First Person

Songs from the Kitchen

Even before I turned in at the front gate I knew I was home from school when I heard the distant wave of song issuing from the kitchen window at the back of our house. Sometimes it was melancholy:

For men must work and women must weep
Though storms be sudden and waters be deep
And the harbour bar be moa-oan-ing

 Sometimes plangent with forbidden passion:

You must go back to your life,
I must go back to mine
Back to the joyless duties
Back to the fruitless tears
Loving and yet divided
All through the empty years
How can I live without you?
How can I let you go …

That song, “Parted”, was written by an English lawyer, Frederick Weatherly, who also wrote the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to the “Londonderry Air” and the First World War favourite “Roses of Picardy”, both of which my mother occasionally sang. I have seen “Parted” described as “the best adultery song ever written”—not that my mother, the singer in the kitchen, would ever have contemplated adultery. She was an intelligent woman of cautious Christian belief but no prude and she liked the song for its singability, just as she liked another song with a strong sexual allusion, “I Haven’t Said Thanks for That Lovely Weekend”:

The two days of heaven you helped me to spend
The smile on your face as you turned out the light
And breakfast next morning was a sheer delight

(There was also a sanitised version sung by Vera Lynn which removed the reference to turning out lights.)

This memoir appeared in Quadrant‘s July 2023 edition.
Subscribers never need to wait for the paywall to come down

There was plenty of singability at the other end of the moral spectrum too. My mother liked the many sacred choruses and songs by American evangelists such as Sankey and Moody, who on the principle that the devil shouldn’t have all the best tunes had compiled the catchy melodies she had absorbed at Methodist Sunday school (this one by the Baptist preacher Robert Lowry):

Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have trod
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God

And its thumping refrain:

Yes, we’ll gather at the river
The beautiful, the beautiful, the river
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God

When rendered by my mother the words were not always strictly faithful to those composed by the pious evangelists:

O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land
As on the highest mount I stand
I look away across the sea
Where mansions are prepared for me
And view the shining glory shore
My Heav’n, my home—Get out from under my feet, you damned cat!—for ever more

 Or the same thing in secular terms, with or without instructions to cat, as sung by Jeanette MacDonald:

Beyond the blue horizon
Waits a beautiful day

It is a shame that I cannot convey the tunes in a printed article but if you Google the words of any of these songs you will find a YouTube rendering. I would recommend doing this as you read, if the words of the songs appeal.

My mother was probably unaware that there was a Chinese version of some three hundred Sankey and Moody works translated by a Chinese Australian Presbyterian minister, the Rev. John Young Wai, otherwise she might have been tempted to expand her linguistic range. As it was, her Chinese ran no further than

Oh Mister Wu
I’m telling you
I’ve got those Limehouse Chinese laundry blues

George Formby was the populariser of this song, with its reference to the East End of London. Naturally, it would now be held up as evidence of his and every else at the time’s racism, transphobia, climate denialism, colonialism and the rest.

Do housewives still sing as they go about their vacuuming and washing? Are there still housewives? My mother and my school friends’ mothers were the last of a species, now extinct under the supposedly liberating force of feminism which, in pursuit of a dubious “equality” with men, decreed that they go out and work just the way men had always had to do, their once freely programmed lives, which made time for the hairdresser and the afternoon “lie down” as well as “home duties”, now regimented by the requirements of an employer.

Sometimes when I am idle-minded—standing under the shower, say—a song I haven’t heard for decades will flip into my head. There are so many of them. If all the songs my mother sang were compiled they would fill a large book.

My mother was not a trained singer but she had a good voice and could carry a tune with great competence. She learned songs by hearing them, not studying the lyrics. She sang for her own pleasure, sometimes perhaps without noticing she was singing, and if she was feeling low—“had the pip” as she put it—didn’t sing. Apart from the one occasion when a surprised neighbour, hearing my mother in full voice across the fence the day after we moved in, called out, “And very nice too”, she never sang for an audience, unlike her sister Dorrie, who had a “gig” at the Saturday night dances at the St Kilda Palais and, more solemnly, often sang at weddings in the interval while the register was being signed:

Because God made thee mine,
I’ll cherish thee,
Through light and darkness through all time to be …

Not a sentiment likely to find favour at a wedding nowadays, when any notion of possession has been knocked on the head by, once again, feminism, and where “all time to be” means until we get sick of each other and try to take each other to the cleaner’s in the family court.

I suppose my mother learned to sing at University High School. One of her favourites was in German —“Die Lorelei”—and one was a school sports song in praise of vigoro, a summer game less played today than then which has been described as an Edwardian attempt to blend cricket and tennis for girls. Tennyson’s “Three Fishers”, the first song quoted above, must have been learnt at school. As was:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
Sandalwood and cedar wood
And gold moidores

What are moidores? she would occasionally wonder aloud.

“Nonsense songs” were popular in her childhood.

Why does a cow have four legs?
I must find out somehow
You don’t know and I don’t know
And neither does the cow

I was down around the henhouse on my knees
Oh Monah!
When I thought I heard a chicken sneeze
Oh Monah!
He sneezed so loud with the whooping cough
Oh Monah!
That he sneezed his head and his tail right off
Oh Monah! And you shall be free
Yes you shall be free
When the good Lord sets you free

“Monah!” as an exclamation is not explained. The last lines suggest that this was originally an American slaves’ song.

My mother often sang songs she’d heard in early days on the radio. One, written by the English-Australian musical comedy duo Mr Flotsam and Mr Jetsam and popular in the 1920s, was:  

Is he an Aussie, is he, Lizzie?
Is he an Aussie, is he, eh?
Is it because he is an Aussie
That he keeps you busy, Lizzie?

Another radio hit was the Irish ballad “Macushla”—“my darling”—made popular by Peter Dawson:

Macushla! Macushla!
Your red lips are saying
That death is a dream
And love is for aye …

And Paul Robeson’s lullaby, in the spirit of Stephen Foster:

Oh, my baby, my curly-headed baby,
Your daddy’s in the cotton field,
Workin’ for the foo-oo-oo-oo-od …

My mother had a good memory for songs from shows:

Come and meet those dancing feet
On the avenue I’m taking you to
Forty-Second Street

To Niagara in a sleeper
Could a honeymoon be cheaper?
And the train goes slow

Whoo whoo, off we’re going to shuffle
Shuffle off to Buffalo

These days you have to sit up on that journey.

Deceit is not unknown among lovers, and one of my mother’s sprightliest songs was:

The devil was in your heart
But heaven was in your eyes
The night that you told me
Those little white lies

American hegemony over popular culture, interminably but ineffectually deplored by schoolteachers, was supreme from the start of the “talkies” in 1927. My mother’s singing reflects that. As a movie fan, she included some of the best songs from films in her kitchen repertoire. Some of them came from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who must have popularised dozens of songs which still linger in the background of many people’s minds—“The Continental”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, “Night and Day”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. I can still hear my mother singing, oblivious to “misgendering”:

I’m putting on my top hat
Tying up my white tie
Dancing in my tails

Or the mildly reproachful:

A fine romance, with no kisses
A fine romance, my friend, this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes

And Irving Berlin’s eerily prescient:

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight
And music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

I wonder if she thought of this the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Most of the songs my mother sang were about love, as are most of the songs ever written. Al Jolson’s “Anniversary Song” must be among the stateliest:

Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed
We vowed our true love, though a word wasn’t said
The world was in bloom, there were stars in the skies
Except for the few that were there in your eyes

 Unrequited love was a frequent theme:

I’ve got an invitation to a dance
But I don’t think I’ll go, I’d be sorry I know
I’m afraid I might see the one who should be with me
With somebody else

Social occasions seemed to attract romantic disappointment:

I’m dancing with tears in my eyes
Because the girl in my arms isn’t you

Not much fun for the girl in his arms, you’d think. A 1930s wit had changed “tears in my eyes” to “soup on my tie”, to which version my mother adhered.

Sometimes she would play with the words, as in her version of the once-popular patriotic song “The Bulldog Breed” where, she said, there was a misprint on her song sheet:

Sons of the sea, all Birtish-born
Sailing every ocean, laughing foes to scorn

Or unconcerned with rhyme she would insert the name of one of her children, as in the song “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” from the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business:

If the nightingales could sing like Ross
They’d sing much sweeter than they do
For you brought a new kind of love to me

Some of her favourite songs were tinged by absurdity. One such was “Dinner for One”, another 1930s hit, recorded in London by Ray Noble and his celebrated orchestra and sung by a white-tied Al Bowlly, which offered the somewhat improbable conceit of a well-to-do young man whose wife has left him, singing to his manservant:

Dinner for one, please, James
Madam will not be dining.
Yes, you may bring the wine in
Love plays such funny games

It seems her best friend told her of another
I had no chance to deny
You know there has never been another
Some day she’ll find out the lie

One pictures the manservant hovering over the table, trying to ingratiate himself by removing reminders of Madam.

Dinner for one, please, James
Leave me with silent hours
No don’t move her favourite flowers
Dinner for one, please, James 

Another favourite, “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store” is one of the most recorded songs, ever since it was first sung by Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand’s “Funny Girl”) in 1931:

She was selling china
And when she made those eyes
I got buying china
Until the crowd got wise

Though why the crowd should care what he bought is not explained.

My mother’s father, an accountant, had to take a second job to maintain his family of six, and worked in the evenings as an usher at Melbourne’s principal variety theatre, the Tivoli. He too liked to sing, and the shows at the “Tiv” yielded songs such as “My Mabel”:

I think she’s bonzer
And she thinks I’m good-oh
I’m going to enter her
Going to enter her in the local show

Only in later years did I recognise a double entendre in the penultimate line. Or is it just in my impure mind?

The “coffee song” too might well have been from the “Tiv”. It was certainly sung in English music halls:

What I want is a proper cup of coffee
Made in a proper copper coffee pot
I may be off my dot
But I want a cup of coffee from a proper coffee pot
Tin coffee pots, iron coffee pots, they’re no use to me
If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee from a proper copper coffee pot
I’ll have a cup of tea

And this:

Dad got a horse, he bought it from the milkman
Gee gosh darn how it could trot!
Put it in the race to win first money
Man shouted “Milk!” and the durn thing stopped.

My grandfather, like many of his generation, was an appreciative reader of poetry. His favourite was Scott, and often in the long mornings after his retirement he would declaim to the three-year-old me in bed beside him long dramatic tracts of The Lady of the Lake and the exploits of Roderick Dhu.

He could also sing non-comical songs with feeling, such as the melancholy and romantic “Wabash”, named after the river in Indiana (of which state this is the official song):

Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay
Through the sycamore the candle lights are gleaming
On the banks of the Wabash, far away

From my mother’s brothers at their boys’ schools came “Forty Years On” and a very dated—even then—song about cricket:

To the game that rules at the best of schools
We sing our cricket song
Old England’s fame rests on the game
It keeps the empire strong …

No longer.

The sweetly mournful “To the School at War”, written in 1914, she sang with feeling:

We don’t forget—while in this dark December
We sit in schoolrooms that you know so well
And hear the sounds that you so well remember—
The clock, the hurrying feet, the chapel bell
Others are sitting in the seats you sat in
There’s nothing else seems altered here—and yet
Through all of it, the same old Maths and Latin
Be sure we don’t forget.

It was to her lifelong regret that my mother had to leave school at sixteen and work to help with the family budget. She was a secretary at the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company, which was then presided over by the Gallipoli hero Major-General Sir Brudenell White, who was later killed in an air crash as he flew in to Canberra to take up a defence post for the second big war of his career. The “Loan” added to my mother’s repertoire with a Melbourne eastern suburbs school’s song learned from a colleague with whom she became friends:

We’re from Mont Albert Central School
The school that is on a hill, sir
We love that school and keep her rule
And we work with a right good will, sir

My mother’s songbook barely extended into the television era apart from a commercial or two (“What’s the finest tissue in the bathroom you can issue?”) and never to rock and the Beatles. Many of the songs she sang are forgotten now, but I have been told that the Mont Albert school still sings its song. With those words? If so there is hope for the future.

Christopher Akehurst, who lives in rural Victoria, is a frequent contributor, most recently of “No Signs of Light in the West” in the January-February issue and “The Struggles of an Interstate Truck Driver” in the June issue


4 thoughts on “Songs from the Kitchen

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thank you for that Christopher, reminded me of my mum. She was more a whistler though than a singer. Her favourite song was Bless This House and the poem she liked was Harry Dale the Drover (very sad).
    By the way, my mum and dad would have heard your aunty Dorrie at the Palais.

  • STD says:

    Just wonderful…thank you Christopher.
    The heart is an amazing place.. a truly amazing place!
    The human heart is the vessel of all that is beautiful .
    Here resides the incorruptible,the memory, where all is up for grabs and all is forgiven that resides, rests besides.
    I go before you, so…(sow)that your soul may have life everlasting.
    The chirping of the sparrows-the childhood sparrows,
    For where did they all go?
    For hope is a place visited-a treasured place, a pleasure…. a happy place,
    For where your heart is; there you will find your treasure.
    The gates of heaven are never closed-The Good Lord’s covenant for thee.
    I remember, because I Am………………….!
    I Am heart and I Am calling all of Y..oU…… the loaves and fishes parable calls all to step up to the plate…… to the supper.. the supper of he who is Divine…generosity incorporated to all the vertical dimensions…..Einstein’s musings of truth-space and time-creation-relativity’s creator-TRUTH-a truth with a g force component for those who seek to deny what Saint Peter recognised as that which in time is ultimately undeniable, because at the heart of the matter lies truth-recognition.

  • colin_jory says:

    Thank you, Christopher. What special happiness your mother brought you through her songs! Do you find occasions to sing them yourself still?

    When I was little my dear aunt would always dance with me in her arms and sing me songs. She also had a gramophone and a collection of 78s. However, one morning when I was 5 she had disappeared: she had left to join the Daughters of Charity (the “Butterfly Nuns”), and a profound source of joy had gone from my everyday existence. Mum didn’t sing, and Dad didn’t sing — although I always sang (alas, tunelessly!). There were songs on the “wireless”, but these weren’t sung especially for me. Yet my aunt’s songs (plus others) I sang to my children, then to my grandchildren, and now to my great-grandchildren. “Put your shoes on, Lucy”; “Open the door, Richard”; “Polly-wolly doodle” (which my aunt revised in deference to my name as “Colly-wolly doodle”). I hope the songs take residence in some nook of their hearts as as unperishable happy memories, as they did in mine. Perhaps they’ll sing them to their own children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Who knows?

  • Merril says:

    Love this, Christopher! My mother loved to sing at home, and she also whistled. At the end of a song, she would often add “diddly om-pom-pom”. One I remember was “Oh, Jemima, where’s your Uncle Jim? He’s in the bathtub, learning how to swim. First he does the left leg, then he does the right, and now he’s trod on a bar of soap and skidded out of sight”. I understand that there are a number of different versions of this one. And then, of course, there was Barney Google (the clean version). Great memories.

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