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McDonald, Simon (1906–1968)

by Hugh Anderson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Simon McDonald (1906-1968), traditional singer and bushworker, was born on 22 November 1906 at Spring Mount, near Creswick, Victoria, fourth of six children of Victorian-born parents Simon McDonald, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Murnane. Young Simon grew up in a three-roomed bush hut built by his father on a piece of ground obtained by a miner's right, and spent almost all his life in the Creswick area. His father had once worked in the deep alluvial mines at Allendale, but mostly fossicked on his own for gold or dug potatoes seasonally for a sparse living in support of his wife and children. Songs around the fire were part of family life.

During his childhood, Simon foraged for food by picking blackberries, gathering birds' eggs and digging bitter-tasting roots which he called yams. He contributed to the meagre family income by gardening or picking fruit in his spare time. Each winter, exempted from school for three months to dig and bag potatoes with his father, he walked miles to the paddocks to begin work at daybreak and walked home again usually in darkness.

After obtaining his merit certificate, he left Spring Mount State School at the age of 14 and continued doing odd jobs—chopping wood for his grandfather 'Wild Matty' Murnane, cutting and stooking hay, milking cows, ploughing, and digging potatoes. In the Depression, which inspired his recitation, 'The Dole', he hunted for gold and took to haircutting. Father and son made music at home, and at dances where Simon and his brother John played tin whistles in the old-time band made up of a pianist (Simon's aunt) and his father, a self-taught violinist. Simon gathered many popular songs from abroad, including Banks of Claudy, Paddy Heggarty's Leather Britches, Grandpa's Chair is Vacant, as well as local songs such as The Wild Colonial Boy and Bill Brink, until his repertoire comprised about fifty songs and at least seven poems of his own composition.

Work on a threshing-machine near Bannockburn and grape-picking at Mildura resulted in several recitations, 'The Thresher', 'Mildura Grapes' and 'The Union'. McDonald played football and wrote a song, The Bloodsuckers, about the Spring Mount team; he went woodcutting to feed the boilers at Ballarat and produced a set of verses entitled 'Two Axe Mac'; and, when he was charged with being drunk and disorderly, he created a poem, 'Locked in the Creswick Gaol'. Rejected for military service in World War II, he worked for a few months with Bayley & Grimster Pty Ltd, electrical engineers at Collingwood, Melbourne. He found the city 'too full of smoke' and headed back for the bush. Later, he joined a band which entertained visiting American servicemen at country dances; he alternated on violin and banjo, and sang popular songs.

When he was 60 McDonald looked much older, a skinny, worn-out battler on an invalid pension. Dressed in nondescript, cast-off clothes and a battered felt hat, he spent his days collecting worms and picking blackberries, and his nights cadging drinks in return for a song. While riding his overloaded bicycle near Creswick on 31 May 1968, he suffered a stroke and died. He was buried in the local cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Traditional Singers and Musicians in Victoria (sound recording, Syd, 1963)
  • H. Anderson (ed), Time Out of Mind (Melb, 1974)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1966.

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'McDonald, Simon (1906–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-simon-10937/text19433, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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