Early Brisbane 2



Malcolm J. Turnbull


 Born and raised in rural Victoria, and musically educated within the Traynors/Green Man milieu, Evan Mathieson arrived north (“guitar in mini moke”) at mid-decade, swapped songs during collecting trips with “grey beards”, and performed a mix of blues, jazz, traditional and contemporary material in and around Brisbane (accompanying himself on guitar, blues harp and autoharp). In 1966, Mathieson formed the Ramitta P. Memorial Jug Band, with Phil Cook and ‘Barney Barnfield’, an exotic ensemble which featured ceramic jug, washboard, mandolin and a “megaphoned kazoo” (the last played by anyone who had a hand/mouth free on stage”). The Band is best remembered for its liberal use of the phrase “Don’t clap, throw money”, as its members successfully raised the money for the hire of a bus to take Brisbane folkies down to the First and Second National (i.e. Port Phillip) Folk Festivals. [Folk Rag, Aug 1997]

Anne Infante, who “happened upon” the Folk Centre one evening (circa 1964) with her sister and shyly asked Stan Arthur if she could sing, ended up appearing there two or three nights a week for several years. Brought up within an intensely English colonial household in New Guinea, Infante first came into contact with folkmusic via the radio show The Argonauts; she learned guitar after hearing Peter Paul & Mary, and developed a repertoire of traditional Scots and English songs, blues, Joni Mitchell material, and Australian ballads. Hearing and meeting Gordon Lightfoot inspired her to try her hand at writing songs.

Just as they did in the southern states, visiting celebrities would drop in at the Folk Centre to check out the local scene, to meet and talk with like-minded people, or to re-establish contact with old acquaintances. Lightfoot was one. Others included The New Lost City Ramblers, The Irish Rovers, Odetta, Stephan Grapelli, and dance troupes from Mexico and Japan. The Clancy Brothers called in and, after the Folk Centre closed for the evening, invited everyone back to Dooley’s hotel, where they passed the guitar around until dawn.

60s regular Katie Bestevaar  remembers “… once a year or so … Late in the evening all these well-dressed types would appear, and then we’d remember that Peter Paul & Mary were in town. They’d sing for maybe an hour – and this on top of their night’s work!” [Folk Rag, Feb 1999]. According to Noel Paul Stookey, there was no place like the Centre “in the whole of the United States”. At other times the Folk Centre played host to a boatload of Chilean sailors on shore leave and the captain and crew of the American destroyer Collette (who responded by declaring it an “honorary member of the U.S. Seventh Fleet”). The club walls were liberally decorated with mementos of these visits (including a Chilean flag), as well as such oddities as a peanut-shaped papier-mache caricature of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, then Premier of Queensland, the house flag of a shipping line, a bullock yoke and a barred window from the original water-police lock-up.     

From the outset the Folk Centre aimed to be a cut above run-of-the-mill commercial coffee lounges and other “folk dens”, declaring that it had been set up “in the first place to offer folk entertainment”. True to its agenda of encouraging interest in folksong and welcoming newcomers, a spare guitar was kept handy for use by visitors, and chorus sheets were provided at regular singabout nights. Patrons and performers were encouraged to turn up appropriately costumed for a number of theme evenings which emphasised the history behind particular song-styles. The highlight of an Irish night, for instance, was the arrival of a truck bearing I.R.A. motifs and driven by a top-hatted ‘Mr Parnell’. A pirate theme evening culminated in participants descending, in full costume, on the Napoli, Brisbane’s first Pizzeria, and jamming there until dawn while the restaurant’s owner offered up a selection of Italian songs on his accordion.

The Folk Centre was the focal point of folkmusic activity in Brisbane throughout the 1960s. “It was one of the earliest folk coffee shops in Australia, and it lasted much much longer than any other”, claims Bill Scott. 18 months after its opening, audience numbers prompted a move into the building’s larger basement area, and “the place stayed open as a co-operative, non-profit-making organisation for something like eleven [sic] years”. (In fact, the BFC stayed in operation until March 1977, when it closed to make way for a carpark).

We never made a profit … we paid all the artists who appeared [and] we kept the food and the coffee as cheap as possible … Our main clientele were student nurses, university students, kids from the teachers college … They knew they could fill themselves up with two doorstep slices of toast and a tin of baked beans, and a cup of coffee, for 4/- at the Folk Centre, and be entertained at the same time … It was always busy, always, because the kids had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go … It was largely successful, I might add, because of the total dedication of Stan Arthur and his wife Kathy, who ran the place. They did it as a voluntary effort for that great length of time … Stan and Kathy were there Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights every week.

From the outset, the BFC maintained a deliberate non-intervention policy:

The Folk Centre was simply a venue where people could go to sing folksongs, to listen to folkmusic … we never attempted any sort of censorship because we let the audience do that … If somebody was boring, they just talked through and ignored them, whereas if somebody got up who was really good, the place would hush completely. [Scott, NLA Interview]

The “no censorship” credo extended to politics – quite courageously so when viewed in context of the Bjelke-Petersen era. Representatives of a neo-Nazi youth group would call in occasionally and were allowed to stay provided they did not attempt to distribute propaganda. Early in its existence, the Folk Centre became the target of the right-wing National Civic Council. Claims were made in the Sunday papers that the organisers knowingly “let communists sing there” and that the Centre was “a hive of communist activity”. The Folk Centre’s spokesmen were adamant that it was not their role to attack free speech, no matter what their personal viewpoints, and Stan Arthur took his arguments direct to B.A. Santamaria who half-heartedly conceded that the allegations might be inaccurate, but never published a formal retraction. The NCC’s credibility was compromised substantially not long after when it provided the backing for an alternative folk venue which (to attract audiences) was forced to employ some of the so-called communist artists, including Margaret Kitamura who unashamedly seized the opportunity to lampoon the NCC in song.

During the period 1964/5, folk entertainment was also being offered at a number of coffee lounges in and around the city centre. The Primitif, which (as noted above) was the first such venue to be established, reportedly offered “good food” (although its modest open-toasted cheese and pineapple sandwich is the most fondly-remembered menu item) and Margaret Kitamura’s renditions of Child ballads two evenings a week. “The Primitif was where those of us who wanted to change the world would kick on after the Folk Centre”, recalls Anne Infante.  Alfreda’s ‘Globetrotter’ was a more intimate cafe, “a very quiet little place up on the Terrace” which offered audiences Kitamura on Saturday nights, and the up-and-coming Wildwood Trio on Friday nights. The Cave (in Elizabeth Street) was an exotic little hideaway, made up to resemble a grotto. Unfortunately, it was inadequately ventilated; rocks made out of papier-mache constituted a fire hazard, and the place was summarily closed down by the health authorities. Top Cat’s (also in Elizabeth Street) was a coffee lounge which hosted folk nights fortnightly for a few months, and offered audiences Kitamura, The Wayfarers, and visitors like Paul Marks. Sydney entrepreneur Michael Darby established one of his chain of Folk Atticks south of Brisbane, at Surfer’s Paradise, while another Gold Coast venue, Captain Kettle’s Kitchen, also offered folksinging for a short time. One Brisbane coffee lounge “with a difference” was the Coolibah Tree, which was established and financed by the National Civic Council! For a few months, it published its own newsletter FOLKAL, a mildly unfortunate title as it turned out. Visiting singers Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy once dropped in at the Coolibah Tree and expressed (outspoken and gleeful) amazement at finding a magazine called ‘F… All’ on the premises. (The management was decidedly unimpressed with their humour). Performers who had resented earlier NCC attacks on the Folk Centre were understandably jubilant when one of the Coolibah Tree’s employees “shot through” with the club’s finances.  

None of these coffee lounges lasted beyond the “boom” and, by the end of 1965, the Folk Centre was the only regular venue in Brisbane. Later in the decade, its programs were augmented by occasional folk-meets at the YMCA, Sunday afternoon concerts at the National Trust property Eulalia (in 1968) or at Newstead Park, and Wednesday evening Irish Singalongs  at the Sportsman Hotel in Leichhardt Street. FOCO, an intermittent series of drama-folksong-seminar-disco(!) evenings, organised by singer Bob Daly at the Brisbane Trades Hall in 1968, boasted crowds of up to 600 at the outset, but soon ran into financial difficulty. (Stan Arthur recalled being paid by cheque there, and the cheque bouncing).

 A campus folk club was also inaugurated by interested University of Queensland students while, for 4 years from late 1972, singer Anne Infante ran a pub folk club, the Barley Mow, at the Cecil Hotel – on Thursday nights so as not to compete with the Folk Centre. One of the highlights of Infante’s years with the Barley Mow was a field trip she organised to track the route taken in the song ‘Brisbane Ladies’. Starting at the Toowong cattle market, the participants rediscovered Bob Williamson’s paddock, Tamoreo homestead, the Stone House, etc. The Barley Mow subsequently operated, for some years, out of St Paul’s Church hall in East Brisbane and the Australian Pensioners’ League Hall at Red Hill.


June Nichols notes: “Also to come out of that trip, because ABC producer Hilton Tipson was involved, were the seeds of the ABC TV series Around Folk …. Just a little filling in here so as to keep the records straight. The powers that be decided that the Hotel Cecil would make way for progress, the ‘Mow’ lost its venue, and made a move to the Redbrick Hotel, Annerley Road. Under the nurturing hand of Alan and Robin Craig, the ‘Mow’ changed nights to Fridays as by then the Folk Centre had closed. By late 1977 the Barley Mow was using two rooms at the Caledonian Club premises, Shafston Avenue, East Brisbane. The regular Friday night Folk Club and a monthly Ceilidh on the first Sunday of each month ran at this venue for some time. Bush dances became very popular and the Queensland Folk Federation ran a monthly Saturday afternoon Fling Thing at the Foresters’ Lodge Hall in Paddington”.

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