The song “A Pub With No Beer”, made famous by the late Slim Dusty, was first written as a poem in the original Day Dawn Hotel (now Lees Hotel) in Ingham in north Queensland in 1943, by an Irish cane cutter Dan Sheahan, after some American soldiers drank the pub dry the previous night. According to one account, Sheahan sat in a corner with a warm glass of wine and penned a poem, ‘A Pub Without Beer’. It was published in the widely-read North Queensland Register early in 1944. It had six-line verses – unlike the song, which is based on four-line verses.
The origin of the song is challenged by the residents of the small northern New South Wales town of Taylors Arm. They claim the song recalls a time at the Cosmopolitam Hotel in the northern NSW town of Taylors Arm when there was a shortage of beer (possibly due to the Kempsey River flooding) and the publican would only serve the beer for himself and his mates, offering wine to the other patrons. This led some of them to go to an aborigine camp (hence ‘the campfire at night’) not too distant and join them in drinking their ‘home brew’. So which is the real “Pub With No Beer”? Recently Lees Hotel received Queensland Icon status through the Queensland Heritage Trust and was formally recognised as the Original Pub With No Beer, but that hasn’t convinced the folks at Taylors Arm.
What we do know is that the song was first performed in public by Gordon Parsons, aka the Yodelling Bushman, in 1954 at the 50th birthday of George Thomas, a resident of Creek Ridge Road, Glossodia (near Windsor in Sydney). That version was performed with extra verses that were dropped from Slim Dusty’s recorded version because it contained elements of blue humour. Parsons claimed one, Joe Cooper had given him a soiled anonymous copy of the poem to him at the Taylors Arm Hotel in 1954. Gordon revamped it, put it to music, and introduced characters from his own local bar, The Cosmopolitan, in the township of Taylors Arm. He gave it to his mate Slim, a Kempsey boy, to record, who turned it into the king of all pub songs.
Joy Kirkpatrick – Slim Dusty’s wfe and fellow songtress – has said that ‘A Pub With No Beer’ was partially composed one night in western New South Wales, ‘somewhere near Forbes or Young’, when Parsons and Chad Morgan shared a bottle of whisky. Parsons had heard some verses about a pub with no beer, but had no idea who wrote them. She believed that Parsons probably picked them up in a timber getter’s camp, where men would often swap yarns and songs at night. ‘Gordon adapted it and he did so quite innocently,’ says Joy Kirkpatrick. ‘He was not the type to rip anybody off.’ No-one noticed until many years later that the tune is almost identical to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, composed by the American Stephen Foster, in about 1865.
Parsons, who was part of Slim Dusty’s singing troupe, began to sing his new song during shows. According to Slim Dusty, he asked Parsons if he was going to record the song. When he said no, Dusty asked if he could have it for the B-side of another song he was about to record. The tracks were laid down at EMI’s Castlereagh Street studio in Sydney on 1 April 1957 and issued soon after. Reg Robinson, a regular recording partner, played the bass guitar, while Slim accompanied himself on a Gibson Sunburst guitar.
Slim resumed touring and was unaware for some months that the song was taking off, at first in Brisbane and then in Sydney. Dusty had never cracked city radio, nor expected to. Those stations largely ignored country music, or played it at 6 am or midnight. Even after the song had sold 50,000 copies, it did not appear on many station charts in the cities. The song’s success changed all that. Once it began to sell, it didn’t stop for several years. It became the only 78 rpm gold record in Australia, and the first gold record by an Australian artist. It reached number 3 in Britain in January 1959, number one in Ireland and was popular in Canada, the US and Europe. From 1957 to 1979, according to music historian Glenn A Baker, it reigned as the most successful Australian-produced single not just in country, but all genres.
Not only has there been disagreement over the years as to the actual pub the song was about, there has also been some contention regarding the actual authorship of the song. Parsons always said he was given a copy of the poem, but he had written the song. Dusty later recorded several of Parsons’ songs, and always maintained that Parsons had believed the lines that he had been given were from some anonymous work. Noted Australian writer Eric Watson summed up the controversy by saying that, in his opinion, Sheahan’s was the better poem, while Parsons’ was the better song. In any event, those who knew of Parsons’ fondness for beer later jokingly said that he not only wrote the song, he actually caused it.
Dan Sheahan’s family eventually met Slim Dusty when he passed through Ingham, and showed him the original poem. Dan Sheahan and Slim Dusty became friends, and Slim Dusty was happy to acknowledge Sheahan’s part in the song’s origins. In his autobiography, Walk a Country Mile (1981), Dusty reprinted the poem and the song lyrics. Joy Kirkpatrick says that the Sheahan family never received any royalties. Though Parsons maintained that his lyrics were about the pub at Taylors Arm, near his boyhood home, he remained on good terms with Slim Dusty; they often sang the song together on stage.
Though he did a little recording of his own songs, Parsons was never a prolific recording artist, in fact, his total recorded output seemingly only amounted to 21 singles and seven albums. During the 60s, Parsons made further recordings, including his own version of ‘The Pub’but his reluctance to maintain routine appearances disappointed his fans. He gradually withdrew from performing except for the occasional show and at one time worked as a warden of a wildlife sanctuary. He married for the third time in 1978 and relocated to Sydney, although he kept a caravan at a fishing place near Gosford, which offered him immediate escape from the humdrum of city life.
As for Dan Sheahan, faimly records indicate Dan, his parents and 13 siblings immigrated to Australia in 1905 where they went out to work with an uncle living in Melbourne. They arrived in Melbourne in 1905. By about 1910 Dan and his brother Ben held over 600 acres in Boggy Creek near Bellingen in northern New South Wales. Dan was already writing poetry at this stage and had some of his work published under the pseudonym Rory O’Moore. It is well known around the Newmarket area that he used to write home, in verse, to his mother and had material written prior to immigration. In 1915, Dan joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces and became a machine gunner. He saw active service in France and Flanders and was at the Battles of the Somme and Messine.
He wrote several poems while in the trenches. Material he posted back home to Australia was banned by the Censor and only came to light when his daughter in law, Josephine, published a wonderful collection of his works in 1972. In 1919, with £75; from his deferred returned soldiers pay, Dan bought around 40 hectares of land in Long Pocket, Abergowrie, Queensland. He cleared this land and became a sugar cane farmer. He married at age 44, a girl called Molly Walsh from Co. Limerick and started a family. He wrote extensively about farming, sugar canegrowing, the land plus several other topics and issues. His poetry was regularly published in local newspapers.
One day during the summer of 1943, he rode on his horse from his farm into Ingham to his local bar, the Day Dawn Hotel in Lannercost Street, for a couple of pints, (“being so dry I was spitting out threepenny bits”) only to find that all the beer (Cairns Draft Beer, which came in 27 gallon kegs) had been sold out. Later he would find out that the beer had been sold to a bunch of thirsty American servicemen who were billeted in their thousands in the area and who were enjoying a bit of ‘R and R’ following some Pacific Ocean engagements. Dan composed the poem, A Pub Without Beer, about the event. It was published in the North Queensland Register on 1st January 1944 in Bill Bowyang s weekly series, On the Track, to which Dan frequently contributed.