Cooee: its rise and fall

People Involved

Mr Richard White

Project Details

In the many and varied performances of the 'cooee' since 1790- the history of a sound - can be found a history of Australian nationalism.

When Europeans arrived in Australia they were intrigued and often disturbed by the sounds of the Australian 'bush'. One of those sounds was the cooee, which they adapted from the indigenous people, who in turn had probably imitated the call of the 'cooee bird', or koel (Eudynamys scolopacea).

Aborigines had used it in various ways, but the remarkable thing is that it seems to have had widespread use throughout Australia, spreading well beyond normal linguistic borders (Hunter had recorded it in NSW, Flinders in Western Australia, Tasman - possibly - in Van Diemen’s Land). Less remarkable when the cooee is acknowledged as a communication and navigational technology, a superbly effective forerunner of GPS, rather than as a word, which Europeans persisted in reading it as.

For some time it was a means of establishing cross-cultural contact (what Paul Carter has called 'the sound in-between'), though the Europeans soon began to use it among themselves, some eventually denying any indigenous origin.

Cooee became a conventional part of bush culture, bush etiquette and bush-craft, something to be self-consciously taught to 'new chums'. Its role in the settled bush was varied: a work-call, a greeting, a device for finding lost children, a general eruption of high spirits. It spread to other dominions - New Zealand and South Africa - where the frontier called for new techniques of communication. The soundscape of the Australian bush rang with cooees.

By the 1840s a number of stories were circulating of another use of the cooee: a means of re-uniting Australians separated overseas, especially in the crowds or the fogs of London. The contrast between the cooee in the emptiness of the bush and the cooee in the middle of London could hardly be greater.

It was in that context that it became specifically national, a marker of Australianness, a clear demonstration of the way in which the performance of nationality is situational, depending on those relatively infrequent circumstances (such as travel) where national difference is brought to the fore, even incited into existence. From there the English accepted it as a mark of Australianness, an oddity which Australians would be called on to perform. A most spectacular cooee would be the climax of E W Hornung’s first novel, A Bride from the Bush(1890). Arthur Conan Doyle would use it as a plot device for Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie would use it twice in the early 1930s.

In Australia too the cooee began to enter literature as an emblem of Australian identity: Clarke, Lawson, Furphy, Praed, Paterson, Richardson, Rudd, Bruce all had a use for the cooee. Cooees were heard - or often significantly not heard - throughout the literary bush.

The cooee also entered song, and from the 1860s at least 30 songs (I am still counting) were published featuring the cooee as a musical device, a distinctively Australian contribution to musical language. In both literature and music, cooees were initially used light-heartedly, sometimes comically, ('I'm riding on my pony with a view to matrimony/ CooeeMary My little gum tree queen'), but over time they carried increasingly weighty, generally sentimental significance ('Merciful God! Thanks unto Thee, Cooee! Cooee! Cooee-ee-ee!').

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the cooee had established itself securely as having specifically nationalist meanings within Australia. It was used commercially, as a popular brand-name or advertising slogan; ritually, in formal welcomes, or in the suggestion that 'three cooees' should be used as an Australian alternative to 'three cheers'; and decoratively – Maud Wordsworth James went into business manufacturing cooee mementos, knick-knacks and jewellery as a means of displaying domestic nationalism (including a clock which had a mechanical Aborigine cooeeing the hour).

Once war broke out in 1914, and Australians answered the Empire's call, it was inevitable that 'call' would be represented as a cooee. In recruitment propaganda, the cooee functioned as a distinctively Australian motif in recruitment posters, in patriotic songs and most famously in the 'Cooee' recruitment march from Gilgandra to Sydney. The militarisation of popular nationalism also needs to be teased out, and in fact has significant implications for the present.

Partly because of the patriotic excess of wartime, in the post-war world the cooee lost much of its power. One of the most interesting features of its later history is the way in which it became daggy, associated with a lack of sophistication and embarrassingly gauche behaviour.

Cooees were still to be heard, but the use of the cooee was increasingly ironic, no longer able to be taken seriously, increasingly performed in a self-conscious way. One sign of that was its entry into a world of competition.

Two forms of competition predominated: a more serious form, where cooee competitions in 'country and popular' sections of country town eisteddfods featured alongside yodelling and the recitation of bush ballads; and the less serious competitions associated with Australia Day entertainments, and other local celebrations, featured alongside wife-throwing competitions and other manufactured 'national' pastimes.

It might suggest its survival is precarious (the Sale Eisteddfod cooee competition attracted no entries in 2005), yet it still clings on, albeit ironically: I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of Australian students in my Australian History class had cooeed in the bush at least once.