A Privileged Source of Information

Cooee Music

Richard White and Emily Pollnitz


When Europeans arrived in Australia with the intention of staying, they embarked on a journey of adaptation. What they saw was difference, interpreted by many as the contrarieties of a weird and unnatural place. What they heard could equally be interpreted as tuneless. The process of becoming attuned to the new environment had to be a conscious act.


One of the sounds the first settlers heard around the shores of Sydney Harbour was the ‘cooee’. When the local indigenous people – the Eora – wanted to communicate, or call each other through the disturbingly opaque woods, they would call through their hands a long drawn-out ‘cooo’ sound, followed by a sharp rising ‘eee’. Crowds could be summoned out of the trees where previously they had been invisible. It disconcerted the new arrivals to hear them calling to each other but not see a soul. The cooee was a remarkably effective sound, a technology of communication carrying through the bush as far as a gunshot. The intruders wrote it down in many forms, the first time in 1789 as ‘Co-wee’ – the exact sound was hard to catch and the technology of writing was imprecise. But they soon learnt to use it back on the locals, as a way of making contact: ‘we called to them in their own manner, by frequently repeating the word Co-wee, which signifies, come here’. Then the newcomers used it among themselves, adapting the cooee as part of their bushcraft, proof of their skill in handling the bush.

As an effective way of communicating, the cooee gained positive associations – of coming together, of friendship, of trust between cultures. It became a common greeting among the new settlers, a work call when it was time for lunch, a means of salvation when a ‘new chum’ got lost and search parties set out to find them, cooeeing as they went, and listening for the answering call. Nothing was sadder, in the stories of frontier life they told themselves, than the cooee of a lost child that no-one heard. But it also carried with it (or had imposed on it) an overtone of weirdness, a proof that they did not really belong. In the bush as night fell, and invisible indigenous people cooeed among themselves, the sound could be scary.

The sense of not belonging has been a favourite trope in the writing of Australian history. One particularly powerful myth was that those early generations never settled. It took a century before there was a generation capable of imaginatively possessing the place, of seeing Australia, they said, ‘through Australian eyes’, and hearing it through Australian ears. They rejected the claim that the gum tree was ugly, and found it beautiful; they rejected the idea of Australia as a land ‘where bright blossoms are scentless, And songless bright birds’, and found fragrance and tunefulness.


More recently one strand of postcolonial argument has implied that the settler society was necessarily an alienated one, that any sense they developed of belonging was an artifice, a process of imaginatively dispossessing the indigenous owners of the land they invaded. In that connection, the history of the cooee is suggestive. At some surprisingly early point the wild cooee was made into music.

By what process does sound become music? What did it signify that the weird sounds of the bush could become music suitable for the parlour? Was it appropriation, an act of dispossession, or a matter of becoming attuned to a new environment?

About 1860, the first of a long series of ‘cooee’ songs appeared. The narrative was trite, as suited many of the sentimental conventions of popular music at the time. It told the story of a young man roaming in the bush who came across ‘a pretty maid’ who had been picnicking with friends, but who had wandered off. She was agitated, her gaze was wild; but as he watched ‘in a silv’ry timid voice she uttered the wild cry.’ At that moment the ‘wild’ cooee was made into music. The utterance - indeed, in three verses we would hear it 24 times - could no longer be the province of the wild bush, but was tamed and harmonised, not just by the silvery voice that uttered it, but by the fact that it been made to conform to the conventional harmonies of the popular parlour song. And in the end the song was brought to a satisfying conclusion, the harmonic resolution underpinning a narrative harmonising of souls: the couple rambled ‘o’er flow’ry hill and valley’ and of course, in the process, fell in love: in the bush he had found a trusting heart and a loving wife.


This earliest of the songs contained many of the elements the cooee brought to popular music. There was the obvious melodic motif of the cooee: here, as in most of those that followed, the cooee came at a strategic moment musically. As the cooee rose a perfect fourth, the highest note of the song (E, a tenth above middle C) was reached with the ‘ee’. It also contained what would become another common device, an echo: the forte cooee was answered by a pianissimo one in imitation of the cooee’s echo or reply. The play between the initial call and the answering cooee brought resolution. The loneliness of the bush was answered. As a single sound can be neither dissonant nor consonant, so the cooee needed its reply.

Later songs played out the same idea. As in so much popular song, the cooee brought about a union of young lovers. Two decades later ‘a charming Austral maid’ again answered a forte cooee, again E, again a pianissimo echo. The twist here was that before love was consummated, the young man roamed across the seas, and there was uncertainty whether ‘Love’s message’ would be heard. But as summer came (resolving discordant winter into summer) ‘Love reigns among the sunlit hills, life echoes life for evermore.’ Another two decades saw the beginnings of what would later be recognised as an Australian strand of country and western music. Another pretty young Australian girl lived ‘Where the wild birds cry in haunts unseen’, but whenever he visited, her stockman lover sang, ‘In ecstasies I loudly call Cooee Mary, my little gum tree queen’ (the ‘ee’ again hitting the same high E). It also contained the immortal lines, ‘I’m riding on my pony with a view to matrimony, Cooee Mary, My little gum tree queen.’

The tuning of the bush, turning what could be heard as its weird sounds into music, a music that was a celebration of harmonisation and of coming together, was complete by 1914, when war broke out. Then the cooee was conscripted for other purposes: posters and patriotic songs used the cooee as propaganda in the cause of recruitment. Imperial Britain or Australian soldiers were depicted ‘cooeeing’ to potential recruits for help from over the ocean. By then the harmonies of the bush were familiar and reassuring to white Australians. Though it is possible the bush had the last laugh. Despite the effort put into tuning the cooee, how many of those pianos, carted to frontier homes in scorching heat, remained in tune?