Does your town have its own song?
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Jack O’Hagan’s Along the Road to Gundagai (1931) is Australia’s best known song about a town and was added to the Sounds of Australia foundation list in 2007. But it was only one of many which were written between the two World Wars celebrating major cities and small hamlets alike. The music industry of the time was driven by music publishers, who wanted people to buy copies of popular songs to be sung around the domestic piano. In the early 1920s radio was still in its very early days in Australia, and people’s exposure to new songs came mainly through performances in vaudeville theatre shows, such as Fuller’s or the Tivoli circuit, and even by salesmen in music shops singing newly released songs to encourage purchases.
Recordings often came after a song had become a hit through inclusion in one of the vaudeville productions which toured the major cities. Until the opening of the Columbia record pressing plant in Sydney in 1926, there was virtually no Australian record industry, and recordings by Australians were made in England and shipped out to Australia. There had been a steady stream of Australian singers heading to Britain to seek fame (and fortune) from before the turn of the century and the success of those such as Nellie Melba and Peter Dawson encouraged many others.
The earliest song in the NFSA collection about a place is Woolloomooloo, recorded by Steve Mullins in 1910 for Jumbo Records in the UK. Not much is known about Steve Mullins, although Australians Billy Williams and Albert Whelan also recorded for Jumbo in the pre-war years. Perhaps Mullins was another expatriate Australian entertainer working the music hall circuit in the UK.
Woolloomooloo c 1910, Steve Mullins – Jumbo Record A23651 (NFSA: 612267)
Wodonga and Cootamundra
A popular vocalist of the 1920s was baritone Leonard Hubbard, another singer about whom little is known. He recorded quite prolifically for Zonophone Records in the UK, including several songs with a distinctly Australian theme, but evidence for an Australian connection is tenuous. There was a Leonard Hubbard who toured Australia, as a boy soprano, with Edwards Branscombe’s Westminster Abbey Glee and Concert Party in 1903 and who by 1911 was an adult chorister at the Abbey. His great-uncle George Hubbard was a resident of Launceston, Tasmania and the Launceston Examiner occasionally reported on his musical career which included singing at the Coronation of George V, but there is nothing to directly link that Leonard Hubbard to the recording artist of the 1920s. Whoever he was, in 1924 he embraced the popularity for songs about Australian towns, recording Back to Croajingolong and Wodonga on Zonophone 3637, Cootamundra on Zonophone 3653 and I’m Going Back to Yarrawonga on Zonophone 3636.
Wodonga c 1924, Leonard Hubbard – Zonophone3637 (NFSA: 318210)
Cootamundra c 1924, Leonard Hubbard – Zonophone 3653 (NFSA: 318206)
Back to Croajingolong was published as Croa-jingo-long and recorded under that name by Harold Williams (as Geoffrey Spencer) for Regal in 1923. Williams was an Australian baritone who spent most of his working life after the First World War in Britain, mostly singing classical repertoire, though branching out occasionally into more popular songs. The curious thing is that Croajingolong isn’t so much a place as a district in eastern Victoria near Mallacoota. There were a succession of small gold rushes there in the late 19th century and these days the name exists as that of a National Park along the coastline. Maybe it was just the rhythm of the word which appealed to the composer.
Croa-jingo-long 1923 Harold Williams (as Geoffrey Spencer) – Regal G8086 (NFSA: 312107)
We mentioned before that Leonard Hubbard recorded I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga, a song written by Neil McBeath, a corporal in the AIF, in the war years and published in 1919. The original sheet music noted that it had been part of an ‘Anzac Coves’ pantomime performed in France. The Anzac Coves were an entertainment unit established in France as part of the AIF and described by war correspondent C E W Bean as ‘essential as big guns’ to the Australian troops on the Western Front in an article published in several Australian newspapers in 1918.
It is hard to know how popular the song was back in Australia in the immediate post-war years but the English/American musical hall entertainer Ella Shields included it as part of her show on her first trip to Australia in 1921-22, when she toured the Tivoli circuit. Shields was a male impersonator who appeared as three male characters in her shows and whose biggest hit was Burlington Bertie from Bow. She recorded I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga in late 1923 in London after her return to England from her Australian tour.
I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga 1923 Ella Shields – Regal G 8138 (NFSA: 190556)
The opening of the Columbia pressing plant in 1926 with its brand new technology of electrical (as distinct from purely acoustic) recording opened the doors to Australian performers to record their music. Columbia’s Sydney-based factory was followed within a year by Vocalion Records opening a pressing facility in Melbourne. One of the first local recordings was O! Sydney I Love You, the winner of a song writing competition organized by The Sun newspaper. On 16 March 1927 the paper enthusiastically reported on the recording session, with Len Maurice and the 2FC Studio Dance Band led by Eric Pearse recording the song.
O! Sydney I Love You 1927 Len Maurice – Columbia 0610 (NFSA: 295829)
The NFSA has five separate versions of the song, including another by Len Maurice just with piano accompaniment (Columbia 0611), perhaps recorded at the same session. Another charming version, which may even have been recorded a couple of months earlier, is by Alex Kelleway. It was recorded with a narrow frequency response, perhaps from the microphone used, which gives it a honky ‘telephone call’ sound quality.
Another song about Sydney was written and recorded around the same time by Maurice Chenoweth, a well known ‘silvery tenor’. He had been performing around Australia in a variety of musical styles since the turn of the century ranging from art song, vaudeville and even singing with a jazz band alongside a celebrated lady whistler. Perhaps Chenoweth had also entered The Sun’s competition and decided to publish and record his song anyway. He does describe it on the sheet music as the 'People’s Song’. It is the only composition of his in the National Library’s collection and the only recording held by the NFSA.
O! Sydney I Love You c 1927 Alec Kelleway – Parlophone A2150 (NFSA: 307618)
Sydney c 1927 Maurice Chenoweth – Regal G20032 (NFSA: 312067)
Warrnambool, Ballarat and Mildura
Baritone Robert Nicholson recorded several songs with a Victorian connection. During his first recording session in November 1929 he recorded Ballarat the Fair and then, a few weeks later, Back to Warrnambool accompanied by the composer Reg Stoneham. In March the following year he recorded another Stoneham song, Mildura (Home of Mine). Nicholson’s story is a fascinating one and detailed in an article by performing arts historian Frank Van Straten in his journal On Stage in 2005. Mildura seemed a popular subject for songwriters, with Mrs G H Ball’s My Old Home Town (Mildura) recorded on the B side of John Collinson’s first recording of Waltzing Matilda in 1926 and the energetic Reg Stoneham also writing Come to Mildura – the Land of Winter Sunshine for the Come to Mildura Committee. Warrnambool, described as the 'Playground of the South’ in 1959 by their Junior Chamber of Commerce, also featured in another of Stoneham’s songs, but Back to Warrnambool has real charm.
Back to Warrnambool 1924, Robert Nicholson – Broadcast (De Luxe Series) W580 (NFSA: 283064)
Ballarat the Fair 1929 Robert Nicholson – Broadcast (De Luxe Series) W555 (NFSA: 283458)
My Old Town (Mildura) c 1925, John Collinson – Broadcast (De Luxe Series) W573 (NFSA: 283471)
The 1920s were the most popular time for songs about particular places. The craze faded away in the 1930s, but the centenary of Melbourne in 1934 brought forth this one from Jack O’Hagan and sung by Clement Q Williams.
Let’s Take a Trip to Melbourne 1934, Clement Q Williams – Regal Zonophone G22195 (NFSA: 190509)
Canberra and Queanbeyan
The nation’s capital Canberra and Queanbeyan, the country town next door, were not forgotten either. Jack Lumsdaine wrote and recorded Canberra’s Calling to You and Queanbeyan in 1938, the sesquicentenary of European settlement. In 1938 Canberra was little more than a few suburbs to the north of the Civic Centre and another couple east and west of Parliament House. Lumsdaine was a prolific songwriter and performer on both the vaudeville circuit and on radio and is also remembered for Every Day is a Rainbow for Me, which featured Don Bradman accompanying him on piano.
Canberra’s Calling to You 1938, Jack Lumsdaine – Prestophone M3104 (NFSA: 189024)
Queanbeyan 1938, Jack Lumsdaine – Prestophone M3104 (NFSA: 189024)
From 1942 is a song about Wagga Wagga, a ‘Riverina paradise’, written by Frank Ottenson and recorded by Tom Davidson and his Orchestra. The Melbourne-based record label is an unusual one, probably meant only for radio airplay and pressed on a translucent brown vinyl rather than the more usual shellac. Later in the war Flying Officer Tom Davidson led the RAAF’s Entertainment Unit no. 2, based in Darwin (perhaps the whole band enlisted). Davidson’s band was active until at least the late ’50s when they backed singers such as Diana Trask and Ernie Sigley on recordings for W&G Records.
Wagga Wagga c 1942, Tom Davidson and his Orchestra – Broadcast Exchange (NFSA: 274947)
Brisbane / Coolangatta
Our final song is a bit more recent. It’s Hot in Brisbane but it’s Coolangatta was recorded in 1953 by singer Gwen Ryan, accompanied by Claude Carnell’s Orchestra with Doug Roughton’s Hokey Pokey Club on vocals as well. We can only imagine that it was a tourism promotion of some kind. Carnell was a venue operator and band leader on the Gold Coast from the ’50s through to the late ’70s, but it is the only recording we know of by Gwen Ryan.
It’s Hot in Brisbane but it’s Coolangatta 1953, Gwen Ryan / Claude Carnell’s Orchestra / Doug Roughton’s Hokey Pokey Club – Coolangatta’s Souvenir Record MX54594 (NFSA: 338421)