Early Tasmania part7


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

 

Malcolm J. Turnbull

 

PART 7

 

Located as it was within the orbit of the northern folk scene, Brumida is not mentioned by Michelle Laffer and, in general, its importance in the history of the Tasmanian revival has been overlooked. The series of concerts, festivals and folk nights mounted by David Paulin from September 1970 until March 1972 monopolised folksinging activity in the north during that period. In hindsight, this activity can be cited as the single most important development, outside Hobart, in the evolution of a Tasmanian folk consciousness. Chronologically, Brumida operated at the height of the singer-songwriter vogue and the organisation’s focus mirrored that popularity.

    There was, of course, considerable overlap and interplay between the Hobart scene and Brumida members or associates. Tkaczuk, Brooks, Salter and Steve Vertigan had been prominent in the Wild Goose – Five Believers saga. Gardner, Raine, Lavery and Marita Eastley coupled work with Brumida and involvement in Ad Lib and the university scene. (Raine was President of Blues’n’Stuff in 1970, Eastley a couple of years later). Similarly, there was notable involvement by several artists, strongly identified with Brumida, in the post-1972 folk and acoustic music scene. Lavery and Gardner were foundation members of the popular Anglo-Celtic band Finnegan’s Wake, for instance. Gardner went on to front a shortlived but innovative folk-rock ensemble Catweazle. Alex and Ted Myers led another popular 70s band, Tansey’s Fancy.  Mike Raine has spent the past decade with The Cockies. 

    Ian Paulin, who would achieve national prominence through recordings (Glebe Hotel Invitation, All and No Waiting) and the Franklin dam protests in the 1970s and ’80s, had his start with Brumida. Learning the ropes within that milieu was “a warm, cuddly basket to fall into”, Paulin assessed recently, paying tribute to the profound influence other Brumideans had on his emergence and evolution as a songwriter.


Neil [Gardner] taught me the variety of styles you could write in, as one writer … I learned [from him] about relating things that were personal in a way that invited people in … From John [Lavery] I learned passion and commitment and how powerful you can make one line in a song …Michael [Raine] was my music master. He helped me in the technical sense. Playing, also focusing on being with your instrument and being on the stage. I was very much influenced by the amount of power and energy he displayed. They were like my big brothers … I learned [from Brumida] that folkmusic was more than a career thing. There are principles you have to uphold … playing in places where people need music.

In my view, the body of original song produced by Brumida members – and by several of their predecessors – is the most significant legacy of the period under review. 

    As early as 1967, organisers of the inaugural Intervarsity Festival in Sydney expressed surprise at the volume and quality of what was being written by young Tasmanian artists. “Perhaps we’ve all got precious little else to do down here, so we spend all our time writing songs”, speculated Tiiu Raabus in the student newspaper Togatus. At one time or another most of the participants in the Tasmanian folk scene felt impelled or inspired to craft something of their own, usually in a Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell or Paxton vein. Frank Povah’s standard set of blues and American mountain laments might be broken up by his own ‘Leaf in the Wind’, for instance. Suzette Salter was primarily an interpreter of contemporary American writers but she is equally remembered  for her own well-written ‘Seven Circles’, ‘Sir Gentleheart & Lady Sorrow’ or ‘Be Kind in Your Mind’. The highlights of John Fulton-Stevens’ repertoire were the self-composed ‘Doctor King’ and ‘Jennie’. Howard Eynon would go on to record an LP of Eynon compositions. Sets by Brumideans Raine and Lavery were predominantly original; from an early date, Gardner and Paulin played their own stuff almost exclusively.

    In a recent celebration of the revival at the Tamar Valley festival, Alex Myers (herself occasional composer of songs like ‘You’re the One Who’s on My Mind’ or ‘Scorpio Angel’) noted that many of the songs of the era are now long-forgotten and, in some cases, lost. Comings and goings within the folk scene, declining interest in contemporary writing during the Anglo-Celtic invasion of the ’70s, the supplanting of intimate coffee-lounge venues by social, group-oriented “pub clubs”, and the relative inaccessibility of recording technology (only Neil Gardner and Ian Young actually made it on to vinyl in the period under review), have all ensured that a good deal of fine material is now gone forever. In a surprising number of cases, the composers themselves have forgotten their songs through lack of performance over three decades. (Christine Lincoln, for one, fails to remember the bluesy ‘Put it on the Line’ which was the highlight of her set when she supported Julie Felix at the Hobart Town Hall. Frank Povah only barely recalls his moving ‘Port Arthur Song’. John Lavery has forgotten ‘Memories’). An aim of the workshop mentioned above was to promote further collection of this material, predicated on the belief that the songs warrant preservation.

    By the end of 1972 the only regularly organised folksinging in Tasmania appears to have been meetings of Blues’n’Stuff, formerly the TUFC. Blues’n’Stuff would fold within a few months but the emergence of the Sitting Inn, in 1973, would fill the gap left by the demise of the Ad Lib, and herald a resurgence of interest in folkmusic throughout the state. Meeting first at Salamanca Place, then (following a fire) in Davey Street, the Sitting Inn attracted veterans of the Hobart scene and a new core group of musicians, mostly recent arrivals from Scotland, Ireland and England. (The newcomers included John Bushby and his English-born wife Caroline; Irishmen Mick Flanagan, Frank Byrne and Declan Pickering; Jane and Steve Ray from England; and Scots-born Rose and Dave Harvey). Just as they had been on the mainland, the migrants would be central to the re-orientation of the Tasmanian scene towards Anglo-Celtic traditionalism. A succession of performing outlets would include the Ceoltoiri Folk Club at the Royal Exchange Hotel, the Marquis of Hastings, Shipwrights Arms and Wheatsheaf hotels, the Bothy Folk Club at the Sir William Don, the Huon Folk Club at the Federal (in Franklin), Salamanca Folk (in Battery Point), and the Bottom Pub in the northern town of Longford.   

There can be no doubt that the tyranny of distance substantially impacted on Tasmania and the 1960s folk scene. Tasmanian folkies found themselves even more disadvantaged by geographical and cultural isolation, and the smallness of the population, than their counterparts in far-off Western Australia. Few if any of the international folksinging celebrities who toured the mainland capitals ever made it to Hobart or Launceston. Peter Paul & Mary, for instance, made five tours of Australia during the period under review, but never came south of Melbourne whereas they did manage to perform in Perth more than once (as did Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Odetta, even Dylan). At a time when it was still unusual for teenagers or young adults to travel to the mainland at all – least of all to attend a concert! – actually getting to see their idols in the flesh was the stuff of fantasy. I recall plans to set up a fund so the duo Joe & Hetty could afford to go to Melbourne when rumours started circulating of a possible Dylan visit in the early ’70s. When Julie Felix, well-known through her appearances on the satirical British TV series The Frost Report, played in Hobart as part of a national campus tour in 1971, the concert was considered an event. Students flocked from all over the state, filling the Town Hall to capacity. Felix proved to be a much more versatile and captivating performer than her recordings or TV appearances might have suggested, and she was treated reverently by the wide-eyed audience which had no reservations about singing along on her encore ‘This Land is Your Land’ (its American geographical allusions intact). Interestingly, the same audience heckled one of Felix’s support acts off the stage; one of several local artists recruited to play the first half of the concert made the serious blunder of attempting middle-of-the-road standards like ‘My Way’ and ‘The Impossible Dream’, accompanying himself on an electric guitar, and was left in no doubt that such choices were out of place at a folk concert.

    A few of the better-known performers from the mainland coffee-house circuit made token visits, a group of Traynors regulars taking a touring show around the state circa 1965. A dispirited Graham Squance found himself playing in a Devonport shop doorway during a rainstorm, an experience rendered no more palatable by the frankly suspicious demeanour of some of the locals. Lenore Somerset and Brian Mooney were received more enthusiastically by Hobart and Launceston audiences as was the W.A. trio The Twiliters. Melbourne super-group The Seekers played to packed houses in Hobart in 1966 and 1968. In the main, though, Tasmanian folkmusic enthusiasts or would-be performers depended on what they could glean from local TV and radio or on the occasional gems they might discover amid the C&W and 60s pop generally stocked by local electric goods-cum-record retailers.

    Hardly surprisingly, the live scene, as it developed, was small, insular and vulnerable. As in the rest of the country, scores of high school and college students learned a few basic guitar chords and a few predictable and well-worn three or four chord songs. (‘The House of the Rising Sun’ was the preferred showpiece for nine out of ten aspirants). Yet those who actually performed in public or became, to any degree,  part of the southern or northern folk establishment, were pretty few. Nor were audiences of any size assured or obtainable, a reality which, of course, impacted on the ability of folk clubs to sustain themselves indefinitely. Laffer has argued that the ephemeral nature of the venues was one of the most important characteristics of the era.

    Tasmania had little impact on the larger national folk network during the period under review. Tasmanian activity was marginal, even irrelevant, to the so-called bigger picture and would remain so until the late 1970s when Longford would finally put the island on the folk map. (It is significant that Tasmania remains the only Australian state never to have hosted the National Folk Festival). Yet, taking into account the limited size of the population, the state played host to a surprisingly vibrant and extraordinarily creative early scene. For a few years, indeed, two distinctive pockets of activity could be discerned: one centred around Hobart and, specifically, the University of Tasmania; the other (slightly later) centred around Launceston and radiating out into the northern outposts of Georgetown, Devonport and Burnie. “Insularity worked in two ways”, assesses singer Mike Raine. While conceding that limited exposure to mainland and overseas influences could be a disadvantage, Raine believes that isolation had its compensations. It nurtured experimentation and exploration, ensuring that “we weren’t emulating anybody. We were finding out for ourselves”. One tangible result was the emergence of an impressive body of original songwriting by talented individuals like Raine, Suzette Salter, Neil Gardner, John Lavery and Ian Paulin. The venues themselves were a rigorous,  sometimes intimidating, training ground for performers who subsequently opted to try their luck interstate. “You can’t be a smart-ass in Tasmania”, notes Paulin. “People expect communication in a performance. You have to be human. You have to travel together”.      

[END]

 

Postscript

January 2006 saw an emotional ñ and musically vibrant ñ reunion of Tasmanian veterans at the Cygnet Folk Festival. Festival attendees were treated to a concert, titled ëBack to the Five Believersí, which brought together Chris Cruise, Frank Povah, Beth Sowter, Gerry Balding, Mal Brooks and Alex Myers (along with Sue Lee-Archer and Kerry McGuire). At the time of writing, there is speculation about a follow-up reunion concert which might (hopefully) entice other í60s performers to rekindle some of that old folk magic.