May, 2012: One of my most oft-played purchases from Athol Colemane has turned out to be a Columbia compilation, The History Of Australian Country Music, Vol I. The cover was missing (Athol, being meticulous, kept it in a white sleeve with his neat writing on it) so I got it half-price for $1. On this comp, I first heard Shirley Thoms, though of course I'd heard of her - Shirley's mysterious, sweet, ageless voice, as clear-ringing as a bell-bird, struck me immediately. But the song that sent me to the record-player - who is this? who wrote this? and what the hell is that word he keeps singing? - was CURRABUBULA, sung by Dusty Rankin, written by someone whose surname is Hawthorne. I tried to "check it out on the Google" (best wishes, Jimmy Little, wherever you are), but didn't get far.
It's a song about the good old days, when this "sleepy little hollow" just south of Tamworth was a thriving centre. This theme can be grossly sentimental, and worse - it can be a wallowing in the trait that afflicts a lot of us as we get older, namely, the refusal to accept change and find good in it; it also often smacks of the 'good old days' when non-whites and women knew their place. At the same time, it's interesting and poignant that many of these decrepit, shrunken towns we drive through (or in the case of this song, catch a train through) were once lively and full of potential, and it would be a shame to avoid this theme out of fear of stepping into one of its booby traps. Several things save CURRABUBULA from being repugnant, nostalgic Australiana. For a start, there's its craftsmanship and literariness - Hawthorne clearly put a lot of effort into this song, while many country songwriters go to great pains to create songs out of plain words, plain, old clichés, and to eschew anything that can remotely be considered poetic or intellectual. Hawthorne even goes so far as to refer (without contempt) to a more literary era: "In the days of books and letters" (so unexpected was this line, I first heard it as "boots and leathers"). He uses metaphor, imagery: "But you couldn't say that this lonely place/ Was all peace and quiet, made of silk and lace." Another of this song's charms is its rhyming scheme, which has just about every word you could think of to rhyme with Currabubula - railway car, Shangri-la, church bazaar, near and far, blood and scar. Even the repetition of 'Currabubula', an outrageous word to put in a song, let alone about a dozen times, makes the listener smile. And there are the two extra-long lines that the otherwise steady rhythm has to accommodate with a little skip (thereby showing the priority that the words, the meaning, has over the form). These might sound like insignificant touches, but when you listen to a lot of country music, poetry like this stands out.
Dusty Rankin sings it in his warm, low, dusty voice, adding (only once, more's the pity) that rare thing: a soothing yodel.
Here it is:
Here it is: