16 August 2012

Jacko the Broadcasting Kookaburra

Advertisement for
the Australian National Travel Association
with a kookaburra sitting on a record album.
(Courtesy of the National Library of Australia
and the State Library of Victoria.
J. Kercheval, photographer.)

In the last few letters, specifically Nos. 22 an 23, it's apparent that Noel is gearing up to do presentations about Australia to various groups in Chicago.

There are references to the famous Aboriginal preacher, inventor and writer David Unaipon, plus various literature about Australia.

The reference that really caught my interest this time was about  the "Kookaburra record" in letter No. 23 from 28 Dec 1931.

"In your last letter you asked me to secure a copy of the Kookaburra record. I was able to get this from the Australian National Travel Association, although I understand that copies cannot be procured in the ordinary gramaphone stores. We tried it out on our own machine at home and it is quite good."

My first thought was of the children's song "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree." But it turns out that song hadn't been written or recorded yet. That would be a little later in the 1930s.

So that left me puzzled. Fortunately, George mentioned the Australian National Travel Association, and an internet search turned up "Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra." And the pieces fell into place.

It turns out that early Australian radio used to regularly broadcast the sound of a kookaburra, which is a variety of kingfisher bird native to Australia. The call resembles a mad laugh.

The bird that recorded that call also became quite famous and was known as Jacko, the broadcasting kookaburra. He and his exploits inspired a children's book a few years later.

The article I found about Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra, written by Jerry Berg for OnTheShortWaves.com, is very interesting. Here is a relevant excerpt, but I suggest clicking through and reading the entire article:

``In 1933, a children's book entitled "Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra­-His Life and Adventures," was published by Angus and Robertson Ltd. in Sydney, Australia. ... The author is Brooke Nicholls... .

There is an author's note at the start of the book that reads as follows: "This is the true story of Jacko, the Broadcasting Kookaburra, that so many of his fellow Australians have heard laughing over the air from the wireless stations of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane; and from the gramophone record that was arranged and produced by Mrs. Harold W. Clapp for the Australian National Travel Association. The story begins with Jacko's capture in the bush. It tells of his many adventures, and ends with his home-coming after a four-thousand mile caravan journey along the eastern seaboard of Australia. The illustrations and chapter headings are from drawings made by Miss Dorothy Wall, whose exquisite pen has captured the humorous spirit of the story."

KOOKABURRA'S LAUGH. (1931, March 28).
The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), p. 4.
Retrieved August 17, 2012, from
This article led me to search online newspaper archives at Trove.nla.gov.au, where I found a delightful article from 18 March 1931 about how the recording of Jacko's voice was obtained and how the recording would be used to promote Australia abroad. According to the article in The Argus of Melbourne:

"After the wax master-disc had been made it was played in the studio for the benefit of the bird, which was still perched on the chair from which it had laughed into the microphone. The first few notes brought a puzzled expression to tho bird's face; then it lifted its beak and laughed so heartily that it fell fluttering to the floor, where it continued to laugh until the record was taken off the machine."
(KOOKABURRA'S LAUGH. (1931, March 18). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956), p. 6. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4378978

Since Noel was still in Melbourne and preparing to leave for Chicago at the time this article was published, I'm sure that the recording being discussed in the letters must be this one (and the one referenced in the article about the Jacko children's book). Perhaps it is also the very album that the kookaburra is sitting on in the old photograph from the Australian National Travel Association at the top of this page.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure yet if Noel was ever successful in securing a copy of the record.

In letter No. 22 George worried about his ability to get the record safely to Noel. "The phonographic record I will endeavour to get and send on to you, although there may be some problem in packing it securely for transportation to America. I am wondering whether it could not be procured in the States. I will make enquiry regarding that from the Vocalion people."

Then, in an upcoming letter in March, he acknowledges Noel's report that that album arrived cracked.

In letter No. 31, which will be posted at a future date, George writes: "We are sorry to hear that the phonographic record was cracked when it arrived. I knew the thing was packed securely, as I had it specially done with the object of making sure it would reach you in usable condition. Perhaps it may be possible to get one from the San Francisco office of the Australian National Travel Assocn."

I'll update this post if and when I find more references to it in George's letters.

As a point of interest for any non-Australians reading this, here is an example of a kookaburra's call and laugh from YouTube:

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