In a paper on the history of the Australian coo-ee, Richard White tells a story about a children’s book by Libby Gleeson. The book features two best friends, Amy and Louis, who coo-ee to each other over the back fence when they want to play. After a while Amy moves overseas, and they miss each other terribly. One day, Louis tries coo-eeing to Amy, and his call makes the clouds take the shape of wild dragons in the sky. When Amy wakes next morning, she remembers hearing Louis coo-ee in her dream.
This sort of narrative was common in nineteenth-century parlour-songs, says Richard White. Sentimental Australian songs often featured sweethearts coo-eeing to one another over the waves, and hearing each other in their dreams. Gleeson assures him, however, that she didn’t know this when she wrote the book. That got me thinking about the way we often absorb old stories, inheriting them ready-made somehow, or breathing them in.
When my daughter Eva Rosa was three or four (she’s now five), she had a brief mania for strumming on the guitar and making up songs with keening titles. Sometimes she would sing “Oh, my honey darling” very earnestly; other times a number which she called “When the wind blows through the world so sweetly”. Once I started reading the text of 19thC minstrel-songs – the same kind of musical whimsy that Richard was talking about – I was amazed by how similar they were to Evie’s kiddie-improvisations. They were all about “ma honey” and light through the gloaming, and wind blowing gently in the trees. What about these titles in the Australian Melodist, for example: “Alas! Those Chimes So Sweetly Stealing”, “When the Corn is Waving, Annie”, and the wistful “In My Wild Mountain Valley”? With no songs like that in my music collection, where did Evie pluck her own from, I wonder?