Australian Biography

Smoky Dawson - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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Your brother had come to ask could you come to the country with him. And the Brothers had said, 'No you couldn't'. They hadn't given you permission to do that. What were your own thoughts on the matter?

So how did you make your escape? What did you decide to do?

Well after I came back on this last journey to Urac, we went our ways. And I made my way out to Spencer Street Railway Station one morning and I got underneath the covers of one of those trucks. In other words I jumped a rattler. And I made my way up to Benalla. And before it got in there I jumped out and was surprised to find there were about twenty other hobos on the train too, all running in various directions. And I ran for my life, because I didn't want to be picked up. And I was to have met my brother and I couldn't see him there and so made my way down this road, which was the road to Shepparton: three chain, I'm using the word 'chain' - a very wide road, winding in a bit between ghost gums and things like that and buggies and trucks passing by. And along the road this man picked me up in a buggy. And he said, 'We've been looking everywhere for you', he said, 'Your brother sent me to pick you up'. His name was Frank Duggan. Frank Duggan.

And he was to be your first employer?

Yes, he said ... He said, 'Well, your father won't get you here my boy', and along the road he met up with a few other farmers, who were having a congregation, spinning yarns and talking about the latest crop and what about the government doing this and doing that. And the farmer always gets a hard time. So I began to hear all about the farm problems, you know, and the man on the land. And eventually we arrived at this little cottage, in a place called Stewarton, which is about eight miles from the town of Goorambat, a railway siding, and Dookie. And I was to realise that this little Stewarton was also the place where the great Weary Dunlop was raised. He would later become my very dear friend. Sheepwash Creek. And Stewarton there, we settled down to a life. I felt for the first time in my life I was free and I was a man. I'd put my age up to fifteen. I was only thirteen.

What work did you do?

Well when I arrived he said, 'You're a bit small for fifteen', and I said, 'Oh no, we're all small in the family, you know', and I said, 'I'm strong. I can do anything'. He said, 'Well, I'm going to teach you all you should know. Because ...' he said, 'We're having hard times now too', he said, 'And you can consider yourself as one of the family'. But being one of the family, of course, had its drawbacks because you didn't get paid. [Laughs]

So you didn't get paid anything?

Not a thing. But I did my bread and jam and a roast on a weekend and porridge in the morning, which I had to get up and get ready for them, apart from milking thirty cows on my own and then doing all the separation. Because I was boasting to him what I'd done at Urac. Big mouth. So Frank, he found in me a very, very lively candidate as a future employee that would work for him and give him a holiday. And he set out with a very wonderful kind of attitude. He had the right attitude that suited me. He always made me feel good. Whenever I did anything for Frank he gave me a pat on the back.

You worked for praise and not for wages?

That's right. It's wasn't so praise, as the recognition that I was a man. And of course, all these kids are going to school. You know, I should have been still at school. And of course I had a horse to ride. They said, 'I've got this Trixie'. Oh yes I could ride. So he said, 'Well all right, I've got some work down for you at the Five Acre Paddock which is about five mile away', and he said, 'So Emmie will cut your lunch'. And he said, 'We have a lot of what they call Saffron Thistles', and he said, 'You know they're no good among sheep. So ...', he said, 'I want you to cut them down. So there's your water bag and take Trixie and there's your lunch'. So away I'd go. I had to watch Trixie coming home. So I got down there and I was all day cutting these thistles with this ... this slasher and I was getting sunburned and headaches and that. And my water bag would be drained in the first hour. And my lunch would all be under the tree in a bag. It was all, you know, gone hard - baked up. So I'd come home and get on the horse. And of course the horse got away with me. Fastest galloper I've ever been in my life. And I tore past this school in the hour. When I got near enough to the homestead, which was just a little skillion roof and a couple of shanties, I slowed her up sufficiently to make a jump. And I leapt off the horse. I never stayed with it because it seemed it was going on forever, like the road to Never-Never. So Trixie went and I just made my flying stunt leap and landed in the dust, on all fours. And I limped home and there was Trixie there at the haystack, chewing the lucerne. That was the first episode I ever had. But I learning ...

You learnt to ride the hard way?

Oh, it was a hard way. And all the other chores came very quickly. You'd get out and milk the cows and Frank used to come ... make his appearance less frequent. He'd come back. He'd say, 'I thought you'd have them all done by now'. But I spent three years with Frank.

And why did you leave?

Well I was not intending to leave, but my brother, Peter, who by the way, had told everybody I was a great singer. And every Saturday night there'd be a dance at the Stewarton Town Hall. Or I say Town Hall - school house - where they had a violin and candle grease on the floor and they did the old sets, and I would sit there and wait in the doorway, too ashamed to pick up a girl 'til he put one right in my arms. And all I did was walk on her toes. And I had this watch chain that I won from the orphanage. Had a little ruby on the end of it - imitation ruby. And it had come out and left these two hooks which got caught in her frock and as I turned away, it just ripped her from top to bottom. Well, God, I had to go and hide myself. I felt so ashamed. And, of course, I was always there for suppers and things like that, of course. Always sung for my supper.

So you were singing throughout the whole three years. Saturday night you were the entertainer?

Yes. Everybody did something in those days. They'd get up and do the barn dance and all that and then drag me into it. And then they would ... One feller would get singing, sing some of the old songs: Scotch songs. And then they'd recite The Man From Snowy River and then I'd do my little bit.

And what was your little bit?

Finiculi, Finicula and Little Brown Cottage and Good Morning, Good Morning ...

You were still singing the songs you'd been taught at school?

All those yes.

You weren't making up your own yet?

Well I had a real soprano voice. It hadn't broken. And it was a sort of halfway. Hadn't come to the yodelling stage then. [Laughs] And then I learnt to play the piano accordion - the old squeeze box.

Who taught you?

Jack. Jack Carew taught me to play the mouth organ actually. He used to sit there and play the accordion when I was at Urac. And we'd sit in the dark of his room while he ... and he'd tell me all the stories of the outback and that and play the accordion. He used to play Click Go the Shears and then I learnt to play the mouth organ and the accordion and so when I went there I was well equipped for it.

And did you have these things to play? Did you have a mouth organ?

Well, yeah. There was one of these hawkers who used to come down those days. And generally an Indian used to come round with his big caravan and with all sorts of things: shirts and bottles of scented oil and that and shoes. Instead of going into the town. And I'd saved all the money I was getting for my next job, when I left Frank, because five shillings a week soon mounted up. And I was able to buy myself a new shirt, patent leather shoes and this scented oil to put on my hair. And so I was fast becoming romantic.

Did you start making up any of your own songs then, at that stage?

Well ... say that again.

Did you start making up any of your own songs at that stage?

No I hadn't made any. All the songs I sang were handed down to me and I felt I did well. And recitations too. Plenty of that.

And so, what happened that made you leave Frank?

My brother came one stormy night, when I'd barricaded myself in because I was terrified of lightning, strangely enough.

But you hadn't been afraid the night that your mother died.

Yes. And yet looking back as a child on that bridge in Clifton Hill I had no fear of lightning. I was sort of mixed up with it. It was all part of the night. But I had a great fear of this terrible way lightning was striking. And then you'd read in the paper where Mrs Grogan's cow was struck by lightning last night and he's only a hop, step and a jump from the barn. And I think, I could be next". So my inventive mind gave me ...

Do you think it was associated emotionally with your mother's death?

Yeah, I think so. It was all connected somewhere along the line. I think these things come back. They relate to former years. You know your mind takes in everything. Everything that comes into it is stored away and never brought on recall unless it's important.

So your big brother arrived and found you alone and terrified?

Yeah, well he come in and I had the door barricaded and I had the dog in bed with me to protect me because I was terrified. We had an intruder prior to that. A feller that came ... came to the place looking for a job and he was a nutcase and we didn't know it at the time. And I was appalled that Frank had put him on and given him ten shillings a week, which was pretty good money, to do some ploughing for him. And I thought, 'He's had me all this time for nothing'. And then this feller came one night and woke me up and said that there was some intruders. 'Don't wake Frank', but he had the shotgun in his hand. He said, 'Now come out with me. You grab the pitchfork and we'll catch him. I saw him go round the back of the haystack'. So here we were in the moonlight walking in our nightshirts. He, with his shotgun, and I with a pitchfork - believing every word of it. And he'd say, 'There he is now!' and there'd be the shadow of an old cow or something. And he was seeing these things. He suffered from delusions. So anyway he said, 'You go 'round one way and I'll go the other'. Well you can see what would happen there. I came round to one corner there and I just see this shadow and I made one lunge with the pitchfork and he come round with the shotgun, just missed my head by that [HOLDS TWO FINGERS UP]. It woke everybody up. And of course the cows went scattering in the moonlight. And woke the farmyard animals up and the birds everywhere went for cover. And out came Frank in his nightshirt and says, 'You're crazy you two. What the hell are you doing there? Get inside, you idiots'. First time I'd ever been called an idiot. But this stupid feller had me. So Frank had to pack him off. He was a nutcase and they found he had escaped from the asylum.

So your brother arrived this night and found you there scared. And what did he do?

Yes. He said to me, 'Where's everybody?' I said, 'They've all gone over to see his sister', who was at Dookie. Christmas Eve. 'And he's left you here like this?' I said, 'Yeah'. He said, 'Well you're not staying here one minute'. So he had a pushbike. He said, 'I've got a job for you with a feller called Les Todd. A big pub. A man who had a hotel he'd just sold and he had a lot of money. He built a lovely home and he had this little timid wife and it's their first child and he wants you to look after ... help his wife in the kitchen'. So here I was. Away from all the trauma of ploughs and shearing and this kind of thing and getting up in the morning. So he got me on [the bike] and dinked me over to Les Todd's place which was about a mile away. And took me in and he said, 'Les, here's Herb'. So I went in there and he said, 'Well, I'll give you five shillings a week'. He said, 'All I want you to do is ... You'll have a room to yourself and a lovely bed. You don't have to get up till eight o'clock in the morning. No cows to milk. [Just] be company for my wife'. He had to go to work. 'And ...' he said, 'And help her with the kitchen and whatever and when she has visitors or parties and things like that, or ladies for afternoon tea, you can help her wait on the table and bring in'. So I was doing that. So I was running in. She'd tinkle a little bell and then I'd come running and serve everybody and pour out the tea. I was well groomed. The orphanage had groomed me well. And I was well spoken. Still very shy. And they used to say, 'Where did you dig him up? Isn't he a nice boy?' And then of course the baby was the next problem though. Screaming. I had to go and give it its bottle. Poor little thing in a pram, and so when it had its drink I'd have to take it for a walk away from the house to calm her down.

So what did you think of this? Did this fit in with your idea of what a boy should be doing?

No, that man in me come to the fore again. And I said, 'I'm not going to stand for this. I want to get back and be a man again', because it had got round the district that I was a nursemaid. So there was a fellow over the road called Sammy Johnson. He was one of the old soldier settlement cases: the farmer on the red hill. And he said, 'How much is Les paying?' I said, 'Five'. He said, 'I'll make it ten. No', he said, 'I'll make it seven and six. And', he said, 'All I want you to do is the milking', he said, 'And help my wife'. They all wanted me to help their wives. So anyway I went over to him. Well that was very ... I was very happy with Sammy. He was a lovely fellow. We used to often go into ... into a place called Benalla, where we met up with Ned Kelly's brother, Jim. Jim Kelly. The last of the Kellys.

You actually met him?

They used to all tell me about Ned Kelly and then I started learning about this bushranger. But I never realised that that whole climate was still around there, that all the people in the district were tied up with him, that the relations of the Kellys were there and colourful as they were from the day they began.

Was he an old man when you met him?

Yeah, well, well here I am. I'll be eighty-one very shortly. And he was in his seventies. That's a very old age to a boy thirteen. With a long beard, sitting at the head of the table there, at the hotel in Benalla, with the gathering of the clan and all those sympathisers. There was a Ryan, a Peter Ryan and Martin Ryan. He used to breed the blood horses that took first prize at the Dookie Show. All had them lined up there for Kelly to make his getaway. And I was working for these people. And they were all associated, the sympathisers. They were locked up for being sympathisers.

Were they?

Yes, one particular day, when one of the police were scouring out for Kelly - came across Peter Ryan's horses there, all tethered outside. Beautiful blood horses. And he said to Peter, he said, 'I'd get those horses and put them out of sight if I were you', he said, 'Because if Ned Kelly gets his eye on them you won't see them again'. He said, 'Oh that'd make a very interesting race. And I think my horses would win'. So they called him The Sympathiser.

Was the whole district basically sympathetic with Kelly?

No. This was a very colourful era. This was ... Still years later, after the death of Ned Kelly, the Glenrowan, the siege of Glenrowan, and the old home at Greta still stood, and old Jim was still out there. Jim was there. And I remember this man, he had very few words to say, but I was a boy just filled with adventure and to me he was a hero. What did he do? He was only sixteen when Ned was doing all his ... supposed to be doing all these terrible things and locked up for riding his horse on the footpath, little things like that. Put in gaol. And just as well perhaps, because he would have suffered the same fate of his brother. But I was to learn more about this later on, when I used to come in contact with the old Cobb & Co drivers and great people like Billy Kinnear in Melbourne. That's where I started to learn things and start to become a part of Smoky growing up. And I might tell you that's where I became Smoky because that's where I learnt to smoke. One night, a one night stand, that's all it was. Because Peter Ryan was always talking to me as I went by on my horse and he was always meeting me at the corner of this big paddock where he was harvesting. And he'd pull up and light up his pipe and he'd say, 'Come on and have a talk with me'. He said, 'Aren't you working a bit hard there? Frank working you hard?' And I said, 'No, no, I'm all right'. 'Mm'. And I said, 'The flies are something dreadful'. Out in the bush they are - the bush flies. And then of course I was making slaps here and there. They were in my ears and eyes and worrying the life out of me. And I said, 'How do you get rid of the flies Mr. Ryan?' And he was puffing away. He said, 'Use the old pipe'. He said, 'You want to try it sometime'. So that's what I did. Actually it was old Sammy that filled up the pipe for me. And he put dark Havelock tobacco in it. Filled it up. But he put a piece of horse hair in it, that I didn't see. Well I know, getting intoxicated with tobacco is one thing, but the smell of horse hair will always go through my mind. It's the most repulsive, repugnant [smell]. It was awful. And of course I, with deep breaths, filled my lungs up with it. I just about passed out. In fact I was sick for a week, sick for a whole week. And gone was Herbie, the transition of that little boy Herbie, who had come up so naive, so innocent, had learnt everything in the shearing sheds. Learned how to swear, knew when to raise his hat when anybody swore, remembering what he was taught at the orphanage. If anyone takes the name of god in vain, do the sign of the cross. And I was making it so often, so fast that I gave it up and I said, 'I have to make one sign and let it do the whole time'. On Sundays couldn't go into church. So bit by bit, all that went out of Herbie. It went and was put in the back of my mind, stored for future reference.

And who decided to call you Smoky?

Everybody. I dragged myself around. I'll never forget it. I was just sick. Vilely sick.

Did you ever smoke again?

Never smoked again. Never. I got to the point where I never wanted to touch a cigarette again. Maybe it was that horse hair. And my affinity with horses ever since, and this smoke - I couldn't get the taste out of my mouth and everywhere I went they'd say, 'Oh how's the Smoke today Herbie?'

Did these guys teach you to drink? What about drinking? Did these guys teach you to drink, because drink must have been a big part of life?

Drink. Never. Never drunk. Alcohol was far from my mind. Just the smell of it.

So how did you deal with the fact that here you were with this great repugnance to drink, which must have been very much part of the life of the men after their day's work and so on? What did you do about that?

Well that's a strange thing. Do you know in all the time that I was there - it must have been happening, of course - I can't remember anyone drinking, see. Maybe I didn't see them. Maybe they were drinking somewhere else but I never saw that man ... never got near or filled up a glass of ale in front of me. Never had that. And knowing what drink had done to my father, the very smell of it alone used to turn me off. And so that combined with the tobacco ...

Smoky, you don't drink at all?

No. Well now and again and Dottie used to say on very hot days, have a light ale or something and she'd go for a piece of cheese or something. But never more. I've never been drunk in my life. I suppose you'd call that a reform ... Would you call it a reformed drinker?

Maybe one that never wanted to get started, having seen what it did.

Shandies and things like that, no. A glass of wine sometimes now. But you know I've learnt to have everything with tolerance, to never be obsessed or extremist in any direction. But I do believe in trying things out, experiencing them for your reference, and making your decisions on it. I think that the little boy in us, always looking for adventure. We all have that. Well I had mine with cigarettes. Well I never touched them. I wouldn't touch cigarettes anyway. And in future years I've come to find that this is the right thing. But Smoky was born, right that day.

And did you stay working with Sam then for the rest of your time there?

No, as a matter of fact I was offered another job down with a fellow called Jack Payne, who ran the local post office. He was another veteran soldier and he asked me could I come and do the same thing for him and hand out the mail. And I thought: that's for me, the mailman, you know, because everything was horse drawn then. In come the coaches and things, and then have the mail bag, where you'd have to melt the wax, the red seal, stamped on the mail bag. And you threw it out to the cart as it came by and he'd throw out the other one and you'd undo it and all the letters would go into their pigeonholes, and you'd hand them out. The whole district - you knew everything. And then the exchange would ring and you'd plug into Mrs. Grogan or Mrs. Feldman. Oh Mrs. Riley, over here. Garden parties. And you could hear what was going on ... talking. And putting calls through from Benalla too, to Shepparton and I had the experience of it. It was a great thrill. I was getting ten shillings a week and all I had to do was help along there. No big chores like haystacks any more. And it was a wonderful time.

What brought it to an end?

Ah well there, I said he was a benevolent man. He, this Jack, Jack Payne ... He said to me one day, he said, 'It's a long time since you ever had a holiday isn't it?' I said 'Yes'. He said, 'You've saved up all this money, what are you going to do with it all?' and I said, 'Oh I'm becoming a capitalist. I'll think I'll invest it'. He said to me, 'Well why don't you go for a holiday. Go down and dig up your grandma again', 'cause they all knew all about my whole story. And so that's what I did, paid my way down on the train, very important. Grown up, tanned, looking good, strong. I really was strong. Lifting big 200 pound bags of wheat on my shoulders, sewing up bags of wheat, fencing, digging holes, post holes, ploughing. My brother used to do it in the dark with a lantern. He was so conscientious. Everybody knew we were good workers. So anyway, when I got down to Melbourne I went to see Gran. I had all this money and I was able to give her some money. And she talked me into staying. She said, 'Oh don't go away again. I want my boy back with me'. So I remember at the orphanage there was ... there was a very generous donor, who helped the orphanage along. And he said, 'If any boy ever comes to me when they leave this orphanage and they are in trouble, we'll help them out'. And I went to him and I said, 'I'm looking for a job and I'm an old orphanage boy'. So he said, 'I'll give you an address', and it was down at Burnley. It was a tannery. And I went down there and they were Catholics too - this man and his son running a small tannery. And he said, 'Yep. I'll take you on. Thirty-five shillings a week and you work forty-eight hours a week'. I said, 'You mean I don't work Saturday or Sundays?' 'Only Saturday mornings'. Wonderful. I had Sunday off. Because in the bush it was daylight to dark, every day. So there was my first job. Lovely man. And that I owe to the orphanage and the people that said they'd help me out. And so that was the pass so I went there and spent two years at that tannery. Learnt how to tan skins. I learnt the trade. And then one day of course the Depression was getting worse and they were putting men off. So he said to me, 'I'm afraid I'll have to stand you down. Come back in a couple of weeks time and see what's happening then'. And I'd saved up my money. Bought myself a pushbike. I was going for bike racing, I wanted to be a cyclist then. And I also bought myself a suit at the Leviathan. It was something like five pound fifteen and you got an extra pair of pants with it. And I paid it off at three and six a week - three shillings and sixpence. That's not much today but it was a lot then. And out of that I paid a pound to my Granny for my board - out of my thirty-five shillings. So I still had a little bit of money to fraternise and go out to a dance or two. So that's what I did.

And you'd lost your job. What did you do?

Well then becomes ... What is your love becomes your profession and I'd learnt to play the steel guitar. I bought a steel guitar - an Hawaiian guitar. There I had become raptured watching Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby films and hula girls and all. The magic of the islands caught up with me. And leis and perfume and jacarandas and orange blossom and all that. So I decided to learn the steel guitar. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

During the time you were working at the tannery, you hadn't given up your music or your singing. What had happened with that?

Oh I still used to sing. I used to go ... My brother and I used to go to a lot of parties too. And above other things too, I'd picked up a bit of ... a few magic tricks from Will Andrade and I was doing the disappearing balls in the mouth and the billiard balls and the egg in the bag and jumping in the box and disappearing. And I become Herabeto, the bungling magician. If it turned out all right I was good. If I made a mess of it, well they got comedy, you see.

And were you thinking then: I'd really like to entertain for a living, although you were just doing it for friends?

I used to always entertain, wherever I went. I wanted to entertain. That seemed to be my goal in life. And of course, there's always birthday parties and things like that I'd be invited to. And they'd always ask me to sing. And of course I always revert to the old songs, but then I picked up one song that I used to sing when I was home with Granny, when I was working. And it was a Scotch song, which I later recorded in years after, called Granny's Twilight Song. It was a beautiful song and I think a film company here made a film of it and it was sent to overseas and the BBC played it and it got a mention in the paper. Some Scottish paper wanted to know who the singer was. Granny's Song of Twilight.

So after you were laid off from the tannery, was that a big blow to you, or did you think this is an opportunity to do something really different?

Well yes. I just took it as it came because I was very lucky to have the job. What was worrying me too that I had money I had to pay Gran. I couldn't ... she was only earning a pension, you know, and all the others were still living there too. So ... and I had this bike that I had to pay off. And I thought, Well I've got to do something better than that. So I go and learn. You know, do something else. So then we start taking in money and we'd go and do a party and we'd get paid probably seven shillings and sixpence.

What was your group called?

The Coral Island Boys. That was the first. My brother and I - there were two of us. And we sang songs like ... which were the pop songs of the day called Gee But I'm Lonesome For You Caroline, Southern Moon Keep On Shining, and all that. They were the two things we knew well and we won with them on those, when we went in for the talent quests.

So this was your younger brother? This was your younger brother that you were singing with?


Was he as good a singer as you?

He was a very good singer. In fact Ted had a much richer voice than mine. He had more depth in his voice. But he never, never followed it up. He was always keen on jazz and more for the jazz kind of music and big bands. His heart was never sold in what we call Country Music today. But in those days, of course, it was wonderful to be recognised and to go first time on radio and be recognised as talent and to have a sponsor, which I later got. But ...

How did you get ... How did you get the sponsor?

Well we made, a what do you call it, a demonstration disk which was done on acetate. I think they used bamboo needles then. A place called Fidelity: Fidelity Records. And this Jack Murray said, 'Listen I'd like to make a record of your act'. And we'd gathered in a few other people by the meantime. One was an accordion player. The other was a bass player and the other a violin player. Malcolm. And he said, 'What's the name of your band?' and for want of a word I called myself Smoky, Smoky Dawson. So I used what had been the link when I left the smoking, for my nom de plume in radio.

And this was the first time it had been used in that way?

Yes. And he made this demo record and we took it up to 3KZ where I auditioned for it. And they said, 'Leave it with us'. I went back, waiting in my lonely cabin, waiting for word to say that I got the job. And they rang me back and said, 'We have a sponsor for you. Have you ever heard a programme called Pinto Pete?' And I said, 'Yes, I listen to it'. It was sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste, the American company. And he said, 'They're very, very keen to give you a a contract because they like your program better than Pinto Pete because it relates to the Australian landscape and so forth'. And I was to learn that this was the first broadcast live of a western group in Australia. National sponsored. And so we went further than that. So I wrote all the scripts, with all my training with writing, and acting and I did all the sound effects that I'd learnt in the bush. I had the horses galloping in and the crack of a whip and the crows noises and that. And I'd take off different voices, like Grandpa. And my brother would take off another voice. So we made a lot of people out of just a few people. Around the campfire.

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