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Words & Music

October 2012

  • Phil Kakulas

The Carnival Is Over
​The Seekers

The Carnival Is Over remains one of the most successful and beloved songs ever recorded by an Australian group. Released in November 1965, it sold well over a million copies worldwide, capping off a remarkable year in which The Seekers became the first Australian act ever to achieve global success. Covered by Nick Cave and Boney M, it has become the unofficial closing anthem of sporting carnivals and special events around the country.  Yet despite its enduring popularity, its unlikely beginnings as a Russian folk song remain relatively unknown.

The music for The Carnival Is Over can be traced back to Stenka Razin, an obscure Russian song about a notorious 17th century Cossack chief who drowned his betrothed in the Volga River to prove to his men that love had not softened him. Folk pioneer Pete Seeger, in accordance with folk music convention, used the tune for a new song in the mid-50s, bringing it to the attention of a wider audience. It may be that Tom Springfield, lyric writer and producer of The Carnival Is Over, heard Seeger’s version and decided to do the same.  

At thirty years of age, Springfield was already a veteran of the English pop music scene having enjoyed a string of hits with his sister Dusty Springfield and their group The Springfields in the early 60s. His creative partnership with The Seekers lasted just three years, during which he wrote and produced many of their biggest hits such as I’ll Never Find Another You and A World Of Our Own. The Carnival Is Over was their third collaboration. Like Stenka Razin before it, the song tells the story of two ill-fated lovers. This time, however, no one drowns.

Say goodbye my own true lover 
As we sing a lovers song 
How it breaks my heart to leave you 
Now the carnival is gone

Springfield’s words have a poetic formality about them that together with the stately tempo of the music lends the song a hymnal quality. Judith Durham’s voice is strong and clear and her phrasing steadfast, as if she’s steeling herself for the ordeal. Her restraint (so at odds with contemporary singing styles) only serves to heighten the emotional impact of the song. 

Like a drum my heart was beating 
And your kiss was sweet as wine

But the joys of love are fleeting 
For Pierrot and Columbine

If at times the lyrics flirt with cliché, they are redeemed by an elegant and timeless simplicity. The universal theme of lost love is played out against the backdrop of the Carnival – originally a masked parade to mark the start of Lent. The inclusion of ‘Pierrot and Columbine’ is in reference to the masked archetypal characters of the traditional Italian pantomime known as Commedia dell’Arte. Pierrot is the sad clown whose heart is broken by the beautiful Columbine. 

Musically, The Carnival Is Over still carries echoes of its past. The light military tattoo of the snare drum recalls its origins as a soldier’s song, while the banked harmonies of the male voices hint at a Russian army choir. The stirring melody, though dressed in the finery of a 60s-style orchestral pop arrangement, still conjures up the ghosts of Eastern Europe and a Cossack from long ago.

Like many musical success stories luck, as well as talent, played its part in shaping The Seekers’ destiny. In 1964 the Melbourne group had set sail from Australia on a twelve-month engagement as the house band on a cruise liner. Arriving in England they found themselves in the midst of a Dylan-led folk revival and promptly jumped ship. Little more than a year later they were rubbing shoulders with The Beatles at a Royal Command Performance and jostling with The Rolling Stones for prime position on the charts. 

When eventually The Seekers returned to Australia in 1967, an astonishing 200,000 people turned out to see them perform at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne – a concert attendance record for the Southern Hemisphere that stands to this day. The following year an unhappy Judith Durham announced that she was leaving the group and The Seekers disbanded. The carnival was over.


Phil Kakulas is a songwriter and musician who plays double bass in The Blackeyed Susans.





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