A Pub with No Beer (Gordon Parsons) – Slim Dusty 1958
This is a famous Australian song about an iconic country hotel which was immortalized in prose and then became an international hit song, because it ran out of beer – but who was the composer of the song, and which was the actual “pub with no beer,” these questions have been the subject of claim, and counter-claim, for over fifty years.
Undoubtedly the song itself and specifically the lyrics were derived from an original poem written by Irish-Australian sugar cane farmer Dan Sheahan after he arrived at the Day Dawn Hotel (Ingham Nth.Qld) for a drink to be told by the publican Gladys Harvey, that US serviceman stationed in the area, had drunk the place dry the day before. To express his frustration at this disruption of his daily tipple he penned the poem A Pub Without Beer in protest, which was published in the North Queensland Register on January 1, 1944.
The original inspiration for the song was this hotel in North Queensland which is now licensed as the Lees Family Hotel.
The original poem was longer than the song’s lyrics that were ultimately adapted and a verse that was deemed to be indelicate was subsequently deleted from the recorded version. The music itself was composed by timber-cutter and singer/songwriter Gordon Parsons, who adapted the Dan Sheahan poem and added a musical refrain which owes a substantial debt to the song Beautiful Dreamer written by American Stephen Foster in 1865.
Parsons was also aware of a hotel in NSW named the Cosmopolitan Hotel at Taylors Arms which is near Macksville between Coffs Harbor and Kempsey on the NSW north coast, an area close to where Slim Dusty (Gordon Fitzpatrick) was born. This hotel had also run dry once when it was cut off by flood waters, so this pub was the inspiration for the Gordon Parsons composition which is based on the original poem penned by Dan Sheahan.
The Father of Australian Country Music, Slim Dusty, was known to Gordon Parsons, who offered him the song, Slim recorded the song in EMI’s Castlereagh Street Studio (Syd) playing his new Gibson Sunburst guitar, accompanied by Reg Robinson on bass guitar, and Dick Carr and his Bushwackers Band. Slim Dusty considered the song had only some novelty value and famously it became the B-side to a single with an A-side entitled Saddle Boys, the “novelty” song took off in Brisbane initially, and then swept across the country for a career-defining hit for Slim Dusty.
The cultural roots of country and western music in this country were North American, performers such as Jimmy Rodgers and Canadian Wilf Carter had strongly influenced the vocal phrasing of Australia’s early country singers such as Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty, but on A Pub with No Beer, Slim Dusty achieved a more mature and convincing Australian accent that resonated both here and overseas.
The song is a genuine slice of rural life in a country dominated by urban coastal fringe dwellers, lyrical portraits of the pub’s patrons abound – Billy the blacksmith, the swagman, the cook, the maid, and the stockman are all vivid, credible images, sustained by a simple melody and an infectious sing-a-long chorus.
The song was Australia’s first gold record, it hit #3 in the UK, and for decades it was the biggest selling Australian-produced record of all time, Slim recorded several sequels, including The Answer to a Pub with No Beer, but they were only minor hits.
Cover versions abound, the most successful being by Belgian entertainer Bobbejaan Schoepen, who recorded German (Ich steh an der und ich habe) and Flemish (Café zander bier) versions and took them to #1 in Austria and Belgium and #6 in Germany. Over time such entertainers as Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, the Dubliners, John Williamson, the Pogues and Midnight Oil have all been inspired to record this iconic song.
APWNB was the 10th biggest-selling record nationally in 1958 and Dusty would return to the charts again in 1980 with his second national #1 hit, again a song about the great Australian traditions of beer-drinking and mateship – Duncan.
In 2001 APRA rated The Pub with No Beer the 5th best Australian song of the period 1926-2001, in 2008 APWNB was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia Registry as a song of cultural and historical significance.
In 2018 Slim Dusty’s album, The Very Best of Slim Dusty, would notch up 1,000 consecutive weeks on the ARIA Country charts, some fifteen years after the country legend had passed away, and continues to add to his incredible lifetime legacy of seven million album sales.