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Guinevere and the Fire

Fred Small

This song is based on a true story told to Fred when he was touring in Australia. The lyrics stick very close to the story as told until the last verse. Fred himself introduced the idea of the black woman coming to the funeral, allowing her to give voice to a concept that would never have occurred to the family at the time. As Fred told it to me, the story was passed down in the family, and everyone would exclaim what a tragedy it was that the child didn’t dare pass the Aboriginal village to go for help. It was not until after many many retellings that it even occurred to anyone to suggest that Guinevere might have gone TO the Aboriginals themselves for aid.

Lui – vocal, Gibson guitar (EADGBE)
Frank – fretless bass
Donna – fiddle
Jeremiah – accordion

My grandmother was born in 1900
On a farm in New South Wales
She wed a dairyman
Who liked to raise a pint of ale
The first child came when she was twenty
Five more babes in seven years
That first daughter was my mother
They called her Guinevere

Little Gwen would play beneath the willow
“Yes the queen would like some tea”
Helped with chores that never ended
Tried to mind tried to please
Sometimes she heard the music
Wild and strange in the summer night
“They’re dirty people” warned her mother
“Never go near their campfire light”

Stay away from the camp of the blackfellas
Little white girls have disappeared
They drink and dance when the moon is red
Better never let ’em see your golden hair”

Came the winter of ’27
So cold the milk froze in the pail
Her mum hung the nappies by the hearth
Her dad in town for a round of ale
A spark leapt from the fire that night
Wrapped her mother in a gown of flame
Flailing dancing in a frenzy
Falling down in voiceless pain

Stillness and the stench of burning
Then so soft ’twas like a ghost
“Fetch the Cunninghams” she whispered
“Bring me aid or I am lost”
The Cunningham house was not two miles away
And they the nearest whites
Past the camp of the Aboriginals
Past the demons of the night


“I will run to save my mother
I must go now I must fly”
Still she heard her mother’s tales
Of the Devil’s drums and the evil eye
Her mother’s breathing ever fainter
Gwen frozen in her fright
Seven hours till dawn she waited
For the safety of the light

Now she runs till her feet are bleeding
To the house upon the hill
Now comes the doctor’s wagon speeding
To her mother cold and still

They laid her down in the Nowra graveyard
From the Bible read a verse
Children sent to aunts and uncles
Some to Melbourne some to Perth
Gwen packed her canvas satchel
could not hold the salt tears back
Turned to leave her home forever
Faced a woman gnarled and black

“Child our hearts are heavy
Grieving for your loss
We live so close by you
Why did you not come to us?
We have salves to heal the burning
We have herbs to stop the pain
We could have helped had we but known
To make your mother whole again”


©1993, Pine Barrens Music (BMI)

Posted in Lyrics

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