‘A Nautical Yarn’ is one of the nine Australian folk songs that American singer Burl Ives recorded in 1952, and which were to have such a profound effect on Australians’ perception of their own folk music heritage. The ‘yarn’ takes place on the Murray River. (Whether the adjective ‘nautical’ can be applied in the context of fresh water is arguable.) The words are credited to Keighley Goodchild. They are a play on the general notion of shipwrecks, so many of which occurred, and so tragically, in the 19th century. A paddle steamer is making its way upstream to the town of Wahgunyah (the furthest upstream port on the Murray) when a storm arises during the night. The crew fear for their lives, but the boat is grounded on a sandbar, and they all walk safely through the shallow water to shore!
According to his obituary, which was published in The Riverine Herald in 1888, Goodchild was born in London, and had a good education. He had arrived in Melbourne fifteen years earlier (1873) from New Zealand. How long he had been in New Zealand is not stated.
The Echuca Historical Society also has information about Goodchild’s life. He was born in 1851. (By way of historical comparison, Henry Lawson was born in 1867, and Ned Kelly in 1855.) Goodchild was very much a newspaperman. In Melbourne he worked for the Argus. He moved to Echuca in 1880, and stayed there until his death at the age of only 37 of ‘consumption’ (TB) in 1988. He worked for a number of newspapers, and was editor of the Echuca Advertiser. For the last two years of his life he worked as a compositor for The Riverine Herald. (It was the job of a compositor to arrange type for printing.) He also published a column under the title ‘Municipal Musings’. (Many of these can be easily accessed via Trove.)
Goodchild also wrote poetry, and in 1883 he self published a small collection of his own work with the title ‘Who Are You? : A Volume of Verse’. One of the poems in this book, ‘While the Billy Boils’, was included in the final volume of a series of poetry collections published in London. The series was titled ‘Canterbury Poets’, and the final volume, with Goodchild’s poem, ‘Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Poems inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand’ (1888), was edited by B. W. Sladen of Oxford. (Goodchild received his copy several days before he died.) The phrase, ‘while the billy boils’, was just beginning to gain traction in Australia and New Zealand, and this was not the first time it was used. It was also chosen as the title of Henry Lawson’s first collection of short stories, published in 1896. Lawson did not use the phrase himself, but his editor, Arthur Jose, felt it was apt. (Jose almost certainly knew of Goodchild’s poem.) Plans were afoot for a second collection of Goodchild’s verse to be published in London, but this did not eventuate, no doubt due to his premature demise.
Here is the first stanza of ‘While the Billy Boils’ by Keighley Goodchild.
While the ruby coals in the dull grey dust,
Shine bright as the daylight dies;
When into our mouths our pipes are thrust,
And we watch the moon arise;
While the leaves that crackle and hiss and sigh
Feed the flame with their scented oils,
In a calm content by the fire we lie
And watch while the billy boils.
‘A Nautical Yarn’ is included in the blog ‘An Australian Folk Song A Day’, by John Thompson. John references the source of the song as ‘Big Book of Australian Folk Songs’ by Ron Edwards, and adds this note from the book:
“…Ian Mudie in his book ‘Riverboats’ suggests that “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own.”
So perhaps Keighley Goodchild did not write ‘A Nautical Yarn’ after all!
To further complicate matters, there is more than one tune for the song. Goodchild’s stated tune was ‘The Dreadnought’, but Burl Ives’ folio of Australian songs used ‘Villikins and his Dinah’.
Who knows, perhaps Goodchild would have developed into a writer to rival Lawson and Paterson if he had lived longer? Then again, that can no doubt be said about a number of writers whose lives were cut short in those hard, early days.
A Nautical Yarn
I sing of a capting who’s well known to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks is his name.
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
To the Port of Wahgunyah his wessel was bound
When night comes upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters it clear light did throw;
But the wessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a yeo.
Oh, Capting, oh! Capting, let’s make for the shore,
For the winds they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the capting, “though the fierce winds may blow
I will stick to my vessel with a Yeo heave a yeo.”
“Oh! Capting, oh! Capting, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Capting, oh! Capting, we’ll soon be a wreck –
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!
But the capting laughed loudly, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
“Farewell to the maiding – the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends – I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the capting he swore –
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.
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:
Maggie Somerville and I were thrilled to be invited to perform at the 2020 Port Fairy Festival, as part of the Writers/Spoken Word section of the festival, organised by Jim Haynes.
We agreed to contribute an item (Maggie a song, me a poem) to the Aussie Morning Show on each of the three mornings (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Maggie would launch her new CD (‘The Forest Prayed’ – poems of Dame Mary Gilmore set to music by Maggie), while I would contribute to a forum on ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature.’ I also agreed to participate in the Pat Glover Storytelling Award and, in the end, Maggie did too.
Our involvement got off to a bright start at the Saturday Morning Show, held in recent years in the Pavilion, rather than St. Pat’s Hall, where it was held when we last attended, in 2016. The Pavilion is a great venue, as it is right in the heart of the festival. The 9am start meant we were done and dusted by 10am, when the music shows started up, and threatened to drown us out. The Morning Show is held in the upstairs part of the Pavilion, offering great views of the festival from its balconies.
The show began with Jim briefly interviewing Maggie and me, as well as Di Jackson-Hill, who was launching her new children’s picture book, ‘Windcatcher’ (published by CSIRO Publishing), about the local bird, the short-tailed shearwater (illustrated by Craig Smith), and local writer Maya Linnell, who was launching her new ‘rural romance’ novel, ‘Wildflower Ridge.’ Jim was also launching his own very large new book, ‘The Big Book of Australia’s War Stories.’
Jim is an absolutely brilliant performer who always packs in a crowd, so we were playing to a full house every morning.
Thank you to Maggie for this photo of me. Here is Maggie strutting her stuff.
Bush poet Mick Coventry, from Kyabram, did a bracket of jokes and poems later in the show, exercising his particular brand of laconic Aussie bush humour. The crowd loved it!
Maggie and I had something of a programme clash, in that her CD launch was scheduled to begin while the panel discussion of ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature’ was still in progress, and I was keen to spend as much time as possible at her launch to support her. The situation was further complicated by the discovery of a technical hitch. Rather than employ a bevy of musicians to accompany her (a very expensive exercise), the plan was for her to sing along to the CD minus her vocal track, karaoke style. Unfortunately, however, there was a problem with getting it to play. This was eventually solved, but not without a good deal of angst all round!
There was still another problem, as we had no sound man to stop and start the track as needed. Fortunately an old friend of Maggie’s, Melanie Dorian, who was at the festival assisting her husband, instrument maker at ‘Rocky Creek Strings’, agreed to step into the breach.
The panel discussion was held at Blarney Books & Art, a relatively new (and excellent) combined bookshop and art gallery in the town.
More information about ‘Blarney Books & Art’ can be found here:
Jim suggested I kick off proceedings to allow me to spend as much time as possible at Maggie’s launch, and I was pleased to be able to talk about my journey as a writer – the decision to write poetry for children, and the subsequent long and rather tortuous, but ultimately very satisfying, path to the publication of ‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ by Walker Books in 2014. The other members of the panel were Di, Craig and Jim. Unfortunately, I was not able to hear what they had to say, but I was told that it had all gone well, with plenty of fruitful discussion towards the end.
I was pleased to find upon my arrival back at the Pavilion that Maggie’s launch had not yet begun, so I was able to watch the whole show. Melanie did a fine job as Maggie’s assistant!
Only one track could not be played, that for the accompaniment of ‘Botany Bay’, and it was probably more effective performed acapella anyway.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ can be found here:
The Pat Glover Storytelling Award was great fun on the Sunday afternoon. Maggie’ poem, ‘A Deadly Weapon’ (a cautionary tale about taking Irish penny whistles to the Magistrate’s Court!), was extremely well received, but the winner was Eric Purdy, a Scotsman, who told a hilarious tale about deciding to wear a kilt one day, and ending up with one that was far too big for him. He described a garment that began high at his chest, descended to near his feet, and extended great distances both front to back and side to side, so that he felt like ‘a tartan shuttlecock.’ Congratulations Eric!
After final performances at the Monday Morning Show, it was time to wind down and head for home. First, though, we took the opportunity to go for a stroll along the beautiful beach…
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend at an amazing festival, and we both feel very privileged to have had an opportunity to contribute to the proceedings.
Last Saturday I had the great privilege of attending (and performing at) the launch of Maggie Somerville’s new album based on the poetry of Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘The Forest Prayed’. Maggie has taken 16 poems by Mary Gilmore, written music for them, and recorded them as songs. We believe this is the first album of songs based on the poems of Dame Mary Gilmore to be recorded (but would be happy to be proved wrong).
Maggie felt the most appropriate place to launch the album would be Crookwell in New South Wales, near the place of Gilmore’s birth, and home of the Upper Lachlan Shire Mary Gilmore Society. The Society holds an annual Mary Gilmore Festival, which Maggie has attended for the last two years. The driving force behind the festival and the society is Crookwell resident Trevene Mattox, who has become a great supporter of Maggie in recent years.
Trevene enthusiastically agreed to organise the launch, to be held at the Memorial Centre, and very kindly allowed us to stay at her house.
She did an excellent job of advertising the event.
Trevene is a superb organiser, and does a wonderful job of bringing local community groups together. It is always a little nerve-racking in the minutes leading up to an event such as this. The best organisation in the world does not guarantee that an audience will turn up. Fortunately, on this occasion, they most definitely did!
The hall had been beautifully decorated, with great attention to detail.
The launch began with Elaine Delaney (left) and Trevene (right) welcoming the many groups and individuals who had attended.
The Upper Lachlan Shire Mayor John Stafford then introduced Maggie and me.
Our moment had arrived! Maggie performed “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, with me joining her for the choruses, and doing my best to impersonate Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1941 ‘speech to the nation’ in response to the threat of the invasion of Australia by Japan during World War II (which features on the album).
Dame Mary Gilmore’s great great nephew, The Hon Scott Morrison PM, had been invited to launch the album, but was otherwise engaged. The local member for Hume, The Hon Angus Taylor, was also unable to attend. However, his lovely wife, Louise, did most graciously agree to launch the album, and spoke entertainingly, in great detail, and with glowing praise for ‘The Forest Prayed.’
We had been warned that the audience would be satisfied with the performance of one song only but, in fact, they were thirsty for more, so we followed with a rather impromptu (but nonetheless successful) rendition of ‘Never Admit the Pain.’
A very healthy number of CDs were sold during the course of the afternoon, and we can only express our most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Louise Taylor and Mayor John Stafford, and to Trevene Mattox and Elaine Delaney and their large team of tireless and hard working assistants. I realise I have neglected to mention the food which was both varied and delicious, and available in large quantities! All in all, it was a great event for which, I hope, Dame Mary Gilmore herself would have been very proud!
I went for a bracing walk along the road to Bathurst the following morning, and became better acquainted with some of the locals.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ album, including details of future launches to be held in Melbourne, can be found here:
Book Review: “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem” by W. Benjamin Lindner
(Published by Boolarong Press)
This is a book I have long been hoping somebody would write, but dared not believe anybody would.
There has been much written in recent years about the writing of Australia’s unofficial national anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In particular, there has been a push to suggest that the words relate closely to the events surrounding the burning of the woolshed at Dagworth station in western Queensland in early September 1894, and the subsequent death of a shearer, Samuel Hoffmeister. (The two events may or may not have been related, but probably were.) Personally, I have never found this line of argument convincing.
Considerable uncertainty has also surrounded the timing of the writing of the song, with proponents of the Hoffmeister theory keen to believe, and therefore prove, that the song was written as soon as possible after these events. I have also never been convinced that this has been proven.
Part of the difficulty has been that Paterson’s travel arrangements during this time were never documented. A new book on the subject, “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem”, by W. Benjamin Lindner, sets out to resolve this conundrum in a devastatingly simple way. It makes you wonder why nobody has ever thought of doing it before.
What is not disputed is that Paterson wrote “Waltzing Matilda” in collaberation with Christina McPherson, who provided the music (the tune ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ that she had heard played at the Warrnambool races in April 1894), and that he was in the company of his fiancé, Sarah Riley, at the time. So, if Paterson’s travel movements cannot be nailed down, can the movements of McPherson and Riley? Turns out they can! They both travelled to Queensland from Melbourne, and both spent a large part of the journey on the ocean, travelling by steamer, First Class. These voyages are well documented, and prove beyond doubt that Waltzing Matilda could not have been written any earlier than August 1895, almost a year after the burning of the Dagworth woolshed. Furthermore, while Paterson’s travelling arrangements cannot be proven, his various sporting and social activities in Sydney most definitely can, and it turns out they line up perfectly with the movements of McPherson and Riley!
This is an extremely dense and well-researched book. There is a very large cast of characters. I read it quickly and in a somewhat feverish state of mind, as I quickly realised what a gem it was, and don’t pretend to have fully comprehended or integrated all the information it contains.
It is very clear to me, however, that Waltzing Matilda was written some months later than many would like to believe. I also think Lindner has done a very good job of demonstrating just how unlikely it is that Paterson based the words on the death of Hoffmeister. Importantly, a detailed analysis of the inquest into the death of Samuel Hoffmeister fails to make any link whatsoever with the squatter Bob McPherson, brother of Christina, and manager – with his three brothers – of Dagworth station. I can see that those events may well have fed into the lyrics, but only in a very general sense, and certainly not in the strictly literal sense that some would like to believe. (Lindner makes specific reference to Richard Magoffin and Dennis O’Keeffe in this respect.)
Lindner also makes it clear that Waltzing Matilda was almost certainly written at more than one location – possibly as many as three or four – with McPherson playing an autoharp initially, and then moving to a piano when one became available.
Lindner also points out that the evidence he has discovered means that the first public performance of the song could not have taken place in April 1895 at the North Gregory Hotel, as has been believed by many up until now, because it had not yet been written.
There are passages which could have benefitted from further editing. The text contains minor grammatical errors at times, and there is some repetition that could have been tidied up, but these are minor quibbles.
Lindner is a criminal lawyer, and calls his book a ‘forensic history’. It didn’t necessarily need a lawyer to write this book, but his methodical, persistent, extremely detailed, dispassionate approach is well suited to the task. He does concede that Trove, that invaluable National Library resource that contains so many early newspapers in digitised form, was not available to earlier researchers.
I would strongly recommend this book to anybody who is interested in the history of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda.’
Maggie Somerville and I attended Newstead Live! again this year. We set off after I had finished work on the Friday before Australia Day, which meant we were setting up the tent in the dark. To complicate matters a little further, the performers’ camping was not available, so we had to camp at the Racecourse, which I struggled to find. Eventually we stumbled into the Railway Hotel, where we were assisted by some helpful patrons.
I made it to the Poets’ Breakfast the following morning in time to act as MC and create a list of performers. (Jim Smith has always acted as MC at these events, but decided to call it a day last year.) We had only been allocated 45 minutes on the programme, but Troubadour Manager Andrew Pattison was happy for us to run through till 10 am, which meant we got a full hour, and everybody had a chance to perform twice.
It was good to see Campbell the Swaggie once again.
Maggie and I had the rest of the day free to check out other acts.
A highlight for me was the ‘Good Girl Song Project’ at the Uniting Church, telling the rather sorry story of early female migration to the colony of New South Wales, based on research by Liz Rushen, with songs by Helen Begley, and a script taken directly from documents of the day. Maggie enjoyed it, too. I bought the CD, which is also excellent.
Later in the afternoon we caught a couple of songs from ‘The Grubby Urchins’ at Lilliput. It was good to see Daniel Bornstein again. The last time I had seen him performing at Lilliput was several years ago, when he was with my son, Thomas, in ‘The Paper Street Soap Company.’
(Daniel is on the left.)
We also spent some time relaxing in the Courtyard, where we watched Geoffrey Graham (who was due to perform ‘Digger Smith’ with us the following day.)
Geoffrey was followed by fellow Victorian Folk Music Club members Don and Ken who also did an excellent job.
On Sunday morning I did a quick poem at the Poets’ Breakfast (this time with Geoffrey Graham acting as MC) before dashing off to do a show for children at Lilliput.
Maggie and I then watched Andrew Pattison interview Broderick Smith at the Troubadour for ‘Desert Island Discs.’ Broderick was a particularly eloquent interviewee, and Andrew was a superb interviewer, as always.
(Broderick and Andrew are away in the distance in this photo, I am afraid, and Andrew’s head has been completely blocked by a speaker!)
Finally it was time for Geoffrey, Maggie and I to perform ‘Digger Smith’ by C. J. Dennis at the Anglican Church. ‘Digger Smith’, first published in 1918, was the fourth of five books written by Dennis featuring Bill and Doreen, and is set at the end of the First World War. This was only the second time Maggie and I had performed it (the first being at Toolangi last year), and the first with Geoffrey. It went well, with a small but appreciative audience. We will be performing ‘Digger Smith’ next in the Trocadero at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.
It was very difficult for Maggie to perform following the unexpected and tragic death of her son Julian only twelve days earlier. I am extremely grateful to her for doing so, and for doing it so beautifully.
I will finish this report with a photo of the Men’s Shed, which caught my fancy with its ‘Receding Airlines.’
The lead-up to the festival this year was disturbed by the very sad news that Vic Williams, co-owner of The Singing Gardens, and husband of Jan Williams, is very ill. My thoughts are with Vic, Jan and their sons at this difficult time.
This year’s festival was very enjoyable and went well, but numbers were significantly down on previous years, which is prompting some soul searching. The cold, wet weather no doubt was a contributing factor, but I am not convinced that this is the whole story.
It began, as always with the Awards Ceremony. This was one of the best attended events of the weekend. Numbers of entries were up on last year, and the standard, as always, was very high. In addition to the prize money and certificates, award winners also received a copy of the festival booklet containing all the winning poems, beautifully produced by Daan Spijer, and a copy of Jack Thompson’s CD, “The Sentimental Bloke. The Poems of C. J. Dennis”, a number of which had been kindly donated to the Society. The new category of short story (500 word limit), now in its second year, appears to be working well. It was especially gratifying to see Jan Williams win First Prize in the ‘Adults Writing for Children’ section, as judged by children, for her poem ‘Scruffy Dog’.
The ‘Open Mike’ and ‘C. J. Dennis Showcase’ followed, with great performances by Jenny Erlanger, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Ruth Aldridge and Daan Spijer.
At 5 pm we commenced the performance of ‘Digger Smith’, published 100 years ago, in 1918. Several rehearsals had been held, we were dressed for the part, and I think we acquitted ourselves well. Unfortunately, we played to a very small crowd, which was disappointing. That said the audience, though tiny, was highly attentive and appreciative – and complimentary! We broke after an hour or so for dinner, and then continued for another hour after dinner, completing the book. (The food, it must be said, was as superb as ever!)
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
The Poets’ Breakfast the following morning was attended by myself, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Christine Middleton and Tim Sheed. It was great to have Christine and Tim there. Christine is a beautiful harpist, and Tim is an excellent reciter of Australian bush verse.
Christine performed some of the melodies she plays in the course of her work as a music therapist.
Tim recited an old Dennis favourite, “An Old Master”. It was exciting to be able to inform him that he was pretty much standing on the slopes of Mt St Leonard himself as he performed the poem!
We were honoured with the attendance of the local Member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish (State Member for Eildon). I think she was expecting a larger turn-up, but she hid her disappointment well, and in the end I think she really enjoyed the performances.
Maggie Somerville had put the poem “West” from “Digger Smith” to music, and performed it after David Campbell and I had provided something of the context. It was very well received.
David took the opportunity to perform his poem “A School for Politicians”, and I then changed the mood slightly with one of my poems for children, “Yesterday’s Homework”. Maggie and Christine played “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” together to finish the morning show. This poem, by Dame Mary Gilmore, has been put to music by Maggie. She has recorded the song, with Christine playing the harp. However, Christine was recorded in a different studio at a different time to the other musicians, so this was the first time Maggie and Christine had performed the song together.
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
Maggie and I have worked together to create a YouTube video of the song, which can be found here:
(from left to right, David, Tim (back), Christine (front), me, Cindy and Maggie – photo by Melanie Hartnell)
The sun came out after lunch, in time for the ‘moving theatre’ and the children’s ballet. ‘C.J. Dennis’ and ‘Henry Lawson’ received a surprise visit from ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’. ‘Henry’ took the opportunity to introduce the audience to little known poems by Banjo Paterson’s younger brother Ukulele, and Henry Lawson’s younger brother Leroy.
The numbers were swelled considerably by the families and friends of the dancers without whom, once again, the audience would have been very small indeed.
We then moved inside for afternoon tea, and Jan Williams presented David with the Marian Mayne award for First Prize in the Open Poetry section.
Jim Brown was not able to attend the festival this year, and was therefore unable to perform his traditional rendition of ‘Dusk’ to close the festival. I performed it in his stead, with musical accompaniment from Maggie.
The gardens looked splendid as always. The weather was rather dismal on the Saturday, but picked up on the Sunday. Jan and her band of helpers performed admirably as they always do and, as I mentioned before, the food all weekend was delicious. The only thing missing was a good-sized audience!
It is hard to know precisely the cause(s) for this. We have an ageing membership, and are not attracting many new, younger members. The festival has been running in its current format for a number of years now, and perhaps a change is needed. Suggestions received included reducing it to a single day (probably the Sunday), or running it every second year. Further suggestions are welcome.
In summary, the festival this year was enjoyable and successful, but it would have been nicer to have had a few more people there!
Maggie and I visited the Benalla Entertainment Muster last Sunday. This is an annual event run by the Victorian Bush Poetry and Music Association, and organised primarily by Cudgewa-based Jan Lewis. It is a great fun weekend, and I have been attending it for a number of years now. It is also a good opportunity to promote the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, which usually follows a week or two later. (This year it is following a week later – taking place this coming weekend.) Some years I have attended on both the Saturday and the Sunday, staying overnight in Benalla, and Maggie has joined me for the two days a couple of times in recent years, but my current work commitments make it difficult for me to get there on the Saturday.
As always, it was great fun. This year, a ‘sea shanty’ theme was chosen, which lent itself to being interpreted in a number of ways. Certainly the most visually spectacular of these was the court martial of Captain Kirley by Admiral Carrington and Co.
Val Kirley’s paintings of sailing ships added to the nautical atmosphere.
Maggie (back) joins Jan Lewis (left) and Christine Boult (right) in song.
Maurie Foun (lagerphone), Jim Carlisle and Jeff Mifsud (guitar) make music together.
Just a few snippets of what was a very enjoyable day…
My Performer Application for the festival was unsuccessful this year, so I bought a ticket. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘walk-up’ poets to perform at the festival.
I headed off with my son, Thomas, on the morning of Good Friday. It’s a long drive from Melbourne to Canberra, but fortunately I still had time to find a camping site, erect the tent, and attend “Poetry in the Round” in a new tent venue, “Festival Hall”. The MCs were Peter Mace and John Peel (see below).
In recent years, this event has been held in The Terrace, a very civilised room in the pavilion above the Sessions Bar. The great advantage of this venue is that it is very quiet and well sound-proofed. Performers in “Festival Hall” were constantly having to compete with the noise from other acts, especially the parade, heading past the front door first one way, then the other. One advantage of this year’s venue was that there is a lot more ‘passing trade’, with a greater likelihood of people dropping in casually to ‘check it out’. The tents can also get very cold at night. Fortunately, Easter in Canberra this year was quite warm.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday morning was a big event, as these Breakfasts always are. There was a new award this year, the “Blue the Shearer Award” for the Best Original Poem. This is being held to honour the life of Col “Blue the Shearer” Wilson, a very popular poet and great friend of the festival, who died last year.
The “Reciter of the Year” award, which continues, is for a recitation from memory, and the reciter does not need to have written the poem. The new award can be read, but the reader must have written it. In other words, it is an award for writing, not performing.
The other new development this year was that the festival feature poets were also eligible to win the wards. The judge for both awards this year was last year’s judge, Chris McGinty, as last year’s winner of the Reciter’s Award, Len “Lenno” Martin, was unable to attend the festival.
Another opportunity to perform presented itself at “Poetry in the Park” on Saturday afternoon. The MC was John Peel (see below).
My friend, Maggie Somerville, arrived on Saturday afternoon, having left Melbourne that morning. We attended “Poetry in the Round” again together in the evening, and each performed a poem.
At the Sunday Breakfast Maggie read “A Deadly Weapon”, her poem about the hazards of trying to smuggle a tin whistle into court.
At 3.30 pm on Sunday, Maggie performed with the Billabong Band from the Victorian Folk Music Club, during their presentation of “Songs of the Victorian Goldfields” at the Trocadero. The band had been thrown into some disarray following the very sad news that the son of two of its most prominent members had died on Good Friday, and they had had to return to Melbourne. Replacements were arranged at short notice, and overall the show went well, but the situation was far from ideal.
Here is the full line-up…
(That’s Maggie in the red hat.)
A very interesting presentation took place in “Festival Hall” on Sunday night as Peter Mace and American cowboy poet Dick Warwick discussed the differences between cowboy poetry and Australian bush poetry. The takeaway message was that there are not a lot of differences, though perhaps the Americans are a little more reverential in their choice of subject matter. Then again, at least as I understand them, Ned Kelly is a far more ambiguous figure than Billy the Kid.
Here are Dick and Peter in animated conversation…
Chris McGinty announced the winners of the awards at the Monday Poets’ Breakfast. John Peel won the “Reciter of the Year” award with a poem he wrote himself, “When Elvis Came Back from the Dead”, which he performed at the Friday Poets’ Breakfast. Peter Mace won the inaugural “Blue the Shearer Award” with his poem about Kerry Stokes buying a VC medal at an auction for a million dollars to keep it in Australia, and then donating it to the National War Museum. (I haven’t found the title yet.)
Congratulations to them both!
Maggie headed back to Melbourne early on Monday morning, and Thomas and I left about midday.
Once again, the National Folk Festival had been very successful, and highly enjoyable!