Early Melbourne 1 next3
THE EARLY YEARS OF THE FOLK REVIVAL IN MELBOURNE
Malcolm J. Turnbull
[This article was previously published in 6 parts in Trad & Now, Issues #5, 6, 7, 9,10 & 11 in 2003-2005]
PART 1. BEGINNINGS (cont.)
Three extremely important innovations occurred in Melbourne in 1963: a pioneering Folk Festival, a second series of concerts at Emerald Hill, and the establishment of Frank Traynor’s Folk and Jazz Club in the city centre. Billed as Australia’s first such event , and organised by the Victorian Folklore Society and the Bush Music (later Victorian Folk Music) Club, the festival lasted a week, from May 11-18. With an emphasis more on scholarship and preservation than on popular performance, the festival’s activities encompassed a one-day seminar on Australian folkmusic (run by the Adult Education Association at the Australian-American Centre in Exhibition Street), a concert of Australian and other national folksongs, lunch-time lectures, folk-dance demonstrations, and a singabout compered by Wal Cherry in the Lower Melbourne Town Hall. Participants and speakers included folklorists Edgar Waters, Alan Marshall, Hugh Anderson and Barry Smith, folkdance expert Shirley Andrews, and folksong collectors Mary-Jean Officer, Stan Arthur (from Queensland), the Lumsdens, and Norm & Pat O’Connor [Australian Tradition, Dec 1971; Wendy Lowenstein, ‘The Folk Song Revival, Adult Education, Dec 1965, p.11]. Prominent among the performers was a recently-discovered group of old time musicians, led by Con and Beat Klippel. Pat O’Connor, the Folklore Society’s treasurer, informed the Melbourne Herald [30 April 1963]:
Recently, about twenty of us from the two clubs decided to go on a collecting trip in the hills near Corryong … We loaded up half a dozen cars with camping and record equipment, five children and musical instruments, and off we went. We camped at Nariel Creek and discovered that an old time country dance was being held in the town that night. The music was played by several men who’d learned it from their fathers and grandfathers … Shirley Andrews [then President of the Bush Music Club] … whose hobby is old time dances, collected two local dances – the Berlin polka and Princess polka – that she hadn’t come across before. They’ll be demonstrated during the festival … We invited the Nariel Creek people to visit us for a picnic at our riverbank camp the next day. About fifty turned up so we spent the afternoon teaching them songs we’d found on collecting trips.
(From 1963 to the present, the VFMC has continued to sponsor annual gatherings, initially over the Labour Day weekend, more recently at New Year, in the Nariel-Corryong district. These festivals-cum-hootenannies, originally centred around the old-time music of the Klippel family, combine informal concerts, singabouts and traditional dance sessions, and now tend to attract audiences of 2000 and upwards).
During the same period, the Bush Music Club mounted the first of several annual concerts as part of the city’s annual Moomba celebrations and it collaborated with Bob Clemens’ Downbeat in a major jazz, folk and blues concert catering to less scholarly-inclined folk enthusiasts. The latter concert found Marks, Tomasetti, Wyndham-Read, Lumsden and The Seekers sharing the stage with the Red Onions, Judy Durham, Judy Jacques and the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band.
By the beginning of 1963 Glen Tomasetti was singing twice weekly at the Ad Lib, teaching folksinging privately and also making frequent appearances at The Reata and informal get-togethers at the Lazars’ beautifully-appointed Armadale apartment. She was zealous in her attempts to “spread the word”, broadcasting regularly for schools, appearing on television shows such as In Melbourne Tonight and organising singabouts. The success of Lazar & Cherry’s Emerald Hill concerts inspired Tomasetti to organise and stage a second Sunday afternoon series, from March 10 throughout the winter of 1963. In this pre-Women’s Lib era, posters for the concerts featured a distinctive multicultural logo made up of a swagman (emphasising the Australian context) sitting on a guitar-case, playing a lute (the international connection). Regulars at Emerald Hill included several prominent classical guitarists (among them Sadie Bishop and Carl Ogden), operatic tenor Joe Sibella, David Lumsden and the Lumsden Family, Lenore Somerset (well-known through her folksinging appearances on TV), poet Adrian Rawlins, Garry Kinnane, Peter Laycock, and blues-man Graham Squance, while space was allocated to enable other artists, particularly newcomers, to try out their stagecraft. Teenager Don Hirst, who would soon found legendary Rhythm’n’Blues band The Spinning Wheels, played several brackets under the alias Glyndon Rhode. One newcomer, a flamenco artist just off the ship and with little or no English, wowed the audience with his bravura guitar technique but proved exasperatingly reluctant to give up the stage to the next artist. Virtuoso Carl Ogden debuted his own guitar sonata to a warm response one Sunday and, on another inspirational occasion, a workshop by Pete Seeger drew a packed house.
A local performer who made her professional singing debut at Emerald Hill, and went on to greater things, was Margret Roadknight (b. 1943). Roadknight was a playground leader and ex-clerical assistant who adored Paul Robeson and Odetta. Her first-ever (unscheduled) singing appearance had been at the Little Reata the previous summer when, in response to Paul Marks’ suggestion that someone from the audience might like to sing, she volunteered ‘Motherless Child’ to Marks’ guitar backing. Impressed, Glen Tomasetti promptly recruited her for Emerald Hill. David Lumsden recalls the young singer, stricken with stagefright, having to be pushed on stage. With obligato per the bass-player from the Gerry Humphries Trio, Roadknight captivated the Emerald Hill audience, on Mother’s Day 1963, with ‘Motherless Child’, ‘Delia’, ‘Shout for Joy’ and ‘My Lord, What a Morning’. By the time she reappeared a couple of months later, she had mastered the guitar sufficiently to provide her own backing on one song; soon after, she accepted Tom Lazar’s offer of a regular Thursday night at the Reata, replacing singer Bruce Woodley. (Roadknight now credits Tomasetti – and the Emerald Hill Sundays – with giving her a start in the music business).
Remembered today with considerable affection by former participants and spectators, the Emerald Hill series was organised on a co-operative basis, all featured artists receiving equal percentages of the door takings (sometimes as much seven or eight pounds each); young hopefuls, trying out for the first time, were typically paid three or four pounds. (Margret Roadknight remembers getting four pounds for her four song debut. An idealistic Don Hirst once refused to take his percentage, insisting loftily that, as a “non-commercial artist”, he disdained money. Tomasetti bluntly – but gently – advised him to be realistic). Any money left over went into a special account. True to the spirit of the enterprise, Tomasetti took home the standard percentage, her multiple responsibilities notwithstanding. Because of legal restrictions on Sunday theatrical performances, all performers were obliged to join the “Folksingers and Minstrels Club”. One Sunday afternoon regular, Bill Spence, recalls:
Emerald Hill was a very pretty theatre. A lovely old school building with timber beams overhead. It was large compared with the coffee lounges – not tight and pokey. Wal Cherry was interested in theatre-in-the-round. The seating was sloped and there was theatrical lighting. There was a sense of real performance and seriousness about it. It was not just a place to hang out like a coffee lounge … There was a new ambitiousness about what they did there. Tomasetti and Wyndham-Read played a proselytising role. They were inclined to scholarship … The afternoon seemed to extend in a logical sort of way. Wyndham-Read talked about songs in historic terms.
The auditorium was generally packed for the concerts, a fact not lost on the theatre’s management which, at the time, was attempting (rather courageously) to stage avant-garde plays, like Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, to minimal attendances. Rather than negotiate when the board demanded an increased rental, Tomasetti ended the program at the end of the season, and the Sunday afternoons were transferred to the newly-opened jazz and folk venue Traynors. (I will examine Traynors in detail in Part 2 of this article).
Tomasetti was the undisputed queen of the local scene. “At her best, she had everything going for her”, recalls Garry Kinnane. “Glen was a beautiful woman, with a wonderful voice and a real capacity to get into her songs and sing them very movingly. She was an integrated artist”. Dubbed “the high priestess of the Melbourne folksinging cult” by a contemporary journalist [Sun, 1 Aug 1964], she was widely regarded as the embodiment of idealistic dedication to music for its own sake – an approach which emphasised the song over the singer (rather than as a vehicle through which the folk artiste might express his/her individuality). “In our time as in other times, folkmusic is more approachable than awful and that the songs have meaning for both singer and listener is more important than that the listener is impressed by the performance”, Tomasetti advised readers of Australian Tradition [June 1966]. Accordingly, her recordings were distinguished by simplicity and straightforwardness in interpretation and arrangement, and by her commitment to propagating the material. Tomasetti’s first recording was a set of traditional nursery rhymes, with Chris Christensen, Folksongs with Guitar (W&G 1963), Will Ye Go Lassie Go (with Wyndham-Read and Brian Mooney, W&G 1965), and a number of EPs. All the records boasted scrupulous source notes, even page references to standard published songsters. She also collaborated with Tim Burstall and composer George Dreyfus on the soundtracks of a series of short films about colonial Australia. Later in the decade, Tomasetti would direct fringe concerts for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, stage her own one-woman tribute to Bertolt Brecht, help found what became the National Folk Festival, and become active in the anti-Vietnam and Women’s movements.
Emerald Hill regulars would frequently “kick on”, after the afternoon show, at the Jolly Roger. Frequent performers there included Julie Copeland (later well-known as a presenter for Radio National), David Lumsden, Lynne St John and Martyn Wyndham-Read. Brian Mooney was the Jolly Roger’s (unofficial) resident folksinger for a while. Born at Peak’s Hill, near Dubbo, in 1930, Mooney grew up in Sydney. In the early ‘50s, while taking drawing and painting classes at the Julian Ashton Art School and “hanging out” with the student crowd at the Lincoln coffee lounge, he became friendly with Beth and Reg Schurr. The Schurrs taught him his first guitar chords and helped him build up a base repertoire. Mooney spent most of the decade in a succession of manual jobs (as farmhand, builder’s labourer, cane-cutter, even sideshow barker) all over NSW and Queensland. In due course he made the acquaintance of other aspiring musicians like Wyndham-Read, Don Henderson and Don Ayrton at the Royal George Hotel (Ayrton dubbed Mooney “massa” because of his boxing ability) and he became one of the inaugural coffee lounge folksingers in Sydney. He appeared with considerable success at the Arab Cafe, Lorne, in the summer of 1961/62 (“Audiences loved him”, recalls Don Carless), and subsequently settled permanently in Melbourne.
Glen Tomasetti was decidedly sceptical when informed by Wyndham-Read that Mooney would shortly be coming to Melbourne from Sydney, and that he was a singer who would appeal to her. (She has admitted that she was probably slightly infected by the traditional cultural rivalry between inhabitants of the two cities). To her delight, Mooney proved to be the antithesis of the “slick Sydney singer” she had expected. His repertoire and singing-style were infused with his passion for all things Irish, a passion which had been nurtured by his Irish-born parents. “As a child, I used to lie on the floor listening to my mother sing Irish songs like ‘She Moved through the Fair’ at the piano”, he notes. Working in the outback, he subsequently acquired songs and lore from expatriate Irishmen at “grand old singalong sessions” at pubs in places like Cooktown.
It was clear to his intimates that Mooney had seen desperate days, and that his determined identification with the old country was a way of coping with the world. “Brian’s Irish persona was a self-construction, but a kind of lifeline to him”, assesses Garry Kinnane; “Brian believed he was Irish”, remembers Don Carless, “He didn’t set out to be Irish”. Critics were not slow to castigate the singer for adopting a strong brogue; other listeners declared that the same brogue imparted “almost incredible beauty to some of [Mooney’s] more tender songs …”. “[He] sings with a depth of feeling which more than compensates for his deficiencies in technique”, declared folklorist Edgar Waters in a contemporary review [Australian, 20 Feb 1965; Sun, 28 July 1964; Herald, 2 March 1963]. Carl Ogden once acknowledged the limitations of Mooney’s instrumental work, but judged him “the only guitarist who can make it sound like an Irish harp”. Nor could the singer be accused of not having done his homework. Challenged by a sceptical academic to explain ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’ one evening, Mooney launched into a discourse on Yeatsian metaphors which left the critic deflated (and captivated).