THE GREAT FOLK REVIVAL – Some Issues, Debates and Controversies


© Malcolm J. Turnbull

[page 6 of 8]
The situation changed dramatically once singers and songwriters moved beyond the abstract or international to focus on issues directly affecting ordinary Australlians. It is significant that the consolidation of opposition to conscription and the Vietnam war paralleled the drift away from folkmusic of the largely conservative mass audience. With Australian government policy specifically under attack by vocal and growing sections of the public (and with protest singers leading the fight), folkies found themselves under pressure to affiliate with one side or the other. To be anti-conscription, anti-Vietnam, pro-protest and pro-social change meant indentifying forcibly with the Left: to be anti-protest, pro-conscription and pro-Vietnam was to ally – inevitably – with the Right. The performers who worked hard to remain apolitical were those who sought a wider profile and audience as commercial folksinging entertainers and were thus doubly beyond the pale as far as folk politics was concerned. David Lumsden recalls that contempt for them increased as Vietnam escalated. Ken White remembers that a number of artists had trouble getting work because they were seen as “insufficiently political”. (White, who had “his fingers burned at a Freedom from Hunger fundraiser”, insisted that he was not going to be used by any political organisation; a stance which occasionally brought him into conflict with musical partner Graham Squance).

On one side were singers who crusaded (or at least actively sympathised) for an end to Australian involvement in the war. Tomasetti was active in ‘Save Our Sons’ and, following the lead of Joan Baez, fought a legal battle over her refusal to pay that percentage of her income tax which would go towards defence; Counihan was one of the first people arrested at an anti-war demonstration; Shearston’s protest credentials hindered his being able to settle in the United States. Danny Spooner cites performing at the great Moratorium march in Melbourne as one of the high points of his singing career. On the other side were those artists who joined concert parties to entertain the troops in South-east Asia: Doug Owen, Phil Cunneen & Irene Petrie, Patsy Biscoe, Tina Lawton, Peter Harries, Lenore Somerset, The Twiliters and Sean & Sonja. Somerset later judged the experience “the most satisfying period” of her career: “Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the war, these boys were there and ready to give their lives – many did”. Travelling, performing for the boys, and being day-to-day in Vietnam were “good for the soul”, she noted recently.
 The high-profile Shearston was at the forefront of the singing radicals. His second LP Songs of Our Time (1964) teamed Seeger, Dylan and Ewan MacColl material with several socially conscious Australian songs. Don Henderson’s ‘Basic Wage Dream’ commented satirically on the 1964 Basic Wage campaign; Dorothy Hewitt’s ‘Atomic Lullaby’ (music by Mike Leyden) was in gentle contrast to Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ on the same theme; ‘We Want Freedom’ was Shearston’s setting of a poem by aboriginal writer and activist Kath Walker.  Shearston’s own ‘Who Can Say’ was a question song along the lines of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’:

Who will listen to words of war
Then plant a seed and cry “No more”,
Who will help the seed to grow
By banning the mushroom’s murdering glow?
The trees grow on toward the sky,
But the flowers at its feet wither and die.
The material was topical and thought-provoking, but it was not until Shearston’s third LP Australian Broadside that he ruffled conservative feathers by taking a stiletto, as writer or interpreter, to specific at-home issues. ‘The Ballad of Edgar Cooke’ (words by Michael Thomas) was an understated but powerful indictment of capital punishment dedicated to the last man hanged in Western Australia. ‘Weevils in the Flour’ by Dorothy Hewitt targeted environmental destruction by giant multi-national corporations like BHP. Kath Walker’s ‘Son of Mine’ continued to explore the plight of the Australian aborigine. ‘Do You Know Barry?’ was a wry attack on far-right U.S. Presidential candidate Goldwater. ‘Sydney Town’, co-written with radical author Frank Hardy, was a comic thrust at life and culture in the country’s largest city. Shearston’s response to Australia’s worst peace-time naval disaster, the sinking of the Voyager by HMAS Melbourne, was the most controversial track on the album:

You’ll tell me of a reason, you’ll tell me of a cause,
You’ll say these things happen in defence for coming wars.
But will your age-old reasons now make you realise
That ships must sail the seas for peace before another dies?

Arch-conservative B.A. Santamaria ranted furiously at ‘The Voyager’ in the Catholic press, accusing Shearston of having betrayed the men who died on the Kokoda Trail during World War II. Shearston was unequivocal in emphasising his commitment to pacifism and his belief that “armed forces everywhere should be done away with”:

The Voyager song was written two days after the disaster out of a complete feeling of helplessness and frustration that eighty-two men had lost their lives rehearsing for this thing called war which was supposed to have ended twenty years ago for all time …
    Surely we know by now that wars must be a thing of the past and that future infringements and squabbles must be settled by international conference and not international sling-shot games with ballistic missiles. A stockpile of 320 billion megatons of TNT in nuclear weapons is proof enough [Bulletin, 28 Nov 1964].

Shearston underlined his disgust at the introduction of conscription in 1964 with his cynical ‘Conscription Ramp’ (“There’s always trouble in the air with elections coming round O”) and the more subtle ‘Twenty Summers’, words by Mona Brand (“Now Johnny must shoulder a gun and be going, And fighting some people he’d rather be knowing”). Introduced by Menzies at the end of 1964, conscription legislation (two years army service for 20-year old males, selected by lottery) first impacted on the folk scene when Sean Cullip received his call-up notice early the following year. Cullip attempted to fight the notice in court on the basis of the effect two years out of the limelight would have on the duo’s future rather than on more philosophical grounds. He stressed the irony of the situation: “Sonja and I are very much against war and killing although we’re not protest singers”. The magistrate acknowledged that army service did constitute hardship for the couple but not exceptional hardship, and Cullip’s bid for deferment was dismissed. The innate unfairness of the legislation was glaringly highlighted when Kerry White, lead singer with another popular commercial folk act, The Twiliters, successfully gained deferment.  Being able to have their army service deferred while at university enabled twins Peter and Martin Wesley-Smith to continue in The Wesley Three at weekends and holidays. However, deferment restrictions put paid to the brothers’ desire to take a year off and try their luck in show business full-time. (By the time Peter completed his Ph.D., the call-up was no longer a factor). Wayne Garton’s call-up notice spelled the end of promising Perth trio The Wayfarers. Another casualty of the lottery, Graeme Denholm, was promptly replaced as a member of The Idlers Five. At a grass-roots level, the Lonesome Road Folk Club in Melbourne’s industrial west failed to survive the simultaneous conscription of three of its young organisers. As it turned out, the folk bubble had already burst in Sydney by the time Sean Cullip started his two year stint in 1966. He and Sonja managed to reunite in 1968 as a middle-of-the road pop-folk cabaret act playing the Leagues Club and Hotel circuit (and several tours of South-east Asia) until 1974. Cullip himself remembers the army years as positive in many ways, although he expresses relief that his abysmal rifle range record prevented him being sent to Vietnam. He saw his two years out in clerical posts.

In the main, initial opposition to conscription – even from within the folk community – was fragmented and half-hearted. Leonard Teale was adamant that building up the defence forces was crucial to national security: “Here we are with ten million people and 900 million to the north … Of course, we’re in terrible danger and I want to get our defence forces increased” [Higham, p.25].  Trevor Lucas, by contrast, was just as strong in his anti-war position. Lucas, who recorded Shearston’s ‘The Voyager’ as well as another song of the same name by Garry Kinnane, informed the Melbourne Sun [17 Aug 1964]:

I believe I’d be a conscientious objector if total war came, and if I ever had time to make a choice. When I was in the school cadet corps, an instructor demonstrated the Bren gun, pointed to a group of kids playing in the park, and said: “This gun would stop them all within seconds”. If social protest songs help rid people of ideas like that, then I’ll keep on singing them.

Conscription ultimately became a non-issue for Lucas who embarked on a lengthy visit to Britain on New Year’s Day 1965. General perspectives on army service changed, however, as Australian involvement in Vietnam intensified and as the Government backed down (in December 1965) on its promise that no conscript would have to serve in South-east Asia. The first conscripts left for Vietnam in April 1966; the first conscript corpse was flown home a month later.

A silent vigil outside the American embassy in Melbourne appears to have been the first organised demonstration against the war. Subsequently 40 academics petitioned Menzies on the matter, and in December 1965, the Songs of Peace and Love concert at the Myer Music Bowl was the first major response of the folk scene to the training of young Australian boys to kill and be killed for a conflict in which Australia had no direct interest. The concert, which attracted a crowd of 10,000 people, was mounted by the Vietnam Day committee. Speakers included Dr Jim Cairns. (Rumours that celebrated U.S. activist Dr Benjamin Spock was to appear proved unfounded). Most of the performers were strongly motivated politically. David Lumsden, Peter Dickie and Mick Counihan drew on their families’ involvements with the Peace movement, trade unionism and the Left; Mark Gregory was a young veteran of Charles Perkins’ Freedom Rides; Phyl Vinnicombe was an up-and-coming songwriter whose compositions included the anthem-like ‘Seasons of War’; Lynne St John was a young semi-commercial folksinger who believed in donating her services to Peace functions; Shearston, of course, was the country’s best-known performer of topical songs; and Tomasetti would go on to become a valued spokesperson for ‘Save Our Sons’. While decidedly not protest singers, Brian Mooney and Tina Lawton were seen as friendly “fellow-travellers” (hence the anger of her peers when Lawton subsequently joined a concert party which toured army bases in Vietnam). Anti-war concerts were subsequently mounted by the Artists and Players Forum at the Princess Theatre; folksingers and TV personalities (including cast-members of Bellbird) playing to packed houses. In Sydney, the revue Stage Vietnam, an innovative mix of film, dance, slides and folksongs performed by Chris Shaw, drew capacity houses throughout its 16 week season in 1966-7 – notwithstanding token bids by NSW police to stop the show. Folksingers performed from the back of a truck at a major peace rally in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens and, at the climax of anti-war fervour, the legendary Moratorium march in May 1970. By then, 400 Australians had been killed in Vietnam, 250 of them conscripts. One and a half million Vietnamese were dead or injured.
By mid 1966 the Government and the Labor opposition were increasingly divided over the conscription issue and Vietnam. Conscientious objectors were beginning to make national headlines and resistance to the call-up ballot (including the establishment of an underground network of safe houses) was solidifying. The ‘Save our Sons’ organisation was formed that year and, in the lead-up to the Federal election, a recording of  Tomasetti performing ‘The Ballad of Bill White’ was sold and distributed at political meetings and rallies. (White was a NSW teacher who had refused to comply with the draft). Another record, an EP of political songs written by Phyl Vinnicombe, Clem Parkinson and Tomasetti and performed by a hastily-convened quartet (Vinnicombe, Tomasetti, Mick Counihan and Peter Dickie), was also recorded as an ALP fundraiser. The record never reached the public. Tomasetti has claimed that its contents were “too strong”. Counihan contends that disagreement between Tomasetti and ALP politician Clyde Holding over remuneration of the artists resulted in the EP being shelved. In Tomasetti’s view, the shelving and subsequent disappearance of the record were a great pity, as it included some important material, particularly the Vinnicombe compositions ‘Jimmy is a Soldier’ and ‘Seasons of War’. Counihan, by contrast, believes the record was “terrible” and is grateful that it never materialised. Interestingly – given the large attendances at ALP functions – he believes it would easily have outsold most other recordings released during the folk revival.

 Performers and activists alike were deeply disillusioned by the failure of the anti-conscription/ “Bring our Boys home” election campaign. The Government was returned with a  substantially increased majority. It did not take long for the resistance to regroup, however. As historan Barry York has observed, between 1967-70 “Activism seemed a daily occurrence. There were so-called wild riots in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and even Canberra! It was a time of ‘street theatre’, public meetings in suburban halls, petitions, letters to editors, draft-card burnings, rallies, all the protester’s stock-in-trade” – and it was happening all over the world” [‘War against War’, in Staining the Wattle, p.241]. A number of singer-songwriters determinedly perpetuated the overt protest tradition. Tomasetti released another EP of topical material, The Future is in Your Hands, on W&G, and later in the decade published a set of her own compositions under the title Songs from a Seat in the Carriage. (The carriage referred to was that of the evil Marquis St Evremonde – oblivious to the sufferings of his fellow countrymen and blithely ignorant of what the future held – in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). Her best-remembered song is ‘Don’t be Too Polite Girls’, written (to the tune of ‘Flash Jack from Gundagai’) in the Equal Pay for Equal Work campaign. Phyl Vinnicombe recorded an EP (for W&G), Dark-Eyed Daughter, four songs for the Aboriginal Advancement League. After taking a hiatus from protest-singing and writing with two extraordinarily well-researched albums of Australian bush songs, Shearston re-entered the topical fray with a vengeance with ‘The Lost Soldier’ and ‘Old Bulli’. Set to the traditional tune ‘Lord Franklin’, ‘The Lost Soldier’ concluded starkly: “Oh, in Vietnam, Ronnie Field had died; He was not a violent man, she cried  … And she told us all as she closed her door: He should never have fought in this terrible war”.

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