Another of my personal favorites from Slim Dusty is “Australia’s on the Wallaby.”
“The Wallaby” in the title is short for the Wallaby Track–which really is no track at all, but refers to the roads and wilderness walked by itinerant works and dispossessed families in search of work. The term dates to the 1800s, and was even the title of a poignant painting –On the wallaby track — created in 1896 by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. The painting shows a young family alone in the bush, with the wife holding an infant and her husband boiling the billy can over a small fire. So the term predates the Great Depression — but during the Great Depression, people again took to the Wallaby Track, though in greater numbers than ever before.
During the Great Depression, 1 in 3 Australians became jobless, and so a stunningly large percentage of the population was wandering in search of any kind of work that paid. Australia was, indeed, on the Wallaby. A book titled On the wallaby: a true story about the Great Depression in Australia in the 1930s, by William Kidman, reinforces the identification of the term with this period.
The “cooee” in the song is a cry used in the Australian bush to connect with other wanderers, to attract attention, or to indicate one’s location.
This particular video is not in particularly good shape, but you can hear the song clearly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. The song is, like most Australians, cheerful despite difficulties being faced.
I spent a couple of days hiking around Melbourne, seeing and learning as much as I could about the city and its history. On the second day of my wandering, I found myself captivated by the National Gallery of Victoria. I go into some detail in my book about the history and development of painting in Australia, so I won’t go over all that here, but I did want to share more about the paintings that were my favorites—the works of the Australian Impressionists. This group was also known as the Heidelberg School, after a region where the painters loved to camp and paint the countryside and light that had so entranced them. These were the first artists to really capture Australia on canvas—the beauty, the hardships, the magical light, the openness, the strangeness, the wonder.
Though many would follow, the four founders of this school were Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Conder. Their images have become iconic, reflecting the history, the life, and the reality of Australia. They may have been impressionists, but they captured their subjects more truly than those who had tried to use more traditional art styles.
To avoid the legal issues involved in trying to pick up images that hang in museums or other private collections, I’m just going to give you links. There are a few articles, should you wish to read more, but there are also a lot of these men’s paintings, so you can get a taste of what their work was like. I left the gallery at the end of the day almost feeling as if I’d spent a day out bush.
Australian Impressionism, overview with paintings.
Paintings and where they were painted, from the National Gallery of Victoria.
Tom Roberts, paintings.
Frederick McCubbin, paintings.
Arthur Streeton, paintings.
Charles Conder, painting.
National Gallery of Victoria