Almanac Music – “The tracks that we followed are clear”: An encounter with Hugh McDonald

In October 2016 my father turned 70. He decided to have a party to mark the occasion, preferably one featuring live music. Finding a musician to fit the bill loomed as a challenge until one of my brothers suggested Hugh McDonald, the former member of popular 1980s folk group Redgum. It seemed an inspired suggestion.

Spawned from a group assignment by students at Adelaide’s Flinders University, Redgum was led by the articulate and occasionally abrasive John Schumann. The act shot to national prominence in 1983 in the wake of their stunning song about Vietnam War veterans, I Was Only 19, storming the charts. During a 60 Minutes profile, chin-stroking reporter George Negus asked band member Michael Atkinson, “Is that what you are, a mob of red raggers?” Atkinson didn’t blink: “We don’t make any apologies for the fact we are communists”. It was an approach that reportedly saw Redgum booted from Willie Nelson’s Australian tour due to their political outspokenness.

Redgum’s songbook runs deep with quality and Hugh McDonald penned and performed a couple of its strongest entries. He was not part of Redgum’s original line-up. Hugh was drafted in as a fiddle player after the band’s members witnessed him performing on a Monday night at a Fitzroy pub. By then Hugh was a self-taught but accomplished musician. The prospect of following his father’s career as a GP had been cruelled by the tedium of the first year of a science degree and Hugh drifted into bush bands like The Colonials, The Sundowners and The Bushwackers.

Redgum’s 1983 live album, Caught in the Act, captures the band that Hugh had joined in full flight: witty, earnest and very political. The cover of the LP features its members standing around a table strewn with symbolic detritus: a book by socialist historian Humphrey McQueen, a bottle of Fosters Lager and a crumpled copy of The Age with a headline confirming Malcolm Fraser’s exit from politics. The recording opens with frontman John Schumann remarking dryly to the audience at the Rose, Shamrock & Thistle in Sydney’s Rozelle, “We haven’t seen you since the March the 5th result.” The reference was to the federal election that saw the Hawke Labor government swept to power and the show that followed is a time capsule of social commentary and political provocation.

In an interview with John Elliott a few years ago, Hugh McDonald expressed doubts about the place of songwriting as the dominant mode of expression about socio-political issues. Social media, he observed, had replaced songs as the vehicle for disenfranchised youth to express their views. While this assessment is sound, political content can still be found in Australian popular music. A.B. Original, Missy Higgins and Jen Cloher have each recently released what could be regarded as protest songs (or, in the case of Cloher, a “protest verse”), addressing indigenous issues, the plight of refugees and marriage equality respectively. Yet there is no contemporary equivalent to the Redgum of the 1980s. Take the opening song on Caught in the Act: a nine and a half minute riff, Beaumont Rag, which takes aim at the “middle class Liberal” residents of an Adelaide suburb who “love to read the Bulletin and watch the ABC”, voted for Malcolm Fraser (“the decent thing to do”) and keep exclusive company with “professionals from polite society”. In the course of delivering the accompanying monologue, John Schumann also takes swipes at Harry Butler, Ronald Reagan’s defence policy, the Costigan Royal Commission, the Leyland brothers, Countdown and fans of Midnight Oil. And this is merely the first of the album’s 15 tracks, which don’t include the caustic and prescient song about Australians abroad, I’ve Been to Bali Too, as it was not in the group’s set list until the following year.

Hugh’s best-known contribution to Redgum’s oeuvre was distinctly personal, rather than political. The Diamantina Drover is a haunting song that adopts the perspective of a stockman based in outback western Queensland. The story of the song’s inspiration has been obscured by Hugh’s introduction on Caught in the Act, consisting of a tale of an old man that he met on a train to Brisbane. In recent years Hugh confirmed the anecdote to be “complete and utter frogshit”, attributing the song’s genesis to his elderly neighbor during his childhood in the northern Victorian town of Kerang and explaining the reference to “Diamantina” as having more to do with being struck by the beauty of the word when he saw it on a map.

Whatever the song’s origins, it left them far behind. It has, as they say, entered the tradition. It is perhaps no exaggeration to claim, as John Schumann has, that the song has “imprinted itself on the national landscape”. So much is suggested by the unlikely places in which it can be found. Take Martin Flanagan’s biography of the Australian Rules footballer and indigenous community leader Michael Long, The Short Long Book. The book recounts Long playing the song on repeat as he drives through the countryside in search of a connection to his family in an unfamiliar town. Hugh has himself tried to unpick why the song resonates strongly with so many people, observing that beneath the references to cattle and drovers its subject is yearning to escape, to “run away”.

Musicians throughout Ireland play The Diamantina Drover at sessions in pubs. This phenomenon can be traced to the giant of music in that country, Christy Moore, having released a version of the song in 1985 featuring Enya on backing vocals. Moore, who has a genius for presenting songs written by others, recalled in his autobiography that a recording of The Diamantina Drover first made its way to him “in the post”, informing his assessment that “many gems lie hidden inside the tape mountain”.

As the ’90s approached, Redgum were in the throes of disbanding. Hugh was at the helm by then, belting out the group’s last single on Countdown, the well intentioned but less enduring Roll it on Robbie (a song about safe sex featuring lyrics like, “It’s a shower and a raincoat my bald-headed friend”). His career as a musician endured. He worked as a producer from his recording studio, taught music (including working with school students in drought-affected regions) and released solo material. He collaborated and performed regularly with Schumann, including playing for Australian servicemen and servicewomen in destinations such as Afghanistan as recently as March 2016. Hugh explained his career with a cricket analogy: he had made his “century in ones and twos”.

My father’s 70th birthday party was one of the hundreds of performances in Hugh’s post-Redgum years when, he has said, he would never really turn down a gig. The venue was a lawn bowls club in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs. It hosted three generations on a mild spring evening: toddlers chasing bowls around the greens while their parents and grandparents looked on, cradling frosted glasses of draught beer or house wine. Hugh was a class act. He opened the night without fanfare but with a fiddle piece that silenced the crowd. He closed proceedings by honoring a request for Danny Boy with my father joining him on vocals. In between he had called up other Irish songs, stilled the room with a rendition of I Was Only 19 and played the song that he described as a “gift”, The Diamantina Drover.

Three weeks later on a Sunday morning, I missed a call from my parents. Driving interstate and listening to the car radio, they had heard that Hugh had passed away.

In a tribute on social media, Schumann described Hugh as his, “dear dear mate, music accomplice, wingman and backstop for more than half my life.” “You get a mate like Hugh once in a lifetime – if you’re lucky. I was blessed – we all were.” In 2005, as members of the Vagabond Crew, the pair had recorded To An Old Mate, a version of Henry Lawson’s poem of the same name for an album of Lawson-inspired songs. In the weeks after Hugh’s death it made for poignant listening, featuring he and Schumann swapping lines from Lawson’s reflections on a lasting friendship: “I remember, Old Man, I remember / The tracks that we followed are clear”.

My family’s encounter with Hugh was fleeting but such was its timing and such was Hugh’s generosity and his spirit that his passing was very sad. Saddening but not shocking, as when Hugh arrived at the venue for the party more than one person noted that he did not look well. His performance belied his frail appearance and it was only as we packed up his gear at the end of the night, that he remarked that recent cancer treatment had taken a bit of a toll.

The other piece of personal information that Hugh volunteered as we were loading the boot of his car was to mention, with obvious but understated pride, that one of his daughters, Georgia, was also a musician. He explained that, going by the name “Georgia Maq”, she was in a band named Camp Cope that was doing pretty well. This was another understatement.

When, in the following month, Camp Cope was anointed Best Emerging Act at The Age Music Victoria Awards it surprised no one who had been taking notice. Camp Cope’s self-titled album had only been released in April but it had charted, attracted plaudits internationally and garnered them a devoted local following. The group had also spearheaded the “#ItTakesOne” campaign, designed to encourage audience members to stop sexual harassment and anti-social, “hyper-masculine” behavior at gigs. With bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmirch and drummer Sarah Thompson joining Georgia, Camp Cope had seemingly emerged fully formed. Their secret was the group dynamic adding punch to the swag of songs penned by Georgia in her previous guise as a solo artist. Reviews of the band invariably focus on her lyrics. The repeated descriptions of them as “confessional” and “unfiltered” are apt (Georgia herself has described the songs as “very emotional and very personal” and says that she can’t “do metaphors”) but the risk is to understate the craft that lies at their heart.

In the days after Hugh mentioned his link with Camp Cope, I found an online video of he and Georgia playing The Replacements’ song Androgynous on a couch. In an interview with DIY Magazine, Georgia explained her posting of the clip. “I wanted to make that video because my dad is really sick and I want to have as many records of us doing what we love together as possible.”

 

On the same weekend Hugh was telling us about Georgia on the footpath outside a lawn bowls club in Melbourne, she was in the US for her first public performance outside Australia. A video recording of the gig, at a music festival in the northern Florida city of Gainsville, is also available.

 

Equipped with an acoustic guitar and a notebook, Georgia steps up to a microphone, introduces herself – “My name’s Georgia, I play in a band called Camp Cope” – and opens with the song, Done, from the group’s debut. As she sings the first line, “It was the hardest ground that I had ever walked on”, the audience immediately accompanies her, singing every word clear and strong. This reaction – so emphatic and in an intimate setting but far from home – seems to momentarily take Georgia aback.

The means by which a performer finds his or her audience, particularly an international one, has shifted dramatically since Christy Moore listened to cassettes found in envelopes on the chance that they might contain a prize like The Diamantina Drover. Technology has both expedited the music distribution process and made it more accessible. In the Redgum profile on 60 Minutes in 1983, George Negus tartly observed that a politically charged group that prized its artistic freedom “still had to rely on the giant CBS company for the hype that sells their records”.

During 2016 and beyond, Camp Cope has had no such dependence. The band’s music has travelled more quickly and surely, via word of mouth on social media and courtesy of instant streaming and digital download. However, the songs themselves – not the speed or method of delivery – remain the thing. The audience response at Georgia Maq’s show in Gainsville will be familiar to anyone who has been to a Camp Cope gig: a visceral reaction to witnessing the performance of a piece of art – a song with which they have developed a personal connection – by its creator.

Something similar happened, in a far more understated way, when Hugh played The Diamantina Drover to the humble gathering at the bowls club that same weekend in Melbourne. Based on his words on that evening, Hugh did not take that occurrence for granted. He was appreciative of the fact that he had created such a work – a song evocative enough to transcend place and endure decades – and was taking joy from the prospect that his daughter was closing in on that very same thing.

Comments

  1. DF,
    Thank you so much for this very personal tribute to Hugh and his legacy (which now includes Camp Cope).
    Those who know me (and my oldest friends) will know how big a fan of Redgum I was (and remain). Back in the day, we all thought that we would change the world with Schumann, but then life got in the way.
    I saw Redgum so many times back in the day that I felt like a groupie at times.
    In the early 90’s, Hugh began playing a Thursday night residency at the Morning Star Hotel in Williamstown. I reckon that the last thing he would have expected to encounter in this out post was a group of hard-core-know-every-word-of-every-song Redgum fans. Whilst his remit was to perform covers for the crowd, he would oblige us by playing “The Long Run”, “Diamantina”, and other Redgum tracks just to keep us happy.
    We all grew to know Hugh quite well. When my wife and I married in 1994 he played at our wedding reception. I came to consider him a friend, and he played at a number of my friends’ weddings also.
    He would tell us stories of the days touring with Redgum, of how he and Schumann would virtually come to blows – it was heartening when they made their peace and he joined the Vagabond Crew. And yes, he related to us the story of how the Diamintina Drover was a load of bullshit.
    Occasionally I would stumble upon a venue at which Hugh was playing and he would never fail to call out “How are you, Smokie?” mid-song when he saw me. A great memory is of us singing the Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town” together (well, at least he was singing).
    He was an amazing fellow. One year, he decided that he wanted to run the Melbourne marathon, so he trained his arse off and posted an amazing time. We would occasionally run into each other at the MCC, and he would ask after all the Willy crew.
    I have listened to Camp Cope, but had no idea that Georgia is his daughter. I will listen to them afresh now.
    When I heard the news of his passing, I too was stunned.
    RIP, Hughie.

  2. ah shit. as I am on facebook I didn’t know about Hugh.

    I was a huge Redgum fan at school, a guy in the year below me called John Rosen who caught my bus taped If You Don’t Fight and lent it to me, and I was hooked. Then I found my mate in the street Ica was a fan, too. They were the first concert I saw, Anzac Day Eve at the Town Hall in 1980, with Sirocco and the Bushwackers etc.

    Then Hugh joined. I was lukewarm. I saw them at Bexley North in 82 and they all signed a poster for me (Caught in the Act EP).

    18 months later, I was at the pub after work one day at my shit job at KMart Auto at Bondi Junction. Small drinker. This guy is shown on a poster, some random name. Then this familiar guy gets on stage and starts with a few acoustic numbers. I recognise the voice. It’s Hugh! I shout out “Diamantina Drover”. He looks across and gives me the shoosh sign. He was moonlighting! he did do Wild Colonial Boy for me.

    Nobody in the pub recognised him. Not many Redgum fans in Bondi Junction! We had a long chat afterwards, then he invited me and my sorta squeeze, and her friend, back to his place. We talked for hours. Best guy I ever met.

    I imagined we would be best mates, stay in touch etc.

    But for reasons of love, uni poverty, Redgum’s “more commercial work”, my move into deep blues music etc, I didn’t see Redgum for years. No mobile phones, no email, no instagram etc.

    Then, in about 86, we were down at the girlfriend’s family holiday house at Burrill Lake. Redgum were playing at the Dolphin I think. Maybe the Workers at Ulladulla. Somewhere, nowhere. We went along. I was wondering all night if I should go and say hi afterwards. We moved down the front a bit and he stopped singing, pointed at me and yelled “Peter”! I couldn’t believe it.

    We talked again afterwards for ages. I would see them a few more times in that era. Always up for a chat.

    Not long after, the girlfriend’s brother was riding around Australia on a pushie. As you do. He gets a flat somewhere in the NT. This bus pulls up. It’s Redgum! On tour. They chuck his bike in the “boot” and give him a ride. He gets chatting. He mentions to Hugh that he knows me. They give him a job for a few weeks doing roadie and fixer work.

    That sort of band. Those sorts of times.

    That sort of guy.

    I’m gonna go youtube Midnight Sun. It was probably my fave song of those latter years, written by Mick Atkinson but beautiful words that sat nicely in Hughie’s mouth.

    Best to all : )

  3. That’s a fine essay, DF. Part history, part personal, part obituary.

  4. Verity Sanders says:

    Lovely insights all – Hugh was one of the bravest people I’ve known, and a pleasure to work with for over a decade. Our only verbal biffos were due to his insistence on being a Collingwood supporter ( inherited from his dad ) — but wonderful times spent with Hugh in the back of a van discussing everything from Bradman to Beethoven to wile away the thousands of miles we spent touring. We used to take a footy or a cricket set on tour and stop at every country oval we came across to have a hit or a kick – I gave him a copy of Bradman’s autobiography to distract him a little in his last few difficult days . Just for interest, if you have a look at the Almanac’s October postings, there’s a song I’ve done with CrossRoads about the AFLW – Hugh helped with some great feedback. Enjoy ( Verity Sanders – formerly Truman – Redgum alumni )

  5. Scot McCann says:

    What a great tribute. Redgum were a huge part of my teen music collection (still are…). I first met Hugh on a tour to East Timor, after becoming mates with Schuey. He was every bit the larrikin I understood from the recordings and from John’s stories. I had a great 8 years of conversations where Hugh would interrogate me about cameras and video production and we’d swap uncouth jokes… one of my best memories is with John, Hugh, Shane Howard and Rob Hirst jamming in my loungeroom for the benefit of my parents. Amazing night!
    Verity, one day I’m going to get hold of you and Michael, and get you to tell lies, truths and anything inbetween to my camera.
    Miss you Hughie.

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