‘Coo-ee’ echoes down the decades

Published 22 October 2008

coo-ee.jpgThe history and folklore of the Australian “coo-ee” will be examined in a public lecture at the University of New England next week.

The lecture, on Friday 31 October, will contribute a fresh perspective to the study of bush culture and its influence on the development of an Australian national identity – a study pioneered by the former UNE historian Russel Ward in his influential book The Australian Legend.

As the 2008 Russel Ward Annual Lecture, the event – at 6 pm in the A2 Lecture Theatre in UNE’s Arts Building – will honour the memory of Professor Ward. Titled “When the bush rang with cooees”, it will be presented by the Sydney-based author and academic Richard White.

“The broad relationship Russel Ward established between notions of the ‘real’ Australia and the bush (its workers, its values, its customs and routines) still stands,” Mr White said. “We can see it at work in Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin, and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. This lecture examines another contribution the bush made to Australians’ understanding of themselves: the cooee. Here was another aspect of everyday bush culture that came to exemplify national sentiment – and sentimentality.”

“The cooee moved from its everyday use in the bush to being a focus for national meaning in parlour songs and bush yodels, in jewellery-making and scouting lore, in nationalist rituals and advertising campaigns,” he explained.

Richard White, who teaches Australian history and the history of travel and tourism at the University of Sydney, is currently writing a history of the cooee. His publications include Inventing Australia, The Oxford Book of Australian Travel Writing, Cultural History in Australia, and On Holidays: A History of Getting Away in Australia.

UNE’s School of Humanities, which presents the Russel Ward Annual Lecture, will mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the publication of The Australian Legend by issuing a special volume of the Journal of Australian Colonial History. “The volume will be dedicated to an assessment of Ward’s career, and in particular a reappraisal of The Australian Legend,” said the Journal’s editor, Dr David Andrew Roberts.

“The volume, to be launched on the afternoon of the lecture, is based on papers presented at the Australian Historical Association’s conference held at UNE in September 2007,” said Dr Roberts, a Senior Lecturer in History at UNE. “It contains contributions from a range of leading historians – including UNE’s Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson, and Ward’s old nemesis Humphrey McQueen.

“Members of Professor Ward’s family will be attending the event – including his son Charlie, who has contributed some memories of his father to the special journal volume.”