Early Brisbane 3


Malcolm J. Turnbull


By the end of 1972, performance rosters at the Folk Centre and Barley Mow had been augmented by such newcomers as Don and June Nichols, Ros Korven, Mary Brettell, Tony Miles, Dave Alexander and singer-songwriter Eric Bogle.  Born at Peebles, Scotland in 1950, Bogle emigrated to Australia in 1969, and worked as an acountant in Canberra for a couple of years before relocating to Brisbane. He composed his best-known song ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ in 1971 after watching World War I veterans march in Brisbane on Anzac Day. The song (which would be recorded by a host of international artists including Joan Baez, Tommy Makem, Doug Ashdown, The Bushwackers and Priscilla Herdman) duly established Bogle as one of the giants of the post-1960s national folk scene.         

North of Brisbane, James Cook University in Townsville instituted its own folk club in 1965 and even co-ordinated a low-key festival over Easter 1966, offering locals and a couple of car-loads of visitors from Brisbane a weekend of folk and jazz concerts, informal singabouts and a singing trip to Magnetic Island. Headliners included Mick O’Rourke, Dan Gillespie and Bernie Besaparis. Intermittent financial headaches notwithstanding, the Townsville University Folk Club continued to meet fortnightly during the academic year (initially at the Synod Hall) well into the 1970s. Further north, the Cairns Folk & Jazz Centre met weekly at the Oddfellows Hall from May 1965 until 1968. Regulars there included Tiger O’Shane, a waterside worker, and veteran singer Jeff Way. The members were enthusiastic enough to produce a roneoed monthly magazine Northern Folk, under the editorship of respected folksong collector Ron Edwards. Northern Folk hinted at tensions within the national folk scene in one early issue, referring to Australian Tradition as the “only other regular folk mag” in Australia, and suggesting that, because it had mounted a competition for a national anthem, the Sydney Bush Music Club had much in common with the Country Women’s Association! There was also peripheral activity (for a time) at Rockhampton; a six-member all-female group, The Willows, enjoyed a degree of local success following its debut at a St Patrick’s night concert in 1966. Another ensemble, a New Christy Minstrels-style octet called The Embers, played regularly at the Blue Room around the same time. [Music Maker, Aug 1966; Australian Tradition, Nov 1965, June 1966, April 1967, Dec 1972; Northern Folk, Dec 1966]

A number of outstanding performers gravitated regularly between Brisbane and the Sydney circuit during the boom years, and made significant impacts on the Queensland scene. (Although there was always some movement back-and-forth between the  Melbourne and Sydney scenes, there seems to have been a much greater degree of overlap – and noticeably less competitiveness – between the two northern capitals. One can speculate that the situation was a result of the cliched, but nonetheless very real, traditional NSW-Victorian rivalry). Melbourne-born Don Henderson, probably the most important Australian songwriter of the revival’s early years, spent the mid ‘60s in Brisbane, making musical instruments, performing at the Folk Centre and elsewhere while writing and recording. He sang for striking miners at Mt Isa in 1965, as a member of the Union Singers, braved police intimidation to file eyewitness reports on the dispute, and was summarily “run out of town”. Proceeds from the raffle of one of his hand-made guitars financed the Union Singers’ LP, Ballad for Women, which included several of his songs. Two subsequent albums, One Out and Ton of Steel were released by Union Records in 1966 and 1971 respectively. After spending most of the 1970s in England, Henderson returned to Brisbane, where he was active in the reformation of the Queensland Folk Federation and as a performer and concert organiser. He contributed to an LP, Flames of Discontent, for the Seaman’s Union, and recorded a compilation In My Time, before his death in Brisbane in August 1991, aged 54. Henderson’s legacy of more than 100 songs, includes the perennial ‘Put a Light in Every Country Window’, ‘When I Grow Up’ (recorded by Patsy Biscoe), ‘It’s On’, ‘The Basic Wage Dream’, ‘Rake and Rambling Man’ (covered by Declan Affley), and ‘I Can Whisper’ (dealing with the Mt Isa dispute).[Don Henderson, A Quiet Century, ed. Sally Henderson & Edgar Waters, Nambour (Qld), 1994, p.viii; Australian, 10 April 1965]

Henderson’s more overtly political material formed the backbone of the Union Singers’ repertoire. Established in 1962 by Geoff and Nancy Wills, the group was a loose collective of Brisbane musicians encompassing (at various times) Mavis Benjamin, Lee Buzacott, Vi Wright, Bill Berry, Henderson, Larry King, Jim Peterson, Merv Bostock and Harry Robertson. Two line-ups of the Union Singers won the annual competition of the Federation of Bush Music groups, in 1963 and 1965, and members of the ensemble (whoever was available at the time) provided vocal and instrumental support on Henderson’s recordings. According to spokesman Bill Berry, “You find them all over the place, at union socials, barbecues, etc., taking an active part in anti-war and anti-colour bar activities, singing Australian folk songs, peace songs and protest, old and new … Thus the Union Singers have impressed themselves on the consciousness of Brisbane”.      

Margaret Kitamura spent time in both NSW and Queensland but is remembered best today for her Brisbane performances, and for having represented that city on the national Four Capitals Folk Song tour. (She appears on the Score memento of the tour, Australian Folk Festival, as well as a self-titled LP, recorded in Brisbane with the Union Singers). Jan de Zwaan, who first became prominent at the Folk Attick in Sydney and made a number of singing visits to Brisbane, was (according to Stan Arthur) “a magnificent overall entertainer”, adept at blues, traditional songs and calypso, and a “marvellous raconteur”. Blues singer Graham Lowndes left his native Sydney at age 18 and arrived at the Folk Centre with $14 in his pocket in 1965. An unaccompanied rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Black Betty’ and ‘Good Morning Blues’ promptly won him the offer of a spot supporting Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry at the Brisbane Town Hall the following week. (Lowndes subsequently returned south and became a well-known participant in the Sydney scene as a singer-songwriter. Several of his songs were recorded by Jeannie Lewis).

Another blues singer, Terry Hannagan, whose varied musical undertakings encompassed writing TV jingles, providing the incidental music for a surfing film Morning of the Earth, m.c-ing and playing at the Folk Centre, PACT and elsewhere, and teaching at youth clubs and Arts centres, initially spent a couple of years hitch-hiking throughout northern NSW and Queensland with fellow-performer Peter Woodward, eking out an existence labouring and performing. “In those days my enthusiasm outweighed my technique by about 9 to 1, and I never thought about making a living out of music”, he later confessed. (Rembered as a “loveable rogue”, Hannagan released a well-received album on EMI, Tired from the Trip, in 1971). Dave de Hugard began his performing career in Brisbane, specialising in Australian traditional material. He spent several years as an itinerant folksinger in the eastern states, while studying Social anthropology at Monash and Macquarie Universities, and later conducted extensive fieldwork in outback NSW (with particular emphasis on tune-collecting). De Hugard’s first recording was Freedom on the Wallaby for MFP in 1971.

Glasgow-born Harry Robertson (1923 – 1995), a seaman and former wartime officer with the British Navy, who saw service with over thirty ships “from Halifax to Buenos Aires”, and worked in the whaling industry in the Antarctic and off Norfolk Island, was based in Brisbane from the late 1940s until 1970 (when he relocated to Sydney). A dedicated Marxist and sometime member of the Union Singers, he was an extraordinarily well-read individual, who could sing fluently in Swedish and Norwegian. He is best remembered as a songwriter dedicated to continuing the tradition; many of his finely-crafted compositions documented his (sometimes harrowing) maritime and whaling experiences. Robertson’s  forthright manner masked a romantic and poetic soul, nurtured on Robert Burns. “Harry was a hard man … and a soft man”, remembers Dave de Hugard. In 1971 he recorded an album of his own material, Songs of a Whale Chasing Man, for MFP. Produced by Sven Libaek, the LP teamed Robertson with Alex Hood and Marian Henderson (whose stunning rendering of ‘Norfolk Whalers’ was the undoubted highlight of the set). Robertson’s songs have been performed elsewhere by Declan Affley, Danny Spooner, Phyl Lobl and Denis Tracey.

The Moreton Bay Folk Festival, i.e. the Third National Folk Festival, was held in Brisbane, mainly in and around the University of Queensland, over Easter 1969. It (arguably) represented the peak of folkmusic activity in Queensland during the period under review, bringing together members of the BFC, the University Folk Club, North Queensland performers and enthusiasts, and local freelancers. Harry Robertson chaired the Festival committee, Don Henderson hosted the focal Saturday evening concert at the Brisbane Town Hall, and students Andy Kruger, Phil Cook, Lyn Mathieson and Chris Nicholson provided publicity and general organisational services. Festival programmer Evan Mathieson was adamant that the festival aim for “hands-on open interaction and exchange of material and techniques, rather than theoretical pontifications of ‘experts’ from their ‘ivory towers’”. Workshop leaders included John Manifold (demonstrating and describing bush instruments), Brad Tate (leading a workshop on bawdy songs), Declan Affley (on ballads), Bill Scott and Dave de Hugard on bush yarns and Australian traditional music respectively, Glen Foster (on bluegrass) and Danny Spooner (on sea shanties). Noting the large number of interstate participants – mainly from other university campuses (100 from Sydney, 60 from Melbourne, 25 from Newcastle, 6 New Zealanders, and various sized groups from Wollongong, Armadale, Canberra and Hobart), Australian Tradition [Aug 1969] echoed a general sentiment in declaring Moreton Bay the most successful national event to date – both musically and financially: “Brisbane 1969 will be remembered as the festival which achieved a truly national status”. Evan Mathieson recalls that “the concluding session in the Royal Exchange beer garden took good care of the fiscal surplus whilst the roof was raised by the surges of instruments and voices in song”. [Folk Rag, Aug 1997]