Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

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Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

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Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

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