‘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)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.