Early Adelaide 2


Malcolm J. Turnbull

[Parts of this article were previously published in Infolkus, June-Aug 2004; and in   Cornstalk Gazette, Feb 2005]


Although there appears to have been a degree of separation between the folksingers and the folk-entertainers in Adelaide, the former “immersed” in


Child Ballads and the like at the Catacombs, etc., the latter more likely to be found performing the ‘Duck’s Ditty’ at Red Cross functions or on TV, there is little evidence of significant Melbourne or Sydney-style commercialist-purist cleavages in Adelaide. The Folk Hut was only two doors down from a major discotheque, and it was not unusual for members of the Twilights, the Ferrets, Bobbie & Laurie, etc., to kick on after hours at the former. And vice versa. As a general rule, singers at the Folk Hut would good-naturedly include a handful of traditional Australian songs in their performances, so as to cater for a range of folk biases. The Wesley Three, Rob McCarthy, Lynne & Graham McCarthy, The Skillet Lickers, Phil & Pete Sawyer, John Fulton-Stevens, Bob Hardie, The John Gordon Trio, Phil Cunneen, Judy Crossley, Doug Ashdown, Irene Petrie, and Robyn Smith, all fairly eclectic in repertoire and live-and-let-live in their approach to folksinging, were in the front rank of Adelaide’s folk artists.

The Wesley Three, comprised of twin brothers, Peter and Martin Wesley-Smith (b. 1947), and Keith Conlon, was a stylish, musically-knowledgeable, Kingston Trio-like ensemble, which attracted public attention through appearances on the national TV talent quest Showcase 65, recorded two albums in quick succession for CBS (The Wesley Three and City Folk), and enjoyed a brief burst of national success. (“We travelled to Sydney for three weeks each year, doing the coffee lounge round [including the Last Straw and the Copperfield as well as the Newport and Katoomba festivals]. It was heady stuff for young Adelaide kids in the 60s”). Formed in 1962 when the boys were still at St Peter’s College (“performing paid our way through university”), the trio patterned itself after American ensembles like The Chad Mitchell Trio and, more directly, a local pop-group distinguished by its employment of a snare-drum, The Dave Fuller Trio. With Conlon on drum and percussion, Peter on string bass and Martin on guitar, the Wesleys refused to take themselves – or their brand of middle-of-the-road folk-pop – too seriously. Unsurprisingly, the trio was disdained by the folk establishment, notably Wendy Lowenstein of Australian Tradition (who deemed their relevance “at most … marginal”) and musicologist Edgar Waters (who suggested, somewhat unfairly, that the trio of “gimmicky undergraduates” might appeal to people who liked their folksongs sung by a “Village Glee Club”).

Adelaide Festival

“One cannot become involved in folk-circles without becoming also involved in the endless dispute between opposing factions who hold particular views as to what folk is and how it should be performed”, the boys acknowledged, insisting that they preferred the label ‘folk-performers’and confessing, wryly, that they could claim no ethnic authenticity other than “suburbia”.Reflecting recently on the purist vs ethnic debate, and on accusations that the trio had notably failed to sound as if its members “had been digging potatoes”, Peter Wesley-Smith maintained “I can see a case for establishing your categories but to allow the categories to dominate everything is the height of foolishness”.

The Wesley Three’s repertoire encompassed protest standards like ‘The Ballad of Spring Hill’ or Shearston’s ‘The Voyager’; bush ballads such as ‘The Rabbiter’s Song’ and ‘Flash Jack’;  American perennials like ‘Bullgine Run’, ‘Tell Old Bill’ and ‘Drill Ye Tarriers’; and whimsical children’s material such as ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ and ‘Little Tommy’. (‘Little Tommy’, written by Martin, was covered American group The Serendipity Singers). Listened to today, the trio remains, arguably, the best of the U.S.-style Australian collegiate trios, far outdistancing such contemporaries as The Southern Folk Three, The Green Hill Singers (or even the substantially more successful Twiliters), at least  in musicality and originality. The Wesley Three moved progressively away from folkmusic in two further recordings, a children’s album titled Banjo and Mr Thwump,and Leaning on a Lamp-post, a collection of vaudeville and music hall songs. The trio lasted until 1968, disbanding when Peter Wesley-Smith went overseas to do post-graduate work. Conlon and Martin subsequently re-teamed, along with brother, Jerry and Amanda Irving, for a recording The Glorious Years (1971), released by the Jacaranda Press in conjunction with the book of the same title by Graeme Inson and Russel Ward. (Martin Wesley-Smith subsequently went on to become a leading exponent and composer of electronic music; Peter Wesley-Smith ultimately became Dean of Law at the University of Hong Kong). 


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