2019 National Folk Festival
April 28th, 2019 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore, Poems for adults, Poems for children
Maggie Somerville and I attended the National Folk Festival again this year, and it proved to be extremely busy, enjoyable and rewarding for both of us.
In contrast to previous years, I took the Thursday before Good Friday off work so that we could drive up and not miss the Friday of the festival. I know Google says it is a seven hour drive, but it always takes me eight, allowing for a couple of stops. The extra time and money devoted to preparing my old Subaru Outback for the journey paid off, as the car behaved admirably throughout.
We set up camp in what has been the traditional place for me for many years and, in more recent years, us (Maggie and me), managing to complete the erection of the tent in the dying hours of daylight. Then we caught the Opening Concert at the Budawang, before retiring to bed at a reasonable time to get plenty of sleep prior to Friday morning’s Poets’ Breakfast. I think the highlight of the Opening Concert for me was the singing of Eric Bogle (sadly, without John Munro), who had been awarded the 2019 National Folk Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. I still regard his first (studio) album, “Now I’m Easy”, as his best, and he performed two songs from it – the title track, and ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’ I would have loved to have heard one of the two songs he wrote about his mother, ‘Leaving Nancy’ and ‘Since Nancy Died’, but you can’t have everything.
There were four Poets’ Breakfasts from Friday to Monday, each one lasting for two hours from 8.30 am – 10.30 am, each MC’d by two people – one for the first hour, one for the second – and different MCs for each Breakfast, for a total of eight. (Maggie and I shared the job for the Monday Breakfast.) The four Breakfasts quickly start to blur together in my mind, and I struggle to remember them as distinct, individual events. Suffice to say they were all excellent, and I think the general standard gradually rises every year.
The format is simple. One of the MCs seats himself at a table outside the Flute ‘N’ Fiddle tent (that’s the name of the venue) at about 8.15, armed with a pen and a piece of paper, and poets/reciters approach, with a view to having their name added to the list of performers. They are then called to the stage in the order in which their names are on the list. Having said that, many performers ask for their name to be placed later down the list. The reason for this is that audience number generally build during the first hour, and reach their peak somewhere around the middle of the show. (They often fall off a little towards the end of the show also.) I harbour no great ambitions as a reciter these days, so am generally happy to kick things off as the opening performer.
Here is a selection of photos from Friday, beginning with Maggie singing a song from her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed’ (poems of Mary Gilmore, music by Maggie Somerville). Geoffrey Graham is seated to her left, as MC.
Some of you may be wondering, why is a song being sung at a Poets’ Breakfast? It was generally felt, as the song was based on a poem by Dame Mary Gilmore, and the guitar playing is fairly subtle, that this was quite reasonable.
You will notice that the faces are generally very overexposed. This was due to the stage lighting, which I was unable to correct for using the camera on my phone.
Three of us – John Peel (the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award), The Rhymer from Ryde and myself were then roped into a most unusual event – a trivia quiz – to be held at 1 pm at the Majestic tent, the three teams being ‘Bush Poets, ‘All Other Poets’, and the audience itself. We were the bush poets. We came well behind the two other teams (I think the audience might have won – not surprising, as they did outnumber the poets, but not by all that much!), and would have come last if the gentleman on the keyboard playing gentle background music had not become a surprise fourth team. We beat him by half a point!
I now know that the National Folk Festival began in 1967 (not 1966, as I first suggested), and that the ACT ranks seventh out of the eight states and territories, not eighth (as I first suggested!). The Northern Territory comes last in terms of population. I also now know that the ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds are crafted in Helvetica font, and that Demos is a moon of Mars, not Jupiter (as I first suggested!). You get the idea?
Here are a couple of photos.
Maggie was programmed to co-host ‘Poetry in the Park’ with David Hallett at 2.30 pm and, as it was the first poetry event she had ever MC’d, she was feeling understandably nervous. The weather was glorious, however, and she soon found she formed an easy rapport with David. She performed her duties beautifully, and was relieved to have the first one under her belt. This is a relatively new event, and has not drawn big audiences in the past, with MCs often having to make up for a short fall of ‘walk up’ poets. This was not the case this year, however, and it was often a struggle to make sure everybody was able to perform.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Geoffrey Graham (with co-MCs David Hallett and Maggie behind him)
The final poetry event for the day was ‘Poetry in the Round’, held at 7 pm in ‘The Terrace’, a spacious, comfortable, quiet, air-conditioned, but somewhat sterile room above the Session Bar. The format is that the three featured poets (in this case, David Hallett, the Rhymer and Ryde and me) do a short bracket – about 15 minutes each – after which there is a short session for ‘walk-ups’, then another short bracket for each of the feature poets. There is no designated MC, and the task of organising the walk-ups fell by default to me, as I was the last of the three featured poets to perform. In retrospect, I should have been a little tougher in terms of restricting their numbers, as we ran over time, and each of the featured poets had to perform a truncated version of their planned second bracket. Unfortunately, the event overall was not very well attended. Perhaps this was not so surprising. It had been a busy day for poetry, with bright sunshine and good crowds generally.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday was again a great success. I performed my poem “Jesus and his Yoga”, and was surprised by how good a reaction I got from the audience.
Maggie and I were next scheduled to perform in the Victorian Folk Music Club’s musical presentation by their ‘Billabong Band’ on the theme of ‘bushrangers’ at 10.30 am in the Trocadero (we had had to leave the Poets’ Breakfast early). Maggie was an integral part of the show, playing in nearly every song, and singing one of her own. I had a cameo role, performing my poem ‘Victoria Has Ned Kelly!’ towards the end. The show was very well put together, giving us a picture of Australia’s bushranging days in chronological order, beginning with the escaped convicts, and finishing with Ned Kelly. An excellent narrative, written by Bill Buttler, bound the show together. The show was a vast improvement on their presentation last year, which was a little ragged in places, and was well received. (The Trocadero, by the way, is a gorgeous venue to perform in, and tends to be feature shows with a historical bent. When in doubt, head for the Troc!)
Maggie sang a song about Ned Kelly’s lesser known sister, Margaret. She had taken a poem by Keith McKenry, and set it to music.
(Thanks to Jill Watson for these photos.)
The Billabong Band
Our official duties concluded for the day, Maggie and I were free to consult the programme. After a brief celebratory cuppa with fellow VFMC members, Maggie and I dashed off to a songwriting workshop being held by WA-based comedy acapella act ‘The Ballpoint Penguins’. I had seen their act on festival programmes for many years, but had never had a chance to see them. Besides, I always like to attend poetry writing and song writing workshops at festivals. Sadly, it looks as though I may have left it a bit late in this case, as they announced they would soon be retiring. Nevertheless, we were able to get a good taste of their very clever and entertaining songs and performance, and some insight into their ways of working.
The Ballpoint Penguins
Maggie took the opportunity on Saturday afternoon to further promote her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed.’
Further information can be found here:
The CD is available for sale at Readings bookshop in Carlton, Melbourne.
‘Poetry in the Round’ was again scheduled for 7 pm in The Terrace, this time featuring Jason Roweth, his daughter Megan, and Sandra Renew. Maggie and I attended as ‘walk-ups’. The event was a little better attended this time, and I was able to relate the errors of the previous evening. Sandra ran a ‘tight ship’ so far as ‘walk-ups’ were concerned, with the list being completed before the show even began, and the evening went well. Megan in particular struck me as a remarkably self-assured and mature performer (and poet) for her age. (She is only 11.)
The Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday was another great event. Maggie chose to perform ‘The Dead Poet’, Mary Gilmore’s tribute to Henry Lawson, in response to a bracket of Lawson poems that Jason had performed the previous evening. She was surprised and thrilled at the audience response.
However, we were now filled with excitement and anticipation, as our principal performance of the festival was looming. I am talking about the presentation of C.J. Dennis’ ‘Digger Smith’, with Geoffrey Graham, at the Trocadero at 12 midday. A final intense rehearsal took place before it was back to the camp-site for the various props and costume changes.
‘Digger Smith’, published in 1918, was the third major book about Bill, Doreen and their friends, following ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ (1915) and ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’ (1916). (It is the fourth if you include the booklet ‘Doreen’, which contained four poems only (1917).) It tells the story of ‘Digger Smith’, an old mate of Bill and Mick from before the war, his homecoming and subsequent difficulties re-integrating into civilian society. It is also a reflection on World War One more broadly. Maggie and I performed it with members of the C.J. Dennis Society at the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival last year to a very small audience, and again with Geoffrey Graham at Newstead Live! in January this year to a slightly larger audience. Would we attract a larger audience at the National Folk Festival this year?
Well, I am pleased to say we did! An audience of 40 – 50 stayed with us for the full 90 minute journey, and made their appreciation known in no uncertain terms at the end. It was exhausting, but went off (largely!) without a hitch.
Thank you to Jill Watson for this photo…
…and to Jan Lewis for this one.
There was no time to reflect on our success, however, as Geoffrey and I were MC’ing ‘Poetry in the Park’ at 2.30pm. It proved another well attended event, with plenty of poets, in beautiful sunshine.
Our official duties for the day once again completed, Maggie and I attended the show by John Schumann and Shane Howard at the Budawang. It was the first time I had seen these two performing together, and we heard the best of Redgum and Goanna with a couple of other great songs as well, and a large, powerful backing band. it was a very emotional show. I took a number of pictures, mostly from the screen nearest us. Perhaps this is the best of them.
The final Poets’ Breakfast awaited us on Monday morning, with Maggie and I rostered on as MCs. It was the first time Maggie had hosted a Poets’ Breakfast and, being the final Breakfast, was also the event at which the winners of the coveted awards – the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for best original written poem (a new award last year) and the traditional Reciters’ Award – would be announced. Maggie acted as MC for the first half of the Breakfast, and acquitted herself well. Our performance of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, Maggie’s musical setting of another of Mary Gilmore’s poems, including my recitation of part of a speech made by Australia’s then Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1941, was well received.
The results of the judging were then announced by John Peel, the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award. John did an excellent job, going through the highlights of every day in some detail before making the final announcements. I was thrilled that my poem ‘Jesus and his Yoga’ cracked a mention. The presentations followed.
Irish Joe Lynch was announced as the winner of the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for his beautiful love poem to his wife, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, and David Hallett as the winner of the Reciter’s Award. Both were very popular and well deserved winners. Irish Joe is a very powerful performer, and a previous winner of the Reciter’s Award. He is one of the few spoken word performers who can command an audience in their own right. David Hallett is also a superb performance poet. He has been swimming against the tide to a degree in recent years, as the principal free verse poet in a sea of rhymers, and richly deserves this reward for his courageous persistence.
(Thanks again to Jan Lewis for this photo.)
Here are a few more shots of the morning’s performers.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Laurie McDonald (above) announced his retirement as Director of the Spoken Word Programme of the festival. Laurie has done a wonderful job in this role over the last 7 – 8 years, and has done much to raise the profile of spoken word events. There are now many more such shows programmed each year, there is a greater variety, and they are better attended. He is to be commended, and greatly thanked, for his efforts.
Laure announced that another Canberra-based poet, Jacqui Malins (above) will take over as Spoken Word Director for next year’s festival. I wish Jacqui every success in the role, and am sure she will perform it well.
Of course, no festival is ever complete without Campbell the Swaggie!
We had one more show to go! It wasn’t starting until 2.30 pm, and we then faced the long drive back to Melbourne, so there was time to take down the tent, pack the car and get ready to go beforehand. Fortunately, we achieved all this before the inevitable rain came down! The timing was perfect, as it held up until the festival was almost over.
Our final show, ‘Desert Island Poems’, in The Terrace, was a qualified success. I began the show three years ago as a spinoff of ‘Desert Island Discs’, a BBC radio show in which celebrities are invited into the studio to nominate the seven songs they would take with them if they had to spend the rest of their lives alone on a desert island, and why. I invite two poets (one male, one female), to nominate three such poems they would take with them. The show lasts for an hour. This year I chose as the poets Laurie McDonald and Maggie Somerville. An animated hour of discussion followed, and the small audience were well entertained, and thoroughly engaged in the discussion. Laurie chose ‘The Play’ by C.J. Dennis and ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield (which is interesting, because Dennis and Masefield were mutual admirers). He also chose one of his own poems, a ‘work-in-progress’ children’s picture book manuscript – though how he would arrange to submit the poem to the publisher from the desert island was never explored. Hopefully he would have a good internet connection!
Maggie chose several classic poems – ‘The King’s Breakfast’ by A.A. Milne, ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ by A.B. Paterson. A well worn early edition of the poems of A.A. Milne was passed around the audience.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was time at last to hit the road. It had been an exhilarating but exhausting four days, and the focus was now on getting back to Melbourne in reasonable time to get some sleep, and get through a long working day on Tuesday. It was after 1 am by the time my head hit the pillow, but it had all, most definitely, been worthwhile!