Early Tasmania part2


TIME FOR KINGS AND HEROES: THE FOLK REVIVAL IN TASMANIA 1964-1972

 

Malcolm J. Turnbull

 

PART 3

 

A formal folk scene did not emerge in Tasmania until late 1964 when Ken Wade, a 24 year-old classical guitarist and teacher-recruit from Canada, appeared on an ABC Current Affairs program. After performing ‘Cry of the Wild Goose’, Wade informed the show’s compere that he was looking for somewhere to start a mainland-style folk club. According to Brien Connor, university student Terry Eastman was also pivotal in actually getting the club underway; in fact, Eastman’s father (who was warden of Bruny Island) provided initial financing for the venture.

    Together with Adolf Sawoff (a languages teacher, then based in Burnie) Wade and Eastman rented a former butcher’s shop in historic Battery Point and spent three weeks knocking out walls, stripping back the interior, and installing backless church pews as seating. “When they pulled all the boards off to start renovating it, the sandstone bricks underneath were the old, original convict-type bricks … and there was actually a bullet in the bricks. We don’t know what the story behind that was”, recalls Beth Sowter. Vivid contemporary paintings by Wade, et al were used to decorate the walls. The Wild Goose, at 49 Hampden Road, opened, two nights a week (Friday and Sunday), in November 1964. Patsy Biscoe, naturally, was one of the earliest regulars there.

    Michelle Laffer notes that the Wild Goose functioned as much as an artists’ meeting-place as a music venue, “a hangover of the Beat generation”. In a lengthy profile at the time, the Hobart Mercury described it as:


… an artists’ club … modelled not on the rebellious “we want to be different”, but on a desire to stimulate and foster freedom of artistic expression. Unexclusive, the whole spirit of the place is to get people doing things.

“The windows need cleaning, the posters are fading, and the sandstone walls appear to have inherited some of the recent rainfall … yet this is our only public centre of creative art”, declared the student newspaper Togatus. “The Wild Goose [is] a night club that is different”, elaborated journalist David Peace:


Spotlighted on a tiny stage, with one foot resting on a slab of stone, a classical guitarist plays a haunting melody … a folksinger presents a poignant song … a young poet dramatises his latest work … a girl dances. The audience watch from matt-black benches in the shadows … If you have a poem, musical composition, painting, sculpture, play, any artistic creation you wish to “try out” on a useful audience, the Goose extends an invitation … when things are lean, folk singers Sawoff and Wade carry the show.

    Tony Ryan recited John Shaw Neilson. Bunny Lambert, Neil Chick and Tim Thorne read their own verse, sometimes to Sawoff’s guitar improvisations. (Wade and Sawoff both supplemented their teaching salary by giving guitar lessons). On one occasion, the club hosted a low-key production of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. Brian Mooney, who played there on a visit from Melbourne, fondly remembers the earnestness and enthusiasm of the patrons. A solid core of non-performers turned up every night, arriving early and staying “for the duration”. General participation, intimacy and informality were watchwords. Commercialism was sneered at. Performers were unpaid.  


They had very hard church-pew seats for the people, the audience [recalls Beth Sowter]. And they used to sit there, all night, without a sound, and suffer on those seats for Folk. … Listening to this amazingly bad (sometimes) folkmusic. But it was the height of the folk revival. So it was really popular …  If you were quick and got in early, you could get up close to the pot-bellied stove, up on the stage area [the only heating in the building] … They couldn’t afford firewood. We’d get a big tree [or a guidepost], shove it into the pot-bellied stove and we’d all sit on it and every now and then you’d hear “Everybody Up”, so you’d get up, push it in a bit more, and the other bloke on the end would have to find a seat in the [room] …The Turkish coffee was brilliant. The “in crowd” knew to let it settle and avoid the dregs … and we used to to get demijohns, huge great big demijohns of red wine. Killed my palate for years …

“It was the folkiest venue of the lot, even if the people sometimes seemed a bit weird”, maintains Mark Pickering. “Travelling years later in South America, listening to local folkmusic, I became aware just how innovative the Wild Goose had been”. Beth Sowter believes the venue compared favourably with its counterparts on the mainland:


The Goose was one of the best folk clubs I’ve ever been to. I used to go to Traynors and the Troubadour. They were good but they were professional. The Wild Goose was one of those clubs where anybody could get up and play and they were encouraged … It was a really encouraging environment for folksingers … Otherwise I would have finished after my first night ever … The standard was woeful to brilliant … It was a wonderful place … candles, dark lights, all the things you think about – the “old folk club”.

    Sowter started singing at the club in the first weeks of her Arts degree. A fellow student, Alan Chong, invited her to work up a handful of Kingston Trio and PP&M standards, to his guitar accompaniment, and the duo performed weekly three song brackets at the Wild Goose until exam pressures forced Chong to bow out. Insisting that Sowter was perfectly capable of continuing as a soloist, he hastily taught her a few simple chords and loaned her his guitar and she made her solo debut with ‘Banks of the Ohio’. She remembers forgetting the chord progression mid-song and being prompted (“C7”) by someone in the audience.

    Sowter was a quick study and within a short time she had become Patsy Biscoe’s chief competitor as Hobart’s “Queen of the folkies”. As a national (i.e. commercial) success with a growing public profile beyond the student folk scene, Biscoe was viewed a little sceptically by the more “high-minded” among her peers; Sowter, by contrast, was accepted as “one of the boys” due to her enthusiasm and instrumental competence. She recalls (with some amusement) that blues guitarist Bill Hicks shrewdly overcame her feelings of inadequacy over learning syncopated finger-picking by confiding “Patsy can do it”.

    As it was, by mid-1965 career demands ensured that Biscoe was spending an increasing amount of time interstate. “It was quite a thrill to go home to Hobart and appear at the Wild Goose, etc., and see old friends, but those trips were infrequent as most of the time I was travelling around the mainland”, she recalls. (Biscoe moved permanently to Adelaide early in 1966).

    The music performed at the Wild Goose was primarily contemporary or traditional American or Anglo-American. There was also some early interest in Irish song. Significantly, there was little interest in playing or hearing Australian traditional songs. Sowter, for one:


… positively hated Australian folksongs … I didn’t like the Australian accent … It was a real anti-jingoism thing … I wanted to be a beatnik in New York. I’m not a hippy. I’ve always associated myself with Greenwich Village.

For Sowter, Dylan, Judy Collins, Richard Farina, Tom Rush, etc., represented the music of the day. She became so immersed in the songs and personae of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Patrick Sky that, after graduation, she would work for a time on an Indian reservation in Canada. It seems safe to conclude that, at that stage in Tasmania’s history, international issues and cultural developments – particularly those transmitted through the American lens – seemed every bit as relevant to the average young Tasmanian, brought up in a fertile and determinedly European island physically separated from mainland Australia, as did recountings of life and hardship in a largely unsighted outback.

   Also prominent among the first wave of performers in Hobart was 16 year-old Maeve Chick who played zither but, more often, specialised in unaccompanied Irish songs. A versatile young woman who combined singing with writing, acting, classical ballet and the study of world religions, Chick reportedly delighted in shocking people and “twisting the holy cow’s tail”.  “At the Wild Goose … where artists are under no pressure, she sings songs free from the association of clanging cash registers, reads her poetry or someone else’s with the poise and assurance of a veteran actress, and occasionally dances”, noted the Mercury.

   Chick’s peers included Beth Wilson, Chris McShane, John Harwood (fresh-faced son of poet Gwen Harwood) banjo-player Alan Shatten, and twelve-string guitarist Howard Eynon. Jo Beaumont was an accomplished blues artist. Suzette Salter was a husky-voiced alto from the east-coast town of St Helens; she learned autoharp, guitar and a substantial number of songs from Beth Sowter while studying French in Hobart. (Salter also wrote some of her own material). Frank Amandola played virtuoso harmonica. Nashville country buff Malcolm Brooks swapped his electric guitar for an acoustic instrument after his first visit to the club, worked up six or seven songs, and sang several sets with trainee art teacher David Voigt before going solo. Frank Povah was a multi-instrumentalist who spent 2-3 years in Tasmania in the course of  two decades spent travelling and working all over Australia and New Zealand. Originally from Western Australia, Povah began playing ukelele as a child and progressed to guitar and autoharp, indulging dual passions for classic blues and hillbilly music. His first contact with the Tasmanian scene was a chance meeting with young Hobart blues-player Chris Cruise when both were in Sydney, and the pair became a regular duo at the Wild Goose. (Povah recalls that he and Cruise once provided musical support for the legendary Josh White in Sydney. Accustomed as he was to racial discrimination in the USA, White was greatly amused when the scruffily-dressed Cruise & Povah were told to enter White’s hotel by the back door).

    Bill Hicks, a country blues specialist from America, would take over running the club when Sawoff and Wade left Tasmania. He recalls that he happened on the Wild Goose almost by accident.


I wanted to come to Australia from childhood. After I graduated from university I sold my car and got a trip on a boat. I hit Sydney [in March 1965] and, just off the boat, I met up with a friend from California and we hitchhiked up to Cairns … I stayed in Sydney for a while, then went down to Melbourne … I decided Melbourne was not up to much and decided to come to Tassie. I ended up in Deloraine and took a room in a pub for a couple of nights … then I boarded in Ulverstone for a couple of weeks with the mother of a fellow I met who liked the guitar. I hitchhiked to Hobart. Got a ride from a girl in a mini-minor. She knew about the Wild Goose and dropped me off in front of it one Sunday night. I played for Adolf Sawoff [and stayed].

    According to Laffer, the Wild Goose functioned informally along “artist in residence” lines, with outsiders like Sawoff, Wade, Hicks or Povah coming to Hobart, running the club and living on the premises, while they made their mark on up-and-coming players. (Living conditions were Spartan – to say the least. “People lived upstairs that ran the Goose”, notes Beth Sowter. “There was no bath, there was half a tub-barrel that they used to put water in, and so my house became: Knock Knock, ‘O Hello. You’ve got your towel? The shower’s up there’”). To culturally-sheltered, wide-eyed young Tasmanians, such colourful, larger-than-life individuals were the embodiment of the roving minstrel. Being “immigrants” and apparently living hand-to-mouth enhanced their mystique. They had seen other places and had sung in other places, living the life they sang about. One such visiting singer (from Canberra) enjoyed a huge hit one Sunday evening with a set of bawdy ballads previously unheard in staid Hobart. On another inspirational occasion, Ken James from the Isle of Man walked in, borrowed a guitar, sang ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Allright’ and “blew everyone away” with his guitar-playing. (James was arrested in the country, not long after, for stealing and barbecuing a pigeon). Tall, dark and dashing Roddy Glendinning from Melbourne looked (romantically) like a pirate and sang Irish rebel songs.       

    In tried-and-true Woody Guthrie fashion, Frank Povah could – and did – turn his hand to any number of casual jobs when singing work was scarce – or when he needed another box of cigarettes. In Tasmania, this included stints with the H.E.C., the Hobart Mercury and a Devonport sawmill: “Of course, it was a lot easier to get work in those days. Not playing in bands was something of a novelty. You could get a gig just about anywhere”. Povah (who once claimed that his best night’s pay ever was 25 pounds for playing and singing multiple renditions of ‘Frankie & Johnny’ in a Kalgoorlie brothel) recalls :


The folk scene in Tasmania was very naive in a nice way. People actually listened to someone who had something to say … Tasmania was so isolated … All of us exotic, bearded guitar players were put up and stayed at people’s places. I remember I ws going out with the daughter of the Mayor of Devonport. He was wary of me but when he understood what I actually stood for, told me he believed [the state] should be a big national park with a few towns scattered around in it. 

    Some transient musicians (Wade and Hicks among them) had the additional charm of being able to play and sing American songs authentically (i.e. with a real American accent). Patty Opdike, a newspaper editor from California, drawled an extended variant of ‘The Banks of the Ohio’ which was venerated as the real thing.  Hicks played a Classic Southern Jumbo Gibson guitar, used steel finger-picks, and (according to legend) was on the run from U.S. draft authorities. Beth Sowter recalls that another itinerant anti-war activist was similarly inspirational a couple of years on:


There was an American singer/guitarist called Mark Rankin [who] got his draft papers for Vietnam in Boston and jumped on the nearest ship. It happened to be going to the Antarctic. So he scrubbed decks and dykes through the Antarctic, jumped off at Hobart, and became part of our folk scene. It was after the Goose. It was into the Five Believers stage, and he was a major influence on me because I was learning finger-picking and he did wonderful finger-picking and all the songs that I liked – Eric Andersen, Bob Dylan … He gave me a lot of good guitar stuff and he was like a mentor to me … He took off, went to Vietnam and I saw him on TV, burning his draft-card in Saigon. Carted off by the MPs. Instead of going to gaol he entertained the troops. He was brilliant. 

   Charismatic outsiders of this kind were a minority, of course. The greater percentage of regulars at the Wild Goose and its successors were young Tasmanians who came to folkmusic while studying nearby at University, the Art School or the Hobart Teachers’ College.  Some student folksingers even served an apprenticeship of sorts at the Hobart Matriculation College which convened a student folk club, Happy Ho’s,  from 1965-69. (Similar ventures flourished briefly, later in the decade, among final year High School students in Launceston, Devonport, Ulverstone and Burnie – under the leadership of young teachers who had been active within Hobart folk circles). Evenings at the Wild Goose were augmented in 1966 when Sowter founded the Tasmania University Folk Club. The TUFC mounted lunch-time concerts and singabouts, produced a newsletter and hosted visits by mainland celebrities. (Its finest hour came in 1968 when the club, with access to student union funds, was able to convene and host the week-long Second Intervarsity Folk Festival. See Part V).

    Beth Sowter simultaneously co-ordinated the TUFC while honing her singing and playing skills (autoharp, guitar, mouthbow) through “hanging out” with Hicks, Eastman, Povah, et al, at the Wild Goose and performing solo there or in company of two other young women, Tiiu Raabus and Suzette Salter. Unusual among the Tasmanian singers, Sowter also gained experience and exposure on the mainland, taking advantage of vacations in Sydney and Melbourne to perform at the Pigalle, PACT Folk, The Shack and Traynors. At the last, appearing as support act to Brian Mooney shortly before he left for Ireland, she was billed as “Beth from the Apple Isle”. On one occasion, Sowter found herself recruited to support Adelaide band The Skillet Lickers at the University of New England when members of the scheduled support act had a fight and disbanded minutes before showtime. On another occasion, she was banned by the Pigalle management in Parramatta for daring to sing Eric Andersen’s mildly erotic ‘Come to my Bedside’.

    “The Goose” survived little more than two years. Laffer believes its demise reflected audience and performer desire for a more professional, organised and formal venue. The Battery point site is now the carpark of the Prince of Wales Hotel. In February 1967 Ken White (from Melbourne), Mick Fulton, Gerry Balding (another mainlander) and Bill Hicks combined to establish a successor, the Five Believers, at the Adult Education Building, site of the old Hobart Jazz club gatherings. According to Mal Brooks, the “five believers” in question were Beth Sowter, Chris Cruise, Patty Opdike, Jo Beaumont and Tony Ryan.

    More an exclusively music venue than the Wild Goose had been, the Five Believers promoted itself as a specialist in folk and (in particular) blues. It met weekly and boasted organised performing schedules, proper advertising, even a P.A. system. Regular artists there included holdovers from the Wild Goose (Brooks, Hicks, Povah & Cruise, Chick, Sowter and Salter) as well as White, Balding and Ian Young, all blues buffs. White was a youthful veteran of Victorian venues like Katharina’s Cabaret, the Reata, the Jolly Roger and Traynors, as soloist or musical partner to singer Graham Squance; he was in Hobart temporarily, working for Websters Woolgrowers. Balding specialised in old-style blues. Young debuted as a schoolboy singing Odetta field-hollers and proved to be a natural. Alex Tkaczuk, a balladeer from Launceston, played at the club during a few months spent at University. The Five Believers was run initially by Tony Ryan, who had performed similar duties for a short time, at the Wild Goose. Finances proved problematic from the outset, however, so much so that the TUFC took over the club’s administration. Dwindling attendances forced it to close in November 1968.

    It was succeeded, on the same premises, by the Ad Lib Club (the name derived from the location – the Adult Education & Library building) which met on Sunday evenings from early 1969. Committee-members included Tony Endersby, Jill Roberts, Sowter, Salter and Tiiu Raabus. For the first time top-billed performers were paid. According to Laffer, “The Ad Lib consolidated the professionalism-conscious innovations begun at the Five Believers and drifted yet further from the ethos of general participation, and even took the ‘commercial approach’”. The club’s advertising offered patrons a mix of Blues, Folk, Jazz and Rock.   Folksingers continued to play but an increasing number of rock acts featured.

  Among the artists who performed at the Ad Lib were visiting Melbourne celebrity Hans Poulsen, Mingus Clarke (then President of the TUFC), Mal Brooks, Keir Martin, Cary Lewincamp, jazzman John Bird, Nino Bucchino, fiddle-player Sally Mainwaring and siblings Anna, Pete and Steve Vertigan. (Steve and Pete Vertigan joined Chris Cruise and Ian Young as a shortlived jug band, the Hobart Fire Brigade Two Step).   Helen Henry was “a fantastic girl singer who would invite down-and-out students to eat cheaply at her father’s Chinese restaurant”. Singer-guitarist  Tim Palmer once performed ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ – in full! (So did Ian Young, on another occasion). Christine Lincoln, who fell in love with the blues after hearing Barbara Dane and Nina Simone records (during the Wild Goose days), was an accomplished soloist who also sang underground music for a while with Mark Pickering in a band called Medium Cool. An appearance by Medium Cool at the club is remembered as “the night Ad Lib went electric”.  Also prominent were three youthful singer-guitarists from the North-west coast: Mike Raine, John Lavery and Neil Gardner.

    Although he occasionally reworked Dylan, Donovan or Mick Jagger material, Gardner was unusual in his time for performing mostly his own songs – the first Tasmanian performer to do so. (He recalls that veterans of the Hobart scene were unsure what to make of him). Born and raised in rural Circular Head, he initially found the Ad Lib both exhilarating and a bit overwhelming.


For me it was the big city. I was always a little bit in awe of the place . Always a strong anti-Vietnam thing about it. A bit Woodstock-y as well.

The 1968-70 period was an intensely creative, prolific time for Gardner, his output averaging 2-3 new songs a week – from the social comment of ‘Nelly Spencer’ and ‘O So Tired’ through comic songs (‘Luther Chase that Pig’) and age-of-innocence pastorales (‘Seasons’ and ‘My  Celeste’) to the rage and pain of ‘The Kill’ and ‘Spirit in the Stone’. Gardner’s songwriting example was emulated by Raine and Lavery, all well-known to each other from high school days in Burnie. Lavery started out performing Simon & Garfunkel songs, then moved increasingly into singing his own, often mystical, ballads such as the quasi-mediaeval ‘Throstle Song’ or the poignant ‘Memories’. Raine and Mal Brooks, who had both been grounded in musical styles other than folk, readily performed Beatles material together in an electric band called T.S. Eliot’s Shadow. (Suzette Salter sang with the band for a while). As well, Raine and Lavery played as a duo, performing their own ‘Red Wine’ or ‘Hear the Morning Cry’, and Raine solo’d a mix of John Hammond, Beatles, Gardner and his own songs (such as the peace anthem ‘Loving Minds’). During the Ad Lib years, the three singers were simultaneously active in the briefly burgeoning northern music scene.

    The TUFC changed its name to Blues’n’Stuff in 1969, reflecting Ad Lib’s move towards a more general musical focus. (Laffer suggests that the term “folk” had become somewhat uncool by that time). The same year, the West End Jazz Club, “a sleazy upstairs joint” which later became Beethoven’s Restaurant, offered some folkmusic but failed to attract an audience after a couple of months. Folksinging gigs at restaurants like Don Camillo’s or the Bistro (in the basement of the Ship Hotel) also largely dried up and the Matriculation College’s folk club folded due to lack of interest. (Blues’n’Stuff would finally – and inevitably – merge with the University’s Musical Society in 1974). Notwithstanding the diversity of its musical offerings, and despite acknowledgment that the standard of performance there was often very high, the Ad Lib too fell prey to dwindling audiences/enthusiasm. The council “pulled the plug” on the financially troubled club and it closed its doors in August 1971. (The building now houses the Carnegie Gallery).

    The end of the Ad Lib effectively marked the end of live folksinging in Hobart for the period under review. Another phase of the revival would be well underway within a couple of years (centred around various pubs) but in terms of the intimate, distinctive and inclusive coffee-lounge-oriented  music of the ’60s boom, the closure of the Ad Lib marked the end of an era. Interestingly, for several years a parallel scene had been in action in the north of the state. Indeed, for a short but energetic period (late 1970 – mid 1971), northern developments clearly outdistanced what was going on in Hobart. Predictably enough though, the last gasp of folk fever in northern Tasmania would come only a few months after the demise of the Ad Lib.            

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