‘A Nautical Yarn’ is one of the nine Australian folk songs that American singer Burl Ives recorded in 1952, and which were to have such a profound effect on Australians’ perception of their own folk music heritage. The ‘yarn’ takes place on the Murray River. (Whether the adjective ‘nautical’ can be applied in the context of fresh water is arguable.) The words are credited to Keighley Goodchild. They are a play on the general notion of shipwrecks, so many of which occurred, and so tragically, in the 19th century. A paddle steamer is making its way upstream to the town of Wahgunyah (the furthest upstream port on the Murray) when a storm arises during the night. The crew fear for their lives, but the boat is grounded on a sandbar, and they all walk safely through the shallow water to shore!
According to his obituary, which was published in The Riverine Herald in 1888, Goodchild was born in London, and had a good education. He had arrived in Melbourne fifteen years earlier (1873) from New Zealand. How long he had been in New Zealand is not stated.
The Echuca Historical Society also has information about Goodchild’s life. He was born in 1851. (By way of historical comparison, Henry Lawson was born in 1867, and Ned Kelly in 1855.) Goodchild was very much a newspaperman. In Melbourne he worked for the Argus. He moved to Echuca in 1880, and stayed there until his death at the age of only 37 of ‘consumption’ (TB) in 1988. He worked for a number of newspapers, and was editor of the Echuca Advertiser. For the last two years of his life he worked as a compositor for The Riverine Herald. (It was the job of a compositor to arrange type for printing.) He also published a column under the title ‘Municipal Musings’. (Many of these can be easily accessed via Trove.)
Goodchild also wrote poetry, and in 1883 he self published a small collection of his own work with the title ‘Who Are You? : A Volume of Verse’. One of the poems in this book, ‘While the Billy Boils’, was included in the final volume of a series of poetry collections published in London. The series was titled ‘Canterbury Poets’, and the final volume, with Goodchild’s poem, ‘Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Poems inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand’ (1888), was edited by B. W. Sladen of Oxford. (Goodchild received his copy several days before he died.) The phrase, ‘while the billy boils’, was just beginning to gain traction in Australia and New Zealand, and this was not the first time it was used. It was also chosen as the title of Henry Lawson’s first collection of short stories, published in 1896. Lawson did not use the phrase himself, but his editor, Arthur Jose, felt it was apt. (Jose almost certainly knew of Goodchild’s poem.) Plans were afoot for a second collection of Goodchild’s verse to be published in London, but this did not eventuate, no doubt due to his premature demise.
Here is the first stanza of ‘While the Billy Boils’ by Keighley Goodchild.
While the ruby coals in the dull grey dust,
Shine bright as the daylight dies;
When into our mouths our pipes are thrust,
And we watch the moon arise;
While the leaves that crackle and hiss and sigh
Feed the flame with their scented oils,
In a calm content by the fire we lie
And watch while the billy boils.
‘A Nautical Yarn’ is included in the blog ‘An Australian Folk Song A Day’, by John Thompson. John references the source of the song as ‘Big Book of Australian Folk Songs’ by Ron Edwards, and adds this note from the book:
“…Ian Mudie in his book ‘Riverboats’ suggests that “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own.”
So perhaps Keighley Goodchild did not write ‘A Nautical Yarn’ after all!
To further complicate matters, there is more than one tune for the song. Goodchild’s stated tune was ‘The Dreadnought’, but Burl Ives’ folio of Australian songs used ‘Villikins and his Dinah’.
Who knows, perhaps Goodchild would have developed into a writer to rival Lawson and Paterson if he had lived longer? Then again, that can no doubt be said about a number of writers whose lives were cut short in those hard, early days.
A Nautical Yarn
I sing of a capting who’s well known to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks is his name.
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
To the Port of Wahgunyah his wessel was bound
When night comes upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters it clear light did throw;
But the wessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a yeo.
Oh, Capting, oh! Capting, let’s make for the shore,
For the winds they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the capting, “though the fierce winds may blow
I will stick to my vessel with a Yeo heave a yeo.”
“Oh! Capting, oh! Capting, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Capting, oh! Capting, we’ll soon be a wreck –
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!
But the capting laughed loudly, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
“Farewell to the maiding – the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends – I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the capting he swore –
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.
A recent conversation prompted me to check out the Oral History section of the National Library website. I have always loved oral history, and I suppose I should have done this a long time ago. It appears to be dominated by two collectors, the second of which I am familiar with, especially after reading his biography by Keith McKenry: ‘More than a Life – John Meredith, and the Fight for Australian Tradition.’
What I was not familiar with, and was not certainly not expecting, was the work of a collector even more prolific than Meredith – an Australian woman by the name of Hazel de Berg. Born Hazel Holland in Deniliquin, NSW, in 1913, she married a Lithuanian Jew, Woolf de Berg, in Sydney in May 1941. Hazel originally trained as a photographer, but engaged in a multitude of activities after her children had grown up, including voluntary work for the blind. The Australian Dictionary of Biography tells the story as follows:
“Hazel de Berg first used a tape recorder in 1957, when she undertook voluntary work for the Blind Book Society. She persuaded Dame Mary Gilmore to make some introductory comments about her book ‘Old Days, Old Ways’ (1934), and this recording, lasting 1 minute 26 seconds, marked the beginning of de Berg’s extraordinary career as a recorder of life histories. In the next three years, encouraged by the writers Douglas Stewart and John Thompson, she recorded about seventy poets, as well as novelists and playwrights. In 1960 she turned to artists and…eventually recorded about 250 painters and sculptors.
“Over a period of twenty-seven years she recorded 1290 individuals.”
I was very surprised to discover this connection between Hazel de Berg and Dame Mary Gilmore. I am rather attuned to the work of Mary Gilmore at present, as my friend Maggie Somerville has recently released an album of Gilmore’s poems that she has set to music.
Hazel herself told the story this way when she was interviewed by Tom Jacobs on the occasion Mary Gilmore’s 95th birthday, 16th August, 1960.
“Well as a matter of fact, I think I’ve always loved poetry. I think all of us are rather keen on verse, but to me it has always been a very living thing, and then one day, Kenneth Bruce, blind man who started the Blind Books Society, asked me if I would read a book for them, and I thought that it would be rather nice, as I knew Dame Mary Gilmore, that I should read her ‘Old Days, Old Ways’. So I went up to her flat at Kings Cross, and I said, “Now, I think it would be rather nice if you were to say something in the front of this for the blind people, and she said, “Well, supposing you announce me,” and I said, “Oh, no. You announce yourself.” So she said, “Well, this is Mary Gilmore. I wrote ‘Old Days, Old Ways.’
“I am quite sure that, in the way that Dame Mary has helped me, you could multiply that by, I am quite sure, thousands, because everybody says that she has one very great virtue, along with her own personality and her ability, and that is that she does encourage other people…she has backed women to an extraordinary extent.”
Hazel de Berg interviewed Gilmore on four occasions. On one of these, she talked about her relationship with Henry Lawson.
“I put him on his feet.”
Gilmore quotes Lawson as having said, “If it hadn’t been for Mary Gilmore the world would never have heard of Henry Lawson.”
Gilmore again: “I gave him the information. Any number of his stories…are my stories. I told him. ‘Water Them Geraniums’…they were our geraniums…’The Drover’s Wife’..that was our story. I was the little girl that watched the baby, and my brother, next to me…I was about seven…I might have been eight, yes, the baby was born in 1870…I’d be about six, not quite seven, or perhaps seven, and my brother climbed to my mother’s skirt after the snake was killed, and he said “Mama (we always said, ‘mama’, you see), when I’m grown up, I’m not going away…I’m not going away building, and I’ll stay home and take care of you.” You see, and I told Henry Lawson that, and he turned it into a little rougha speech…what the drover’s child said, you see.”
‘The Drover’s Wife’, before we proceed any further, is one of Lawson’s two most popular short stories (the other being ‘The Loaded Dog’), and is also one of Australia’s best known and loved stories. It tells the simple tale of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station, defending her four children (and the family dog) from a large snake that has crept under the floorboards while her husband is away droving. Mary Gilmore is effectively telling us that the drover’s wife was her mother.
I don’t find this hard to believe. Many, many years ago I purchased a vinyl LP with the title “Some Arrived To Stay” (Pumphandle Productions, 1979). The album consists of a number of spoken word pieces performed by actor Beverley Dunn, outlining Australia’s early immigrant story.
The standout track for me was ‘Fire – An Outback Story’ by Mary Gilmore. It tells the story of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station defending her children from a bush fire while her husband is away. (He has travelled in to town with the horse and dray to purchases supplies – a four day journey.) For years, the story felt eerily familiar for reasons I could not put my finger on. Now that I understand Gilmore’s connection with ‘The Drover’s Wife’, it makes more sense – though Gilmore makes it clear that her story is about the family of a man who worked for her father, and is not her own family. As Gilmore also says, it was common in the early days of European settlement for women to have to defend their children and property against a range of challenges while their husbands were absent.
There are important differences between Mary Gilmore’s family and the family in ‘The Drover’s Wife’. To some extent, it would appear also that Gilmore’s memory is playing tricks on her, and she is confusing her own history with Lawson’s fictionalised version. For example, there is no mention of “the little girl that watched the baby” in ‘The Drover’s Wife.’ We are told there are four children, one of whom is a baby, but only two are named, Tommy and Jacky. A fifth has died some time earlier. Mary was the oldest child in her family. There was no older brother. It is almost as though she has been written OUT of the story.
Interestingly, mention is made in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ of an earlier episode, again while her husband is away, when she saves the family from a bush fire. In this version, she is saved at the last minute by four bushmen. There are no bushmen rushing to her assistance in ‘Fire – An Outback Story’, however. She saves the family by herself. There is a clear bias against women evident here, though this is not news to anybody, and is consistent with the standards of the day.
Mary Gimore’s father was a carpenter, and quite possibly did spend a good deal of his time working away from home. Lawson’s decision to make the father a drover rather than a builder was a wise one, of course, as it sounds much more romantic. (I am struggling to imagine an iconic Australian story with the title ‘The Builder’s Wife.’)
‘The Drover’s Wife’ does indeed finish, as Gilmore suggests, with a scene involving young Jacky and his mother.
“”Mother, I won’t never go droving’; blast me if I do”
“And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him, and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.”
Mary Gilmore’s mother, Mary Ann Beattie, was born in Australia. Her husband, Donald Cameron, was born in Inverness, Scotland. The two grew up on adjoining properties. Gilmore, once revered as the “Queen of Literature, as far as the Commonwealth is concerned” (to quote both Tom Jacobs and Hazel de Berg) is now all but forgotten. Her mother has never held a place in the sun. Perhaps it is time they were both better remembered and celebrated, especially Mary Ann Cameron…’The Drover’s Wife.’
Maggie Somerville and I attended the National Folk Festival again this year, and it proved to be extremely busy, enjoyable and rewarding for both of us.
In contrast to previous years, I took the Thursday before Good Friday off work so that we could drive up and not miss the Friday of the festival. I know Google says it is a seven hour drive, but it always takes me eight, allowing for a couple of stops. The extra time and money devoted to preparing my old Subaru Outback for the journey paid off, as the car behaved admirably throughout.
We set up camp in what has been the traditional place for me for many years and, in more recent years, us (Maggie and me), managing to complete the erection of the tent in the dying hours of daylight. Then we caught the Opening Concert at the Budawang, before retiring to bed at a reasonable time to get plenty of sleep prior to Friday morning’s Poets’ Breakfast. I think the highlight of the Opening Concert for me was the singing of Eric Bogle (sadly, without John Munro), who had been awarded the 2019 National Folk Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. I still regard his first (studio) album, “Now I’m Easy”, as his best, and he performed two songs from it – the title track, and ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’ I would have loved to have heard one of the two songs he wrote about his mother, ‘Leaving Nancy’ and ‘Since Nancy Died’, but you can’t have everything.
There were four Poets’ Breakfasts from Friday to Monday, each one lasting for two hours from 8.30 am – 10.30 am, each MC’d by two people – one for the first hour, one for the second – and different MCs for each Breakfast, for a total of eight. (Maggie and I shared the job for the Monday Breakfast.) The four Breakfasts quickly start to blur together in my mind, and I struggle to remember them as distinct, individual events. Suffice to say they were all excellent, and I think the general standard gradually rises every year.
The format is simple. One of the MCs seats himself at a table outside the Flute ‘N’ Fiddle tent (that’s the name of the venue) at about 8.15, armed with a pen and a piece of paper, and poets/reciters approach, with a view to having their name added to the list of performers. They are then called to the stage in the order in which their names are on the list. Having said that, many performers ask for their name to be placed later down the list. The reason for this is that audience number generally build during the first hour, and reach their peak somewhere around the middle of the show. (They often fall off a little towards the end of the show also.) I harbour no great ambitions as a reciter these days, so am generally happy to kick things off as the opening performer.
Here is a selection of photos from Friday, beginning with Maggie singing a song from her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed’ (poems of Mary Gilmore, music by Maggie Somerville). Geoffrey Graham is seated to her left, as MC.
Some of you may be wondering, why is a song being sung at a Poets’ Breakfast? It was generally felt, as the song was based on a poem by Dame Mary Gilmore, and the guitar playing is fairly subtle, that this was quite reasonable.
You will notice that the faces are generally very overexposed. This was due to the stage lighting, which I was unable to correct for using the camera on my phone.
Three of us – John Peel (the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award), The Rhymer from Ryde and myself were then roped into a most unusual event – a trivia quiz – to be held at 1 pm at the Majestic tent, the three teams being ‘Bush Poets, ‘All Other Poets’, and the audience itself. We were the bush poets. We came well behind the two other teams (I think the audience might have won – not surprising, as they did outnumber the poets, but not by all that much!), and would have come last if the gentleman on the keyboard playing gentle background music had not become a surprise fourth team. We beat him by half a point!
I now know that the National Folk Festival began in 1967 (not 1966, as I first suggested), and that the ACT ranks seventh out of the eight states and territories, not eighth (as I first suggested!). The Northern Territory comes last in terms of population. I also now know that the ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds are crafted in Helvetica font, and that Demos is a moon of Mars, not Jupiter (as I first suggested!). You get the idea?
Here are a couple of photos.
Maggie was programmed to co-host ‘Poetry in the Park’ with David Hallett at 2.30 pm and, as it was the first poetry event she had ever MC’d, she was feeling understandably nervous. The weather was glorious, however, and she soon found she formed an easy rapport with David. She performed her duties beautifully, and was relieved to have the first one under her belt. This is a relatively new event, and has not drawn big audiences in the past, with MCs often having to make up for a short fall of ‘walk up’ poets. This was not the case this year, however, and it was often a struggle to make sure everybody was able to perform.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Geoffrey Graham (with co-MCs David Hallett and Maggie behind him)
The final poetry event for the day was ‘Poetry in the Round’, held at 7 pm in ‘The Terrace’, a spacious, comfortable, quiet, air-conditioned, but somewhat sterile room above the Session Bar. The format is that the three featured poets (in this case, David Hallett, the Rhymer and Ryde and me) do a short bracket – about 15 minutes each – after which there is a short session for ‘walk-ups’, then another short bracket for each of the feature poets. There is no designated MC, and the task of organising the walk-ups fell by default to me, as I was the last of the three featured poets to perform. In retrospect, I should have been a little tougher in terms of restricting their numbers, as we ran over time, and each of the featured poets had to perform a truncated version of their planned second bracket. Unfortunately, the event overall was not very well attended. Perhaps this was not so surprising. It had been a busy day for poetry, with bright sunshine and good crowds generally.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday was again a great success. I performed my poem “Jesus and his Yoga”, and was surprised by how good a reaction I got from the audience.
Maggie and I were next scheduled to perform in the Victorian Folk Music Club’s musical presentation by their ‘Billabong Band’ on the theme of ‘bushrangers’ at 10.30 am in the Trocadero (we had had to leave the Poets’ Breakfast early). Maggie was an integral part of the show, playing in nearly every song, and singing one of her own. I had a cameo role, performing my poem ‘Victoria Has Ned Kelly!’ towards the end. The show was very well put together, giving us a picture of Australia’s bushranging days in chronological order, beginning with the escaped convicts, and finishing with Ned Kelly. An excellent narrative, written by Bill Buttler, bound the show together. The show was a vast improvement on their presentation last year, which was a little ragged in places, and was well received. (The Trocadero, by the way, is a gorgeous venue to perform in, and tends to be feature shows with a historical bent. When in doubt, head for the Troc!)
Maggie sang a song about Ned Kelly’s lesser known sister, Margaret. She had taken a poem by Keith McKenry, and set it to music.
(Thanks to Jill Watson for these photos.)
The Billabong Band
Our official duties concluded for the day, Maggie and I were free to consult the programme. After a brief celebratory cuppa with fellow VFMC members, Maggie and I dashed off to a songwriting workshop being held by WA-based comedy acapella act ‘The Ballpoint Penguins’. I had seen their act on festival programmes for many years, but had never had a chance to see them. Besides, I always like to attend poetry writing and song writing workshops at festivals. Sadly, it looks as though I may have left it a bit late in this case, as they announced they would soon be retiring. Nevertheless, we were able to get a good taste of their very clever and entertaining songs and performance, and some insight into their ways of working.
The Ballpoint Penguins
Maggie took the opportunity on Saturday afternoon to further promote her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed.’
The CD is available for sale at Readings bookshop in Carlton, Melbourne.
‘Poetry in the Round’ was again scheduled for 7 pm in The Terrace, this time featuring Jason Roweth, his daughter Megan, and Sandra Renew. Maggie and I attended as ‘walk-ups’. The event was a little better attended this time, and I was able to relate the errors of the previous evening. Sandra ran a ‘tight ship’ so far as ‘walk-ups’ were concerned, with the list being completed before the show even began, and the evening went well. Megan in particular struck me as a remarkably self-assured and mature performer (and poet) for her age. (She is only 11.)
The Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday was another great event. Maggie chose to perform ‘The Dead Poet’, Mary Gilmore’s tribute to Henry Lawson, in response to a bracket of Lawson poems that Jason had performed the previous evening. She was surprised and thrilled at the audience response.
However, we were now filled with excitement and anticipation, as our principal performance of the festival was looming. I am talking about the presentation of C.J. Dennis’ ‘Digger Smith’, with Geoffrey Graham, at the Trocadero at 12 midday. A final intense rehearsal took place before it was back to the camp-site for the various props and costume changes.
‘Digger Smith’, published in 1918, was the third major book about Bill, Doreen and their friends, following ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ (1915) and ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’ (1916). (It is the fourth if you include the booklet ‘Doreen’, which contained four poems only (1917).) It tells the story of ‘Digger Smith’, an old mate of Bill and Mick from before the war, his homecoming and subsequent difficulties re-integrating into civilian society. It is also a reflection on World War One more broadly. Maggie and I performed it with members of the C.J. Dennis Society at the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival last year to a very small audience, and again with Geoffrey Graham at Newstead Live! in January this year to a slightly larger audience. Would we attract a larger audience at the National Folk Festival this year?
Well, I am pleased to say we did! An audience of 40 – 50 stayed with us for the full 90 minute journey, and made their appreciation known in no uncertain terms at the end. It was exhausting, but went off (largely!) without a hitch.
Thank you to Jill Watson for this photo…
…and to Jan Lewis for this one.
There was no time to reflect on our success, however, as Geoffrey and I were MC’ing ‘Poetry in the Park’ at 2.30pm. It proved another well attended event, with plenty of poets, in beautiful sunshine.
Our official duties for the day once again completed, Maggie and I attended the show by John Schumann and Shane Howard at the Budawang. It was the first time I had seen these two performing together, and we heard the best of Redgum and Goanna with a couple of other great songs as well, and a large, powerful backing band. it was a very emotional show. I took a number of pictures, mostly from the screen nearest us. Perhaps this is the best of them.
The final Poets’ Breakfast awaited us on Monday morning, with Maggie and I rostered on as MCs. It was the first time Maggie had hosted a Poets’ Breakfast and, being the final Breakfast, was also the event at which the winners of the coveted awards – the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for best original written poem (a new award last year) and the traditional Reciters’ Award – would be announced. Maggie acted as MC for the first half of the Breakfast, and acquitted herself well. Our performance of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, Maggie’s musical setting of another of Mary Gilmore’s poems, including my recitation of part of a speech made by Australia’s then Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1941, was well received.
The results of the judging were then announced by John Peel, the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award. John did an excellent job, going through the highlights of every day in some detail before making the final announcements. I was thrilled that my poem ‘Jesus and his Yoga’ cracked a mention. The presentations followed.
Irish Joe Lynch was announced as the winner of the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for his beautiful love poem to his wife, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, and David Hallett as the winner of the Reciter’s Award. Both were very popular and well deserved winners. Irish Joe is a very powerful performer, and a previous winner of the Reciter’s Award. He is one of the few spoken word performers who can command an audience in their own right. David Hallett is also a superb performance poet. He has been swimming against the tide to a degree in recent years, as the principal free verse poet in a sea of rhymers, and richly deserves this reward for his courageous persistence.
(Thanks again to Jan Lewis for this photo.)
Here are a few more shots of the morning’s performers.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Laurie McDonald (above) announced his retirement as Director of the Spoken Word Programme of the festival. Laurie has done a wonderful job in this role over the last 7 – 8 years, and has done much to raise the profile of spoken word events. There are now many more such shows programmed each year, there is a greater variety, and they are better attended. He is to be commended, and greatly thanked, for his efforts.
Laure announced that another Canberra-based poet, Jacqui Malins (above) will take over as Spoken Word Director for next year’s festival. I wish Jacqui every success in the role, and am sure she will perform it well.
Of course, no festival is ever complete without Campbell the Swaggie!
We had one more show to go! It wasn’t starting until 2.30 pm, and we then faced the long drive back to Melbourne, so there was time to take down the tent, pack the car and get ready to go beforehand. Fortunately, we achieved all this before the inevitable rain came down! The timing was perfect, as it held up until the festival was almost over.
Our final show, ‘Desert Island Poems’, in The Terrace, was a qualified success. I began the show three years ago as a spinoff of ‘Desert Island Discs’, a BBC radio show in which celebrities are invited into the studio to nominate the seven songs they would take with them if they had to spend the rest of their lives alone on a desert island, and why. I invite two poets (one male, one female), to nominate three such poems they would take with them. The show lasts for an hour. This year I chose as the poets Laurie McDonald and Maggie Somerville. An animated hour of discussion followed, and the small audience were well entertained, and thoroughly engaged in the discussion. Laurie chose ‘The Play’ by C.J. Dennis and ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield (which is interesting, because Dennis and Masefield were mutual admirers). He also chose one of his own poems, a ‘work-in-progress’ children’s picture book manuscript – though how he would arrange to submit the poem to the publisher from the desert island was never explored. Hopefully he would have a good internet connection!
Maggie chose several classic poems – ‘The King’s Breakfast’ by A.A. Milne, ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ by A.B. Paterson. A well worn early edition of the poems of A.A. Milne was passed around the audience.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was time at last to hit the road. It had been an exhilarating but exhausting four days, and the focus was now on getting back to Melbourne in reasonable time to get some sleep, and get through a long working day on Tuesday. It was after 1 am by the time my head hit the pillow, but it had all, most definitely, been worthwhile!
The National Library (NLA Publishing) has recently released an anthology of poems for Australian children entitled “This is Home – Essential Australian Poems for Children.” I am very happy to report that two of my poems – ‘Dad Meets the Martians’ and ‘The Sash’ – are included in the collection, which is lavishly illustrated by Tania McCartney. The poems were selected by Jackie French, perhaps best known as the author of the classic children’s picture book ‘Diary of a Wombat.’
The book was launched at the National Library in Canberra last Sunday (7th April), and I received an invitation to attend and read one of my poems from the book. As I happened to be in the area with my friend Maggie Somerville, I decided to attend. My son, Thomas, and his girlfriend, Catherine, are also living in Canberra these days, so the four of us made our way to the library in the early afternoon.
It was a beautiful sunny day. I can’t remember if I have ever been to the National Library before or not, but I have to say the entrance looks quite magnificent.
Susan Hall, the publisher, welcomed the guests and introduced the afternoon’s proceedings…
Margaret Hamilton officially launched the book, but I do not have a photo of her speaking. The best I can offer is the following photo with, from left to right (in the comfy chairs) Margaret, Jackie French and Tania McCartney.
She was followed by Jackie French, who selected the poems…
and Tania McCartney, who provided the illustrations.
Both spoke with great passion about the book, and their contribution to it.
Next came the poets, a number of whom were in attendance, to read their poems.
Leo Barnard read ‘A Palace of a God’…
Jackie Hosking ‘A Dessert Sky’…
Christopher Cheng read ‘We Celebrate’…
Janeen Brian read ‘Looking’…
Libby Hathorn was the next to read, but I think I was distracted by my own imminent performance, and cannot be sure which of her three poems she read. I think it may have been ‘Cindric’s Trolley’, though.
Geoffrey Page also read ‘Silver Wind’, but unfortunately I do not have a picture of him, either.
Lastly, I performed my poem ‘Dad Meets the Martians.’ I am pleased to say it was well received.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Thomas and Catherine…
(thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo) and skedaddle back to Melbourne in time for work at 9 am on Monday morning!
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!
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.
The Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival is over for another year, and what a festival it was this time!
It was undoubtedly the biggest and the best we have had yet, as indeed it should have been celebrating, as it was, the centenary of the publication in 1915 of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
The festival got a great boost about a week out with the news that The C.J. Dennis Society’s Patron, Ted Egan, would be in attendance. Ted lives in Alice Springs, so it is a long journey for him to come to Victoria. Ted has only been to the festival once before, and that was back in 2013.
The weather was kind to us – as it always seems to be – and Ted opened the festival for us in fine style. What is more, he sang his tribute to Australia’s pioneering women to the assembled throng, as an added bonus. He had to get by without his famed beer carton, but a small book served almost as well to tap the rhythm out to.
David Hill from the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) was also in attendance. The Bendigo Bank has been our chief sponsor over the years, and this year they agreed to double their commitment. Rather than present the prizes for “Adults Writing for Children” himself, David placed a small toy under one of the chairs, with the person who first found the toy to present the prizes. This led to the somewhat unexpected outcome of Jemima Hosking presenting a prize to her mother, Jackie! (Jackie’s father, John, also performed a poem later in the day, so we had three generations of the Hosking family involved in the festival!)
The local member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish MP (Member for Eildon), also kindly offered to attend the festival and award prizes. Cindy’s support of the festival is longstanding, and very much appreciated.
The number of entries was down a little on last year, which is a bit concerning, but everybody agreed nonetheless that the standard was very high. Not all the poems that received awards were heard this year, but all the winning poets who were in attendance performed their poems, and First Prize in each category was read out whether the poet was present or not.
Here is Ted Egan opening the festival. (Thank you to Nerys Evans for the photo.)
After a break for afternoon tea, we commenced an “Open Mike” session which proved extremely popular. Indeed, not all the poets who wished to perform were able to do so, as it would have left insufficient time for the showcase concert of C.J. Dennis poems and songs that was scheduled to follow. This also needed to be shortened a little because of time constraints.
The concert kicked off with actor John Flaus from Castlemaine. The other performers were Maggie Somerville, Jim Haynes, Jim Brown, Ruth Aldridge, David Campbell and Geoffrey W. Graham.
Here is Maggie Somerville singing a C.J. Dennis poem that she has put to music.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the sun went down and a chill crept over the proceedings. The original plan had been to hold the evening’s entertainment in the marquee also, but it was generally agreed that it made much more sense to retire to the tea rooms, where a lavish buffet dinner was now waiting.
The evening meal was truly delicious, with a large range of choices on offer.
We then commenced our special presentation of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, featuring Geoffrey Graham as performer of the poems, Jim Haynes as “slang interpreter”, and myself as narrator. I suddenly found my voice failing me, and Geoffrey was looking very much the worse for wear having been badly dumped by a wave while body surfing in Hawaii two days earlier, but the show went on nonetheless, and was very well received. (About half the audience gave us a standing ovation; Geoffrey assured me the other half would have done so also, if they had not been so tired!)
Here we are – from left to right, Jim, Geoffrey and me – looking relieved but happy after the show! (Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Poets’ Breakfast kicked off right on schedule the following morning at 9.30.
Here is Ruth Aldridge reciting “Caravanning Bliss” by Bob Magor.
Shelley and Rod Hansen provided a great double act.
Jan Williams gave us a poem, but unfortunately I cannot show you a photo because my computer refuses to upload it!
The audience was large and appreciative.
We then moved back down to the marquee for the launch at 11am of the CD Maggie and I had put together, “The Two Bees”.
We were joined by three musicians – Hugh McDonald (ex-Redgum), who had recorded and produced the album for us, and Trevor Voake (mandolin) and Dieter Imberger (harmonica), friends from the Victorian Folk Music Club. (Trevor’s wife Margaret kindly acted as photographer for us.)
We performed “The Two Bees” in its entirety – eight songs and four poems, words by C.J. Dennis, music by Maggie. We did make lots of mistakes, but they were mostly small, and we all had great fun. The audience seemed to enjoy it all, too.
Here is the band line-up – from left to right, Trevor, Dieter, Maggie, me and Hugh.
Here is Maggie demonstrating the title of the poem “How to Hold a Husband”.
Hugh seemed to enjoy himself.
Then it was time for lunch. Jim Brown and David Campbell did a great job entertaining patrons in the tea rooms over the lunch break.
The traditional “moving theatre” followed, with some new faces this year – Geoffrey W. Graham as Banjo Paterson, Jim Haynes as Henry Lawson, and John Derum as the “one and only” C.J. Dennis.
A recent tradition during the moving theatre has been for some of the local children to perform a ballet to music inspired by the poetry of C.J. Dennis. (Local parent and retired dancer Cathy Phelan designs the costumes and choreographs the dancing.)
In past years, the children have danced to recorded music. This year was different. Maggie Somerville had written music to C.J. Dennis’ poem “The Satin Bower Bird” (from “The Singing Garden”), and recorded it on CD for the children to rehearse to.
Here is the audience enjoying Maggie and the children’s performance.
We next moved to the top of the gardens, where the poets were joined by Dorothea Mackellar (Ruth Aldridge).
It was then back down to the marquee to finish the show.
Afternoon tea was held in the tea rooms, then back again to the marquee for one last time to watch the festival end in the traditional way – with Jim Brown’s rendition of C.J. Dennis’ magical poem, “Dusk”.
Some festival attendees missed Jim’s performance, so he agreed to perform it a second time.
I made a video of Jim’s second performance, which can be found here:
So ended what had been a wonderful festival.
There are too many people to thank properly, but special gratitude and appreciation must be given to the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) for their continued generous sponsorship, to Vic and Jan Williams, owners of “The Singing Gardens” (and their family), for their tireless work maintaining the gardens and helping to organise the festival, and to our illustrious Secretary Jim Brown for all his hard work.
We hope to see you at next year’s festival, when we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1916 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”!
I will add one last photo – C.J. Dennis (John Derum) addressing the throng, with the famed copper beech tree in the background and cloudless blue skies above. Could anything be better?
It is a little while now since I attended the National Folk Festival (NFF – Easter) and The Man From Snowy River Festival (MFSRF), the weekend after. Although I did not play a large role in either, I would like to record a few reflections of them both nonetheless.
I attended them both with Maggie Somerville. It was Maggie’s first National for many years, and her first MFSRF.
With all the build-up for Port Fairy, I had decided to take a very low key approach to both these festivals – simply sit back and let it wash over me, playing small roles now and then. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. Once you’ve had a taste of the limelight, it’s not so easy to slip back into the shadows again…
Nevertheless, I had a great time at both, and have no regrets.
The National is always fabulous – so much to see, and so many opportunities to be involved, even if only in a very minor way. It is very different to the country music festivals where bush poetry dominates. There is still a preponderance of rhyming verse, but there is still a fair bit of non-rhymed. (Is there a difference between non-rhymed and free verse? I don’t know.)
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended as always, though my feeling is that the audience numbers are a little down on, say, a decade ago. Certainly the merchandise table doesn’t seem to buzz as it once did.
Laurie McDonald, as Spoken Word Coordinator for the festival, has done a great job beefing up the programme for poetry and yarn spinning. There are now regular evening poetry shows as well as the Breakfasts, and the number of feature poets seems to increase every year. Five years ago things were definitely in the doldrums. My only criticism would be that all the shows are largely unthemed, and feel a bit aimless at times. I wonder if it is time to take the next step, and begin to build more ambitious, structured shows, with a clear sense of direction. Of course, this all takes time, and is difficult with a workforce (i.e. the poets) that is effectively volunteer.
The sign at the Stock Camp took my attention – very atmospheric. (Just don’t look too closely at the spelling.)
Of course, Andrew Pattison’s Troubadour has been replaced by the “Flute and Fiddle”, and is the new venue for the Poets’ Breakfasts. After a couple of years of resenting the change, I am gradually coming to accept the new arrangements.
The Man From Snowy River Festival at Corryong this year began on the Thursday after Easter. As this Thursday and Friday are not public holidays, one can only assume that the majority of those who attend are retired. Maggie and I both had work commitments, so were unable to leave Melbourne until Saturday morning. (Indeed, I was working until 11pm on the Friday night, so it was a bit of a scramble to get away even then.)
Corryong is a wonderful spot, tucked away as it in the Murray Valley in north east Victoria, with timbered hills rising all around. The drive to and from is a large part of the enjoyment of the weekend itself.
I must confess I have always been a little reluctant to attend this festival, as I feel fairly uncomfortable with the notion of perpetuating the myth of the mountain cattleman. I imagine they were heroic enough in their day, but I do feel it is time to remove cattle from the Alps. Mind you, a grizzled old mining surveyor very active in the Victorian Alps in the first half of the 20th century once said to me “There’s nowhere that the cattlemen went on a horse that I didn’t go on foot.” Perhaps that is even more heroic, yet we do not celebrate – we scarcely even remember – the rich heritage of gold mining in the Australian Alps.
Anyway, enough of that.
Corryong was the venue for the Australian Bush Poetry Championships this year. Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers did a great job of organising the festival, as always, and the shows were very well attended.
The format is a little awkward in that the shows are run as competitions, yet are also expected to be entertaining. It is a difficult line to tread. The biggest challenge is filling the dead time between acts, when the judges are writing down their comments. This is where the MC is truly tested. A good MC keeps the show rolling so that you are barely even aware that the judging is taking place. By and large the MCs this weekend did a great job, though you sensed a few times that their material ran out before the show did.
I also find it tough sometimes to listen to so much spoken word without any leavening of music. It doesn’t help that each poem is on a different subject, or telling a different story. There is just so much to take in. My trouble is that a good poem will fire my imagination, and I will find myself half way through the next poem before I remember that I should be paying attention to it, too. Some musical interludes would help to soften the intensity of it all. Having said that, though, it is difficult to imagine how that could be achieved within the current structure.
Here is the Saturday night crowd.
The Sunday Poets’ Breakfast was fun, and a great opportunity for Maggie and me to strut our stuff.
We left shortly after lunch on Sunday to face the long drive back to Melbourne and be back in time to be at work on Monday morning.
It was a great weekend.
2014 Bush Poetry fundraiser on Herring Island for Yarra Riverkeepers
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.
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.
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.
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.