I love writing poetry, and I love reading poetry.
My favourite poet is C.J. Dennis. He has always been my principal source of inspiration as a writer. I love his rhythms, his characters, his stories and his rhyming patterns. I also love his versatility - he could turn his hand to anything, including satire and writing for children.
In 2008 I helped to create a new festival, "The Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival", to celebrate the arrival of C.J. Dennis in that picturesque little hamlet in the wooded hills 65km east of Melbourne one hundred years earlier, in 1908.
C.J. Dennis was born on the edge of the South Australian desert in 1876.
However, he wrote most of the books for which he became famous in Toolangi. Indeed, many have suggested that the moisture and coolness of the tall forests around Toolangi revived his spirit after the years spent in the hot, dry conditions of South Australia.
Poetry was enormously popular one hundred years ago. Sadly, this is no longer the case. It has been well and truly overtaken by radio, television, the movies, the internet and, of course, popular music.
A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to meet Maggie Somerville at the Tuesday club nights of the Victorian Folk Music Club. Maggie is a musician, singer, and song and tune writer. Song lyric writing - a craft not that different to writing poetry - is also very close to her heart.
I became excited by the idea of Maggie breathing new life into the works of C.J. Dennis by turning his poems into songs. Much of Henry Lawson's work has been kept alive and relevant by writing tunes to sing his poems by. Could we achieve the same with C.J. Dennis?
(We wish to thank the Mitchell Library for the use of the following photographs of C.J. Dennis.)
C.J. Dennis is best known for "The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke", and the various books about the characters in that book - Bill, Doreen, Ginger Mick, Rose of Spadgers, etc.
However, Maggie quickly rejected the poems from these books on two counts.
However, I immediately (well, almost immediately...) saw the solution.
During the 1920s and 30s Dennis was employed by Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) to write a poem a day for "The Herald" (a Melbourne newspaper) on topical events of the day - much as a cartoonist now works. It is estimated that he wrote over 3,000 poems for the Herald.
Most of these poems were published and then promptly forgotten. They now only exist on microfilm at the State Library of Victoria. (Eventually, hopefully in the not too distant future, they will become more freely available on "Trove".)
However, two collections of these "Herald" poems were published after Dennis' death...
C.J. Dennis died in 1938. In 1952, fourteen years after his death, his widow, Margaret Herron, compiled a collection of what she considered his best poems from “The Herald” in a book entitled “Random Verse”. It was published by Hallcraft Publishing in Melbourne. Most of the poems which Maggie turned into songs for “The Two Bees” were found in this book.
However, the Melbourne journalist and writer Garrie Hutchinson, several decades later, also put together a book entitled “The C.J. Dennis Collection – from his ‘forgotten’ writings”. The pieces in this book were also first published in “The Herald”, and the title track of the CD, “The Two Bees”, was found here. (The full title is “The Two Bees – An Allegory”. Dennis uses the idleness of the bees as an allegory for the unemployment of the Great Depression.)
There is one poem on the CD, “The Dominant Male”, that was published in “The Herald”, but not in either of the books. I found this on the excellent Australian Literature website run by Perry Middlemiss.
There are eight songs and four poems on “The Two Bees” – a total of twelve tracks. Nine of these are from “The Herald”, as detailed above. Of the remaining three, one, “A Song of Rain”, is from “Backblock Ballads and Later Verses” (Angus & Robertson 1918), one, “The Ant Explorer”, is from “Book for Kids” (Angus & Robertson 1921), and one, “The Kookaburra”, is from “The Singing Garden (Angus & Robertson 1935).
Dennis wrote the poems for “The Herald” mostly in response to news items of the day. Many were published with a few introductory lines to explain their context. Seven of the twelve tracks on the CD have these brief introductions.
Hugh McDonald is an old friend of mine, and I thought he would be perfect for the recording of the CD. Hugh is best known as a former member of the folk-rock band “Redgum”, and the writer of the classic song “The Diamantina Drover”, which has been covered by many artists. These days, Hugh spends much of his time touring and performing with John Schumann, also formerly of Redgum and the writer of another iconic Australian song, “Only Nineteen”.
Not being an instrumentalist myself, we needed a second instrument player to assist Maggie in the studio, and Hugh was great for this, too. (I can sing, play a bit of percussion and recite, but that’s about as far as I go.)
The CD is very much in the folk genre. Instruments include guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, ukulele, banjo-mandolin, bass guitar, harmonica, and various percussion instruments. The kazoo came in handy for “The Two Bees”, and Hugh did a great job beating a spoon against a saucepan (two appropriately domestic instruments) for “The Dominant Male”.
The Old White Horse (“The Herald”, 13th July, 1933)
We found this in “Random Verse”. It wasn’t the first of the poems that Maggie put to music, but it seemed the right choice to kick the CD off. Maggie actually wrote this tune up at Mount Hotham, when we had gone there to do some bushwalking.
This is the only song where we have added to the words of C.J. Dennis, as Maggie felt very strongly that it needed a chorus. She wrote the first line, and I provided the rest.
Since recording the CD, I have found out much more about the history of “The Old White Horse”.
The original White Horse Hotel was built in 1853 on the south-east corner of what are now Elgar and Whitehorse Roads. For a long time it was the only two-storey building in the district. According to information published by the City of Whitehorse the owner, Patrick Trainor, named the hotel after his favourite horse. He hung a metal sign outside the hotel showing a white horse carrying a jockey.
The hotel went through several changes of owner until, in 1888, the owner, William Graham, renovated the hotel extensively and commissioned a craftsman to make a wooden statue of a horse to mount above the front door.
There are two stories as to who actually carved the horse. According to the first, it was made by David Clarke, a cabinet-maker from Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne). According to the second, William Graham’s wife, Anne, commissioned a French artist who was visiting Melbourne for the Centennial International Exhibition (Melbourne’s contribution to the celebrations to mark the Centenary of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788).
The hotel was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1895, but the white horse escaped intact. Fortunately the hotel was insured, and a new, single-storey building was quickly erected in its place.
There had always been a strong temperance tradition in the Box Hill area, and the hotel was de-licensed in 1921. It was run as a boarding house until 1933, when it was demolished as part of a plan to subdivide the site for housing.
The white horse, together with the porch upon which it had stood, were donated to the City of Box Hill. They were mounted on the main street, but suffered badly over the following years as a result of the weather and vandalism. (During the celebrations that followed the end of World War Two in 1945, the horse’s head was painted red!) Eventually the horse was extensively restored and taken indoors to be placed on permanent display inside the Box Hill Town Hall. A fibreglass replica was created, and it is that model that is now on display at the beginning of the median strip beside the Box Hill shopping centre.
In 1994 the cities of Box Hill and Nunawading amalgamated to create the City of Whitehorse, and in 1995 the White Horse logo was adopted as the symbol of the City of Whitehorse.
(In preparing these notes about “The Old White Horse”, I am deeply indebted to the brochure “The story of the White Horse – the symbol of a City”, first published in September 1993 by the City of Box Hill and extensively revised by the City of Whitehorse in June 1996.)
There are now two other white horse statues on public display in the City of Whitehorse. On the median strip directly opposite the town hall stands a much more modern-looking statue of a white horse that was created by Stephen Glassborow (born in England in 1951). It was installed in 1999. Another very modern-looking white horse stands in the street outside the council chambers.
The Two Bees – An Allegory (“The Herald”, 7th June, 1934)
This is the second C.J. Dennis poem that Maggie put to music, and the first that we regularly performed together. I was particularly attracted to it because I felt it had a natural “verse and chorus” structure, and could see it being great fun to perform, though Maggie’s first reaction was that “it would be impossible to put to music”. (Fortunately, she was wrong!)
I quickly fashioned a couple of cardboard bee props, and Maggie found a butterfly in her daughter’s bedroom that I was able to attach a handle to without much difficulty. Voila! A performance piece was born!
We performed it for the first time at the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival in 2014. One person dubbed it “a cross between performance art and Play School (a popular Australian children’s television programme)”. We weren’t quite sure whether this was a compliment or an insult, but as we were asked to repeat our performance for the kitchen staff the following day, we agreed that was a good sign!
As mentioned above, the poem was written as an allegory for the Great Depression of the early 1930s. There were no unemployment benefits in those days, and many people experienced a real shortage of food. C.J. Dennis experienced many swaggies stopping by his Toolangi home during the Depression and asking for a meal, and this experience is reflected in the poem.
The Elusive New Zoo Gnu (“The Herald”, 25th November, 1935)
This is just an absolutely brilliant poem, and one I love performing. (This should not be confused with “The Gnu”, a song by Flanders & Swann, which was released many years later, in 1960.)
The Banana’s Lullaby (“The Herald”, 5th March, 1932)
This quirky, but charming, little poem was actually the first that Maggie put to music. Again, it has something of a natural “verse and chorus” structure.
Black Peter Myloh (“The Herald”, 10th July, 1935)
This is a poem that both Maggie and I were keen to include. It is long, and does contain some language that modern audiences may well find offensive. We do wish to remind listeners, though, that it was written eighty years ago, and is probably quite enlightened by the standards of the day. Dennis did not write many poems about the Aboriginal people, but in this piece, written towards the end of his life, he reveals how great an influence this man in particular was on him during his childhood.
Country Roads – Pretty Sally (“The Herald”, 2nd December, 1931)
This poem allowed Maggie, best known as a singer, to demonstrate her skills as a reciter. It tells of a barmaid who lent her name to a prominent hill, a part of the Great Dividing Range, just north of Melbourne. For many years it was the first major obstacle to be overcome by motorcars when travelling from Melbourne to Sydney. I believe it is bypassed by the highway today.
The Kookaburra (“The Singing Garden”, 1935)
When Maggie first played me this, I decided that the only way to perform it was to “go operatic”! This was enormous fun to record, and remains very enjoyable to perform. (I try to get the audience to join in with me on the “Ock, ock, oo, hoo”, but they are usually too distracted, staring at me in disbelief!) I especially love the countermelody that Hugh wrote for his fiddle, and of course the kookaburra itself gets the last word…
The Ant Explorer (“Book for Kids”, 1921)
I felt this had to go on the CD, because it has long been my favourite of Dennis’ poems for children, and I write for children myself. This is the only one of his poems that I have committed to memory.
To a Dead Mate (“The Herald”, 5th September 1922)
This is also one of the first of Dennis’ poems that Maggie put to music. Truth be told, it was written during the Annual General Meeting of the C.J. Dennis Society at Toolangi in 2014! Maggie was finding the proceedings a little dry, and began strumming away softly over to one side. Eventually she slipped discreetly outside to finish the song!
Dennis’ relationship with Henry Lawson was complex. They knew each other a little but Dennis, particularly, was keen to convey the impression that they were better mates than they actually were. Dennis rather nervously asked Lawson to write the Introduction to “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, his smash hit. At this time Lawson was a national figure and Dennis, nine years his junior, was almost unknown. Lawson cheerfully agreed to do so, but Dennis was unhappy with what he then wrote. He felt it struck a slightly bitter chord in places, and Dennis wanted none of that. In the end Lawson more or less agreed – very generously – to allow Dennis to re-write it however he chose, and simply put his (Lawson’s) name at the bottom of it. Later in life Dennis restored the balance to some degree by trying (unsuccessfully) to secure a pension for Lawson.
The Dominant Male (“The Herald”, 31st May, 1938)
As soon as I discovered this poem, I knew we had to include it. It is so outrageously politically incorrect. Maggie – a staunch feminist - took a good deal of convincing, but I think we made the right decision. We still encounter the occasional audience member who does not seem to appreciate that the whole thing is “tongue in cheek”, but we have decided that is their problem, not ours!
It is the only song on the CD featuring percussion alone. It just seemed to evolve that way. Wendy Ealey, who designed the cover of “The Two Bees”, suggested that domestic implements such as pots and pans would be ideal as percussion instruments for this song, and in the end that is pretty much how we did it! (Maggie’s saucepan will never be the same again…)
How to Hold a Husband (“The Herald”, 14th September, 1937)
Again, a highly politically incorrect poem that I felt we had to do. (It’s all about provoking reactions, right?) Rather surprisingly, it is proving one of the most popular performance pieces on the CD. Maggie really hams it up…!
A Song of Rain (“Backblock Ballads and Later Verses”, 1918)
This is one of the best-known pieces on the CD, and rather works against our stated aim of breathing new life into forgotten works, but it is just so good that it had to be included. Besides, we were looking for songs, and this one was ready made – all it needed was a melody! Maggie did a lovely job here, creating a chorus that is an absolute joy to sing. We really went to town, adding instruments and percussion towards the end, and the rain, like the kookaburra, has the last word. A great way to finish the CD!
(The following photo is of the original , restored white horse, as it now stands protected behind glass inside the Box Hill Town Hall today.)
Maggie and I hope you enjoy “The Two Bees”. It has been great fun putting it together, from the early stages of choosing, then imagining and, lastly, recording the songs and poems with Hugh McDonald.
The C.J. Dennis Society