Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Kookaburra II

David Sedaris’ article in the current issue of the New Yorker actually takes in the childhood memory of singing with his sister a version of the Kookaburra song, and being punished by his irritable father for doing so. I suppose it would be fair to say that most Australians above a certain age (at least mine) must have sung that song in its original version, namely a delightful four-part round that was written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair, a schoolmistress at Toorak College, of which my grandmother was an alumna, and one of my sisters-in-law still is.

Miss Sinclair entered her composition in a fund-raising competition run by the Girl Guides’ Association of Victoria, and won. The song was first performed in 1934 in the presence of Lieutenant-General the Rt. Hon. Lord Baden-Powell, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., and Lady Baden-Powell, G.B.E., at a jamboree in Frankston (above) It was meticulously reported shortly thereafter in the Argus (January 4, 1935, p. 7), and thence spread across the globe—though not necessarily as a four-part round. However, I remember quite distinctly singing it in this form as a rather fetching treble temporarily seconded to some ad hoc choir, perhaps that of Millear House, on speech day at Grimwade House, with the late Miss Kathleen James at the pianoforte.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Merry, merry king of the bush is he; / Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra! / Gay your life must be.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Eating all the gum drops he can see; / Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra! / Leave some there for me.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Counting all the monkeys he can see; / Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra! / That’s not a monkey. That’s me

Kookaburra sits on a rusty nail, / Gets a boo-boo in his tail; / Cry, Kookaburra! Cry, kookaburra! / Oh how life can be.

The concluding stanza, I suppose, reflects a degree of gloom arising from that ghastly experience of the Great Depression, from which nobody at all in Australia was spared.

Note the earliest (and correct) form of words: The kookaburra sits on, and not in, the old gum tree, a subtle distinction, certainly, but one that gives that muscular bird a slight hint of dominance, as befits the king of the bush designation that follows in the next line. Incidentally, in this context I have no idea what a boo-boo is. I doubt if it has anything to do with the parish of Boo Boo in the county of Courallie, which is in the Shire of Boolooroo, roughly half way between Narrabri and Moree in northern New South Wales, a few miles east of the Newell Highway (149° 56ʹ E, 29° 54ʹ S, to be precise). Nor, I think is it anything to do with the boobook, as the subtle brown owl we called the mopoke is more properly known. In any case boo-boo, n., is not yet listed in the O.E.D., or the otherwise impeccable Australian National Dictionary, so I shall certain make a point of speaking to the editors about this.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm...

    I would have sworn that I sang it as

    Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Merry, merry king of the bush is he; / Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh!/ Kookaburra, gay your life must be.

    For some reason I have always disliked the word 'merry'. Also 'jolly'.