The Drinking Song: "The Pub With No Beer"

THERE IS A RECURRING JOKE in James Garner’s amiable 1969 western Support Your Local Sheriff! In the film, Garner plays Jason McCullough, a laconic if irritable gunslinger who ends up in Colorado in the midst of the Gold Rush. Even as he gets roped into acting as the town’s lawman, he has his sights set on the real frontier, where things are really wild. “I’m only here to get a stake,” he’ll tell anyone who will listen. “For Australia.”

We can thank a country singer named Slim Dusty for some of this sense of Australia’s wildness. Dusty, born David Gordon Kirkpatrick in New South Wales in 1927, was the first Australian performer to enjoy success on the American pop charts — with a drinking song, no less! In 1957, Dusty released a song titled “The Pub With No Beer” as the b-side to a song titled “Saddle Boy.” But it was “Pub With No Beer” that caught on, because the first Australian song to chart in American and earning Dusty the first Gold Record issued to an Australian.

The song was originally written by outback poet Dan Sheahan in 1943, telling of American soldiers that had emptied the Day Dawn Hotel of suds after one evening of carousing. A songwriter named Gordon Parsons eventually added a melody to the song, a rollicking folk melody borrowed from Stephen Foster’s“Beautiful Dreamer.”

The song tells, with a combination of wry humor and impenetrable Australian dialect, of the disappointment of a bar’s locals when they discover their watering hole has run dry. “Then the swaggy comes in smothered in dust and flies,” Dusty sings cheerfully above a plainly strummed guitar, and he’s talking about a swagman, approximately the Australian equivalent of the American hobo, who is nonplussed to discover that he cannot get a drink. “I’ve trudged 50 flamin’ miles to a town with no beer,” he complains.

The song is an inventory of outback characters, none of whom are prepared for a beerless night, There’s a blacksmith who greets his wife sober for the first time and burst into tears before her, as well as stockmen, publicans, maids, and a dog expecting a beating from his frustrated master, all of them in a foul mood thanks to an empty pub. The song’s descriptions of each of these characters are arch and brief, a cartoon of melancholy drinkers.

Since the song’s release, the Cosmopolitan Hotel in the small New South wales’ township of Taylor’s Arms has claimed itself as the original Pub With No Beer, and, in fairness, it has some rights to that claim — it was, after all, frequented by songwriter Gordon Parsons, and did frequently run out of beer. The Cosmopolitan has since renamed itself The Pub With No Beer and positioned itself as a tourist destination, with a microbrewery, a fine restaurant, live musical performances, and walls lines with memorabilia from the Australian outback, as well as a Pub With No Beer Festival every Easter.

And, if you’re a weary jackaroo looking for a cold refreshment, you’re going to have to go to the former Cosmopolitan. Were you to attempt to get a drink at the original Pub With No Beer at the Day Dawn Hotel, you’d walk away as frustrated as any of the characters in Slim Dusty’s song. The Day Dawn Hotel, it turns out, was demolished in 1960. One could, presumably, purchase a can of Fosters, stand on the site of the old hotel, and toast its memory; one might as well celebrate its disappearance by enjoying a beer with no pub. (SPARBER)

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