With a wind of the handle and a crackle, iconic Australian country singer Slim Dusty bursts into life from the old gramophone. It’s Slim like you’ve never heard him before. Twenty years old, his very first single from 1947, an impossibly rare 78 RPM record, signed by the singer himself. George Balsallie has heard the recording many times, it’s quite possibly his most treasured possession.
George is a big man, a legend in the south west Queensland town of Charleville, where he volunteers at the Historical House museum most days. That’s where I met him, although George told me he and Lottie were on the table beside me at the RSL the night before. Today I was contemplating a collection of antique musical instruments. Did you want to hear the rarest record in the world, he asked. He put in on a 1920s gramophone, and the magic began.
George exudes a wonderful passion for old time country music, the Carters and of course Slim. The gramophones, musical instruments, and recordings in the museum, are all his. Slim himself didn’t even have a 78 copy of that song, George told me.
He used to play guitar until losing the top of his left ring finger, which meant no more G chords. Now he plays the autoharp, a country string instrument with a mystically tender tone. He has a collection of those too.
George was born about eighty years ago at Womalilla, a railway siding west of Mitchell. My old man had a steam engine that he used to pump water up for the trains, he said. George almost died a few years back when he was bitten by a White-tailed spider, the Royal Flying Doctor Service had to evacuate him 750 kilometres to Brisbane.
I barely had to ask, and George began relating the history of the autoharp. He plays his favourite, an 1880 model made 115 years ago. Two incredibly lovely tunes. My spine tingled and I couldn’t stop smiling, I knew this was special. The old house we were in was built in 1888, but fortunately I had newer technology and made a rare recording.
Maybe I’ll put that in George’s museum next to Slim Dusty’s record one day.
Click here to listen to George’s 1880s Edison “Little Gem” Blue Amberol Cylinder Phonograph play a male and female vocal recording of the period.
Click here to listen to George’s rare copy of Slim Dusty’s first single “When the Rain Tumbles Down in July” played on a vintage gramophone.
Click here to see George introduce the Autoharp and play two tunes on his favourite – this is a must-watch, you’ll love his satisfied smile at the end!