On Forgotten Songs from Australia’s Great Rivers

Posted by on Aug 30, 2013 in One River Canberra, One River Projects | 2 Comments
On Forgotten Songs from Australia’s Great Rivers [In developing their project for One River, Canberra-based artists John Shortis and Moya Simpson trawled through the archives at the National Library to research forgotten songs about rivers and towns throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. These songs are parochial, patriotic and romantic, extolling the particular and peculiar virtues of distinctly Australian rivers and towns. A couple of days before the Belconnen event, John Shortis met up with Centenary of Canberra Creative Director (and progenitor of the One River project) Robyn Archer, to discuss the resonance and value of these songs from the archive. The following is an edited transcript from this instructive discussion.]

Here’s the delightful medley that John and Moya performed with choir, ukuleles and yodelling at the One River event at Belconnen Arts Centre on 24 August 2013:

MURRAY MOON (Reginald Stoneham 1920)

The stars are gleaming

And there’s a charm

That sets me dreaming

When all is calm

The sighing gum trees

Bring mystery

The drooping willows

I seem to see

And through the moonlight

They fade away

But leave a memory of yesterday

I see my homestead

By the big lagoon

‘Twas but the magic

Of the Murray Moon


She is my own sweet Murrumbidgee Rose

She is as fair as any rose that grows

At night I’m dreaming of Rose dear

Each day my love stronger grows, dear

And as the breeze sighs through the blue gum trees

And below the river calmly flows

When we’re canoeing

On the river I’ll be wooing

My little Murrumbidgee Rose


Oh the Murrumbidgee’s flowing

And the Snowy keeps on going

But the Darling is the darling of my heart

Though some folks are in a hurry

Rushing down the River Murray

Still the Darling is the darling of my heart

Though it’s just a muddy river

Flowing lazy to the sea,

I was born along that river

And it’s always home to me,

When I die, don’t leave me sleeping

Where the Diamantina’s creeping

For the Darling is the darling of my heart

Robyn Archer: If I hark back to my mother and her experience growing up on the river at Cadell, every time she’d had a few sherbets she’d go into a song, which I think must have been an American tune:

I’ve got that muddy water in my shoes…

Even now, in her state of great forgetfulness, she harks back to the river and a kind of utopian recollection of the life that she had living in what was essentially just a tin shed on the banks of the Murray. The muddy water survives in her memory and that song is a trigger for that. My mum’s memory is from that period before the river was regulated, where there were still paddles steamers travelling down the river. (She’d laughingly tell me that for breakfast each morning they’d have lobster – the now almost extinct Murray River crayfish – cooked in butter.) That song about ‘muddy water in my shoes’ is the sound of my mum at a party somewhere, reminiscing about her life on the river. So that emotional attachment is there, and you do see it rise up in these songs.

These old river songs that you’ve found remind me a bit of this other project I’ve been doing with the National Film & Sound Archive as part of the Centenary program, based around a song from 1938 called Canberra’s Calling to You. One the one hand it’s completely cheesy and ridiculous, but on the other hand what shines through is a quite pure and unadulterated admiration and passion. I think the same is true for the tunes and lyrics of these old songs about the rivers – there’s something almost innocently loving. It’s exactly the same as that American tradition where people would write songs about particular places because they really loved them and they wanted to make a tribute. People just come up with these songs and I think this is a tradition that’s still alive today.

John Shortis: I think the interesting thing about these songs is that they grew out of the First World War. The earliest of these river-related songs that I know of is about Yarrawonga – a song called I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga – which was written by a man called Neil McBeath, a corporal in the AIF.  He was fighting overseas at a time when so many men were longing to return home. He heard some other fellow say ‘I can’t get wait to get back to Yarrawonga’, and he thought ‘That’s a good name for a song!’ This song was recorded by an English artist and became a very well known town-name song. So, for me, this tradition of songs grow out of sense of yearning on the part of people who are away from home during WWI. The most famous of these songs is Along the Road to Gundagai, which is interesting because that one is written by Jack O’Hagan who was actually inspired by songs about the Mississippi River and realised that the Murrumbidgee River had the same lilt to it and the same number of syllables. In fact Jack O’Hagan had never even been to Gundagai –he just chose to use that town because it happened to be on the Murrumbidgee and it sounded good in the song! O’Hagan knew that these songs about longing for home really touched a chord with people and he exploited that sentiment very successfully. So there were songs written by professional songwriters who wanted to exploit a particular trend and sentiment, as well as songs written by people with an actual and genuine attachment to the particular place they were singing about.

Robyn: Of course there are plenty of songs that we all know about American places, spanning from the west coast all the way across to the east.  I think it’s interesting that we know all these songs so much better than the equivalent songs about our own country, even though there are thousands of songs about Australian places. These songs are just sitting there like an undiscovered treasure!

John: The strength of popular song is that whilst they are basically just ephemera, in the sense that they have their moment and then are largely forgotten, they do hold a deep resonance of the particular cultural moment from which they come. A good hip-hop song written today will have that same kind of historic resonance. These three old river songs that I’ve dug out of the archive reflect an innocent and romanticised vision of particular places that of course all had their faults, but you don’t want to sing about those negative things. (Incidentally, that’s what makes Paul Kelly’s warts and all song Adelaide so interesting:

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Wouldn’t drag me back again…)

For the One River project we’re actually just performing the choruses of these old river songs, but some of the most interesting bits are actually in the parts that we’re leaving out, like the verse in the song Murray Moon that romanticises the Aborigines living beside the river. The ‘dusky natives’ are idolised within this song from the 1920s when, actually, this is a time when many Aboriginal children are being forcibly removed from their families. But the songs represent a romanticised and idealised vision of these river places.

Robyn: This song The Darling is the Darling of my Heart is really just sensational, isn’t it? I love the way that it ties in the Murrumbidgee and the Snowy Rivers and it has that line:

When I die, don’t leave me sleeping

Where the Diamantina’s creeping

For the Darling is the Darling of my Heart

As a singer, there’s a way of singing these songs tongue in cheek and playing them for laughs but, actually, there are also ways of singing them with a sincerity that audiences really appreciate. This is what we’ve found with Canberra’s Calling to You. People haven’t cracked up and said ‘that’s ridiculous’. On the contrary, they’ve more often said that they’ve experienced an unexpected little pattering in their hearts when they’ve heard the song, and this all comes about because of the attitude of the performer. There’s a terrific heightened emotion and passion in these songs that can really be quite contagious. I’m sure if you performed these old songs that you’ve found in towns up and down the rivers they’d be greeted with enormous pleasure and genuine emotion. As well, I suspect that they’d probably also be a prompt to unearth other songs that we don’t know about. There’s a good idea for a regional tour here!

When you look at popular song culture today, so much of it personally driven. There are not a lot of songs that are about passions of a different kind. But in other eras, such as wartime, there was clearly scope to write passionately about other things, including a longing or an attachment to particular places that conjured up a sense of solace or comfort. Perhaps within country music song writing there is still a tradition of referring to particular places, but there’s not much, I think, in other popular genres.

John: In addition to these three particular river songs we’ve been discussing, we’ve also discovered a whole lot of songs referring to particular towns along the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin. We found one about Mildura that we performed when we all met there for the One River project in March. We’ve also found songs about Wilcannia and a whole lot of other river towns.

Robyn: That’s interesting. You know, my mother has sometime said to me that she should have named me ‘Morgana’ or ‘Cadella’, in reference to the places connected by the punt that her father operated on the Murray all those years ago.  That’s further evidence of the great and enduring significance of these river places in her life. And I can really appreciate her passion.

The other thing to think about of course is that there would certainly be a history of indigenous songs about places along the rivers too, even if this is something that we’re probably, and tragically, destined never to know much about.

John: We do know there was a tradition of work songs sung on the paddle steamers that worked the rivers in the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century too, even though most of these songs have been forgotten too. Ian Mudie in his book Riverboats (1961) refers one of these: The Dying Bargehand (plagiarising another famous anonymous ballad ‘The Dying Stockman’) which has a beautiful chorus:

Wrap me up in my tow-line and check-line,

And scuttle me deep down below,

Where the cod and the snags won’t molest me,

Where the Murray’s clear waters do flow.

Robyn: I think perhaps one of the most important things about these songs is that they show how artists can give voice to commonly held sentiments that are perhaps generally not expressed in common language. The language of song is a kind of heightened language, in which lyricists effectively distil popularly held emotions into something that’s both resonant and accessible. I think this is the great value and power of song. And I think it’s fantastic, John, that you’ve unearthed this particular set of resonant songs from the dusty archive!

Comments - 2 Comments
  1. Tammike
    July 9, 2014

    I have a question about a song my grandparents used to play in their car in the 1980’s.

    The chorus lyrics went something like this:

    “Take me back to Tailem Bend
    where the rivers flowing,
    take me back to Tailem Bend
    where the willow trees are growing”

    If anyone knows anything about this song, I’d love to hear about it.

    • Lindy
      August 25, 2014

      I don’t, but I can almost hear your grandparents singing it. I wonder if there are references in the National Sound Archive?


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