The Puzzles of The Diamantina Drover
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.
Vale Hugh McDonald
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.)
“An Old Master” – verse 16
Finally, we come to verse 16.
“that he draws the old age pension” replaced “merely that he draws the pension”
Michael also sent me the title page for “An Old Master”, which appears to stand as a separate document. It is dated 24.3.10, the day after the date on the page of the manuscript itself, which would suggest that the whole poem – with revisions – was written over the course of a single day. This probably should not come as a great surprise, as we know that Dennis worked fast.
Here is the title page:
There are some minor changes between the final version of this manuscript and the poem as it appeared in “The Bulletin” later in 1910, but I’ll leave you to look those up for yourself.
Speaking for myself, it has been very exciting to have this rare glimpse into the working of the mind of that wonderful poet, C.J. Dennis!
There are a couple of pages just of cross-outs also. They don’t add anything particularly new, but I will post them here for the sake of completeness.
Thank you, David Hume, for bringing these wonderful documents to light!
Thank you also to David Campbell for reviewing my rendition of these corrections, and making a number of helpful suggestions and further corrections.
“An Old Master” – verses 14, 13 and 15
Here is the end of verse 14, and verses 13 (out of sequence) and 15.
“men of mighty brawn and lung” replaced by “puncher princes of the track”
Verse 13 (out of sequence)
“use” replaced by “loose”
“…the lips of…” replaced by “…in the throat of…”
“Strings of curses…” replaced by “Oaths and curses”; “Gems of language, jewelled curses…” replaced by “Tipped with lightening, cracklin’ fires…”; “…fires” replaced by “…flames”
Line 2: “…old Dad remarked…” replaced by “…the master cried…”
Line 3: “…strained and tugged…” replaced by “…lifted her…”
“An Old Master” – verses 11, 12 and 14
Here are verses 11 and 12, and the first two and a half lines of verse 14. (Verse 13 is out of sequence, and comes later.)
“Then” replaced by “Now”
“at” replaced by “to” and “word” replaced by “crack”
“While the whip sang loud and faster for they knew they’d met a master” replaced by “And he kept his cursin under till old ‘Brindle’ made a blunder”
“Then Dad started cursin, softly first and then he opened out” replaced by “I thought all hell had hit me and the master opened out”
“I may live to be a hundred” replaced by “I have heard some noble cursers”
(There are some other cross-outs here, such as “top notch cursers” and “fancy”.)
“Trimmed with frills and decorations, but filled with fancy exclamations” replaced by “Full of fancy exclamations trimmed with frills and decorations”
“But it was mere childish prattle” replaced by “But their talk was childish prattle”
“…that we were lookin’ at a…” replaced by “…the man before us was a…”
“Of a class that’s gone forever, lords they of whip and tongue” replaced by “One of those great lords of language, gone forever from out back”
“the” replaced by “an”
As you can see, the corrections are becoming more frequent and substantial as the poem reaches its climax.
“An Old Master” – verses 8, 9 and 10
Here are verses 9 and 10, and the last two lines of verse 8
“he says” replaced by “says he”
“Give that whip you muddlin blue tongue!” replaced by “Pass that whip you blanky blue tongue!”
“heard of fellers changing sudden” replaced by “heard of fellers sort of changin’”
There is then a false start for the second line:
“In emergencies an such like” (this is crossed out)
“at the sight of” replaced by “as I looked at”
“All at once” replaced by “While we gazed”
“gait” (and another word I cannot read) replaced by “footsteps”
“But with carriage firm and steady as he swung the whip on high” replaced by “But with firm determined carriage as he flung the whip on high”
“An Old Master” – verses 6, 7 and 8
Here are verses 6 and 7, and the first two lines of verse 8.
The only corrections are to verse 7.
““Aye?” says he, wot’s happened to you” replaced by “Aye, what’s happened now?” he quavered
(There is also a second “says he” crossed out later in the line.)
“as” replaced by “like”
“Then” replaced by “And”
(There is another word crossed out here – it could be “hobbled”, but it is difficult to be sure – and replaced by “toddled”.)
“An Old Master” – verses 3, 4 and 5
Here are verses 4 and 5 – together with the last two lines of verse 3.
There are several alternatives, as follows:
…and as Michael saw her settle
…and as he observed her settle
…Mitchell as he saw her settle
(The third version is the final version.)
“bogged for sure without a hope” replaced by “red and stiff and most tenacious”
“Struth says Mick” replaced by “Struth says I”
“lift it” and “shift it” replaced by “lift her” and “shift her”
(There is also a question mark over “in”.)
“Bill McGee” replaced by “Dad McGee”
“Who” replaced by “William”
“An Old Master” – verses 1, 2 and 3
Before proceeding to the manuscript, let us remind ourselves of the following.
There are three published versions of “An Old Master”.
The first was published in “The Bulletin” in 1910.
The second was published in “Back Block Ballads and Other Verses” by E.W. Cole in 1913.
The third, and final version, was published in “Back Block Ballads and Later Verses” by Angus & Robertson in 1918. This version, considerably shorter than the version published by “The Bulletin” in 1910, is the one best known and most often heard today.
The 1913 version is not widely accessible. It exists only in a couple of libraries. I have not seen it myself.
The pencil-written manuscript given to me by David Hume follows very closely the longer version in “The Bulletin”. It is dated 23.3.10.
Here are verses 1 and 2 of the pencil-written manuscript, together with the first two lines of verse 3.
There are not many corrections to note here, but they are as follows:
“on” replaced by “near”
“tucker bill” replaced by “tucker bag”
“An Old Master” by C.J. Dennis – original pencil-drawn manuscript
In the lead-up to the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival this year, I was interviewed on ABC Radio 774 by Libbi Gorr. A number of listeners rang in with interesting stories about C.J. Dennis.
One caller was of particular interest. David Hume told me that his grandfather, Walter Hume, had been a mate of Dennis, and had received from him as a gift the original pencil-drawn manuscript of Dennis’ classic poem, “An Old Master”. This is one of Dennis’ better known poems, and is often heard recited at Poets’ Breakfasts and other poetry events these days. It is of particular interest to Victorians, as it is set in the hills around Toolangi.
David duly sent me the manuscript, which I am posting now. I have asked Dr. Philip Butterss from the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide to have a look at it, and he is in no doubt that it is authentic. (Dr. Butterss wrote the award-winning biography of C.J. Dennis, “An Unsentimental Bloke”, published by Wakefield Press last year. He has been very helpful to me in my writing of the presentation of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” that I performed with Geoffrey Graham and Jim Haynes at the festival this year.)
Walter Hume was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1873 (three years before Dennis was born). However, he moved to Adelaide in 1904, and may well have met him over there. Hume developed a cheap method of making pipes which became popular around the world, and become a very successful and wealthy businessman.
You can view his biography here:
The manuscript was given to Walter Hume in about 1936 or 1937.
It should also be noted that it would appear that this is the first time that the friendship between Walter Hume and C.J. Dennis has become public knowledge.
David also gave me a copy of a covering letter that Dennis wrote to Hume.
Here it is:
(At the top is a watermark that reads: ARDEN. TOOLANGI. VICTORIA.)
The letter reads as follows:
“10th June, 1935.
W.R. Hume Esq.,
5 Studley Avenue
You see how I hasten to break my stern rule about answering correspondence as soon as greed scents the least chance of possible material profit. Human nature is like that.
Frankly, and briefly, I am greatly attracted by your scheme, but –
Although my need at the moment be great, I can hardly see myself entering into any scheme that means certain winnings for me while others (on my behalf) put their money on a horse they know nothing or little about.
Not that I would throw cold water on your scheme – far from it. It has possibilities, provided that the difficulties and problems before you are first thouroughly understood and appreciated.
Through experience I have learned something about book publishing, and I should be glad to put those problems before you on the first occasion we are able to meet.
I have little desire to go to town just at present. Since I saw you last I have again been in and out of hospital (for the fourth time in twelve months) and I do not feel exactly in travelling humor.
However, when your return to town if you will, at your convenience, drop a line to me, or ring me I shall endeavour to get in personal touch with you to discuss matters.
Will you allow me to say that I regard it as a very great kindness that a busy man, like yourself, should devote so much valuable time to the interests of myself and my work.
You are rather at sea in regards to “The Bloke” dialect; but we will discuss that, too, when we meet.
With kind regards,
(signed in his customary green ink)
What, exactly, was the proposal that Hume was making to Dennis? We will probably never know.
My computer appears to be struggling, so I will continue this story in another post.