Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2014. 343 pages
ISBN 978-0 7336 3154-2. Paperback
Reviewed by John Clare, November 1st, 2015
All who have achieved my hand-trembling years will know who Slim Dusty was. Many of this doddering horde will also know that his wife was Joy McKean, who performed his music with him all over Australia. In fact she wrote some of his songs. Young as you may be, you should know this too if you are at all interested in our cultural history. For myself it seems that I have heard Slim since I was six. Of course I can’t be sure of that, but I do know that his first commercial recording was made in 1946. I certainly can’t remember much time when Slim Dusty was not there: sometimes in the foreground – as when I worked on a riding school in my school holidays – and sometimes in the atmosphere at a slight remove. On the radio that is.
Plaintive country waltzes, funny country jump tunes, and mock-plaintive songs like The Pub with No Beer. Other protagonists were out there – Tex Morton, Reg Lindsay, the fellow who called himself (in song) The Sheik from Scrubby Creek. But Slim Dusty comes much quicker to memory. Slim and Joy travelled constantly through a land of music shows and circuses. Yes, circuses. Some of these were very small. Sometimes they featured a singing cowboy on horseback. Also a whip cracker and lassoo twirler. Sometimes one man did all three. Sometimes a woman in cute cowboy boots did the singing and had whips cracked all around her. Cigarettes whipped from her mouth even! More often that was a man from the audience. I never volunteered.
Curious indeed. I interviewed the late composer Peter Sculthorpe for a music magazine years and years later, I suddenly remembered Lance Skuthorpe, a horseman, singer, pistol shot and all round showman often spoken of by my grandfather, who rode in The Light Horse during the First World War. This is the world we knew – or one stratum of it. This is the world that lives in Joy McKeane’s book. In this world there were a few threats. In fact they were dreads. Sharks, Japanese invasion, and poliomyelitis (polio), also known as infantile paralysis. A few children still lived with it near us after the Second World War. In fact it immobilised one of Joy McKean’s knees.
While much of Slim’s early life was spent working on the dairy farm of his somewhat bullying father, Joy moved about with her parents who were country school teachers. She loved books and she writes very well indeed. Another line of interest exists here because some of her life was spent in Sydney as well as the bush. You may be just too young to have experienced this, but some of the suburbs she lived in underwent a change from working class to middle class gentrification. Joy mentions Balmain in particular. Paddington was more familiar to me.
Joy not only sang every day with Slim, solo or in duet, but she continued through their performing lives together to extend the friendship of song to the earlier Australians. Here Joy offers an opinion, perhaps a controversial one: that the Aborigines were much happier and replete with self respect when their access to alcohol was restricted. It is too complicated a question for me to address in limited space (and it is only one small element in the book), but I do remember a fall during my lifetime from pride in droving and shearing skills after restrictions were relaxed. At the same time certain kinds of work became scarce. As a point of interest, I found when I lived there that many Japanese had the same handicap. The difference was that after a very brief period of notable drunkenness – or more kindly a period when they had obviously had a few – they simply fell asleep. It was scarcely a problem at all. And to extend the field of study, my father – of German ancestry but very Australian – developed a very serious drinking problem.
There is more to this book than you might have thought. Highly recommended.
Incidentally, a book more focussed on Slim is still available after 12 years. Slim. Another Day, Another Town. Slim Dusty and Joy McKean. Autobiography. Sydney: Hachette Australia, 379 pages. First published 1996, updated 2003. ISBN 978-0 7336 3342 3 (pbk)