action-story | 5th May, 2005

Frank Jones: My Brown Yarra

When I die put me in a barra, Wheel me down to the banks of the Yarra, Dig a hole both deep and narra, Bury me by my brown Yarra...

Songwriter Frank Jones wrote those words in an exercise book one evening in December 1988. At the time, there was no tune for the lyrics.

“It was a nasty little poem,” recalls Frank now, while gazing upon the Yarra from the Fairfield Boathouse.
About a month later Frank was playing guitar at home, creating a tune, a folky, lilting melody.

He had no particular lyric in mind until he remembered the words about the Yarra in his exercise book.

“I went for a walk around the block and had the whole song written in about an hour. Then I went around to a mate’s place, played him the song and said; I think this one’s special.”

My Brown Yarra was never a commercial hit but it is not an unknown song. It was first recorded for Frank’s band The Whirling Furphies on their 1991 album, Lizard Tree. ABC Music then included the song on its 1993 CD of Melbourne songs, Moon Over Melbourne.

Singer Kavisha Mazzella introduced the song to thousands of young school children as part of the Musica Viva touring program in the mid-1990s. “The kids just loved singing it,” says Frank.

On Saturday June 18 My Brown Yarra will be performed at Federation Square’s BMW Edge by Vox Synergy, a 50-strong choir. “It will be fantastic,” says Frank. “It’s a sensational venue and the Yarra is just on the other side of the glass, within touching distance.”

Over 17 years the song that began as “a nasty little poem” has become Melbourne’s unofficial anthem.

“Somehow it clicks with people’s memories and hearts. Expats have been in tears when hearing it overseas because, I think, it’s a song about home, rather than just about the Yarra.”

Frank’s first memories of the river are crossing the Chandler Highway Bridge, on his way to visit his grandparents. “It’s a pretty amazing bridge and then you’d look down and see the water.”

Then, as a teenager, he’d go to Yarra Bend Park with his mates and have parties on summer nights. “If it was warm enough, we’d go for a swim. We never got sick from swimming in the river but maybe our hangovers disguised that!”

Frank was almost buried in the river, rather than by the river, when kayaking about ten years ago near Donvale. Trying to paddle upstream, the six metre kayak flipped over and Frank found himself lost under the water. “The water was like ice and, yes, it was brown. I didn’t know where the top of the river was.” Frank swam safely to shore but the kayak disappeared forever into the deep water.

It was a frightening experience and Frank hasn’t been game to try kayaking since. Still, he can see the lighter side of things. “If I had have drowned I might have sold a lot of CDs. It would have been a good career move.”

Rivers and streams are very common metaphors for songwriters. As well as My Brown Yarra, Frank has written River Ritual, The Other Side of The River, One Day A River and Merri Creek.

He says he once knew a songwriter who lived near the Murray, near Mildura. “Some nights we’d play river songs to each other but he had a lot more than me. He had a lot of songs about the Murray and the Darling.”

Jones and his family often holiday by rivers and visit the inner-city Yarra several times a year. His favourite memories of the stream are, of course, linked to his song. At the launch of a Musica Viva event Kavisha Mazzella serenaded Frank with the song, while Frank floated on the Yarra in a gondola. The Whirling Furphies once played My Brown Yarra while on a Yarra river cruise. “That was pretty special,” Frank recalls.

Would he really like to be buried by the riverbank? Frank laughs lightly and says he doesn’t really care what happens to him after he dies. “People can scatter my ashes somewhere.” By the Yarra maybe.


There’s a part of me that’ll always be
Flowin slowly to the sea
And when I’m far from home I get a shiver
Whenever I think of that river
I had a dream that every city
In the world was just as pretty
And through each town there flowed a stream
Just like the river of my dreams
When I die put me in a barra
Wheel me down to the banks of the Yarra
Dig a hole both deep and narra
Bury me by my brown Yarra
Now people change, they’ll let you down
They’ll hurt you too, that’s what I’ve found
And though that river flows like mud
In my heart and soul it flows like blood
Or drop me off of Princes Bridge
Strapped inside a broken fridge
Drop me down in the murky drink
And let me lie where I sink
When I die put me in a barra
Wheel me down to the banks of the Yarra
Dig a hole both deep and narra
Bury me by my brown Yarra


Story by Vin Maskell, 2005