Sunday, 3 March 2013

Musical memories

One of the things that set humans apart from the other animals is that we make music.  There is evidence that we made music long before the Neanderthals died out - I think Howard Goodall's History of Music series on the BBC cites a 28,000 year old bone flute!  Possibly, it's something we discovered early on, not long after the first ape decided it was better to live on the plains and sprint across them on two legs with your arms pumping hard.

However it came about, music can be evocative, triggering memories of people, events and emotions almost - but not quite - forgotten.  How many of us tuck away the memory of a boyfriend together with the music you heard on the radio all that summer, so that when you hear a certain song again years later, all the memories of him come flooding back?  How many couples have "their song"?

On the flip side to that, how many times do you find yourself remembering a particular song, after certain events have occured?  I grew up by the beach, so a hot summer's day accompanied by the smell of the sea will always make me think of "Beach Baby" by First Class, and going down the beach with my mates during the long summer days of high school.

When the gloom and cold get to me and work seems to be one long day after another, there  is a particular song that plays in my head.  It's the words of Banjo Paterson's Clancy of the Overflow set to music by some Australian country singer.  While I have vague memories of a single being released around 1980 (possibly this one), the version in my head is one which was played live to me and some classmates on our year 12 camp.  We were high up in the snowy mountains near Gelantipy and the guy who performed it belonged to the campsite.  I don't know how many times during a long and frustrating day at work, I've heard him singing in my head:-

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
    Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
   Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.
And I somehow fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
   Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
   But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".*
It's my escapist fantasy poem.  The music is little more than the hook upon which the poetry was reeled into my mind. I've lost count of how many offices I've sat in and recalled those words, wishing like the Banjo that I could replace the endless grind of "the cashbook and the journal" with wide open fields and the bush.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
   In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
  And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.*
I don't get homesick often.  But I was chatting with a colleague about Australia, trying to put into words how I feel about my homeland, and ended up quoting poetry to him, starting with Dorothea Mackellar's My Country  (still under copyright so read it via the link) followed by Clancy of the Overflow.  (Yes, I did find myself wondering whether I must be crazy to quote poetry to one of the guys at work, but it didn't seem to go down too badly.) 

Anyway, the above is all a longwinded way to explain why I've just wasted an hour trying to find a recording that matches - even vaguely - the recording of Clancy of the Overflow that plays in my head. There are dozens of recordings on Amazon: some performances that just made me cringe; others that reminded me of the Australian country dances craze that surfaced in the 1980's on the eve of the Bicentenary.  I want the one that will evoke the smell of eucalyptus trees on a summer's evening mingling with the smell of wood-smoke from a fire that's just been lit because the temperature is dropping rapidly after sunset.  I ended up with this version by "The Colonial Boys".  It's not bad, but I can't smell the wood-smoke.  I think I am going to have to keep looking.

- Pam

* Extracts from Clancy of the Overflow by Andrew Barton ("Banjo") Paterson, first published in "The Bulletin, 21 December 1889.

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