THE EARLY YEARS OF THE FOLK REVIVAL IN ADELAIDE
Malcolm J. Turnbull
[Parts of this article were previously published in Infolkus, June-Aug 2004; and in Cornstalk Gazette, Feb 2005]
The relative isolation of its population notwithstanding, the Adelaide scene more than held its own musically with its East coast counterparts during what is often referred to as the “folk boom” of the 1960s (circa 1963-6). During that period folkmusic enjoyed mainstream popularity both here and overseas, and the stereotyped image of the “folksinger” imprinted itself on Western consciousness. Pattison & Mulholland have noted that, at its peak, South Australia boasted a thriving, almost self-contained urban milieu which flourished despite comparatively little infusion of talent from the east. [Australian Music Directory, 1982, p.97]. “Adelaide has the highest standard of folk in Australia”, a youthfully earnest Robyn Smith [Archer] informed the Sunday Mail at the tail-end of the “boom” [3 Sept 1966].
I have noted elsewhere the strong connection and interaction between the ‘60s folk revival and the Australian jazz scene. [See Trad & Now #6, Summer 2004, p.54]. Nowhere (with the possible exception of Melbourne) was this nexus more pronounced than in South Australia. Visiting blues legends Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee reportedly found their most responsive audiences there. “Talking blues” typically featured more than rebel ballads or bush songs at folksinging parties or get-togethers in and around Adelaide. Pioneer Melbourne bluesman Paul Marks, initially brought to town by the university jazz club, was an early inspiration to emerging folk-
performers in Adelaide. Student lawyer Keith Conlon divided his spare time between high profile trio The Wesley Three and drumming for the Campus Six or the University Jazz Band. (Other trio members, the Wesley-Smith twins, likewise offset folksinging with stints as President and vice-president of the University Jazz Society). For Don Brow, who performed throughout the boom as one half of the folk duo Derek & Don, the folk years were a brief interlude in a four decade jazz career. Brow first came into contact with live music at the 1958 Australian Jazz Convention at Norwood, and subsequently learned to play at venues like the St Vincent’s Jazz Club where enthusiasts ‘bopped’ to the Black Eagles (and where an entry ticket could be swapped for a bottle of beer). He recalls that folkmusic started to attract local interest at the time Bobby Gebhart, Jazzer Hall and Ron Carver were being featured at Blinks and a young Diana Trask could be heard on Thursday nights at the Gawler Institute. Meanwhile vibes-player John Bayliss was a drawcard at the Adelaide Golf Club while jazz could also be heard at the Sigalis coffee-lounge (underneath Scott’s Menswear in Rundle Street) or on Saturday night boat trips per the Amphibian.
Two coffee lounges, both housed downstairs in the Romilly Building at the corner of Hackney Road, North Terrace, appear to have hosted the first formal folksinging in Adelaide. Veteran bass-player Jerry Wesley (who played with the University Jazz Band and the Campus Six, and occasionally stood in for brother Peter in The Wesley Three) remembers first being exposed to live folkmusic at a Sunday afternoon concert at Le Camille, circa 1962. Primarily a jazz concert, the program was interspersed with folksong brackets by Barry Pitman, Roger Cardwell and a couple of others. Run by businessman John Gruen, Le Camille offered a mix of light folk and jazz for a couple of years. (“Because Adelaide was such a small scene, it made sense to combine venues”, maintains Peter Wesley-Smith who – as part of The Wesley Three – welcomed in the new year more than once with a midnight to dawn show at Le Camille).
The Catacombs was a bit more prestigious and quickly became the “in” place – “where the real folksingers hung out”. Initially a jazz cellar, it continued to offer trad jazz Sunday afternoons, organised by John Bradman, Bill Clarke and others, for several years. Its reputation as Adelaide’s premier folk venue was boosted early on when Paul Marks (then regarded as the very antithesis of slickness) appeared over several nights: Charles Higham described it in typical fashion in an expose of “folk people” in the Bulletin [14 Nov 1964]:
You walk in by a narrow door, and along a black and white tiled floor of an office building in one of the inner suburbs. On the other side of the door is an impressionistic sketch of a woman’s face, preparing the uninitiated for what is below. Down a flight of threaded carpet stairs with black painted walls reflecting no light, you pass a desk where the owner’s wife is pulling a coffee-machine. Three pictures on the walls indicate that well-known singers Bob Hardie, Dick Bond and Tina Lawton started there. There are black and red walls, deep red curtains and a red ceiling. Light seeps dimly out of scattered 15-watt globes. There’s a queue here at 8 p.m., people waiting to sit on spidery wicker seats or the floor.
Le Camille and The Catacombs were small inner-city venues, the latter consisting (as its name suggests) of several odd cellar rooms. (The building still exists and has since housed, among other things, a topless restaurant). Folkmusic also supplanted jazz, as early as mid-1963, at the up-market Delphic Restaurant. Other notable venues were the Purple Onion and the Nissen Hut. Resident act at the former – an upstairs lounge over a delicatessen at Unley – was Derek [Housego] & Don who performed Dylan, Guthrie, a bit of PP&M, and Terry & McGhee (rendered distinctive by Don Brow’s enthusiasm for the chromatic harmonica). Brow recalls that the management smiled on improvisation; other performers would frequently sit in with the duo and it was not unusual for half a dozen musicians to be on stage at one time. The Nissen Hut at Henley Beach* was exactly that, a temporary building, left over from the war, constructed of corrugated iron, canvas, tar-paper and cocoanut matting floor covering (a reader. Elsewhere, the Ambrosia, Genevieve’s, a cafe adjoining a squash court in Collie Terrace, and the Sunset coffee lounge in Blackwood offered folksinging entertainment more fleetingly. The Purple Cow, a “downstairs dump furnished with orange crates” existed briefly in Rundle Street. Doug Ashdown vividly recalls one occasion when the manager rid the club of an unwelcome group of bikies by charging up the stairs with a baseball bat. (He was subsequently – and discreetly – congratulated by local police). As well, folk acts were often billed as light relief at 60/40 dances or the floorshow at the John Bull Club and the 20-plus Club; or they were hired to perform at private parties and functions, even in department stores (Tina Lawton and The Wesley Three promoted their first LPs in the record bar at David Jones, for instance, and on one occasion Irene Petrie and Doug Ashdown recruited drummer Keith Conlon and keyboardist Phil Cunneen to perform live covers of material from the new Dylan album Blonde on Blonde!).
The largest and most influential of the coffee lounges was the Folk Hut in Rundle Street, run by singer-promoter John Stevens (aka John Fulton Stevens) in partnership with soft-drinks manufacturer George Hall. During its lifetime it was to Adelaide what Traynors was to Melbourne, the Troubadour to Sydney and the Folk Centre to Brisbane. Stevens was a former country singer/guitarist who had first become interested in folkmusic during a trip to Melbourne in 1962. On that occasion, he heard Glen Tomasetti play ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhodie’ in a coffee lounge (probably the Cafe Ad Lib), and was captivated by both the song and the performer. His enthusiasm was reinforced when he discovered (as had Tomasetti) that many traditional children’s songs and nursery rhymes had their origins in protest. In 1964 he opened
Genevieve’s, a club which folded within a few months because of lack of seating space. The Folk Hut, which could (and often did) squeeze in up to 300 patrons a night (compared to the Catacombs which could hold only 45-50), opened in April 1965, with visiting Hobart folksinger Patsy Biscoe (in town for a TV appearance) and Doug Ashdown heading the first line-up. The crowd queueing up on the first night was so large that it took Biscoe nearly a quarter of an hour to fight her way into the building. Her opening number, appropriately, was ‘Twelve Gates to the City’.
The Folk Hut opened six nights a week. Wednesdays were reserved for board games, such as chess and backgammon; Tuesdays were “talk nights”, providing the opportunity for patrons to hear (and respond to) the likes of the Bishop of Adelaide or the Police Commissioner. Thursdays were amateur night. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays featured the cream of local folk talent, and remained well-attended (particularly Sundays) throughout the venue’s lifetime. For a while, Stevens hosted a folkmusic radio program which aired at 7 p.m. on Sundays; he remembers that Folk Hut regulars would sit in their cars, reverently listening to the program and waiting for the club’s door to open at 7.30. The Folk Hut menu was somewhat innovative. Co-owner George Hall supplied bulk home-made ginger beer while a local baker provided a square yard of chocolate cake which Stevens would soak overnight in rum and serve topped with whipped cream and a dash of maple syrup. Cake and coffee (good quality New Guinea Royal) cost 2/6 and admission 5/-.
In addition to the coffee houses, Adelaide was able to provide national television exposure for its folk musicians per the very popular Country and Western Hour. First airing locally in July 1963, The C&W Hour rapidly became a national hit, telecast by some thirteen stations. Host Roger Cardwell (himself a regular at the Folk Hut) ensured from the outset, that the C&W content was augmented by plenty of traditional song, and a spot on the program became a much sought-after gig for folkies throughout the country. The policy of welcoming folk musicians continued under Cardwell’s successor, the Country veteran Reg Lindsay, although the balance shifted more towards Nashville (and Tamworth) as folk fervour/fever evaporated. Adelaide folkies also gained national exposure through the annual Showcase talent quest, among them the Wesleys, Irene Petrie, Ashdown and The John Gordon Trio. Elsewhere, the folk revival in Adelaide resulted in the formation, by Rob McCarthy, Stan Armstrong and others in 1967, of the Folklore & Folkmusic Society of South Australia, an organisation with scholarly and preservation principles similar to its counterparts in the east. Unsurprisingly, given Adelaide’s reputation as the city of churches, Folk masses and youth services featuring folksingers went through a period of substantial popularity.
- A reader has explained the Nissen Hut was actually at Grange, behind the Grange SLSC, and was the original clubhouse – adding “It only opened on a Sunday evening during winter and ran for two or three years, I know, as I ran it for the club”
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