2014 Bush Poetry fundraiser on Herring Island for Yarra Riverkeepers

November 9th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Pete Seeger, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults, Yarra River

The Yarra Riverkeepers held their second bush poetry fundraiser at Herring Island yesterday afternoon. The first was held in October last year. I was asked once again by Andrew Kelly, recently appointed as Riverkeeper, to rustle up the poets and MC the event.

I was again joined this year by reciters Dave Davies and Jim Smith, and poet Edel Wignell. Singer/songwriter Maggie Somerville provided some musical relief.

The weather was kind to us once again. There was bright sunshine for most of the afternoon, although the wind proved a bit of a challenge at times.

We had a capacity crowd, which was very exciting. Fortunately, unlike last year, the microphone behaved itself!

Here is Andrew introducing the afternoon.


A wide variety of material was on offer. The old masters – Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis, etc. – were well represented, but there was also plenty of contemporary material, much of it original.

Dave Davies recited “The Grog and Grumble Steeplechase” by Henry Lawson.


Edel Wignell told us, amongst other things, about a dog on a trampoline, Harvey, “the bouncing, squat, Staffordshire bull terrier”.

Jim Smith recited a very moving piece – part poetry, part song – by the American writer Gordon Bok. It referred to the selkie legend – seals that change their form to become human. There is a very interesting link between Bok and the Riverkeepers. The Riverkeeper organisation began on the Hudson River in New York state, around the time that Pete Seeger was sailing up and down the Hudson in the Clearwater, also attempting to clean up the river. Jim told us that the captain of the Clearwater was none other than Gordon Bok!

The reason Jim was telling us about selkies was, as he explained, that it used to be very common for seals to be sighted in Australian waterways, including the Yarra, often many hundreds of miles from the coast. Indeed, seals are still occasionally sighted in the Yarra.


I had a chance to read some of the poems I have recently written based on the book “Ferries on the Yarra”, by Colin Jones – an absolute wealth of fascinating historic information.

Maggie sang four songs, some Yarra-related, others not. We sang “Muddy Old Yarra” by Clem Parkinson together, to round out the first half of the show. Maggie then finished the afternoon with “Our Sweet Yarra”, a song she had written based on a poem I had written for the show last year. She followed with “Waratah Bay”, a very popular song from her CD, dedicated to a beautiful part of Australia in South Gippsland. The afternoon finished with her song, “The Sash”, based on my poem of the same name, that tells the story of the child Ned Kelly receiving a green sash for saving the life of a drowning boy in the town of Avenel.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon. Thanks to the many – performers, audience, the Yarra Riverkeepers and their army of volunteers, and Parks Victoria – for making it all possible.

The Rainbow Quest

February 8th, 2014 | Pete Seeger, Poems for adults, Songs

Since the death of Pete Seeger I’ve been listening to him more and more – and the most satisfying examples of his work are coming from the episodes of his TV show “The Rainbow Quest” on YouTube. I’d stumbled on these in a haphazard way in the past, never giving them too much thought, but now I realise just what utter treasures they are, and am viewing them – and the show itself – in a much more considered way.

Here is my little poetic tribute to “The Rainbow Quest” (with some thanks to Wikipedia, too).

The Rainbow Quest

Pete Seeger had many a musical guest
On his little TV show,”The Rainbow Quest”.
They came from all over, with banjos in tow,
To jump on the set, and be part of the show.

Few people saw it. The budget was slight
(Thirty-nine episodes, all black and white),
But Seeger was having the time of his life,
Ably assisted by Toshi, his wife.

Folk, old-timey, bluegrass, blues,
They came on board to spread the news
That musical talent was everywhere,
Though many were troubled, and worn with care.

They carried the message that music brings
Hope to the plucker, the person that sings;
That it opens your lungs, that it fills your heart,
That it brings fresh hope of a bright new start.

These weren’t the tunes of expensive schools.
They were ordinary folk with handmade tools,
Yet ‘ordinary’ doesn’t describe them well.
They were gifted maestros with tales to tell;

Tales of hardship, tales of pain,
Tales of falling again and again,
Tales of trouble, tales of strife,
Triumphant tales through difficult life.

Seeger’s childhood wasn’t that tough,
A white boy’s romp through bubble and fluff,
Yet he formed a rapport with these women and men
Through the bonds of strumming, and pencil or pen.

He formed a bridge that is all too rare
‘Tween the world of wealth, and the world of care;
‘Tween black and white, and Indian, too
(While Toshi directed the camera crew).

He’s gone now. No new notes will come
From his throat. No strumming of finger or thumb.
Yet I believe that his legacy
Will only grow – well, it will for me.

There’s live recordings of concerts grand
Where he’s backed by a talented, jaunty band,
But perhaps the record that captures him best
Is that little TV show, “The Rainbow Quest”.

© Stephen Whiteside 09.02.2014

Letter from Pete Seeger

February 6th, 2014 | Pete Seeger, Poems for children

Back in 2008, after I had published my first little collection of poetry, “Poems of 2007”, I decided to send a copy to Pete Seeger. I had always enjoyed his singing and his songs enormously, and I thought now I would try to return the favour.

At the last minute I also popped into the envelope a photocopy of my most popular poem, “Dad Meets the Martians”, as it had appeared in America’s “Cricket” magazine for children.

Imagine my surprise and joy when, some time later, I received a letter in the mail from the man himself!

He had written on the poem:

Stephen –
thanks for poems
Pete Seeger

What a thrill!

Here it is.

(Thank you to Lars Leetaru for very kindly giving me permission to reproduce his beautiful artwork here.)

Letter from Pete Seeger copy

Pete Seeger

January 28th, 2014 | Pete Seeger, Reflections, Songs, Yarra River

I have been very distressed following the news that Pete Seeger, aged 94, has died.

I was talking about it to a friend last night, and he quite reasonably made the point that you can’t be too sad about anybody dying at the age of 94. He’s right, of course. Pete Seeger lived a long and fruitful life, and nobody lives forever.

But it seemed as though Pete was going to live forever. He just went on and on, and I came to think of him as almost immortal.

I could never take Pete’s politics too seriously. They had a fairytale quality that never squared with my reality. But that wasn’t really at the heart of Pete, I always felt – or perhaps I simply approached him from another direction.

What I truly loved about him was that when listening to him talk and sing, I felt as though he was talking to me, and I felt as though I really mattered. Listening to Pete Seeger, all my hopes and dreams came alive in a way that didn’t quite happen when I was listening to anybody else.

The recordings with Arlo Guthrie were especially magical. I discovered the 2CD set “Precious Friend” many years after its original release, but it became a household staple, particularly for long car trips. There is a simplicity, a beauty, an innocence in these recordings that is rare indeed. And to hear Pete talk about his early days with Woody Guthrie was to make you feel you could almost reach out and touch the man. Suddenly, I felt as though I was part of the story.

I will miss you, Pete, though I never met you. I liked to picture you up there on the Hudson River chopping wood. Even my wood chopping was inspired by you!

I like to think, also, that the little bush poetry show we put on last year at Herring Island to raise funds for the Yarra Riverkeepers was, ultimately, inspired by you, and your efforts to clean up the Hudson River.

Pete, I will never forget you. Thank you for everything.