Kookaburra Song "Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree"

Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, also known as the Kookaburra Song, was written by a music teacher named Marion Sinclair for the 1934 Girl Guides Jamboree held in that year. It was quickly adopted by the Girl Guide movement and soon gained world-wide popularity.

A Kookaburra in a Gum Tree

Kookaburra Song Lyrics Words to the song "Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree"

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,
Merry merry king of the bush is he.
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra,
Gay your life must be!

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,
Eating all the gum drops he can see.
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
Save some there for me!

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,
Counting all the monkeys he can see.
Stop Kookaburra, Kookaburra stop.
That's not a monkey, that's me!

Meaning of the Words in the 'Kookaburra Song' What do the Words Mean?

Listed below are some of the words in the 'Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree' which may not be familiar to some readers.

The kookaburra is a large Australian kingfisher bird. It makes a sound like a human laughing.

Gum Tree
This is another name for the Eucalyptus tree which is very common in Australia.

Gum Drops

The people of Australia refer to any part of the country outside the major cities and towns as "the bush". The phase probably originated because there are lots of bushes and scrub when you go into the Australian country-side.

Until about the 1955 the word gay meant to be" happy and carefree". So when this song was written it meant "happy and carefree". Since 1955 the word has taken a different meaning and is no longer used to mean happy. The word is today means a homosexual or sometimes used by the younger generation to mean "lame" or "stupid".

Gum Drops
When some types eucalyptus trees are damaged by insects, they ooze blood-red sap (like humans ooze blood). This sap forms large drops that harden when they dry. The dried sap from a gum tree is called gum drops. You can't eat sap. You would get sick if you did. Actually kookaburras don't eat them either. Gum drops are also a type of candy. So in this song it means candy.

There are no wild monkeys in Australia. The closest animals that climb trees in Australia are koalas or possums. The word was probably used because it rhymed well.

The Use of the Word "Gay"

In 2010 the principle of the Le Page Primary School in Cheltenham, Victoria dropped the word "gay" from this iconic nursery rhyme and replaced it with the word "fun". He said he did this because many young people today associate the word "gay" with lame or bumbling or incompetent. His decision made world-wide news. "Political correctness is to the fore in schools and sometimes we rightly or wrongly err on the side of caution," he said. He caused such an uproar that he had to reverse his decision and go back to the original version of the song.

What does Kookaburra Song sound like? Listen to the Kookaburra Song on YouTube

Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree
(Slow Tempo)

This version of the song has a slower tempo. The kookaburra used in the animation looks like a real kookaburra.

History of the Kookaburra Song How the Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree was Written

Kookaburra Postcard with correction by Marion Sinclair
(courtesy Australian Folklore Unit)

The song 'Kookaburra' also known as 'Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree' was written by Marion Sinclair in 1934. She actually titled the song Kookaburra Sits in an Old Gum Tree but over time it evolved into its present name.

A verse of the song in a Marion Sinclair's handwriting
(courtesy of Australian Folklore Unit )

Marion Sinclair (1896-1988), was born on 9 October 1896 in Werribee, Victoria. She was educated at home until the age of 14 and spent a lonely childhood without much contact with other children. She found comfort in playing the piano and writing her own stories and rhymes. She attended Toorak College between 1911 and 1913. In 1920 she joined Toorak College as a music and drama teacher and also involved herself with the Girl Guides group at the school. Marion obtained a diploma of Music from Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music in 1924.

In 1934 Marion entered her own composition Kookaburra Sits in an Old Gum Tree in a Girl Guides competition for 'a typically Australian round' (a home-grown Australian song). She won the contest. It was sung later that year at a Girl Guides jamboree held in Australia. Visiting guides and scouts liked it so much they took the catchy tune back with them. It was soon gained world-wide popularity and was translated into many languages.

Marion left Toorak College in 1943 and worked in many welfare roles, mostly with the YWCA. While not officially taking out copyright, throughout her life Marion frequently acknowledged ownership of the song and frequently gave permission to others to use it. In 1987 she assigned copyright and ownership of all her private records to the Libraries Board of South Australia. Marion Sinclair died on 15 February 1988. The Libraries Board of South Australia sold the copyright to the Kookaburra song to Larrikin Music Publishing Pty Ltd. for a sum of $6,100. Larrikin Music was bought by Music Sales Corporation in 1988.

"Down Under" by Men at Work

Down Under (also known as Land Down Under) was a blockbuster hit for the Australian band Men at Work. The song was written by the co-founders of the band Colin Hay and Ron Strykert.. It was first released on the B-side of a self-financed record Keypunch Operator. The song went largely unnoticed. In October 1981 the song was re-released after it had been reworked and flute solo by Greg Ham added. It was a smash hit, topping the singles charts in the Australia, New Zealand, UK and US. It sold 30 million albums world-wide. The song became the theme song of the Australia II crew when it won the Americas Cup in 1983 and sung at the Sydney Olympic Games closing ceremony in 2000.

Greg Ham acknowledged that he may have heard the Kookaburra song as a young child. He also admitted that he didn't realise that his riff was from the Kookaburra song until about ten years after the song was released. The court accepted his explanation. Greg was an accomplished musician playing the saxophone, keyboards, flute and harmonica as well as singing for the band. The court case deeply troubled him. In an interview he said ''I'm terribly disappointed that that's the way I'm going to be remembered - for copying something.'' Greg Ham died of a heart attack at the age of 58 in 2012. Some claim that the outcome of the court case contributed to his ill-health and untimely death.

Copyright Infringement Controversy Was Kookaburra Plagiarised by Men at Work in the song Down Under?

This little Australian nursery rhyme was recently involved in a major court case. The legal episode started in 2008 when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV show Spicks & Specks asked the question "What children's song is contained in the song Down Under?" The answer supplied was Kookaburra. Only becoming aware of the similarity when raised by the TV show, Norman Lurie, the managing director of Larrikin Music, which had acquired the copyright for the song in 1988, launched the legal action claiming copyright infringements – namely plagiarism.

Comparison of Kookaburra Riff Listern for Yourself and Decide

Comparision of riff of Kookaburra Song and Down Under

Listen and decide for yourself. The first tune is the flute riff from Down Under and the second is from the Kookaburra Song.

On 6 July 2010, the court ruled that the flute riff in the song Down Under was indeed a copyright infringement as "Down Under reproduced a substantial part of Kookaburra". The band was ordered to pay royalties backdated to 2002 and future royalties at the rate of 5% to Larrikin Music. (It should be noted that Larrikin was acting within the law in trying to protect its copyright). Because of the negative publicity generated by the court case Larrikin Music, in 2014, changed its name to Happy as Larry.

Is the Kookaburra Song based on an Old Welsh Folk Song?

There are claims that the tune for the Kookaburra Song actually came from an Welsh folk-song "Dacw ti yn eistedd, y 'deryn du". But recent research suggests that there are no known recording of this Welsh tune before 1989. It has been suggested that the kookaburra tune was copied instead. Here is a YouTube clip of the Welsh song.

Learn about the Kookaburra The Bird that Inspired the Song


Related Article: Kookaburra – Laughing Kookaburra

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