The Puzzles of The Diamantina Drover

December 19th, 2016 | Henry Lawson, Music, News, Reflections, Songs

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

November 21st, 2016 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Music, News, Photos, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

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.

Console 1

Violin

Guitar

Saucepan

(Hugh was always game to try something new. Here he is playing the saucepan…)

Gourd

(… and here the gourd.)

Toolangi 2

Toolangi 1

(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!

Making video

(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.

Rocking chair

(Thanks to Margaret Voake for this photo, too – also taken at Toolangi.)

Hugh's guitars

Report: 2016 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

October 28th, 2016 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Music, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, Songs, 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.)

Pumphouse copy

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.

TFDC

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.

Opening 1

Bendigo Bank copy

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 full list of the results can be found here:

http://www.abpa.org.au/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=8253

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.

David, Jim and Jan copy

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.

David and Jan copy

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.

Maggie 2 copy

Ruth 3 copy

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.

Audience 4 copy

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!

Geoffrey looking spent copy

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).

Terry, Geoff and Jim copy

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!

Banjo 10 copy

Here is a view of the wash-house itself.

2 copy

The afternoon finished with a surprise appearance from “Mary Gilmore” (Ruth Aldridge) performing her famous poem “No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest”.

Mary Gilmore 3 copy

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!

Top of garden copy

(Thank you to Maggie Somerville for this photo of the five “poets”.)

Report: 2015 Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival

October 24th, 2015 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Music, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults, Stories for children, Sunnyside, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

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.)

Ted Egan (Nerys Evans)

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.

Maggie 3

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.)

Jim, Geoffrey and me (Maggie Somerville)

The Poets’ Breakfast kicked off right on schedule the following morning at 9.30.

Here is Ruth Aldridge reciting “Caravanning Bliss” by Bob Magor.

Ruth 10

Shelley and Rod Hansen provided a great double act.

Shelley and Rod Hansen

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.

Audience 4

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.

The line-up

Here is Maggie demonstrating the title of the poem “How to Hold a Husband”.

Maggie and Stephen (How to Hold a Husband)

Hugh seemed to enjoy himself.

Hugh McDonald

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.

The gang - from in front

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.

Audience

We next moved to the top of the gardens, where the poets were joined by Dorothea Mackellar (Ruth Aldridge).

The gang - from in front

It was then back down to the marquee to finish the show.

Audience

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?

John Derum with copper beech

The Two Bees

September 15th, 2015 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Music, News, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

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:

https://www.facebook.com/thetwobeescd?fref=ts&ref=br_tf

The Two Bees

2014 Bush Poetry fundraiser on Herring Island for Yarra Riverkeepers

November 9th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Pete Seeger, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults, Yarra River

The Yarra Riverkeepers held their second bush poetry fundraiser at Herring Island yesterday afternoon. The first was held in October last year. I was asked once again by Andrew Kelly, recently appointed as Riverkeeper, to rustle up the poets and MC the event.

I was again joined this year by reciters Dave Davies and Jim Smith, and poet Edel Wignell. Singer/songwriter Maggie Somerville provided some musical relief.

The weather was kind to us once again. There was bright sunshine for most of the afternoon, although the wind proved a bit of a challenge at times.

We had a capacity crowd, which was very exciting. Fortunately, unlike last year, the microphone behaved itself!

Here is Andrew introducing the afternoon.

Andrew

A wide variety of material was on offer. The old masters – Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis, etc. – were well represented, but there was also plenty of contemporary material, much of it original.

Dave Davies recited “The Grog and Grumble Steeplechase” by Henry Lawson.

Dave

Edel Wignell told us, amongst other things, about a dog on a trampoline, Harvey, “the bouncing, squat, Staffordshire bull terrier”.

Jim Smith recited a very moving piece – part poetry, part song – by the American writer Gordon Bok. It referred to the selkie legend – seals that change their form to become human. There is a very interesting link between Bok and the Riverkeepers. The Riverkeeper organisation began on the Hudson River in New York state, around the time that Pete Seeger was sailing up and down the Hudson in the Clearwater, also attempting to clean up the river. Jim told us that the captain of the Clearwater was none other than Gordon Bok!

The reason Jim was telling us about selkies was, as he explained, that it used to be very common for seals to be sighted in Australian waterways, including the Yarra, often many hundreds of miles from the coast. Indeed, seals are still occasionally sighted in the Yarra.

Jim

I had a chance to read some of the poems I have recently written based on the book “Ferries on the Yarra”, by Colin Jones – an absolute wealth of fascinating historic information.

Maggie sang four songs, some Yarra-related, others not. We sang “Muddy Old Yarra” by Clem Parkinson together, to round out the first half of the show. Maggie then finished the afternoon with “Our Sweet Yarra”, a song she had written based on a poem I had written for the show last year. She followed with “Waratah Bay”, a very popular song from her CD, dedicated to a beautiful part of Australia in South Gippsland. The afternoon finished with her song, “The Sash”, based on my poem of the same name, that tells the story of the child Ned Kelly receiving a green sash for saving the life of a drowning boy in the town of Avenel.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon. Thanks to the many – performers, audience, the Yarra Riverkeepers and their army of volunteers, and Parks Victoria – for making it all possible.

2014 Maldon Folk Festival

November 3rd, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Camping, Festivals, News, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults

I have just returned from another wonderful weekend at the Maldon Folk Festival. The weather was its usual spring unpredictability. It was warm when we arrived, but turned cold and windy during the night. Rain followed, after which it became warm and sunny again.

The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended, and very enjoyable, as always. My impression is that, after the low point of a few years ago, crowds are on the up again. The Breakfast audiences seemed larger this year than last.

Audience - Sunday Breakfast copy

A small but attentive crowd attended for the launch of my new book of poetry for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, published by Walker Books in May this year. Thanks to Geoffrey Graham for launching it for me, and to Maggie Somerville for singing “The Sash”, the song she has written based on my poem of the same name.

A festival highlight for me was the performance of my poem, “In Bed With My Bedsocks”, from the book, by ten year old Tahlia Heggie, during the Sunday Poets’ Breakfast. (Her mother had bought the book at the launch the previous day.) Tahlia also performed two other poems from the book – “Tidying My Room” and “When Eating Watermelon” – over the course of the weekend. It is the ultimate accolade for any poet who writes for children to have a child perform a poem he has written, so for me this was particularly gratifying. Congratulations, too, to Tahlia’s mother for inculcating in her a love of reading!

Here I am with Tahlia (and the book!) after the Breakfast.

Me and Tahlia copy

(Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)

The Yarn Events this year were held in the Kangaroo Hotel – a first. Unfortunately, rain forced us indoors on the Saturday afternoon. We performed in the dining room, and performers at times struggled to make themselves heard above the waitresses taking lunch orders. The Sunday afternoon was much more successful. The day was bright and sunny, and the event took place in the hotel garden. As with the Poets’ Breakfasts, audiences were very sold, especially on the Sunday.

The Monday Poets’ Breakfast was very much a return to the past. When I first began attending Maldon in 2003, a poetry event was held on Sunday afternoon in the beautiful gardens of Tucci’s, then a pizza restaurant. After several years Tucci’s closed, and remained so for a number of years. It has now re-opened as the restaurant “Wicked Temptations” (with a very smart looking new back fence at the far end of the gardens), and the Monday Poets’ Breakfast was held there. Again, it was very well attended. A highlight for me was my performance with Maggie Somerville of “The Two Bees”, a poem by C. J. Dennis that Maggie has put to music.

Of course, there were many other wonderful events. To pick a few highlights – Geoffrey Graham’s one man ‘Banjo’ Paterson show at the Neighbourhood Centre on Saturday afternoon, Fred Smith at “The Troubadour” on Saturday night, followed by Martin Pearson, and Keith McKenry’s launch of his new biography of John Meredith at the Anglican Church on Sunday afternoon.

Once again, it was a fabulous Maldon Folk Festival, very much enjoyed by all!

2014 Benalla Muster

October 15th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults

Last weekend the Victorian Bush Poets and Music Association held its annual Muster at the Benalla Bowls Club. I attended with my dear friend Maggie Somerville, and we had a wonderful time.

The event is a little smaller and less formal than it once was, when the event also hosted the Australian Bush Poetry Association Victorian Championships. There is still some fierce competition in various categories, though (notably the two song competitions – Original and Non Original – and the Novice Poetry competition). There is plenty of scope also for the enjoyment of poetry and song in a relaxed, non-competitive environment.

The highlight of the weekend for me was…drumroll, please…Maggie Somerville’s win in the Original Song competition, with her beautiful song “Waratah Bay”. She absolutely nailed it with her performance, and the icing on the cake was her whistling, which everybody seemed to love. (“Waratah Bay”, for those who don’t know, is a lovely long stretch of untouched beach in South Gippsland, near Wilsons Promontory. Maggie has been visiting there on her holidays for many years.)

Here she is with her trophy in her hands.

Original song presentation

Maggie also came second to Ken Prato in the Novice Poetry with her poem, “Mozzed”, inspired by my book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.

Novice poetry presentation

The weekend, as always, was a wonderful chance to catch up with many like-minded souls, and celebrate together our love of spoken word and music. We also celebrate, of course, our love of Australia and its history.

The weather was warm and sunny all weekend, and Maggie and I found time to visit the curious but extraordinary sculpture (what should it be called?) that sits on the northern bank of the Broken River, between the bridge and the museum.

The sculpture

The only chance to perform outside in the glorious weather came at the war tribute beside the statue of “Weary” Dunlop in the gardens.

War tribute

All in all, I had a wonderful weekend, meeting old friends, and making new ones. I even sold a few books!

Thanks to Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers for making it happen once again.

7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

September 30th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival will be held on the weekend of Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th October at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, the site of Dennis’ original home.

Yes, we’ve been a bit slow with our publicity this year, but better late than never!

We have a special guest this year, in the form of the actor, John Derum.

John Derum

It was John who first introduced me to the delights of C. J. Dennis, way back in the early 1980s.

In 1976, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dennis, he produced a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”. The premise, of course, was that Dennis was mostly known only for this masterpiece, but had written so much more.

Pumphandle Records, a very small label, had recorded an LP (remember them?) based on Derum’s show, and I happened to stumble upon it in a record shop in the city several years later. It looked interesting. I bought it, took it home and played it, and it changed my life.

(John has had a long and distinguished career as an actor. For example, he appeared in the first episode of “Homicide” and the final edition of “The Mavis Bramston Show”. He was also “Narrator Neville” in the first season of “The Aunty Jack Show”.)

John will be performing his show “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” at “The Singing Gardens” on Saturday evening. Late in the afternoon, just before dinner, he will also be performing a show, “The Singing Garden”, based on Dennis’ last book, of the same name. The title comes from the many different species of bird – both native and introduced – that regularly visited Dennis’ forest home. He will also be with us for the other events that will take place over the course of the weekend.

The programme, therefore, will be (roughly…) as follows.

We will kick off, as usual, with the Awards Ceremony for the Written Poetry Competition at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon. This will be followed by an ‘open mic’ session, though this may be a little truncated this year due to the fullness of the programme. (We also have a surprise musical component to the entertainment on the Saturday afternoon this year.)

John will perform “The Singing Garden” from about 4.30pm, after which dinner will be served. He will then perform “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” from around 7.30pm. The show will finish around 9pm, after which a very light supper (tea and biscuits) will be served.

Sunday will kick off with the usual Poets’ Breakfast (perhaps more appropriately called a “Morning Tea”), after which lunch will be served. C. J. Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson will then personally take guests on a guided tour of the gardens. This will also include a ballet performance from local school children, and John will also be there, of course, to make sure we do not stray too much from the track…

Afternoon tea will then be served, during which another ‘open mic’ session will be held.

It promises to be a truly fabulous weekend!

Here is a reminder of last year’s festival, with Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown!) in full swing.

Jim Brown - Moving Theatre 27.10.2013 copy

For further information and bookings, please contact Jan Williams at “The Singing Gardens” on 0359629282.

C. J. Dennis Society AGM

September 15th, 2014 | C. J. Dennis, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, Uncategorized

I spent a wonderful day yesterday at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, former home of the great Australian poet C. J. Dennis, for the purposes of attending the AGM of the C. J. Dennis Society.

Secretary/Treasurer Jim Brown kicked off proceedings with his haunting rendition of Dennis’ “Dusk”.

(Seated are, from left to right, Maggie Somerville, Edel Wignell and Patsy Hohnen.)

Jim

The meeting was well attended, and highly productive. The weather was also very kind to us.

Afterwards, Maggie Somerville sang her beautiful song “Waratah Bay” to Patsy.

Maggie and Patsy

Before heading home, there was time to stroll once more along the banks of the Yea River.

Yea River

(Terry Maher standing; seated left, Maggie and right, Patsy.)

Here are they are again…

Terry, Maggie and Patsy

…and again.

Maggie, Patsy and Terry

I was thrilled to receive, and very happy to accept, a nomination to be the Society’s new President. I was duly elected to the position, and look forward to an exciting and active future for the C. J. Dennis Society.

Congratulations to David Campbell, who was once again elected to the position of Vice President, to Jim Brown (Secretary/Treasurer once more), to Daan Spijer and Jan Williams (general committee members), and to Terry Maher and Lyn Storen (new committee members).