The Australian folk song, ‘Gum Tree Canoe’, would appear to have been adapted from an American song of the same name, written by Silas Sexton Steele in 1847. The American version has been recorded by several artists, the most prominent perhaps being the American musician John Hartford, who included it on his 1984 album of the same name.
Mindful that the Australian gum tree, the eucalypt, had not been introduced to the U.S. until the late 19th century, I turned to Quora, a Californian website for asking and answering questions. I received a prompt reply from Ben Waggoner who said that, while he was not familiar with the song, he suspected the tree referred to in the American song was the sweetgum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua. To quote Waggoner directly,
This is a native tree to the southeastern United States, and it does exude a sweet gummy sap when cut. My grandmother used to chew the sap instead of chewing gum. The leaves turn an attractive red in the autumn, and the dry spiky fruits are excellent for throwing at people if you are an obnoxious seven-year-old.
He posted an addendum that the song refers to the Tombigbee River, which is very close to where his mother grew up, in the town of Columbus, Mississippi.
I have uploaded onto YouTube a video I took of the Victorian Folk Music Club performing the Australian version of ‘Gum Tree Canoe’ in 2015 at the annual Wattle Day Festival held in Hurstbridge, Victoria. The musicians are wearing yellow and green, the colours of the Australian wattle. Here is the link:
A performance of the American version of ‘Gum Tree Canoe’ by John Hartford can be found here:
I must admit, I was amazed to discover there was an earlier version of the song that was not about eucalypts at all!
My Performer Application for the festival was unsuccessful this year, so I bought a ticket. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘walk-up’ poets to perform at the festival.
I headed off with my son, Thomas, on the morning of Good Friday. It’s a long drive from Melbourne to Canberra, but fortunately I still had time to find a camping site, erect the tent, and attend “Poetry in the Round” in a new tent venue, “Festival Hall”. The MCs were Peter Mace and John Peel (see below).
In recent years, this event has been held in The Terrace, a very civilised room in the pavilion above the Sessions Bar. The great advantage of this venue is that it is very quiet and well sound-proofed. Performers in “Festival Hall” were constantly having to compete with the noise from other acts, especially the parade, heading past the front door first one way, then the other. One advantage of this year’s venue was that there is a lot more ‘passing trade’, with a greater likelihood of people dropping in casually to ‘check it out’. The tents can also get very cold at night. Fortunately, Easter in Canberra this year was quite warm.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday morning was a big event, as these Breakfasts always are. There was a new award this year, the “Blue the Shearer Award” for the Best Original Poem. This is being held to honour the life of Col “Blue the Shearer” Wilson, a very popular poet and great friend of the festival, who died last year.
The “Reciter of the Year” award, which continues, is for a recitation from memory, and the reciter does not need to have written the poem. The new award can be read, but the reader must have written it. In other words, it is an award for writing, not performing.
The other new development this year was that the festival feature poets were also eligible to win the wards. The judge for both awards this year was last year’s judge, Chris McGinty, as last year’s winner of the Reciter’s Award, Len “Lenno” Martin, was unable to attend the festival.
Another opportunity to perform presented itself at “Poetry in the Park” on Saturday afternoon. The MC was John Peel (see below).
My friend, Maggie Somerville, arrived on Saturday afternoon, having left Melbourne that morning. We attended “Poetry in the Round” again together in the evening, and each performed a poem.
At the Sunday Breakfast Maggie read “A Deadly Weapon”, her poem about the hazards of trying to smuggle a tin whistle into court.
At 3.30 pm on Sunday, Maggie performed with the Billabong Band from the Victorian Folk Music Club, during their presentation of “Songs of the Victorian Goldfields” at the Trocadero. The band had been thrown into some disarray following the very sad news that the son of two of its most prominent members had died on Good Friday, and they had had to return to Melbourne. Replacements were arranged at short notice, and overall the show went well, but the situation was far from ideal.
Here is the full line-up…
(That’s Maggie in the red hat.)
A very interesting presentation took place in “Festival Hall” on Sunday night as Peter Mace and American cowboy poet Dick Warwick discussed the differences between cowboy poetry and Australian bush poetry. The takeaway message was that there are not a lot of differences, though perhaps the Americans are a little more reverential in their choice of subject matter. Then again, at least as I understand them, Ned Kelly is a far more ambiguous figure than Billy the Kid.
Here are Dick and Peter in animated conversation…
Chris McGinty announced the winners of the awards at the Monday Poets’ Breakfast. John Peel won the “Reciter of the Year” award with a poem he wrote himself, “When Elvis Came Back from the Dead”, which he performed at the Friday Poets’ Breakfast. Peter Mace won the inaugural “Blue the Shearer Award” with his poem about Kerry Stokes buying a VC medal at an auction for a million dollars to keep it in Australia, and then donating it to the National War Museum. (I haven’t found the title yet.)
Congratulations to them both!
Maggie headed back to Melbourne early on Monday morning, and Thomas and I left about midday.
Once again, the National Folk Festival had been very successful, and highly enjoyable!
Recently I posed the question, “Where did C. J. Dennis write “The Moods of Ginger Mick?””
Well, it is my great pleasure to report that the mystery has finally been solved!
It has long been known that Dennis moved into a boarding house in early 1915 at 107 Burke Road, Camberwell, and that it was from there he submitted to publisher George Robertson the manuscript for “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. More importantly, perhaps, it was also in this boarding house that he wrote the manuscript for the Bloke’s sequel, “The Moods of Ginger Mick”.
The difficulty, however, has been that the street numbering has changed substantially in the intervening century, and 107 Burke Road is no longer in Camberwell.
During a Victorian Folk Music Club (VFMC) concert night earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to invite the assembled throng to assist me in trying to answer this fascinating and significant national cultural/historic question.
Historian Louise Blake was in the audience at the time, and offered to help. She has since brought her professional research skills to the task, and solved the problem!
Here is her statement on the matter, the distillation of her research.
I am extremely grateful to Louise for her work, and wish to thank her most sincerely for her efforts on behalf of the C. J. Dennis Society.
Fortunately, the building is still standing. Indeed, I have had the opportunity to visit it on several occasions recently, and inspect both its exterior and interior. It would appear to be little changed from the days of C. J. Dennis and David Low. In fact, somewhat remarkably perhaps, it is still being run as a guest house!
You will notice some real estate hoardings outside the property. It was recently put up for auction, but did not change hands.
I am enormously excited to now know where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, and am keen to disseminate the information as widely as possible. Indeed it is fitting, is it not, that the mystery be finally solved in the year that we celebrate the centenary of its publication?
Last Sunday, August 31st, I participated in the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in Victoria.
I was part of the Victorian Folk Music Club’s “Billabong Band”, and my duties were largely confined to playing the lager phone and singing along on the choruses, though I did get to sing a duet on “Home Among The Gum Trees”, and sing Maggie Somerville’s anthemic “Wattle Day” song with her.
I haven’t quite yet been able to fathom the full history of Wattle Day, but Hurstbridge seems to have been intricately tied up with it for a very long time.
Maggie found this photo of the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in 1912.
The caption reads: “Wattle Day at Hurstbridge in 1912: In the 1900s a great deal was made of Wattle Day. Crowds flocked to the station to view the magnificent wattle.”
The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival web-site also tells us that “The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival is a significant cultural event for Melbournians that has its roots firmly planted in our early rail history.”
So it would seem that Wattle Day and railway lines go together. I attended the festival with Maggie, and we parked her kombie at Eltham and took the train to Hurstbridge to avoid the inevitable parking problems that we would face there. The stop prior to Hurstbridge is “Wattle Glen”.
Nevertheless, it would appear that the practice of celebrating Wattle Day at Hurstbridge died out at some point, because the current festival began as recently as 2004. This was in response to two key events, outlined as follows on Wikipedia.
1. “In 1988 (19 August) the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially proclaimed as Australia’s national floral emblem by the then Goveror-General, the Rt. Hon Sir Ninian M Stephen AK GCMG GCVO KBE.”
2. “Four years later, 23 June 1992, Bill Hayden, the then Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, declared that ‘1 September in each year shall be observed as “National Wattle Day” throughout Australia and in the external Territories of Australia.'”
Hurstbridge now even has its own “Wattle Cafe”.
Decorations for the day were elaborate:
Members of the audience gathered under the Wattle Tree.
The signage was also clear.
Of all the VFMC members, I think it is fair to say that Maggie’s ensemble was the most complete.
Undoubtedly, though, our President, Harry, was the most colourful.
Recently I had the good fortune to spend some time in Scotland. I was staying with my friend, Maggie Somerville, whose daughter, Gronya, was a member of the Australian Badminton Team. We were living in the small town of Falkirk, midway between Glasgow (where the Games were being held), and Edinburgh.
Although not large, Falkirk has a thriving folk club, and Maggie and I were keen to get along if possible. They hold their club nights – “session nights”, as they call them – on Thursday evenings, at the Tolbooth Tavern in the middle of town.
We arrived a little late the first week, not being entirely sure where to go or what to expect. Proceedings were in full swing by the time we arrived. The weather was unseasonably hot, and they had chosen to meet in the newly-refurbished courtyard downstairs rather than the customary upstairs room which would simply have been too hot.
The courtyard was L-shaped, and it was impossible to see the performers from where we stood. I noticed one gentleman had scaled the wall for a bird’s eye view, so I decided to follow his example. It turned out to be a relatively simple matter to duck around the back, climb up onto a rubbish skip, and from there up onto the beautiful old stone wall. I did get a wonderful view from up there. I was only cursing myself for not taking my camera with me.
You will note that my hat gave a fairly firm clue to my nationality – although we were mistaken for Kiwis!
The following week we were back upstairs, and both invited to perform.
Maggie played a tune on a whistle, and sang a couple of songs.
I recited a couple of poems from my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.
There were a number of fabulous performances during the course of the evening.
This gentleman gave a very spirited rendition of Danny Boy.
And this man played the “Irish pipes” beautifully. (Note that the bag is inflated with bellows under the right arm, rather than the Scottish system of a tube from the mouth.)
Here are a couple more shots of the rest of the gang.
It was a great evening. Naturally enough, we drew comparisons between Falkirk Folk Club and our own meetings at Ringwood. I was struck by how many strong solo performers there were, mostly singers of traditional songs, accompanying themselves on guitar. On the down side, though, there were no women performing, although there were plenty in the audience. Also, the instrumentation was heavily biased in favour of the guitar. I have mentioned the pipes player already, and there was also a fiddler. However, there were no accordions, harmonicas, whistles or mandolins.
The place of poetry is an interesting one. I was certainly accepted at the club as a poet, and we were told that it is not unheard of to hear poetry at their meetings, but it was also clear that it is a fairly rare event. At Ringwood we have quite a number of reciters and poets. The tradition of poetry and recitation would appear to be stronger in Australia than in Scotland.