© Malcolm J. Turnbull
(Originally published in Trad & Now, Winter 2005)
Given the rapidly growing market for 60s musical memorabilia, it is hardly surprising that vinyl relics of “the great folk boom” are becoming more and more collectable. One tantalisingly elusive recording, instantly recognisable by its striking red and black cover, is the LP Australian Folk Festival. Produced by Peter Mann, proprietor of the influential Melbourne record store Discurio, recorded (for the most part) live at the Melbourne Town Hall, and released on Mann’s own esoteric Score label in 1964, Australian Folk Festival (POL 035) brought together a representative sampling of leading urban folk artists of the era. In that regard the LP broke new ground, providing listeners with a durable memento of a (similarly ground-breaking) concert experience, Four Capitals Folk Song.
Promoted as “the first travelling package-deal of genuine folk in this country”, Four Capitals was an initiative of the Union movement, underwritten by a collective of White and Blue Collar Unions and Associations, and staged in five east-coast cities by local Trades & Labor Councils. Mounted to celebrate the first Trade Union Youth Week, and motivated, at least in part, by recent highly successful concert tours by Pete Seeger, Peter Paul & Mary and the popular Danish duo Nina & Frederik, the venture aimed to provide “Australia’s best folk artists” with an appropriate performing platform, professionally-organised, “well-structured” and “polished by good production methods”. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust volunteered rehearsal facilities and the services of producer Robin Lovejoy. John Baker. Public Relations Officer for the Australian Council of Salaried & Professional Associations (ACSPA), was nominal director and general co-ordinator. Baker was a folk enthusiast who had previously overseen production of two EPs of satirical folksong, Oh Pay Me and Basic Wage Dream, in conjunction with the ACTU Wage campaigns of 1962-3.
At a time when the various folk milieux were much more isolated than they are now, Four Capitals offered east coast audiences an unusual opportunity to see, gathered on a single stage, nine influential singers drawn from the Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane folk scenes. 20 year old classically-trained soprano Tina Lawton, a specialist in British and Anglo-American ballads at the Catacombs coffee lounge and on South Australian TV, represented Adelaide. Margaret Kitamura, who started singing to student audiences at El Toro in suburban Camperdown before moving north, where she was a regular at the Primitif, Alfreda’s Globetrotter and the Folk Centre, and a sometime member of the Union Singers, represented Brisbane. (A striking, witty women of part-Japanese descent, Kitamura grew up on a cattle station so remote that she was well into her teens before she first heard the radio or popular music). The great blues singer Paul Marks, pioneer of both the early Melbourne coffee lounges and the Trad Jazz scene there, and more recently relocated north, was a delegate from the Sydney scene. So were Gary Shearston and Marian Henderson, revered resident artists at the prestigious Troubadour and, at that time, the uncrowned monarchs of NSW folkdom. (The program’s structure was fluid enough to allow Henderson to join the company for the NSW performances only; accordingly she does not appear on the LP which was recorded in Melbourne).
Brian Mooney and Martyn Wyndham-Read, beloved of audiences at the Emerald Hill-Traynors-Reata circuit for their propagation of the Irish and English folk traditions, represented Melbourne, as did Lenore Somerset, a vocal powerhouse well known to the broader public through her renditions of folk songs on TV. ‘Duke’ Tritton, a 78-year old former shearer and AWU organiser, added a touch of authenticity through renditions of his own backblocks compositions. (Venerated as the “real thing” by traditionalists, Tritton was a founding member of the Sydney Bush Music Club and had made pioneer field recordings for John Meredith). Harry Kay (a veteran, in his own right, of The Bushwhackers and The Rambleers) and string bassist John Helman were recruited as backing musicians. Another leading Melbourne performer David Lumsden featured in advertising and the tour program but was forced to withdraw due to work commitments. (“I seem to remember going to the Melbourne concert as an audience member”). Brisbane veteran Bob Michell, Victorian Bush Music Club stalwart Arthur Greig, and Sydneysiders Dennis Kevans, Tina Date and Jeannie Lewis helped out behind the scenes at individual concerts.
Tour director Baker noted enthusiastically that the presentation served as a bridge “from shearing shed to skyscraper”, from convict chains to songs of “angry young men wanting to set free the buttoned down minds all around them”. Content varied slightly from performance to performance, permitting some leeway in song selection (or making allowances for variables such as Henderson’s absences), but reviews and rehearsal notes indicate that the concerts generally incorporated the following: – After a short prologue on Industrial folk song (spoken by Shearston, sung by Marks and company, and climaxing with ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’), the first half of the program traced the development of the Australian transportation, bushranger and saltbush song traditions, underlining their linkages to Irish rebel ballads and American work songs and blues. (“We were always on stage together … We sat in a horseshoe.
People got up and did their bit and then sat down”). Mooney offered ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ and an inspired ‘Foggy Dew’. Wyndham-Read joined him for ‘Roddy McCorley’ and solo’d on ‘Ben Hall’. Kitamura rendered ‘Jim Jones’; Henderson ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and ‘Euabalong Ball’; Lawton led an ensemble take on ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Harry Kay played a medley of bush tunes on harmonica and accordion; Tritton sang his own material in what was described as “archaic bush style”. The first half concluded with a bravura bracket of American work songs by Somerset, a couple of brilliantly-executed blues by Marks, and a crowd-pleasing group ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Dramatically dressed in black, her guitar held high, Kitamura opened the second half (‘Songs of Our Time’) with a stark bracket which included Ewan MacColl’s ‘Lag Song’. Shearston dissected the Voyager disaster, lightened the mood a little with ‘Far Side of the Hill’ and
Don Henderson’s witty ‘Basic Wage Dream’, and touched on civil rights with his setting of Kath Walker’s ‘We Want Freedom’. Recapitulating the Union theme, Marks, Lawton and Wyndham-Read teamed for a sprightly ‘Work of the Weavers’; Wyndham-Read and Mooney dueted on the Behans’ ‘Filling Knife’; Henderson (when available) led ‘Which Side Are You On?’. The evening closed with protest songs, a reprise of the ‘John Brown’s Body’ theme – and (as the era dictated) the National Anthem.
For the performers, the tour was a demanding eight day “jaunt” which commenced with rehearsals in Sydney the weekend of August 1 & 2. Monday found the company “jetting” into Brisbane – somewhat to the bemusement of one conservative local journalist who noted that male members of the ensemble “wore jeans” and were “long-haired, bearded or both” and that “both boys and girls walked across the tarmac in high-heeled boots”(!) The first concert was nothing short of a triumph, however. “The most moving, polished and sincere exhibition of folk songs Brisbane folk followers have heard”, enthused the Courier Mail. “If ever Australian artists brought the realisation that we should use Australian talent instead of overseas entertainers, it was last night”.
Tuesday evening found the company at sold-out Melbourne Town Hall where the show was taped by Peter Mann. Then back to NSW and Newcastle City Hall (following a particularly rough flight by light plane) and the Savoy Theatre, Wollongong. The tour concluded (“to tumultuous applause”) at the Sydney Conservatorium on Saturday, August 8. Along the way individual performers were pressed into publicity and promotion (“I remember Tina and I being taken to sing for unionists at the Newport Railway workshops”, notes Lenore Somerset), and the itinerary also lists possible lunchtime gigs at Sydney University. Brian Mooney remembers talk of taking the show on to Adelaide “… but it didn’t happen for whatever reason”.
The show was not without its critics. Don Henderson, writing for Music Maker, declared bluntly that the tour suffered from “amateur musical society” production values (notably the decision to dress Duke Tritton “up for the part” of shearer). Other reviewers targeted “disastrous lighting” and a “stagey” format which (arguably) inhibited some of the performers. Such critical carping was more than offset by Henderson’s acknowledgement that “the singers are here and ready” or by Craig McGregor’s declaration that Four Capitals “proved quite conclusively … that Australia now has folksingers who can reinterpret the old Australian ballads, adopt overseas idioms and create their own topical songs with great validity and power”. So successful was the enterprise that Charles Higham (in a dissection of the folk coffee lounge scene for the Bulletin), speculated that the impact of the “Four Capitals exercise” had been such that tours were likely to become “the future answer for folksingers”. (Higham was way off the mark, in fact, as the subsequent financial failure of the multi-performer Pan Pacific Tour and New Lost City Ramblers tour would indicate. Four Capitals clearly benefited from its timing at the peak of the folk boom).
“A great event”, according to Shearston; “a pleasant, lovely tour” according to Brian Mooney. Martyn Wyndham-Read recalls:
“I seem to remember that we did this tour almost at the last minute, as Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger were supposed to be doing these dates but had to cancel due to illness. John Baker organised it as he had already booked all the halls … I remember well that Duke Tritton was on the tour and I got to know him and I really liked him, his stories and songs. The last concert … was a grand affair with so many so-called ‘dignitaries’ invited … we all had a celebratory drink before [it], some partaking more freely than others and Duke was one of those who partook freely … As he was singing ‘Shearing in a Bar’ he got so carried away he started to shear an imaginary sheep – to the total amazement of the dinner jacket and tiara-clad audience, but he won them over and had a terrific reception. He was a great man and I was pleased to have known him”.
Mooney’s memories are tinged by sadness at the death (in an air crash in Kenya) of Tina Lawton only four years later.
“John Baker had an odd sense of humour. He booked Tina, Martyn and I into the Temperance Hotel in Sydney. Now Tina didn’t drink [but] Martyn smuggled in a bottle of whiskey and we had a session with that … I still remember her singing ‘Every Time I Hear a Songbird’. It was beautiful”.
“I have never been very political”, reminisces Lenore Somerset, “but I was very proud to be part of it all ….
My dad, all his life, was a railwayman who swore by the union. The pay [on Four Capitals] wasn’t much but I would have happily paid just to be in it. I can still remember the thrill of singing at the Conservatorium in Sydney … Paul [Marks] sat next to me on the plane and practised marvellous guitar runs the whole trip”.
In hindsight the Four Capitals tour was a phenomenon of the early 1960s, the product of an unsophisticated era when folk music was still something of a novelty for Australian audiences, its rapidly accelerating popularity notwithstanding. Certainly the show’s format now seems dated, its content contrived and a bit simplistic, the whole exercise overly theatrical and unnecessarily self-conscious. (Baker and Lovejoy were determined, for instance, that the company be able to compete visually and vocally with international ensembles, as seen on TV; they stressed that the “girls” must be “more attractive than, say, their American and English counterparts”, and that Mooney’s Irish or Wyndham-Read’s English images should be accentuated).
At the same time, the program was a major and important platform for some of the finest Australian folk artists of the era. The small sampling of performances captured on Australian Folk Festival testifies eloquently to the calibre – and durability – of those artists. In particular, Mooney’s ‘Foggy Dew’, Marks’ ‘Black Brown and White’, Somerset’s ‘Ox Driver’s Song’ and Lawton’s ‘Buttermilk Hill’ remain timeless. With Shearston unable to appear on the album because of his contract with CBS, his ‘The Voyager’ was rendered, in fine style, by a youthful Trevor Lucas. Just as he had found the tour “much the best thing of its kind … so far done in Australia”, so folklorist Edgar Waters quite rightly deemed the resultant LP “the best thing of its kind that has so far been done here”.