The Puzzles of The Diamantina Drover

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

With the recent death of my friend, Hugh McDonald, I have begun to look more closely at the words of his masterpiece, “The Diamantina Drover”.

It contains many puzzles.

I have heard Hugh say he wrote it when he was 24. He was born in July 1954, so this means it was written in the second half of 1978, or the first half of 1979. Hugh did not join Redgum until 1982 (and the song was first recorded in that year). Hugh’s wife, Rebecca Harris Mason, has confirmed for me that he did indeed write the song well before joining Redgum.

Hugh told me he wanted to write a ‘timeless’ song, as a reaction to the topical nature of so much of Redgum’s repertoire. (Obviously he was well aware of Redgum’s music well before joining the band, as so many of us were.) He wanted to write a song that did not relate to any specific event, political or otherwise. He certainly achieved that. The song is now regarded almost as a traditional folk song. I suspect many believe it was written a lot earlier than it was.

Hugh has also said the song is about running away from life’s troubles. What troubles was Hugh trying to run away from at the time?

The faces in the photograph have faded,
And I can’t believe he looks so much like me.

So, who is ‘he’? For a long time, I couldn’t decide if ‘he’ was father or son. I think he must have been father, but why the surprise? It suggests the narrator felt he had little in common with his own father. Is that how Hugh felt about his own father, the war hero and country doctor?

Also, why not say “I can’t believe I look so much like him”? That would make more sense to ponder the resemblance of the younger to the older. It is very poetic, though, to turn it around like this. It brings to mind the classic Dylan line: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

For it’s been ten years today
Since I left for Old Cork Station,
Sayin’ “I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.”

“Old Cork Station” is a real place. Had Hugh ever visited it? Not that I am aware.

I don’t think he ever visited the Diamantina, either, but he knew of it, and loved the sound of the name. (Rebecca has confirmed this for me also.)

At the time the song was released, Hugh talked about meeting a Queensland drover on a train trip, and dedicating the song to him. Towards the end of his life, however, he admitted there had been no drover, and no train. What there had been was an elderly neighbour, who told stories, when Hugh was growing up in Kerang in country Victoria. (Rebecca tells me the neighbour was actually a logger.)

For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina,
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind.

So the hardship of the lifestyle, rather than discouraging the drover, is actually part of the reason why he stays.

For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.

So when will the droving be done? If it refers to an individual season, it is long done. Taken more broadly, however, it will never be done.

(A dray, by the way, is a cart without any sides.)

I find the next lines – the second verse – fascinating.

Well it seems like the sun comes up each mornin’,
Sets me up and takes it all away.

Here the sun is life-giver, but also deceptive. It appears to offer promise, but then lets you down. Daylight is the friend, night is the enemy.

Yet we see this reversed with the next line.

For the dreaming by the light
Of the camp fire at night
Ends with the burning by the day.

Now it would appear that night is the friend – the time for dreams – while the daylight – the burning – is the enemy.

So we see two opposite metaphors employed to express the same emotion – that of dreams and aspirations being nurtured, only to be taken away. The circularity underlines the general ‘dead-endedness’ – the emotional emptiness of the drover – which lies at the heart of the song.

Clearly this theme of shattered hopes was very much on the mind of the young Hugh McDonald. Yet the whole song is, of course, a metaphor. Hugh was not a drover himself. What were the dreams on his mind at the time, I wonder?

We know that he did not enjoy his time at boarding school. His university career was fairly abortive. Would he have loved to be a doctor, like his father?

Sometimes I think I’ll settle back in Sydney,
But it’s been so long it’s hard to change my mind,
For the cattle trail goes on and on
And the fences roll forever,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.

Was it too late now for Hugh to turn away from his career as a musician?

I expect if Hugh was here today and asked to clarify some of these mysteries, he would shrug his shoulders nonchalantly and say, “It was a long time ago. Who cares?” (Indeed, I did try to clarify them when he was alive, and that was pretty much the response I got.)

Of course, the song is a timeless classic, and many people will continue to care for a long time.

I think it is pretty safe to say the song was penned in an inspired moment, a largely subconscious act. Hugh probably couldn’t have answered some of these questions any better at the time.

“The Diamantina Drover” is a wonderful song that could probably only have been written by a young person at the height of their imaginative powers.

World Poetry Day!

March 20th, 2016 | Poems for children, Reflections

It is tough getting poetry published. It has been that way for a long time, and I don’t see any signs that it is going to change.

Rejection is inevitable, and it is never easy. The greatest asset that a poet can possess (apart, from talent, I suppose – whatever that is!), is persistence – persistence and patience.

Don’t be surprised if you end up submitting 20 or 30 poems before you get one accepted for publication. Mind you, there are limits. If you find you have submitted 100 poems without any luck, it might be time to at least ask yourself if you might possibly be in the wrong game, or perhaps approaching it in the wrong way.

Part of the key is to be prolific. Write heaps. Don’t worry if they are not all masterpieces, and don’t spend hours trying to convert an excellent poem into a “perfect” poem (whatever that is!). Don’t hang all your hopes on a small number of poems. Make sure you have a swathe of them, so that when the first batch is rejected (as it almost certainly will be), the next lot is ready to be submitted right away. Again, remember – don’t take rejections personally. Everyone gets rejections. The editor is not rejecting you, just your poem!

The landscape has changed a lot since I first started writing poetry for children back in 1990. Then, in addition to the excellent NSW School Magazine, we had the Pearson magazines in Victoria (Comet, Pursuit, Explore, etc.) and New Zealand School Journal. Since then, the Victorian and New Zealand magazines have fallen by the wayside, and only School Magazine endures.

Yes I know, the whole world of online publishing has opened up since then, but I don’t feel there is any substitute for seeing your poem published in a magazine or book. Besides, you don’t get paid for online publishing. Nor is there the same sense of achievement. It seems pretty well anything will be accepted – or at least, that the bar is set a lot lower. And who reads these poems, apart from the poets themselves?

I feel very privileged to have had a collection published. (My collection of rhyming verse for children, “’The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, was published by Walker Books in 2014.)

I also feel very honoured that the book won a Golden Gumleaf for “Book of the Year” at the Australian Bush Laureate Awards during the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2015. Indeed, this was the last year the Bush Laureate Awards were held. They were deferred this year – possibly indefinitely.

I would love to have a second collection published. I had the book very much in mind when I began writing for children in 1990, so it took 24 years to become a reality. I just hope my second book does not take another 24 years…

I do feel that I am not writing as well for children now as I once did. There are several explanations for this. There is no doubt that my own children were an inspiration, and they are now grown up. Also, of course, I am older now. Is that a valid reason, or just an excuse? I’m not sure. I do find that I am not in the right frame of mind to write for children as often now as used to be the case. I still do occasionally manage to turn out a poem I am very happy with, but it happens less often than it used to, and I also now turn out more poems that I am not really very happy with! Still, I’ll keep plugging away, because I enjoy it so much when it all goes well. Besides, it is such a big part of my life now, I would not want to stop.

Having said all that, though, it is important to maintain a balance in all things. You don’t want to become obsessed with anything. I have many other fields of writing endeavour other than writing poetry for children, and I have many further fields of endeavour that do not involve writing at all. That, surely, is how it should be!

So, go to it, all you writers of poetry for children! May you dazzle, amaze, thrill, amuse, and generally downright fill with awe at the glory of life many generations of children yet to come. And may you have one hell of time yourselves in the process!

Pete Seeger

January 28th, 2014 | Pete Seeger, Reflections, Songs, Yarra River

I have been very distressed following the news that Pete Seeger, aged 94, has died.

I was talking about it to a friend last night, and he quite reasonably made the point that you can’t be too sad about anybody dying at the age of 94. He’s right, of course. Pete Seeger lived a long and fruitful life, and nobody lives forever.

But it seemed as though Pete was going to live forever. He just went on and on, and I came to think of him as almost immortal.

I could never take Pete’s politics too seriously. They had a fairytale quality that never squared with my reality. But that wasn’t really at the heart of Pete, I always felt – or perhaps I simply approached him from another direction.

What I truly loved about him was that when listening to him talk and sing, I felt as though he was talking to me, and I felt as though I really mattered. Listening to Pete Seeger, all my hopes and dreams came alive in a way that didn’t quite happen when I was listening to anybody else.

The recordings with Arlo Guthrie were especially magical. I discovered the 2CD set “Precious Friend” many years after its original release, but it became a household staple, particularly for long car trips. There is a simplicity, a beauty, an innocence in these recordings that is rare indeed. And to hear Pete talk about his early days with Woody Guthrie was to make you feel you could almost reach out and touch the man. Suddenly, I felt as though I was part of the story.

I will miss you, Pete, though I never met you. I liked to picture you up there on the Hudson River chopping wood. Even my wood chopping was inspired by you!

I like to think, also, that the little bush poetry show we put on last year at Herring Island to raise funds for the Yarra Riverkeepers was, ultimately, inspired by you, and your efforts to clean up the Hudson River.

Pete, I will never forget you. Thank you for everything.

Thinking about whether or not to solve the problem

August 24th, 2013 | Reflections

Sometimes I wake up with a desperate urgency that it must be resolved immediately. Other times, though, this glorious mood of acceptance washes over me, and I feel it really doesn’t matter if it is never solved at all.

There are times when I feel it is my responsibility to solve it entirely on my own, yet other times I really feel it should be a team effort, that we should strive for a consensus.

Sometimes it feels like a black problem. Sometimes it feels like a white problem. Other times, I’m sure it’s grey, but I can’t decide what shade.

Sometimes I feel it can only be solved by a huge injection of funds, yet other times I feel it is not really a financial problem at all.

I’m often grateful for the internet age, believing that cyberspace will come to our rescue, but then I think we’d probably manage just as well with a lump of charcoal and a sheet of bark.

Billy or kettle? Microwave or campfire? Central heating or extra blankets? There are no easy answers.

Will our descendants judge us harshly or kindly? Have we done too little, or too much? Or too little in the wrong direction and too much in the right direction? But how can that be?

And who are our descendants, anyway? Those that come ten years after? Or those that come a hundred? Or a thousand, even?

Perhaps the next generation will judge us harshly, but the following generation will reverse that judgement?

And what is a generation anyway? If I have my kids at 20, and they have kids at 20, and you have kids at 40, have my kids skipped a generation?

Sometimes I think it’s absolutely critical, but other times I think it really doesn’t matter at all.

Am I the only person that thinks this way?