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?
Maggie Somerville and I have spent the better part of the last twelve months recording a CD of C.J. Dennis songs and poems. We are calling it “The Two Bees”. We recorded it at the studies of Hugh McDonald. Hugh also provides much of the instrumentation on the CD, and acted as our Producer. (Hugh is best known as one of the singers in the former folk rock band “Redgum”, and writer of the iconic Australian song “The Diamantina Drover”.)
I am very excited to announce that the CD is likely to be ready some time next week.
We are planning to launch it at 11am on Sunday, 18th October, at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, as part of the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival. (This is a very special year for the festival, as we are celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1915 of Dennis’ most successful book – the most successful poetry book ever published in Australia – “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.)
I have created a Facebook page for “The Two Bees”, which can be found here: