Last Saturday I had the great privilege of attending (and performing at) the launch of Maggie Somerville’s new album based on the poetry of Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘The Forest Prayed’. Maggie has taken 16 poems by Mary Gilmore, written music for them, and recorded them as songs. We believe this is the first album of songs based on the poems of Dame Mary Gilmore to be recorded (but would be happy to be proved wrong).
Maggie felt the most appropriate place to launch the album would be Crookwell in New South Wales, near the place of Gilmore’s birth, and home of the Upper Lachlan Shire Mary Gilmore Society. The Society holds an annual Mary Gilmore Festival, which Maggie has attended for the last two years. The driving force behind the festival and the society is Crookwell resident Trevene Mattox, who has become a great supporter of Maggie in recent years.
Trevene enthusiastically agreed to organise the launch, to be held at the Memorial Centre, and very kindly allowed us to stay at her house.
She did an excellent job of advertising the event.
Trevene is a superb organiser, and does a wonderful job of bringing local community groups together. It is always a little nerve-racking in the minutes leading up to an event such as this. The best organisation in the world does not guarantee that an audience will turn up. Fortunately, on this occasion, they most definitely did!
The hall had been beautifully decorated, with great attention to detail.
The launch began with Elaine Delaney (left) and Trevene (right) welcoming the many groups and individuals who had attended.
The Upper Lachlan Shire Mayor John Stafford then introduced Maggie and me.
Our moment had arrived! Maggie performed “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, with me joining her for the choruses, and doing my best to impersonate Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1941 ‘speech to the nation’ in response to the threat of the invasion of Australia by Japan during World War II (which features on the album).
Dame Mary Gilmore’s great great nephew, The Hon Scott Morrison PM, had been invited to launch the album, but was otherwise engaged. The local member for Hume, The Hon Angus Taylor, was also unable to attend. However, his lovely wife, Louise, did most graciously agree to launch the album, and spoke entertainingly, in great detail, and with glowing praise for ‘The Forest Prayed.’
We had been warned that the audience would be satisfied with the performance of one song only but, in fact, they were thirsty for more, so we followed with a rather impromptu (but nonetheless successful) rendition of ‘Never Admit the Pain.’
A very healthy number of CDs were sold during the course of the afternoon, and we can only express our most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Louise Taylor and Mayor John Stafford, and to Trevene Mattox and Elaine Delaney and their large team of tireless and hard working assistants. I realise I have neglected to mention the food which was both varied and delicious, and available in large quantities! All in all, it was a great event for which, I hope, Dame Mary Gilmore herself would have been very proud!
I went for a bracing walk along the road to Bathurst the following morning, and became better acquainted with some of the locals.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ album, including details of future launches to be held in Melbourne, can be found here:
I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.
Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.
It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.
That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’
Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)
The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.
The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.
The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’
What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.
Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.
The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’
For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
Alas it will not be today.
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.
Maggie Somerville and I attended Newstead Live! again this year. We set off after I had finished work on the Friday before Australia Day, which meant we were setting up the tent in the dark. To complicate matters a little further, the performers’ camping was not available, so we had to camp at the Racecourse, which I struggled to find. Eventually we stumbled into the Railway Hotel, where we were assisted by some helpful patrons.
I made it to the Poets’ Breakfast the following morning in time to act as MC and create a list of performers. (Jim Smith has always acted as MC at these events, but decided to call it a day last year.) We had only been allocated 45 minutes on the programme, but Troubadour Manager Andrew Pattison was happy for us to run through till 10 am, which meant we got a full hour, and everybody had a chance to perform twice.
It was good to see Campbell the Swaggie once again.
Maggie and I had the rest of the day free to check out other acts.
A highlight for me was the ‘Good Girl Song Project’ at the Uniting Church, telling the rather sorry story of early female migration to the colony of New South Wales, based on research by Liz Rushen, with songs by Helen Begley, and a script taken directly from documents of the day. Maggie enjoyed it, too. I bought the CD, which is also excellent.
Later in the afternoon we caught a couple of songs from ‘The Grubby Urchins’ at Lilliput. It was good to see Daniel Bornstein again. The last time I had seen him performing at Lilliput was several years ago, when he was with my son, Thomas, in ‘The Paper Street Soap Company.’
(Daniel is on the left.)
We also spent some time relaxing in the Courtyard, where we watched Geoffrey Graham (who was due to perform ‘Digger Smith’ with us the following day.)
Geoffrey was followed by fellow Victorian Folk Music Club members Don and Ken who also did an excellent job.
On Sunday morning I did a quick poem at the Poets’ Breakfast (this time with Geoffrey Graham acting as MC) before dashing off to do a show for children at Lilliput.
Maggie and I then watched Andrew Pattison interview Broderick Smith at the Troubadour for ‘Desert Island Discs.’ Broderick was a particularly eloquent interviewee, and Andrew was a superb interviewer, as always.
(Broderick and Andrew are away in the distance in this photo, I am afraid, and Andrew’s head has been completely blocked by a speaker!)
Finally it was time for Geoffrey, Maggie and I to perform ‘Digger Smith’ by C. J. Dennis at the Anglican Church. ‘Digger Smith’, first published in 1918, was the fourth of five books written by Dennis featuring Bill and Doreen, and is set at the end of the First World War. This was only the second time Maggie and I had performed it (the first being at Toolangi last year), and the first with Geoffrey. It went well, with a small but appreciative audience. We will be performing ‘Digger Smith’ next in the Trocadero at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.
It was very difficult for Maggie to perform following the unexpected and tragic death of her son Julian only twelve days earlier. I am extremely grateful to her for doing so, and for doing it so beautifully.
I will finish this report with a photo of the Men’s Shed, which caught my fancy with its ‘Receding Airlines.’
The lead-up to the festival this year was disturbed by the very sad news that Vic Williams, co-owner of The Singing Gardens, and husband of Jan Williams, is very ill. My thoughts are with Vic, Jan and their sons at this difficult time.
This year’s festival was very enjoyable and went well, but numbers were significantly down on previous years, which is prompting some soul searching. The cold, wet weather no doubt was a contributing factor, but I am not convinced that this is the whole story.
It began, as always with the Awards Ceremony. This was one of the best attended events of the weekend. Numbers of entries were up on last year, and the standard, as always, was very high. In addition to the prize money and certificates, award winners also received a copy of the festival booklet containing all the winning poems, beautifully produced by Daan Spijer, and a copy of Jack Thompson’s CD, “The Sentimental Bloke. The Poems of C. J. Dennis”, a number of which had been kindly donated to the Society. The new category of short story (500 word limit), now in its second year, appears to be working well. It was especially gratifying to see Jan Williams win First Prize in the ‘Adults Writing for Children’ section, as judged by children, for her poem ‘Scruffy Dog’.
The ‘Open Mike’ and ‘C. J. Dennis Showcase’ followed, with great performances by Jenny Erlanger, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Ruth Aldridge and Daan Spijer.
At 5 pm we commenced the performance of ‘Digger Smith’, published 100 years ago, in 1918. Several rehearsals had been held, we were dressed for the part, and I think we acquitted ourselves well. Unfortunately, we played to a very small crowd, which was disappointing. That said the audience, though tiny, was highly attentive and appreciative – and complimentary! We broke after an hour or so for dinner, and then continued for another hour after dinner, completing the book. (The food, it must be said, was as superb as ever!)
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
The Poets’ Breakfast the following morning was attended by myself, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Christine Middleton and Tim Sheed. It was great to have Christine and Tim there. Christine is a beautiful harpist, and Tim is an excellent reciter of Australian bush verse.
Christine performed some of the melodies she plays in the course of her work as a music therapist.
Tim recited an old Dennis favourite, “An Old Master”. It was exciting to be able to inform him that he was pretty much standing on the slopes of Mt St Leonard himself as he performed the poem!
We were honoured with the attendance of the local Member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish (State Member for Eildon). I think she was expecting a larger turn-up, but she hid her disappointment well, and in the end I think she really enjoyed the performances.
Maggie Somerville had put the poem “West” from “Digger Smith” to music, and performed it after David Campbell and I had provided something of the context. It was very well received.
David took the opportunity to perform his poem “A School for Politicians”, and I then changed the mood slightly with one of my poems for children, “Yesterday’s Homework”. Maggie and Christine played “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” together to finish the morning show. This poem, by Dame Mary Gilmore, has been put to music by Maggie. She has recorded the song, with Christine playing the harp. However, Christine was recorded in a different studio at a different time to the other musicians, so this was the first time Maggie and Christine had performed the song together.
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
Maggie and I have worked together to create a YouTube video of the song, which can be found here:
(from left to right, David, Tim (back), Christine (front), me, Cindy and Maggie – photo by Melanie Hartnell)
The sun came out after lunch, in time for the ‘moving theatre’ and the children’s ballet. ‘C.J. Dennis’ and ‘Henry Lawson’ received a surprise visit from ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’. ‘Henry’ took the opportunity to introduce the audience to little known poems by Banjo Paterson’s younger brother Ukulele, and Henry Lawson’s younger brother Leroy.
The numbers were swelled considerably by the families and friends of the dancers without whom, once again, the audience would have been very small indeed.
We then moved inside for afternoon tea, and Jan Williams presented David with the Marian Mayne award for First Prize in the Open Poetry section.
Jim Brown was not able to attend the festival this year, and was therefore unable to perform his traditional rendition of ‘Dusk’ to close the festival. I performed it in his stead, with musical accompaniment from Maggie.
The gardens looked splendid as always. The weather was rather dismal on the Saturday, but picked up on the Sunday. Jan and her band of helpers performed admirably as they always do and, as I mentioned before, the food all weekend was delicious. The only thing missing was a good-sized audience!
It is hard to know precisely the cause(s) for this. We have an ageing membership, and are not attracting many new, younger members. The festival has been running in its current format for a number of years now, and perhaps a change is needed. Suggestions received included reducing it to a single day (probably the Sunday), or running it every second year. Further suggestions are welcome.
In summary, the festival this year was enjoyable and successful, but it would have been nicer to have had a few more people there!
Maggie and I visited the Benalla Entertainment Muster last Sunday. This is an annual event run by the Victorian Bush Poetry and Music Association, and organised primarily by Cudgewa-based Jan Lewis. It is a great fun weekend, and I have been attending it for a number of years now. It is also a good opportunity to promote the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, which usually follows a week or two later. (This year it is following a week later – taking place this coming weekend.) Some years I have attended on both the Saturday and the Sunday, staying overnight in Benalla, and Maggie has joined me for the two days a couple of times in recent years, but my current work commitments make it difficult for me to get there on the Saturday.
As always, it was great fun. This year, a ‘sea shanty’ theme was chosen, which lent itself to being interpreted in a number of ways. Certainly the most visually spectacular of these was the court martial of Captain Kirley by Admiral Carrington and Co.
Val Kirley’s paintings of sailing ships added to the nautical atmosphere.
Maggie (back) joins Jan Lewis (left) and Christine Boult (right) in song.
Maurie Foun (lagerphone), Jim Carlisle and Jeff Mifsud (guitar) make music together.
Just a few snippets of what was a very enjoyable day…
It was both a joy and a privilege last Saturday afternoon (24th February) to host the launch of the new CD of original songs and tunes, ‘Baloney’, by my dear friend Maggie Somerville, at my home in Northcote.
Maggie began working on the CD two years ago, in the studios of Hugh McDonald (ex-Redgum, writer of the iconic song “The Diamantina Drover”). Sadly, Hugh died in late 2016 before completing the project. Fortunately, Hugh’s bass player, James Clark, agreed to help her finish it, first in Hugh’s studios, then in his own studios in Riddells Creek.
Maggie had been watching the long range forecast with an eagle eye for the previous two weeks, and had accepted that it was likely to rain during the event (although that turned out not to be the case!), and wet weather plans were put in place. The audience would be seated on plastic chairs in my living room, while Maggie and the band would be outside, on adjacent covered decking. Double doors allowed the audience good access to the musicians.
The launch was further complicated by the sad death of former President of the Victorian Folk Music Club Harry Gardner, with a memorial service in his honour being held in Ringwood on the morning of the launch. A number of the musicians, including Maggie, were planning to attend, which would make the timing tight.
(One of the tunes on ‘Baloney’ is titled ‘Harry’s Baking Bread’. Harry frequently hosted music rehearsals at his home, and in his later years mastered the art of baking bread, which he served for supper. Maggie was asked to play the tune at Harry’s service, and say a few words about him, which she was thrilled to have the opportunity to do.)
Catering was to be organised by Maggie’s daughters Gronya (who would also be singing) and Bridget, and two of Gronya’s friends, Suzanne and Mary-Anne.
Maggie had also printed a small number of purple T-shirts featuring the beautiful cover art of the CD, created by Hilary Jellett.
As it turned out, the day was a great success. The musicians all arrived in time (just!), the rain came prior to the event, and held off during the launch itself, the audience arrived in good time, and ideal numbers (a full house, but not over-full), and the catering was superb.
Maggie managed to perform all twenty tracks on the album, only running slightly over time, and that was in spite of a good long break for tucker at the halfway mark.
There was a great mood during the afternoon, and it was clear that everybody – audience and musicians alike – had enjoyed themselves immensely.
(Thank you to Catherine Leslie for this photo of the musicians.)
Maggie is joined by friends (and daughter Gronya, far right), in her ode to her hot water bottle…
Maggie is assaulted by a creeper in her song “The Creeper’s Curse”…
Maggie sings of the trials and tribulations of breast feeding…
Congratulations to Maggie and her large cast of musicians (see below) on a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment, and a very successful launch of ‘Baloney’.
Bill Buttler – guitar, ukulele
Maree Buttler – piano accordion, vocals
Katy Cottrill – vocals, percussion
James Clark – bass
Catherine Leslie – violin
Michael Parker – Uilleann pipes
Bryce Russell – keyboard
Ray Simpson – didgeridoo
Gronya Somerville – vocals
Bruce Watson – snare drum
Jill Watson – glockenspiel
Trevor Voake – mandolin
Gronya and Maggie.
Stephen (me) and Maggie.
(Thank you to Gronya Somerville for this photo.)
Here is a full track listing:
1. A Dog’s Life
2. A Little of Your Time
3. The Breastfeeding Blues
4. Hugh McDonald’s Lament
5. Streets of Fear
6. Koori Spirit
7. Don’t Give Up Your Name
8. Dunlewey Dream
9. One Forgotten Soldier
10. Aussie Christmas Day
11. How I Love My Hottie
12. Whiskers in the Whistle/Harry’s Baking Bread
13. Heroes of Guadalcanal
14. The Creeper’s Curse
15. Bridget’s Bicycle/Foster Market
16. Wattle Day
17. Garage Girl
18. The Weatherboard House
19. Sunset Farewell
20. Edith Oenone
A second launch of ‘Baloney’ will take place at the Ringwood Folk Club (Knaith Rd. Reserve, Knaith Rd, Ringwood East – Melway 50 B8) on Tuesday, 13th March. VFMC member Jane Bullock has choreographed a dance for ‘Harry’s Baking Bread’, which will also be performed on the evening.
Further information about the Ringwood launch can be found here:
Further information about ‘Baloney’ can be found on Maggie’s website, here:
I was starting to worry that we had no photographic record of the performance of “The Glugs of Gosh” at the 2017 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held to celebrate the centenary of its publication. Fortunately, C. J. Dennis Society member Will Hagon has come to the rescue!
Here we see, from left to right, Sir Stodge (David Campbell), a narrator (Maggie Somerville), King Splosh (Jim Brown), and another narrator (Ruth Aldridge), in “The Swanks of Gosh”.
Now we move on to “The Seer”, with narrators Jim Brown and Ruth Aldridge, and the Mayor of Quog (Daan Spijer).
The climax is reached in “Ogs”, with the “Og” audience throwing stones at the Glugs!
Here are Sir Stodge (David Campbell), a narrator (Maggie Somerville), Sym (Stephen Whiteside), King Splosh (Jim Brown), Queen Tush (Ruth Aldridge), and a Glug with a mole on his chin (Daan Spijer).
Alas, Sir Stodge has been stricken in the chest by a stone!
(Note the blurring of the faces due to movement – evasive action, or simply hilarity?)
And here are the stones that caused all the damage!
Early on the morning of Friday, 27th October, Maggie Somerville and I headed north up the Hume Highway to Crookwell in New South Wales for the Mary Gilmore Festival.
Maggie has put a number of Mary Gilmore’s poems to music and the Festival Director, Trevene Mattox, was keen for us to attend. (There is also ample scope for a poet at the festival.)
To get to Crookwell, you go past Yass (not through it, as we did; it is a very pretty town, but does not get you any closer to Crookwell, as we found) and leave the highway at Gunning. You then climb steadily for an hour or so through open country until you reach Crookwell, at an elevation of about a thousand metres.
After erecting our tent at the Showgrounds, we drove into town for the opening of the festival at the art gallery by the local member of parliament, The Hon Angus Taylor MP, Member for Hume.
Angus made the point that, while Dame Mary Gilmore was undoubtedly a highly admirable woman, she and he differed in their political views.
The following morning, we were invited to perform to the local market goers. Maggie sang a number of her songs to an appreciative audience.
The Reserve Bank was even in attendance showing off the new banknotes, with Dame Mary Gilmore and the opening words of “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” on the ten dollar note.
During the afternoon we witnessed a showcase of the local youth talent, and in the evening we were treated to a performance by a women’s choir from Wollongong. The performance took place in a pavilion with a corrugated iron domed roof. Unfortunately a short, sharp rain shower completely drowned out the first item of the evening’s concert! The choir was superbly rehearsed, with numerous lavish but highly efficient costume changes taking place over the course of the show.
The following morning was the “Poets’ and Balladeers’ Breakfast” and Maggie and I had ample opportunity to perform. Maggie sang the remainder of her Mary Gilmore songs, while I performed a newish Ned Kelly poem that went down well.
At the end of the show, Maggie was asked to draw the raffle.
(I should add that this was also Maggie’s birthday!)
Alas, now it was time to leave Crookwell and begin the long drive back to Melbourne – in time to be at work at 9 am the following morning.
Maggie and I are extremely grateful to Trevene Mattox for giving us a lovely weekend. We were looked after extremely well, and had a wonderful time.
It was also great to catch up with poet Laurie McDonald and his wife, Denise, from Canberra. (Laurie and I shared MC duties for much of the weekend.) Laurie explained that the Crookwell festival used to have more of a bush poetry focus, but in recent years the emphasis has been on Mary Gilmore, and music. That made sense to me, because I have vague memories of submitting poetry to a competition in Crookwell in years past.
It was also wonderful to meet Stephen Lindsay, a local musician who owns a studio and is doing a great job recording local musicians and personalities on CD.
These rustic dwellings caught my eye as we left town.
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.