Gum Tree Canoe
February 19th, 2022 | Australian folk songs, Folk clubs, Music, Songs
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!