Student’s Page

Songs about Place

Richard Guilliatt, in his essay The Songs Were The Problem[1] writes that Paul Kelly’s use of Australian locations gives a universal experience an Australian flavour.

Then in 1984, word spread that [Paul Kelly] had done the unthinkable: moved to Sydney.

From St Kilda to King’s Cross is thirteen hours on a bus
I press my face against the glass and watch the white lines rushing past
And all around me felt like all inside me
And my body left me and my soul went running…
(‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’)

…here was a song about exile and regret, perennial themes of folk music, yet rooted in the here and now of a contemporary Australian setting. Other songwriters had used local reference points before, as anyone who had heard Cold Chisel or Skyhooks (or Slim Dusty or Banjo Paterson) could tell you. But ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’ had the protean lyrical detail of experience actually lived, dropping you instantly into a wholly realised world. The song’s 14 lines sketched a tale of its narrator leaving Melbourne for Sydney, swapping one seedy red-light district for another, arriving in soft rain to see the streets shining like a postcard, only to discover that ‘everything goes on just the same’. His grasping friends circle him with hands outstretched, and the closing verse finds him longing for the ragged palm trees and tired vistas of the home he’s just left. The closing line — ‘I’d give you all of Sydney Harbour/(All that land and all that water)/For that one sweet promenade’ — was a wry provocation only an Australian could fully appreciate.

The places in the song ground this universal story of fear and longing to Australian specifics as does the following — a very different view of an Australian city.


The wisteria on the back verandah is still blooming
And all the great aunts are either insane or dead
Kensington Road runs straight for a while before turning
We lived on the bend it was there I was raised and fed
Counting and running as I go
Down past the hedges all in a row
In Adelaide, Adelaide

Dad’s hands used to shake but I never knew he was dying
I was thirteen I never dreamed he could fall
And all the great aunts were red in the eyes from crying
I rang the bells I never felt nothing at all
All the king’s horses all the king’s men
Cannot bring him back again

Find me a bar or a girl or guitar
where do you go on a Saturday night?
I own this town
I spilled my wine at the bottom of the statue of Colonel Light
And the streets are so wide everybody’s inside
Sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year
(This is my town!)

All the king’s horses all the king’s men
Wouldn’t drag me back again to Adelaide,
Adelaide, Adelaide, Adelaide…

[1] From the book published by Shark Island Books “Paul Kelly — The Essays” available on iBookstore

Student activity 1: close study

1.  The three stanzas of this song relate to 3 phases of one’s early life and, in fact, reflect Paul Kelly’s own childhood.

How does each stanza characterise the persona’s early years? You will need to consider the

  • image of childhood created
  • feelings arising out of this portrayal and
  • language techniques for achieving these.

What is Kelly saying about the relationship of the past to the present?  How can the verbs help us to see this?

2.  Repetition is a feature of most songs, both in the body of a stanza and in the chorus. What is the effect of the repetition of “never” in the second stanza and the repetition of the place name “Adelaide” in the chorus?

3.  In this song, Kelly alludes to nursery rhymes. Why do you think he does so and what is the significance of his movement from “Mary, Mary quite contrary” to “Humpty Dumpty”?

4.  Identify the rhyming pattern of each stanza. When you notice a technique in any poem you have to think of how this connects to the meaning of the poem and its ideas. In this case, the change in rhyme is accompanied by change in the music and structure. How do these changes evoke the persona’s attitude to Adelaide?

5.  How does the music reflect the emotional landscape of the song?

Student activity 2: creating

Using Paul Kelly’s technique of sequencing associations, describe a place, person or event to evoke a strong sense of longing. You can write in prose or in verse but keep the length to 160 words or fewer.

Everyone remembers places in different ways — here are two other peoples’ memories of the same place — Adelaide. 

I’ve lived in Adelaide for little less than half my life, but it has always been my city. When I was a child, everyone in my family, like the rest of our small South Australian farming community, referred to Adelaide as ‘Town’. The word always had an audible capital as though ‘Town’ were Adelaide’s real name; from the vantage point of the farm, Town was the archetypal metropolis, the place where all human needs and desires could be met. Town was a place of traffic and bright lights, of department stores, medical specialists, movies, buses, and the newfangled discount supermarkets where you could buy a carload of non-perishable groceries in bulk for  a fraction  of their country cost: three months’ supply of cornflour and cornflakes, …crammed into the back of the station wagon for the three-hour  drive home. Town meant the paternal grandparents, the orthodontist, the Royal Adelaide Show, the crowded beaches, the buying of shoes and winter clothes. Town was where the sporty kids from school went to compete at higher levels, and where the clever kids went away to do fifth year of high school as sad but stoic boarders.

— Kerryn Goldsworthy, Adelaide UNSW Press, 2011 page 5–6

… When I remember the Midlands, it is almost always serene, windless and sunlit. It has a kind of enchantment. Yet I know we arrived in winter, that the frosts and winds can be bleak and bitter. In contrast I remember Adelaide in much darker hues. Although I know its reputation as a beautiful, graceful city, all my memories of it are imbued with the emotional texture of my early childhood. The past rises up… distorting my memory of the climate. I spent many blistering, suffocating summers there visiting our father, my cotton dresses soaked with sweat. Yet when I conjure up a memory of Adelaide it is always cold, a permanent winter.

This is because my parents split in that dark winter after so many years of turmoil, and we left on a wintry night.

— So this is Life: Scenes from a Country Childhood  by Anne Manne Melbourne University Press, 2009, pp5–6

Read the extracts and then compare these to the song. You may find it useful to build on the following scaffold.

Point of comparison

Paul Kelly

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Anne Manne

Attitude to the city
How this is conveyed by what is said
How this is conveyed in choice of language and structure
Effect on person responding to these texts

Student activity 2A: creating:

Use the information you have gathered above to write an explanation of the way we view place in our lives and in texts.

Write your own description of a place that means a lot to you. This can be as a song or as a memory.