Vale Hugh McDonald

November 21st, 2016 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Music, News, Photos, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

My dear friend Hugh McDonald died last Friday night.

All those who knew Hugh well knew the end was near, but still it was a shock to receive the news from Rebecca this morning.

Hugh is best known as a member of the former folk-rock group Redgum, and writer of the classic Australian song, “The Diamantina Drover”, but he was, of course, so much more.

Hugh was a great admirer of Henry Lawson, and indeed created an album of songs based on Lawson’s poems. I always felt “The Diamantina Drover” was a “response” to the “call” of Lawson’s “Knocking Around”.

Hugh was one of the few people who made me feel a bit ‘special’. I can’t deny there was an element of bathing in the light of his celebrity. “What does this famous rock star want to hang out with me for?” He was always pleased to see me, ready for a cuppa and a chat.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was my poetry that first led me to him. I spent much of the late 70s and early 80s hanging around folk/bush bands, trying to persuade them to put my poems to music. Eventually, after giving up on some of the bigger names, I turned to the smaller fry. Hugh was playing with “Moving Cloud” at the time, and I approached him one evening after a gig at the Dan O’Connell. Somewhat surprisingly, he expressed an interest in hearing my work.

We met a couple of times after that, and he started putting one of my songs – a sort of parody of the life of Captain Cook – to music. He played an unfinished version of the song to me on one occasion, but shortly after he rang to tell me he would not be able to finish the song, as he had received a call from Redgum, and they wanted him to join them.

We lost touch after that, and I followed his career, like so many others, through radio and vinyl. Many years later – long after the breakup of Redgum – we made contact again. I heard him being interviewed about his Lawson album by the Coodabeen Champions on ABC Radio one Sunday night. I wrote to the ABC, they passed my letter on to him, and soon we were back in contact again.

Hugh played at my sister’s wedding – where he was one-man juke box! – and at a close friend’s 50th birthday party.

When I was looking for a music soundtrack for a demo of my collection of poems for children, it was Hugh that I turned to.

In spite of all this, however, it is only in the last couple of years that we have become really close. When Maggie Somerville and I decided to put together a CD based on the work of C. J. Dennis, I persuaded Maggie to record it with Hugh. We recorded it over the following twelve months, and the recording sessions were highly enjoyable – occasionally riotous! – occasions. He also graciously helped us to launch “The Two Bees” at the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival in 2015.

Console 1




(Hugh was always game to try something new. Here he is playing the saucepan…)


(… and here the gourd.)

Toolangi 2

Toolangi 1

(Thanks to Margaret Voake for the last two of these photos, both taken at Toolangi.)

Hugh’s technical mastery was not confined to music instruments. He was a wizard on the computer in his studio, and was always seeking to master new skills. (He also, it must be said, gained great satisfaction from restoring discarded vacuum cleaners to good working order.) Keen to learn another new skill, he offered to make some videos for Maggie and me to help us promote the CD. Apart from the bright red music stand situated forlornly in the middle of the field of vision, he did a great job!

Making video

(Thanks to Trevor Pearson for this photo.)

More recently, he has been helping Maggie to complete her second original CD. He was really hoping to complete it before he died. Alas, this was not to be.

Hugh and I were a similar age, and both sons of doctors. (Hugh’s father was a GP in Kerang, a Victorian country town.) Our paths had been very different, however. I had become a doctor myself, while he had followed the path of musician and artist. Hugh was fascinated with science, and medical science in particular. Quackery infuriated him, and he did all he could to expose it when he encountered it. We occasionally reflected on how our lives might have been if he had become a doctor, and I had followed the path of the artist in a more committed manner. I have no doubt he would have made an excellent doctor. He followed the course of his illness and its treatment intensely, and with a degree of detachment that was quite admirable.

It is hard to believe he is gone. I know it will take me a long time to come to terms with his death. I feel a large chunk of me has gone with him. My heart goes out to Rebecca and the rest of his family. Their only consolation can be that they had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing such a wonderful fellow.

Rocking chair

(Thanks to Margaret Voake for this photo, too – also taken at Toolangi.)

Hugh's guitars

18 responses to “Vale Hugh McDonald”

  1. Patsy Hohnen says:

    Thankyou dear Stephen for sharing your insights into the many talents and the enduring friendship you had with Hugh. The few times I met him I felt a sense of warmth, caring and passion to share his gifts of music…..which he did so generously.
    I probably won’t be able to come to share the celebrations of his life on Friday morning, but I will be there in spirit. Fond wishes. Patsy.

  2. This is sad news indeed. While we did not know Hugh personally, we knew him by reputation – and we will long remember his participation in the delightful launch of “The Two Bees” at Toolangi in October 2015. Our sympathy goes to his family and friends. Stephen – thank you for sharing this insightful tribute. Regards, Shelley and Rod Hansen.

  3. Richard Tulloch says:

    So sorry to hear this, Stephen, but a lovely tribute to your friend.

  4. Caroline Whiteside says:

    I was very sorry to hear he’d died, Stephen. And Diamantina Drover has been playing in my mind all week. He also played the Ashokan Lament at my wedding which is one of the most beautiful pieces of music written in the last century. I had fallen in love with it earlier, but I hadn’t spoken to him about it, so it just a wonderful coincidence that he played it on that delightful sunny day. Vale Hugh. R.I.P.

  5. ted egan says:

    Dear Stephen, Nerys and I share the national grief at the passing of a dear friend Hugh McDonald. We knew him from the halcyon Redgum days and always admired his consummate skill, but more so his love of “sharing” music with everyone he encountered. I don’t often use the word maestro, but Hugh became a maestro guitar player as the years developed his talent in that field. He produced my song “The Hungry Fighter” and it remains one of the highlights of my recording experiences. Only in recent years we had the joy of Hugh as principal artist at the Top Half Folk Festival. Nobody who saw him there will ever forget his contribution. “Diamantina Drover” will be around forever to remind us, joyfully, of Hugh. Condolences to his family please.

  6. Stephen says:

    Thanks, Ted. Yes, we will all miss him enormously. He was superbly talented, as you say, but perhaps more importantly – as you also say – he was just a wonderful fellow.

  7. Mark Leehy says:

    We met in the Seventies, playing in folk clubs where the audience was so tiny that no microphone was required. He was younger than me but way ahead of me. Through the decades he has been, at different times, friend, colleague and rival He has been both hired gun and producer. But most of all, generous. Always. So many will miss you, Hugh. But you left us an amazing legacy to remember you by. And now you will always be, alas, younger than me but way ahead of me. And I will always admire you.

  8. Tony Labides-Turner - Henry Lawson Society says:

    Dear Stephen, Maggie and Rebecca, Thank you for sharing such wondrous memories. Can still re-call a magical evening’s entertainment of song and spoken-word at the Peninsula Folk Club a few years ago, his rich voice full of warmth and feeling echoed throughout the room, a truly never to be forgotten night. His legacy to all, is his music, of old and present. Au Revoir Hugh……

  9. I was so happy to meet Hugh last year at the Festival, I just could not believe it was him!! Years earlier I had purchased The Lawson Album and loved it. Very sad to hear he had passed away; lovely thoughts of Hugh. Angela Stuart

  10. Judy Wolff says:

    Stephen, I had no idea you were so close to Hugh. He was/is one of my favourite singer-songwriters. He shockingly left us decades too early.

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