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.

12 responses to “The Puzzles of The Diamantina Drover”

  1. Jim Brown says:

    An excellent analysis Stephen. For what it is worth, I have met several drovers who travelled the pioneer stock routes in the outback around Birdsville, where the Diamantina was one of few life giving rivers that flowed all year. It seems to me that droving is a hard but somehow addictive lifestyle. Not one of the drovers I met said he could ever settle down in the city. This often left them Lawsonesque regret or guilt for leaving wives or children behind. All seemed to feel a romantic but nonetheless a deep relationship with their horses, campfire brotherhood and sleeping under the stars. The song is a brilliant classic that to me captures all that so well.

  2. Will Moody says:

    Hello Stephen.
    The biggest puzzle to me is how a man of just twenty four could write with the melancholy of lost youth and wasted chances?
    Hearing the song again prompted this response from me:

    In the lands of ‘never-changeing’
    all the years lie in the dust;
    the songs of life pitched in a minor key.
    All the dreams are dreams of dreaming’s end,
    as one day all dreams must.
    And droving dreams is all that’s left to me.
    ‘Til the drovin’s done, you’ll see no more of me.

    Cheers, Will.

    • Stephen says:

      Maybe, Will. I’m not sure. The 20s are often a time of great turmoil and anguish, aren’t they – filled with the whole question of “What will I do when I grow up?”, and so forth. I remember every song bar one on Dylan’s first album was about death. People often say it is the best time of your life, but I’m not so sure about that – if it is, then it is also the most difficult.

      Thank you for your poetic lines.

  3. Excellent article, Stephen – and a fine tribute to Hugh. Metaphors are so beguiling – perhaps that’s why poets and songwriters love them so much. So often they lead you beyond the obvious, into the land where there is no clear division between reality and dreams. The song is an amazing achievement for one so young.

    Will – I love your “addendum” – it has all your trademark lyricism. I especially love “the songs of life pitched in a minor key”. Brilliant line!

    Cheers, Shelley

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks, Shelley. Yes, I think we all appreciate the power of metaphor, but it’s not really something you can do consciously. Well, perhaps you can, but I think the unconscious ones generally work a lot better. Personally, I struggle with them.

  4. Jan says:

    Lovely reflection Stephen.
    There will often be the regret that we didn’t sit down with the person, in this case, Hugh, and ask them to explain the lines of the poem or song and many times they couldn’t anyway. A good game to play at guessing though.

  5. Colin Carrington says:

    Well done Stephen. I much e enjoyed reading your analysis of the truly great song.

  6. Lynne Kells says:

    It always reminds me of “Clancy of the Overflow” and has a Banjo Patterson feel to it.
    There was a group called Wallis and Matilda that put Banjo Patterson’s poems to music brilliantly. Have you heard them?

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