‘The Blonde Cowboy’ and ‘The Canberra Times’

August 22nd, 2020 | Burl Ives, Music, Songs, William Clauson

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.

© Stephen Whiteside 23.06.2020

(William Clauson – Wikimedia Commons)

A Yarn of ‘A Nautical Yarn’

June 20th, 2020 | 'Banjo' Paterson, Henry Lawson, Maritime history, Music, Songs

A Yarn of ‘A Nautical Yarn’

‘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.

© Stephen Whiteside 13.06.2020

Paddle steamer ‘Adelaide’

(State Library of South Australia, PRG 1258/1/12)

References
Keighley J. Goodchild (The Riverine Herald, Friday 6 April, 1888, page 2)
(https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/114660028/12107908)

Keighley Goodchild

https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A9270?mainTabTemplate=agentWorksBy

‘Biography of a Book – Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils’ by Paul Eggert (Sydney University Press 2013, pages 150 – 1)

http://ozfolksongaday.blogspot.com/2011/11/nautical-yarn.html

My Father, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and Australia’s Folk Music Heritage

May 22nd, 2020 | Burl Ives, Music, Pete Seeger, Songs

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.

Postscript:
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:

© Stephen Whiteside 04.05.2020

References

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/rarecollections/how-burl-ives-popularised-australian-folk-songs/5702472

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/

http://www.culturalequity.org/alan-lomax/friends/ives

https://spartacus-educational.com/USAredC.htm

https://www.wnyc.org/story/215673-richard-dyer-bennet/

https://spartacus-educational.com/USAives.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Crack_Corn

‘Australia’s Lost Folk Songs – The Treasures that slipped through Percy Jones’ fingers’ by Keith McKenry (The Rams Skull Press, 2008)

‘Percy Jones – Australia’s Reluctant Folklorist’ by Keith McKenry (Overland 186, 2007, pp 25 – 33)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dyer-Bennet

I wish to acknowledge the generous assistance provided by Keith McKenry in the preparation of this article.

2020 Port Fairy Folk Festival

March 14th, 2020 | Bird life, Festivals, Mary Gilmore, Music, Ocean, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Scotland, Songs, Stories for adults

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:

https://www.blarneybooks.com.au

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 Forest Prayed

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.

Album launch – ‘The Forest Prayed’

April 10th, 2019 | Mary Gilmore, Music, Poems for adults, Songs

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:

The Forest Prayed

The YouTube video of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’ can be found here:

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

February 7th, 2019 | Maritime history, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults

I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.

Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.

It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.

That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’

Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)

The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.

The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.

The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’

What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.

Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

Chorus
For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
No,
Alas it will not be today.

Verse 1
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.

Verse 2
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.

Verse 3
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.

© Stephen Whiteside 02.02.2019

I am sure Stan Rogers could have created something far more entertaining and engaging, but I guess it is still better than nothing!

Newstead Live! 2019

February 6th, 2019 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Music, Photos, Songs

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.’

2018 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

October 25th, 2018 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore, Music, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults, Stories for children

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.

Congratulations, David!

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!

Benalla Entertainment Muster 2018

October 16th, 2018 | Festivals, Music, Ocean, Photos, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults, Stories for children

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…

More Newstead Photos

March 24th, 2018 | Festivals, Music, Photos, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for children

Many thanks to Geoffrey Graham for these photos of Maggie Somerville and me performing for children at Newstead Live! this year.