Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes, Episode 6! Regular listeners to the posts know that the Letters just refuse to lie down and die but rather, taking their cue from the coronavirus, continue to mutate. First, they were plain old letters, then postcards, and afterwards, postscripts. Now they have become footnotes!
All you need is the tiniest seed to land on whatever passes as fertile soil, however feeble, however sparse and uninviting. Life goes on here on the shores of the magical island located inside the vast gyre off the coast of Quotidia where castaways from time and space wash up to fill the isle with sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
I’m talking with Kevin Baker who reminds me that when he sang me the words of the song he had written about the Snowy River Men back in 1988 that I seemed more preoccupied with other matters and paid little heed to the value of the research he had undertaken in Australia’s Alpine region and especially the coup of obtaining the letter to Mrs Allen, mother of one of the slain in the Great War which formed the backbone of the song. Ah, Kevin, I replied, I’ve always been something of a slow study- not to mention self-absorbed as I was then and remain!
But I certainly learned to appreciate the song more as time went on, as when a teaching colleague in North Queensland in 1991 put in a cassette tape when she was giving me a lift home and your song pumped out into the cabin of the Holden Ute she was driving. And, so, we continued to reminisce about the times we played together at the docks in Port Kembla and The Boree Creek Pub in Narrandera as part of Currency Folk with John Broomhall, also at various places in Wollongong with Seannachie for a short while. Then, at the Boat Club in Cushendall when you visited Ireland in 1981 and again when I returned to Australia in 1988 in venues around Sydney and at a couple of folk festivals over the years until we lost touch in the noughties.
My last memory of you Kevin was in the mid-teens of this century when you were in a residential home. You had asked to see me but when I got there with Joe from Seannachie, who had become a friend and support for you, your mind had deteriorated, and you didn’t recognise me. But it’s good to see you, now, here in the great gyre off the coast of Quotidia.
Another sad note, for me, was the failure of the 2015 re-enactment of the 1916 Snowy River March where only $75 of a $12,000 target was raised, for traffic control. But let’s not dwell on that but, instead remember that admirable non-combatant from the Snowy River Men contingent, Ernie Corey, who carried a stretcher throughout the campaign. According to ACT Libraries, in a contribution by Michael Hall,
He was the only man in World War I to be awarded Military Medal and three bars. He was awarded the Military Medal four times – at Queant (near Bullecourt) in May 1917, Polygon Wood in September 1917, at Peronne in September 1918 and later that month at Bellicourt on the Hindenburg Line. In the March 1931 edition of Reveille the commanding officer of the 55th Battalion described Corey “as a splendid soldier whose temper remained unruffled even in most adverse circumstances” and that “Corey was of powerful physique and, invariably while out stretcher-bearing, he wore white shorts, carried his stretcher perpendicularly, but seldom made use of it, preferring to pick up his patients under one of his strong arms, and walk back with him, still holding the stretcher perpendicularly with the other. He had an undaunted spirit, and worked almost up to the enemy wire, rescuing wounded – foe as well as friend”. He enlisted for service in World War II, died in August 1972 and is buried in the ex-servicemen’s portion of the Woden Cemetery in Canberra. His medals are on display in the Australian War Memorial, as is the ‘Men from Snowy River’ banner used in the march of 1916. Talk about a war hero- Ernie Corey was the example par excellence! So, Kevin, here is my version of your splendid song The Snowy River Men [insert song]
Scarcely has the last notes of the song faded that I see a man striding along the strand waving his arms and, as he came up to me, he stated that in 1917 he had served in France in the ambulance corps for five months until imprisoned in an enormous room with his friend William Slater Brown just because he didn’t hate the Germans and wrote anti-war letters and preferred the company of French soldiers to those in the American ambulance corps. Well, what do you know, I was in the presence of e. e. cummings, who is one of my favourite American poets. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind reciting one of his anti-war poems.
He looked at me as though he wanted to hit me, but, perhaps because he was on the enchanted island at the bullseye of the great gyre swirling off the coast of Quotidia, he started: What if a much of a which of a wind/gives the truth to summer’s lie;/bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun/and yanks immortal stars awry?/Blow king to beggar and queen to seem/(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)/-when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,/the single secret will still be man//what if a keen of a lean wind flays/screaming hills with sleet and snow:/strangles valleys by ropes of thing/and stifles forests in white ago?/Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to bling/(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)/-whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,/it’s they shall cry hello to the spring//what if a dawn of a doom of a dream/bites this universe in two,/peels forever out of his grave/and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?/Blow soon to never and never to twice/(blow life to isn’t: blow death to was)/- all nothing’s only our hugest home;/the most who die, the more we live//
Thanks, I said, I’m delighted you were able to do that for me, but I’m a bit confused over the line, Blow soon to never and never to twice. He just looked at me patiently…Oh! Right! It’s about the se-Second World War, I stammered. He glanced around at the swaying palms of our semi-tropical island- give that man a coconut! And he strode off along the strand looking for more salubrious company. [insert song]
I stood wondering. Why so many great songs about the first world war? It was supposed to be the war to end all wars- and look how that turned out. In retrospect, it was just the prelim match for the bigger second conflict. And the Korean War, which technically is still in progress, continues to resist an iconic song about it. And are all those poxy proxy wars in a lifetime since just preparing us for the big daddy of them all which Putin in Ukraine seems to be tilling the ground for?
The Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese called the American War is a war I was just too young for- but one of my friends from Aruba enlisted in the marines and was killed in the late sixties. My friend, Johnny, with whom I drank poteen in the 1980s, has served on patrol boats on the Mekong Delta. He died cleaning oil tanks in the Philippines in 1990. The folk-band Banter sang one of the iconic Australian songs of the conflict in the mid-1990s. The Australian War Memorial has this to say,
I was only 19 was released in March 1983 when discussion of the Vietnam War, which had so fiercely divided public opinion a decade earlier, was generally avoided in polite conversation. A generation of veterans had been left feeling isolated and with a belief they had been forgotten by their country. I was only 19 provided a fresh perspective, presenting a compelling sympathetic account of an Australian soldier’s experience of the war and its aftermath. Concentrating on the toll paid by those who took part rather than debating the merits of the war itself, it became the quintessential song of the Australian Vietnam War veteran. I still remember a Vietnam Vet watching us perform. When I asked him what he thought he said he thought we were making mock of the song to start with as it was much faster than the original, but he decided by the end of our song that it was legit. Another lucky escape for me? Here, now, is my version of I was only 19. [insert song] Until the next issue of Covers for Castaways next week CYAL8R
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.