The American soldiers couldn’t have so guessed then, but their thirst triggered a sequence of events that led to an iconic beer-drinking song that went round the world. Of an evening in late 1943 in Australia, their convoy had stopped at the small town of Ingham on the coast of Queensland, on its way from Townsville to Cairns and Darwin, bases for battles in the southwest Pacific. The town’s pub, the Day Dawn Hotel, was small, and the soldiers soon drank it dry.
The next day, local farmer Dan Sheahan, who had emigrated from Newmarket, Ireland, rode from a small area called Long Pocket to Ingham to have a beer at the Day Dawn Hotel. Saddened when the publican told him that “we’ve run out of beer,” he consoled himself with a glass of wine and as a prolific poet — known as the “bush balladist” — penned a poem entitled “Pub Without Beer.” It was published in the January 1, 1944, edition of the North Queensland Register newspaper and then apparently was copied by hand — there were no photocopiers then — and circulated among pub-crawlers.
More than a decade later, Gordon Parsons, a.k.a. the Yodeling Bushman, came across a copy of the poem at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Taylors Arm in the state of New South Wales, to the south of Queensland. He rewrote it as a song, which he gave to his traveling country singer friend Slim Dusty, who recorded it in 1957. It became the country’s biggest selling single ever. The rest is history. The song caught on internationally and was recorded by many European singers. Flemish singer Bobbejan Schoepen’s German version was a hit that remained on the German charts for 30 weeks. In 1960, Benny Barnes Americanized the lyrics to “A Bar with No Beer,” which was recorded by Johnny Cash and by other singers.
Slim went on to international fame. In 1969, he was named a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for his contributions to country music, and in 1979, he published his autobiography, “Walk a Country Mile,” which became a bestseller. In 2000, he was honored with a postage stamp bearing his image, and he led the final act of the closing of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. In his lifetime, he recorded 105 albums and was working for EMI on the 106th when he died at age 76 in 2003.
Though Slim is gone, controversy about his greatest song goes on. Which of the two pubs associated with “The Pub With No Beer” should be regarded as the original? The Day Dawn in Queensland, where the poem was written, or the Cosmopolitan in New South Wales, where the song was written? Historically, the first poetic record was of the Day Dawn being dry, while the subsequent lyrical record at the Cosmopolitan was justified, as it, too, had once gone dry, when a beer delivery truck couldn’t get through due to flooding of the nearby Kempsey River. So, thereafter, there might have been two “pubs with no beer.” But now there’s only one. The Day Dawn was torn down and rebuilt as Lee’s Hotel, but there is a plaque at the site attesting to the poetic first. The Cosmopolitan, now renamed “The Pub With No Beer,” is a lively eatery and watering hole with its own craft brewery and website at www.pubwithnobeer.com.au. Physical reality aside, the controversy goes on, over beer, of course. Experts on the matter, the researchers at G’Day Pubs (see below), reckon that, were you to ask those who knew Slim well about the place of the song in history, they would say that it showed that a guy with a traveling fairground tent show out of the back of an old Ford created a ruckus that became part of folklore.
A coda on Aussie lingo: The word “pub” is a contraction of “public house,” the British term for an establishment that serves alcoholic drink for consumption on the premises, usually at its bar. Many Australian pubs have the word “hotel” in their names, a hangover from bygone days when some local licensing laws permitted alcohol to be served only to travelers. Today, most pubs with “hotel” in their names no longer offer accommodation.
“Walk a Country Mile,” by Slim Dusty & John Lapsley, Adelaide, Australia, Rigby, revised edition 1981, 210-page paperback, ISBN 0-7270-2047-1; out of print but available from used booksellers in this and previous editions.
“Dan Sheahan: Bush Balladist,” by Irene Maskell, Hinchinbrook Bicentennial Community Committee, 1988, 132-page hardcover, Australian book number B0007C4714, available on interlibrary loan.
Antipodean Pub Crawling
Australia ranks fifth among countries in per-capita beer consumption. So, from urban centers to rural towns, the Australian pub is a prominent place, not just for quaffing but also for absorbing local culture. The country is huge, about the same area as the contiguous USA (48 states), and the population sparse, less than a twelfth that of the USA. So pub-crawling isn’t easily done unless you know where to go. Fortunately there’s a comprehensive free guide to that, the G’day Pubs website at www.gdaypubs.com. On the site, you can navigate by state and then by town to find the details on more than 6,800 pubs in the country.
M. Michael Brady is a professional translator who lives in a suburb of Oslo. A natural scientist by education, he takes his vacations mainly in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.