The visit to Australia of the American singer Burl Ives in 1952, sponsored by the ABC, and his role in recording and popularising Australian folk songs, is fairly well known. The visit of a second American singer, William Clauson, to Australia some five years later, also sponsored by the ABC, is much less so. Clauson’s parents were immigrants from Sweden, and this country, as well as the U.S.A, was to prove a large influence on his life. He eventually built a career travelling the world, collecting, singing and recording the folk songs of the countries he visited, with a special emphasis on Mexico, where he was known as ‘the blonde cowboy’. Assisted by the Australian Catholic priest Percy Jones, who had also offered so much assistance to Burl Ives, he recorded an LP of Australian folk songs, entitled “‘Click Go the Shears’ – Songs of Australia”, in 1960.
‘The Canberra Times’ newspaper devoted a good deal of attention to Clauson’s 1957 tour though, oddly, I can find no record of it on Trove in any other newspapers. An article titled ‘Balladeer To Give Next A.B.C. Concert’ (Wednesday 11th September 1957, page 2) provided biographical background.
Clauson was born in Ashtabula, Ohio. At the age of two his family moved back to their native Sweden, where he spent his childhood. Early he began to show great interest in all things musical. His parents entered him in the Boras Conservatory where he studied violin, voice and composition. When he was seven his parents returned to the United States, where he finished his education. While at high school Clauson became interested in the classic guitar and gave up his violin in favour of this instrument. He began his studies with the famed virtuoso Jose Barrose, and continued his vocal studies with Victor Fuchs. He has a fine tenor voice.
Another Canberra Times article, titled ‘Clauson at Canberra Next Monday’ (Tuesday 17th September 1957, page 2), provided information about the forthcoming Australian tour.
Clauson will make 43 appearances during his 13-week tour, and will include in his tour a number of places not previously visited by A.B.C. celebrity artists. These include Port Moresby, where he will give two concerts, and King Island. He has just completed a successful tour of New Zealand.
Perhaps the lack of reporting in any other newspapers can be explained by the number of unusual and ‘out of the way’ places that he visited. Clauson arrived in Australia, by air, on Sunday, 22nd September, 1957. He… went direct to the Canberra Community Hospital, where he sang to patients in the children’s ward.
(The Canberra Times, Monday 23rd September 1957, page 2)
The following night he performed at the Albert Hall. Like Ives before him, Clauson’s concerts were covered in the press. Unlike Ives, however, the reviews were not universally positive. An article titled ‘Bright Entertainment by William Clauson’ (The Canberra Times, Tuesday 24th September 1957, page 3) begins well enough.
William Clauson last night fully justified his claim to be a singer of international ballads and folk songs. He sang in a special concert arranged by the A.B.C., and the Albert Hall was well filled for the occasion. Clauson sang ballads and folk-songs from at least 11 countries, including Australia. He has a light baritone voice that is well-suited to the kind of programme he sings – neither affected nor too heavy, but clear in diction and pleasing to the ear.
The only sour note comes in the final paragraph.
Spontaneity is an essential of folk-singing, and in this William Clauson’s performance left just one thing lacking. Gesture and inflection were wholly admirable, but the accompaniment suggested at times a lack of adaptability. It made itself felt especially in the longer ballad-type songs, where a change in the accompaniment to suit the altered sentiments expressed through the words would have added to them and made them more convincing.
Clauson returned for a second tour of Australia in 1965. The sixties were a time of great turmoil and change. One can sense in the newspapers of the time how much the mood had changed. An article in ‘The Canberra Times’ on Monday, 7th June (page 11), announced that Clauson… will appear in a series of 13 ten minute programmes on ABC television, starting tonight at 8.20.
The tone of the article is respectful and positive. Alas, another article in ‘The Canberra Times’ on Saturday, 31st July 1965 (page 12) strikes a very different note. Titled ‘Peter, Paul, Mary and sweet William’, it begins with the news that the famous folk trio ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ will be able to squeeze a tour of Australia in before they commence their European tour. Nevertheless, they cop a minor backhander from the reviewer, who then launches into many others, including Burl Ives.
It has been fashionable among critics to knock the trio, and certainly its smooth, slick presentation of folk songs palls after a while. But I have always thought that they retain some of the bite and vigour of true folk music even in their most commercial songs, and they often use harmonies that have an arresting, Southern Mountains quality. The true measure of their achievement is how much better they are than other commercialisers like Nina and Frederik, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, The Rooftop Singers, et al.
This is nothing, however, compared to what lies in wait for William Clauson.
A folk singer (if he can be called that) of a very different sort is William Clauson, the Swedish-American troubadour who has been peddling his wares around the concert halls for some years now. Like Peter, Paul and Mary, he is a folk song populariser. But whereas the trio retains some genuine feeling for folk music, Clauson appears to have none at all. His musical approach is precious, mannered, effete. He sings the robust, bawdy songs of the British Isles as one might expect a Sunday school teacher to sing them, only worse. But he is not only a populariser. He is an improver. In creating his own, personal, debased form of “folk music”, he changes the words and melodies of the songs he sings, apparently to make them more acceptable to the polite tea-party audiences to whom he often sings.
Whether this is fair or not, I really have no idea. Certainly, the respectful mood of the 1950s seems to have disappeared well and truly by 1965. My father had a copy of Clauson’s ‘Click Go the Shears’ LP which I listened to as a child, and enjoyed. I played it again recently, and it sounds overproduced and stiff by today’s standards, but that is hardly surprising. The earlier 1965 ‘Canberra Times’ article (7th June) mentions Clauson being presented with a ‘gold record’ (20,000 sales) for ‘Click Go the Shears.’ Clauson may not have been a top line star, and it may also be true that he lacked a certain degree of courage, but it appears nevertheless undeniable that he made a significant contribution to the renaissance of Australian folk music, as it began in the 1950s.
When I was a young man in the 70s, I became enthralled with Australian folk music. Bands like The Bushwackers, The Cobbers, Paradiddle and Captain Moonlight were at their peak. A particular highlight was Friday evenings at the Dan O’Connell pub in Carlton – standing room only – listening to the Bushwackers. I must have mentioned the phrase ‘folk music’ to my father at some point, and he was puzzled. (Our relationship was always rather fraught, and we struggled to connect with each other.) He asked me if I was referring to Burl Ives. I was shocked, and had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew about Burl Ives was that he was an elderly, somewhat overweight and rather boring American crooner. No progress was made in closing the gap between us.
Only in recent years have I come to understand what my father was referring to, and the role that Burl Ives played in re-introducing Australians to their own folk songs. It goes something like this.
In 1952, the Australian Broadcasting Commission invited Ives to visit Australia and perform a series of concerts. He did so, as part of a world tour.
When he arrived in Sydney on 25th May, he was mobbed by more than 150 teenagers (The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 26th May 1952, page 1). (Not quite Beatlemania, but still…) Quoting from the article,
He wore a black glengarry, short tweed jacket, black tie, grey socks, tan shoes – and a kilt.
He explained that he was made an honorary bard of the McGregor clan after he sang in London last April. He hopes to sing in Edinburgh in August.
“I like kilts,” he said. “They are warm in winter and cool in summer. I will wear them in Australia, but not on stage.”
Mr. Ives brought two guitars and a set of Northumberland pipes.
“I can’t play the pipes yet but I will practise here.”
Ives was a well-known international figure, and had the reputation at the time of being America’s principal exponent of folk songs and ballads. It was a busy and no doubt highly testing time for Ives, as he had chosen to appear as a witness at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) earlier that month. With the commencement of the Korean War in June 1950, anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S increased greatly, and a pamphlet, ‘Red Channels’, published a list of entertainers in the television and radio broadcast industry with suspected Communist leanings. They were to be banned from all future public performances. Ives had performed for many left wing audiences and supported many left wing organisations. His name was on the list. The only way to clear one’s name was to convince the committee that you had been duped or conned into such involvement by somebody else, and naming them. The hearings lasted a number of years, and Ives did not cover himself with glory. The website of The Association of Cultural Equity (an American organisation, inspired by the work of musicologist Alan Lomax) tells us that, according to Ronald D. Cohen, author of ‘Rainbow Quest – The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940 – 1970’, Ives named four people. These included his former publicity director Arthur Meltzer and his friend, fellow performer Richard Dyer Bennet. As a result of this, Ives’ career continued to flourish, while Bennet’s stopped dead in its tracks.
Others suggest Ives named many more people, including Pete Seeger. One of those who claims that Ives named Seeger is John Simkin, author of the British website, Spartacus Educational. The website takes its name from the film of the same name. The film’s scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was also a prominent victim of the HUAC hearings.
Woody Guthrie visited Burl Ives some time after the hearings. Guthrie later commented to fellow folk performer Oscar Brand that Ives was “God’s angry man.” When Brand asked who he was angry with, Guthrie replied “He’s angry with himself.”
Pete Seeger was about ten years younger than Burl Ives, and visited Australia eleven years later (1963). (My father, by the way, was a great fan of Seeger, especially ‘Little Boxes’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.) Pete Seeger’s name had also been on the ‘Red Channels’ list. Seeger did not name anybody during the hearings and, as a result, his career suffered terribly for a long period of time. Seeger was ferocious in his criticism of Burl Ives’ behaviour. He accused him of “fingering, like any common stool pigeon, some of his radical associates of the early 1940s. He did this not because he wanted to but because he felt it was the only way to preserve his lucrative contracts.” Seeger and Ives did ‘bury the hatchet’ to some extent in later years, and the two performed “The Blue Tail Fly” in a duet at a benefit concert in 1993, in what was to be Ives’ last public performance.
In an article published in The Australian Women’s Weekly of Wednesday 7th May, 1952 (page 12), immediately prior to Ives’ visit, he calls for Australians to send him songs to perform. He makes a similar call in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 17th May (page 7), entitled ‘Our Forgotten Folk Music’, by John Dempsey. Although he subsequently claimed to have received many in the mail (The Daily Telegraph Monday 14th July 1952, page 5), the songs Ives eventually chose were given to him by an Australian Catholic priest, Percy Jones. (A detailed explanation of how this came about can be found in Keith McKenry’s fascinating book, ‘Australia’s Lost Folk Songs.’)
Ives performed a number of concerts throughout Australia. They were packed out, and received rave reviews. Not surprisingly, the many newspaper articles relating to Ives’ visit to Australia (available now on ‘Trove’) make no mention of his involvement in the HUAC hearings. Immediately prior to Ives’ departure from Australia for New Zealand on 16th July, he recorded nine Australian folk songs, accompanied by the Four Guardsmen (a quartet from Sydney) for his label, ‘Decca Records’. The songs were initially released as four singles (songs on both sides), and an album containing all nine songs followed in early 1953. These recordings were a great success, prompting the broadcast on radio of Australian folk songs in the U.S. as well as Australia. To quote from an article entitled ‘Our Folk Songs On Record’ from The (Sydney) Sunday Herald (8th March 1953, page 12):
The release last week of recorded versions of nine Australian folk sings is one of the most significant events in the record industry, and perhaps in Australian music, for many years. It shows that, for the first time, we are taking a real interest in the beginnings of music in this country, and are seeking to preserve what we can – even if it is almost too late.
A songbook, ‘Burl Ives’ Folio of Australian Folk Songs’ was also published in 1953. A presumably more considered and less rushed album, ‘Australian Folk Songs’, containing 12 songs, was released in 1959. These recordings, together with the ‘folio’, went a long way towards popularising Australian folk songs among Australian audiences.
While in Australia, Ives had spoken enthusiastically of plans to return the following year and tour the outback (The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, Monday 14th July 1942, page 5). However, I can find no record of this tour having taken place. (He did get to Broken Hill in 1952.) A further proposed tour in 1955 (Sunday Times, Perth, Sunday 1st August 1954, page 22) appears also not to have occurred. Perhaps the HUAC hearings proved an overwhelming distraction.
Thinking again of my father, he had in his collection two LP albums of Australian folk songs sung by the Australian singer and actor Lionel Long. I loved these, and played them over and over, especially ‘Songs of a Sunburnt Country’. These were released in the early 1960s, and would no doubt have been very much influenced/inspired by the performances and recordings of Burl Ives. It puzzles me therefore that my father had so much trouble understanding what I was talking about when I referred to ‘folk music.’ Perhaps he simply didn’t make the connection.
My only regret is that it was Burl Ives and not Pete Seeger who made such a massive contribution to Australians’ appreciation of their own musical history. I am probably being too tough on Ives, though. He was placed in a terrible position, and I cannot begin to imagine how I might have behaved in a similar situation. I love to think I would have responded more like Seeger than Ives, but Pete Seeger was a man of unusual courage.
Richard Dyer Bennet responded to his blacklisting by creating his own record label, using his living room as a studio. A stroke in 1972 put an end to any further public performances. He died in 1991. Only in recent years has his musical legacy begun to be fully appreciated. A video of Bennet singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in 1962 can be found on YouTube here: