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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Ballad of Many Crows

When I got off the plane to Wagga Wagga (after first flying Perth to Sydney) a friendly woman met me and drove me to the flat I was to use during my residency. On the way there, she told me a strange story - strange because of her spin on it. The way she told it, the farmers were killing themselves because the crows had come back to Wagga. (In Wagga Wagga, you're allowed to call it simply Wagga if you're a local: outsiders must call it the full name.) The truth was the farmers were killing themselves because the draught had wrecked their livelihoods. I guess the crows had come for the easy pickings of dying sheep and stock in the fields.

Anyway, when I walked into the flat, the Oxford Book of Ballads was open on the table at a traditional ballad. I think it was Twa Corbies, but couldn't be sure - memory lane has many twists. So, I wrote a ballad about the crows, the farmers and Wagga Wagga.

Very soon thereafter I met John Waters and Margaret Walters, and showed them - balladeers that they are - my ballad. Instead of sitting silently and reading it (like you would a poem) John started singing it ... and Margaret chimed in. Brilliant. Some time later - you gotta have patience to be a poet in Australia - Margaret contacted me by email and asked if she could use it on her new CD, Power In A Song (Feathers and Wedge, 2001). The website is Here are the lyrics of that ballad. (I was reminded of this by a great discussion of ancient ballads on poetryetc - thanks, Domenic, Rebecca et al.)


Words Andrew Burke (1996)
Music Margaret Walters and John Warner (1996)

The town of Wagga Wagga (trans: place of many crows) is in the southern NSW district called the Riverina. The Murray River Irrigation System for a time brought prosperity to the region, but recent decades have seen a decline in the economic viability of farming and a high suicide rate among the farmers.
Western Australian poet, Andrew Burke, was serving a time as Poet-in-Residence at the Booranga Writers' Centre at the Charles Sturt University and shared his new poem with John Warner and me at a gathering in the house of Pat and Barry Emmett in Wombat, NSW. (This note written by Margaret Walters.)

As I sat out upon a hill
Upon a hill, upon a hill
I looked up at the crows that fill
The leafy trees of Wagga

I saw their eyes like marbles black
Like marbles black, like marbles black
And felt a chill run down my back
Beneath the trees of Wagga

A woman there had told a tale
She told a tale, she told a tale
How the town had felt five years' betrayal
Since crows returned to Wagga

"Our men have heard the crows' sad song
The crows' sad song, the crows' sad song
Until by their own hand they've gone
I curse the crows of Wagga

Farmers are a steady lot, not given much to fancy
Born to heed the call to be as iron tough as Clancy

Now they hang themselves in their dark loss
In their dark loss, in their dark loss
When the crows' stark song becomes their cross
Among the trees of Wagga

Black-eyed and beaky with a mourning cry
A mourning cry, a mourning cry
Riverina crows trespass and fly
To cast their eye on Wagga.

Now's the time to break the spell
To break the spell, to break the spell
To greet the future and fare well
Among the trees of Wagga

I go inside to write my song
To write my song, to write my song
The crows know naught of right and wrong
In the leafy trees of Wagga

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