How Paul Kelly’s ‘Songs From The South’ Came Back To Me In Isolation
"It was the sound and feeling and warmth of an Australia that I had long dismissed. And now, in the midst of a global horror, that I desperately wanted back."
When I was a kid, I spent a fair whack of time in the back of our car being driven to dusty towns across Northern NSW so my sister and I could compete with our pony club.
This was not glamorous horse riding: we would wake in the freezing dark before dawn and spend the next 10 hours on horseback, racing through bush as part of eventing courses, or having sticks shoved between our elbows and back so our posture was straight for dressage.
When it wasn’t freezing cold it was searing hot, and sometimes you would have the joy of experiencing both in the same day. At the end of the day, once again in the dark, we would be peeled off our horses’ backs by our parents, staggering to feed and rug our horses while walking with a distinct bowleg. It was a very strange, and very wonderful, way to grow up.
The journeys to these dusty towns took a truly ungodly amount of time — at least in my 10-year-old brain it did. We’d drive for hours and hours to towns like Grafton, Casino, Kyogle, Mallanganee (barely a town, to be frank), Tenterfield, Armidale, Tamworth, and onwards. Our biggest run was out to Coonabarabran every year at the start of June, a two day drive that would take us over the Great Dividing Range and through the patchwork fields of western NSW.
With limited space in the glove box, we only had room for a few beaten up albums. One of them was Kasey Chambers’ crackling Barricades & Brickwalls, which I can still recite word-for-word to this very day. Another was Vince Jones and Grace Knight’s 1989 jazz album Come In Spinner. And the third, and perhaps the most-played, was Paul Kelly’s greatest hits compilation, Songs From The South.
How Many Angels On A Pin?
I don’t remember the first time I heard the album, I would have been far too young to remember. Instead, Songs From The South entered my life like a bleeding dawn; I didn’t discover it, it was always there — a musical microchip.
Every time Come In Spinner or Barricades… came to an end, we’d reach into the glove box and crack open the chipped plastic album case, the album liner curled and faded.
The songs would pour out of the Toyota stereo: ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’, the white lines rushing past in real time, ‘Leaps And Bounds’, ‘Before Too Long’, the clattering and grimy ‘Darling It Hurts’, the soaring ‘Look So Fine Feel So Low’, ‘Dumb Things’, with its sour and coiling harmonica. Through it all was Kelly’s voice, solid and warm like a gum tree.
Songs From The South entered my life like a bleeding dawn; I didn’t discover it, it was always there — a musical microchip.
Some tracks I winced at: I couldn’t help but squirm through ‘Sweet Guy’, so mortified I was by hearing sex sung about while my parents were in the car; ‘Winter Coat’, which I found limp and boring (still do, really).
Others hit me with an emotional power I didn’t have the maturity to comprehend, and have only recently begun to understand. ‘Everything’s Turning To White’, based on a Raymond Carver short story about the discovery of a murdered woman, was chilling to me — now, I recognise it for what it is, an offering of forgiveness and desperate grab at hope.
My sister and I sung along to ‘Careless’, annoying our parents by demanding they explain the answer behind: “How many angels are on a pin?” (I don’t know if they ever envisioned explaining medieval theology to their young children when they decided to have kids, but they gave it a shot regardless.)
‘Bradman’ was a lot more straight-forward for us to grasp, as was ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, which I would go on to play at my primary school’s end of year concert. When I began to play guitar at age 10, the first chord book I owned was for Songs From The South.
The most beloved, by all members of my family, was ‘How To Make Gravy’. Joe’s letter to Dan from his jail cell rung throughout our house repeatedly in the weeks leading up to Christmas. On Christmas day, gathered with the vast extended family in Queensland, we would corral my poor sister (blessed, or cursed in her mind, with a beautiful singing voice) to sing it, accompanied by about a hundred cicadas and Christmas beetles.
A few years ago, when the phenomenon of ‘Gravy Day‘ began to take hold, and it became apparent that other families had done the same thing, I was a little miffed — I assumed that was just our thing. Now, I think it’s stupidly wonderful that a song that includes a recipe for gravy is one of the most beloved in the nation.
The Great Cringe
Throughout all these songs, throughout everything Kelly has done, is the sound and feeling of Australia. What it was, what it is and it can be, its horrific failures and injustices, its warmth and care. No other artist has rendered Australia so starkly, or so beautifully. To listen and love Kelly is to confront Australia and its history — good, bad, wonderful, and awful.
As a teenager, I was afflicted by a terrible cultural cringe. Australia was a backwater, an embarrassment, and its art paled in comparison to that of my burgeoning obsessions: Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix (I know, I know, a terrible cliché).
No other artist has rendered Australia so starkly, or so beautifully. To listen and love Kelly is to confront Australia and its history — good, bad, wonderful, and awful.
For years I would wince when ‘How To Make Gravy’ rolled through the speakers at Christmas, I’d proclaim loudly to my parents that I hated Kelly and Cold Chisel (the latter I am still not sold on, if I’m honest), and would roll my eyes at any Australian drawl that emanated from the stereo.
It was years and years before the cringe would shake itself loose from my brain. I’d find myself scrolling through Hunters and Collectors, Crowded House, Australian Crawl — all the songs I’d wilfully avoided as a teenager. My parents would look at me curiously as I’d surreptitiously queue up The Church or The Go-Betweens on the stereo when I was back home for Christmas.
But Kelly returned more slowly — ‘How To Make Gravy’ still made me grimace with embarrassment, ‘Bradman’ even more so. But steadily, surely, like a bleeding dawn, he came back.
I’d Give You All Of Sydney Harbour…
In the first week of lockdown, two months ago, as the news became a slow motion picture of a world crumbling, I reached under the bed for my dusty acoustic guitar and retreated to my balcony. It had been years, but I still remembered the chords: ‘St Kilda To Kings Cross’, ‘Leaps And Bounds’, ‘Deeper Water’. My fingers moved over the fretboard without conscious direction, fuelled by muscle memory.
The levee was broken: I’d go for long walks in the warm April afternoons with Songs From The South ringing through my ears, I’d sit on my balcony with a wine and close my eyes as it poured over me. I knew every word, I knew every chord change; I wrapped it around me like a woollen blanket against the impending cold.
When the horror of the pandemic threatened to crush in the walls, I was miles away — remembering hot Queensland summers and the crackle of eucalyptus leaves. It was the sound and feeling and warmth of an Australia that I had long dismissed. And now, in the midst of a global horror, that I desperately wanted back.
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.