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Tasmania

Tasmania; the other Australia.

I’m walking amid mountains, between stunted, ancient snow gums with bark skinning off in long strips, pencil pines and pandanis with ludicrous heads and long leaves that clatter woodenly when you brush past them. Lower down the hill they cluster and tower; dinosaur-like, in sociable groves. My boots crunch through old snow. At one stage I enter a patch of nothofagus beech and my nostrils drink in the black, wet-wood smell of when I was a kid back in New Zealand with bare feet sinking into the leafy mat of the forest-floor. The track leads around tarns in prisons of dolerite, the rock tumbling and crumbling and shattering as if the Earth were exploding at geological pace.

MT FIELD NP

POND GUMS

swamp gums SMALL

At lower altitudes, the great swamp gums soar high and straight above me – the second tallest trees on the planet – racing for the clouds only to crash and topple and lie like sunken warships on the ocean floor. The battle over trees here has been long and bitter – the loggers and the activists have recently reached an uneasy truce – but Tasmania is far from the most affluent state in Australia and the tension between jobs and conservation still simmers palpably beneath the surface.

That was Mount Field, Tasmania’s first national park, on the day before the rain came. Yesterday it was still coming down but I wanted to keep moving, so I went out along the Tasman Peninsula and walked through the downpour to Cape Raoull. Here the dolerite maintains its spectacular organ-pipe structure along towering cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to a twisting sea. The storm whips up the cliff-sides, bringing nonsensical backwards-rain and gusting blasts that rattle the heath bushes and tear at my jacket hood.

This is a peninsula of pain; of iron shackles and stone walls, of bulldogs on frantic chains. Of sheeting rain. There is only one narrow way off this thumb of land, that’s why the British authorities built their penal colony here; it’s the sandy thread of Eaglehawk neck, where the line of dogs were tied against escapees. It was to this peninsula that the armed population of colonial Tasmania sought to confine the Aboriginal population when in 1830 their “Black Line” swept the island from coast to coast in an attempt to clear the land for sheep and civilization. The indigenous people, who have lived here for 35,000 years or more, knew the nooks and crannies far too well for that – only two were captured. Still the sheer mass of the Line was enough to daunt them to an uncertain truce that over two centuries later has never really been resolved.

Driving through this area I see the swath of destruction left by the fires which this year swept out of the hottest and driest summer on record, devouring valleys and homes. Schools and churches burned to the ground as fire crews fought desperately to control the conflagration. With the return of rains the blackened gum trunks are already sprouting bunches of fresh, bushy foliage, a reminder that fire here holds no terror for the trees.

It’s intriguing and fascinating; this other, strange and beautiful Australia.

bushfire damage

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

With a few days to spare before my gig in Adelaide I’ve headed over to Tasmania to visit some friends and escape the grind of Melbourne. Because in my mind, Hobart was a quaint and antiquated stone-walled little port town with not much more than a handful of fishing boats and a few souvenir shops. So I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback to find myself touching down in a sprawling, busy Australian city, complete with high rise buildings, malls and motorways.

oldest pub

Hobart was once a whaling and sealing port, the kind of place the heroes of the Davy Lowston song would have frequented, and so I was keen to visit the wharves and museums and see what remains from this time. Maybe those same sealers whose ordeal is told in the song once haunted the town’s foreshore, looking for work on one of the creaking vessels that lined the wharves, willing to forsake all trace of civilization for the dangers of the sea and the brutal life of sealing on remote shores far across the horizon.

This morning I spent half an hour on Skype talking Davy Lowston with Warren Fahey, who is perhaps Australia’s foremost collector of old songs. There is so much about this song that is wrapped in mystery – its origins, its antiquity, its author. It is a wraith of a song, which to me what makes it so appealing.

The tune of Davy Lowston has its origins on the on London’s Execution Dock, where the alleged pirate William Kidd was hanged in 1701. In those days, vendors made a penny selling “broadsides” – single-sided printed sheets of paper bearing songs detailing the goings-on of the day. They would stand on the street corners and sing the songs as a means of attracting buyers. One of these broadsides captured the plight of the condemned privateer, which later became the well-known folk song Captain Kidd:

My name is Captain Kidd
As I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Captain Kidd as I sailed,
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed.

Another song that appeared around the same time was “Sam Hall,”  which uses the same tune and tells the story of an unrepentent murderer as he makes his way to the gallows. (This song was recorded by Johnny Cash.) The tune and meter of Davy Lowston is almost certainly a plagiary of one or both these songs. Both “Captain Kidd” and “Sam Hall” would have been on the lips of sailors for more than a century before the composition of Davy Lowston, so it’s likely whoever authored Davy Lowston simply grafted their words onto this old melody and rhyme scheme.

I caught the bus into the city this afternoon. An Indian woman and her young daughter got on at the same time as me and as we travelled through Hobart’s streets the little girl starting singing the nursery rhyme “Where is Thumbkin;” which I remembered well from my own childhood;

Where is Thumbkin?
Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am!
Here I am!

How are you today, sir?
Very well, I thank you.
Run away.  
Run away.

The song, with its simple, repetitive melody is sung to the famous old french tune, Frère Jaques;

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Frère Jaques was first published about 1811, around the same time as Davy Lowston may have been composed. It has been theorized that it was originally composed to taunt Jews or Protestants. Since then, the melody has become ingrained in the cultures of many countries around the world, including China and India, with different lyrics being retro-fitted in many languages to suit many purposes. It has been used by gloating football fans  and patriotic Chinese communists; by the Beatles and the British military, and of course by mothers and children all over the world, including a 4 year old Indian girl on the number 39 bus into Hobart on this overcast Tasmanian afternoon. The process by which a song can travel through the centuries and around the world like this, morphing and changing as it does so, is the real subject of my inquiry into Davy Lowston.

P1000223I finally made it down to the wharves, where a handful of crayfish boats were tying up for the day. The fishermen here still use wooden cray-pots constructed from sapling branches, identical to those a century old you can find in the Tasmanian Maritime museum across the road. I got talking to one of the fishermen – he reckoned the crayfish are better attracted to the natural materials. When he saw me taking photos he rummaged around amongst the pots on the deck of his boat and pulled out this little bird – which he said they call a “Jesus bird” on account of its ability to “walk” on water. They often land on the decks of these boats and nestle down in the pots. I’m not sure what the species is – anyone?

jesus bird