ names engraved upon it.
Here is a better look at the trophy itself.
A scrumptious afternoon tea followed, after which we returned for an hour of C. J. Dennis poetry and song, performed by myself, Maggie Somerville, Geoffrey W. Graham, Ruth Aldridge, David and Jim.
This in turn was quickly followed by Part 1 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, featuring Geoffrey W. Graham performing the poems, a connecting narrative provided by myself, and certain slang explanations from Maggie. There are 16 poems in Ginger Mick. While a similar show last year for the centenary of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” featured only nine of the 13 poems in the book, I thought it would be great fun (and a real challenge) to perform all 16 of the Ginger Mick poems this year. There was no way that could be achieved in a single setting, so we planned to do the first six poems in the hour before dinner, and the remaining 10 over an hour and a half after dinner.
Rain fell heavily off and on during the entire afternoon – interrupted by brief bursts of hail – and when the power went out, we realised the Forest Discovery Centre was no longer an option as a venue for part of the festival. Fortunately, the Williams were able to quickly crank up the generator, power was restored, and we were able to continue.
Part 1 was well received. The audience size was perfect, really – a snug fit for the tea rooms, but no empty chairs.
An enormous and delicious buffet dinner followed, after which the assembled gathering re-grouped for Part 2 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. Although the show had not been performed before (and probably will not be again), the timing worked out well. We were finished by about 9 pm. Geoffrey, I must stay, was looking pretty spent by the time we reached the home stretch!
There were various reports of the state of the roads by the end of the evening, and at least one person decided to sleep in their car rather than chance the trip back to their booked accommodation.
Nevertheless, all appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the Poets’ Breakfast at 9 am the following morning. There was no shortage of performers, and a wide variety of pieces and styles were exhibited over the course of the session. We did manage to get around the room twice, but it took all morning to do so! I found myself sitting with the light in front of me rather than behind me so most of my photos that morning are far too dark, but I did catch this nice shot. From left to right we have Terry Maher, Geoffrey Graham, Jim Smith, and Christine Middleton (in profile).
Lunch (traditional roast!) was then served, after which came the “Moving Theatre”, featuring “C. J. Dennis” (myself), “Banjo Paterson” (Geoffrey) and “Henry Lawson” (David). We were also graced with a newcomer this year, in the form of “Will Ogilvie” (Jim). Sunday had dawned a much brighter day than the day before and, after we had assumed the Moving Theatre would also need to be held indoors, we began to realise that we could happily move outside after all.
The bottom half of the garden, however, was not available to us because of the fallen trees and sodden ground, so we gathered in the house garden to commence proceedings. After introductions, we moved quickly into the children’s ballet. The poem chosen for this year was “The Blue Kingfisher”. Maggie had put it to music, and sang beautifully. The children also looked wonderful. Their costumes were delightful, the choreography was challenging and imaginative, and they were well rehearsed. (This is an even greater achievement when one realises that all rehearsals had been to a recorded version of the song.) Thank you to Cathy Phelan for making the children’s ballet such a highlight of the festival once again.
The poets then commenced to saunter around the gardens. Alas, the audience were required to stand, as all the chairs had been destroyed when the pump house was hit! A highlight was “Banjo Paterson” reciting a Dennis poem, “Washing Day”, in front of Mrs. Dennis’ original wash-house!
Here is a view of the wash-house itself.
The afternoon finished with a surprise appearance from “Mary Gilmore” (Ruth Aldridge) performing her famous poem “No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest”.
Though the day was fine, it was still cold, and all were very happy at this point to retreat once more to the tea rooms for afternoon tea!
So ended another highly enjoyable and successful Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. The challenges involved this year were far greater than in any previous years (though 2009, following the fires, was also very difficult), and I wish to especially thank Jan Williams and her hard working, dedicated family, for doing so much to ensure the festival was held this year, in spite of everything.
Join us next year, as we celebrate the centenary of the publication in 1917 of “The Glugs of Gosh” and “Doreen”. Won’t THAT be something special!
(Thank you to Maggie Somerville for this photo of the five “poets”.)
The Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival is over for another year, and what a festival it was this time!
It was undoubtedly the biggest and the best we have had yet, as indeed it should have been celebrating, as it was, the centenary of the publication in 1915 of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
The festival got a great boost about a week out with the news that The C.J. Dennis Society’s Patron, Ted Egan, would be in attendance. Ted lives in Alice Springs, so it is a long journey for him to come to Victoria. Ted has only been to the festival once before, and that was back in 2013.
The weather was kind to us – as it always seems to be – and Ted opened the festival for us in fine style. What is more, he sang his tribute to Australia’s pioneering women to the assembled throng, as an added bonus. He had to get by without his famed beer carton, but a small book served almost as well to tap the rhythm out to.
David Hill from the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) was also in attendance. The Bendigo Bank has been our chief sponsor over the years, and this year they agreed to double their commitment. Rather than present the prizes for “Adults Writing for Children” himself, David placed a small toy under one of the chairs, with the person who first found the toy to present the prizes. This led to the somewhat unexpected outcome of Jemima Hosking presenting a prize to her mother, Jackie! (Jackie’s father, John, also performed a poem later in the day, so we had three generations of the Hosking family involved in the festival!)
The local member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish MP (Member for Eildon), also kindly offered to attend the festival and award prizes. Cindy’s support of the festival is longstanding, and very much appreciated.
The number of entries was down a little on last year, which is a bit concerning, but everybody agreed nonetheless that the standard was very high. Not all the poems that received awards were heard this year, but all the winning poets who were in attendance performed their poems, and First Prize in each category was read out whether the poet was present or not.
Here is Ted Egan opening the festival. (Thank you to Nerys Evans for the photo.)
After a break for afternoon tea, we commenced an “Open Mike” session which proved extremely popular. Indeed, not all the poets who wished to perform were able to do so, as it would have left insufficient time for the showcase concert of C.J. Dennis poems and songs that was scheduled to follow. This also needed to be shortened a little because of time constraints.
The concert kicked off with actor John Flaus from Castlemaine. The other performers were Maggie Somerville, Jim Haynes, Jim Brown, Ruth Aldridge, David Campbell and Geoffrey W. Graham.
Here is Maggie Somerville singing a C.J. Dennis poem that she has put to music.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the sun went down and a chill crept over the proceedings. The original plan had been to hold the evening’s entertainment in the marquee also, but it was generally agreed that it made much more sense to retire to the tea rooms, where a lavish buffet dinner was now waiting.
The evening meal was truly delicious, with a large range of choices on offer.
We then commenced our special presentation of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, featuring Geoffrey Graham as performer of the poems, Jim Haynes as “slang interpreter”, and myself as narrator. I suddenly found my voice failing me, and Geoffrey was looking very much the worse for wear having been badly dumped by a wave while body surfing in Hawaii two days earlier, but the show went on nonetheless, and was very well received. (About half the audience gave us a standing ovation; Geoffrey assured me the other half would have done so also, if they had not been so tired!)
Here we are – from left to right, Jim, Geoffrey and me – looking relieved but happy after the show! (Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Poets’ Breakfast kicked off right on schedule the following morning at 9.30.
Here is Ruth Aldridge reciting “Caravanning Bliss” by Bob Magor.
Shelley and Rod Hansen provided a great double act.
Jan Williams gave us a poem, but unfortunately I cannot show you a photo because my computer refuses to upload it!
The audience was large and appreciative.
We then moved back down to the marquee for the launch at 11am of the CD Maggie and I had put together, “The Two Bees”.
We were joined by three musicians – Hugh McDonald (ex-Redgum), who had recorded and produced the album for us, and Trevor Voake (mandolin) and Dieter Imberger (harmonica), friends from the Victorian Folk Music Club. (Trevor’s wife Margaret kindly acted as photographer for us.)
We performed “The Two Bees” in its entirety – eight songs and four poems, words by C.J. Dennis, music by Maggie. We did make lots of mistakes, but they were mostly small, and we all had great fun. The audience seemed to enjoy it all, too.
Here is the band line-up – from left to right, Trevor, Dieter, Maggie, me and Hugh.
Here is Maggie demonstrating the title of the poem “How to Hold a Husband”.
Hugh seemed to enjoy himself.
Then it was time for lunch. Jim Brown and David Campbell did a great job entertaining patrons in the tea rooms over the lunch break.
The traditional “moving theatre” followed, with some new faces this year – Geoffrey W. Graham as Banjo Paterson, Jim Haynes as Henry Lawson, and John Derum as the “one and only” C.J. Dennis.
A recent tradition during the moving theatre has been for some of the local children to perform a ballet to music inspired by the poetry of C.J. Dennis. (Local parent and retired dancer Cathy Phelan designs the costumes and choreographs the dancing.)
In past years, the children have danced to recorded music. This year was different. Maggie Somerville had written music to C.J. Dennis’ poem “The Satin Bower Bird” (from “The Singing Garden”), and recorded it on CD for the children to rehearse to.
Here is the audience enjoying Maggie and the children’s performance.
We next moved to the top of the gardens, where the poets were joined by Dorothea Mackellar (Ruth Aldridge).
It was then back down to the marquee to finish the show.
Afternoon tea was held in the tea rooms, then back again to the marquee for one last time to watch the festival end in the traditional way – with Jim Brown’s rendition of C.J. Dennis’ magical poem, “Dusk”.
Some festival attendees missed Jim’s performance, so he agreed to perform it a second time.
I made a video of Jim’s second performance, which can be found here:
So ended what had been a wonderful festival.
There are too many people to thank properly, but special gratitude and appreciation must be given to the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) for their continued generous sponsorship, to Vic and Jan Williams, owners of “The Singing Gardens” (and their family), for their tireless work maintaining the gardens and helping to organise the festival, and to our illustrious Secretary Jim Brown for all his hard work.
We hope to see you at next year’s festival, when we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1916 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”!
I will add one last photo – C.J. Dennis (John Derum) addressing the throng, with the famed copper beech tree in the background and cloudless blue skies above. Could anything be better?
Maggie Somerville and I have spent the better part of the last twelve months recording a CD of C.J. Dennis songs and poems. We are calling it “The Two Bees”. We recorded it at the studies of Hugh McDonald. Hugh also provides much of the instrumentation on the CD, and acted as our Producer. (Hugh is best known as one of the singers in the former folk rock band “Redgum”, and writer of the iconic Australian song “The Diamantina Drover”.)
I am very excited to announce that the CD is likely to be ready some time next week.
We are planning to launch it at 11am on Sunday, 18th October, at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, as part of the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival. (This is a very special year for the festival, as we are celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1915 of Dennis’ most successful book – the most successful poetry book ever published in Australia – “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.)
I have created a Facebook page for “The Two Bees”, which can be found here: