Introduction to ‘The Drover’s Dog and Other Stories – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Four’
© Paul Hemphill 2013. All rights reserved.
I love a sun-burned country, I like my toast well done. I like girls with long, brown legs, and watch them as they run.
Apologies to Dorothea McKellar.
There is a straight if idiosyncratic line between the balladeers of old and those of today. Between the old Greeks and the bush poets, and flowing between them all, the myriad tributaries and branches of the rivers of song and story. The “Childe Ballads” in all their variations and permutations of House Carpenter, Matty Groves, Barbara Allen, Geordie, and the rest (there were three hundred and five of them, including thirty seven about Robin Hood!). The ubiquitous Anon with ballads like Spencer The Rover and the sanguinary Long Lankin. Many such songs transited the Atlantic in the hearts and haversacks of countless settlers and slaves, travelling the rivers of the Appalachians, up the Shenandoah, down the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi, the subjects of so many songs in their own right, to re-emerge in the late ‘forties in The Alan Lomax Collection, and the eccentric and idiosyncratic Harry Smith’s encyclopedic “Anthology of American Folk Music” (just eighty four songs there), together, the source code of the folk canon and the well-spring of the folk and blues revival of the next two decades. No one song encapsulates all this better than the McGarrigle’s Going Back To Harlen.
And from way back until today, there are the sundry ‘epics in verse’ that have graced many a poetry anthology. From the archaic and anarchic Beowulf, and Le Chanson de Roland, to Victorian favourites like Alfred Noye’s’ The Highwayman, for example, Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad Of East And West. And of course, that spooky, cookie product of substance abuse, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And forget not the biggest and best ballads of them all, the blind bard John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
Those, then, were the roots. And here, now, are the fruits. The songs and stories presented in this collection and in others, whilst not claiming a place in the poets’ pantheon, were most certainly inspired by them. An early example is Lilith, an abridged retelling of the fall of the Rebel Angels and of Adam and Eve. To quote from “Roman Holiday : The Poems of Meniscus Diabetes“, “If Meniscus’ tale of Adam, Eve, Lilith, and Lucifer had not been lost to history before its relatively recent discovery, one wonders if John Milton would have bothered to retell it in such lengthy and verbose detail”. Indeed, many of the old stories retold in the Hebrew Heroes Song Cycle hark back to those tales so beloved of Sunday schools and ‘sword and sandal’ spectacles.
The latter, indeed, have a lot to answer for. Moses Heston, not included in this collection (see “Lost Boys – Forgotten Poems of Paul Hemphill”), was inspired by viewing, for the umpteenth time, old Cecil B’s hyperventilated The Ten Commandments, juxtaposing this with a catalogue of Chuck’s oeuvre. Roman Holiday irreverently references Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Robe, and Barabbas. Not to mention I Claudius, and The Life Of Brian. Brave Goliath channels Rocky Balboa whilst Samson And Delightful recalls Victor Mature. Kirk Douglas earns a second tribute in Summer Is The Time (To Go A Viking). (Now, get this: the dubious, bad-haired Canadian-Irish television series which premiered in March 2013, and is now into its fourth season, was based on this song, and not vice versa, and indeed follows the story line almost to the letter – well, almostish).
Titans Close and its prequel, overwrought sagas of battling bovines, owe their heritage to both Homer (the Greek, not the yellow one), and HW Longfellow’s Hiawatha (specifically the epic struggle with the sturgeon). And there are echoes of the heroic verse that JRR Tolkien’s heroes would recite at the drop pf a broad-sword. But it also pays tribute to our own Banjo Paterson, particularly his faux-epic The Geebung Polo Club, and there is also the more contemporary, and incomparably incontinent McArthur’s Fart by Rob Bath and Andrew Bleby, with its marvelous mix of pong, pun and pastiche. In this and other instances, I am reminded also of that excruciating English bard of bad puns, Les Barker, particularly his Jason And The Arguments. “No you’re not, yes I am, no you’re not…”
Most of all, it’s about the primordial and perennial conflict between light and darkness, between good and evil. The law man and the colonel’s son go up against the bandit and the gunslinger. Rudyard declaimed: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth”. And Hal David: “From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown, the very first thing she learns, when two men go out to face each other, only one retur-r-r-ns“ (notwithstanding the fact that in the movie thus celebrated, nothing of the sort occurred).
The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stockman who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontedawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. The characters in the picture story painted by Gabrielle Tindall are represented by herself, her husband Warren, and their children, now grown, Dion and Samadhi.
Which reminds me of how I first met Warren, on Australia Day, thirty years ago. The rain was pouring down upon the main street of Coffs Harbour, capital of northern New South Wale’s Costa Geriatrica. He was standing outside the RSL – leaning really, on his girlfriend’s shoulder. Dressed in black from head to foot, and sporting a black akubra, with a black patch over his left eye. He was quite the bushranger. “You must come to Bellingen!” he says. “And where is Bellingen?” Says I. He points over his shoulder to the west – .over the hills and far away. Bye the bye, this story has grown a little in the telling, with a skerrick of embroidery around the basic facts (like the eye patch), but, as that journalist might have noted, isn’t that is the way of all yarns?
On the matter of making acquaintances, I am reminded also of my old pal George Hofsteters, Yuri the Storyteller, who went to his happy hunting grounds in July 2014. A few hours prior to that meeting with Warren, HuldreFolk had arrived at the club to perform at the final concert of the Coffs Harbour Folk Festival (where we debuted The Watchers of the Water, our song of Gallipoli sung by a Turkish soldier). Yuri was driving, and he shot into a parking spot ahead of a car heading for the same space. He then proceeded to argue with two irate occupants, and as I approached them, Yuri made a remark that sent shivers up my spine. Indicating my self, he warned the strangers: “my friend Paul is a black belt in karate!” So Yuri! May he rest in mischief.
As for the painting of The Drover’s Dog, He is modelled on Warren’s neurotic and elderly Blue heeler, Bozo (you couldn’t sing a song about a mutt called Bozo – hence Bluey). It shows a typically bucolic vista of Bellingen Shire, with the heroes of another, contemporaneous song in that bears the dubious distinction of actually being “banned in Bellingen”). This latter saga, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is, believe it or not, the saga of the battling beef steaks. Titans Close is an actual lane in Boambee, near Coffs Harbour, the site of this equally actual and momentous duel.
Sadly, true too is the conversation recreated in From Small Beginnings. This occurred during a stay at the melanoma unit of Sydney’s Royal Prince Albert Hospital. I was there with a broken leg, but the orthopaedic ward was full so I was parked there for a week, on morphine most of that time and in a space that could be described as ‘out there’. Other poems from that sojourn are featured in the “Lost Boys” collection. True too the events described in Come To The Garden. I recall that day still, many years on: sitting atop a ridge overlooking the Manly Dam at the dawning of a beautiful summer’s day. It is sung to the tune of the old English song The Ash Grove. The river of song and story again. And Dolphin? Generically so, inspired by a news report on dolphins held captive for the entertainment of tourists.
From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, and to Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, whilst meandering all over the map, resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of…And Torquemada? Well, it used to be called Torquemada’s Blues, and didn’t the blues originate in The West!
We draw long bows in this forward, and, indeed, take take long shots. Did I mention the thirty seven songs about Robin Hood amidst The Child Ballads? Perhaps this is the reason I have never written a song about the famous outlaw (although there are many mediocre movies out there to provide inspiration, and there is, indeed, a rough, hand-written draft somewhere in the loft). But a host of heroes and villains, saints and sinners, gods and monsters, have been celebrated over the years. Angels and devils, soldiers and sailors, murders and marauders, pirates and priests. In this and in other collections, Vikings, Romans, Mongols, and the Spanish Inquisition have all faced the music in dubious anthems to power, pride, and prejudice.
In previewing verse presented in this collection, I have enjoyed the opportunity to rant and reminisce, and to wander off into seemingly irrelevant digressions. It is not often that ones gets the chance to ponder such diverse subjects as folk song collectors and second rate movies. But, as I saying before I wandered off down other avenues, there is a straight if idiosyncratic line between the balladeers of old and those of today. Between the old Greeks and the bush poets, blah blah blah…
Anyhow, reviewing the a-foregoing, and the vein in which it is presented, one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say in Arabic, and as is said in all languages in all times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “there was, oh yes, there was, in the oldest of days and ages and times”. And the taller the story, the more unlikely the yarn, the better we appreciate it. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And this is really what this collection is about.