A POTTED HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FOLK REVIVAL
As a kid you couldn’t avoid folk music because it was, for a mini second, the most popular music of those days. Radio played folk music, television offered programs and folk clubs, coffee houses and festivals jumped out from every corner. We had our Australian stars including Tina Lawton, Tina Date, Martyn Wyndham Read, Declan Affley, Gary Shearston and many others but it was the American and British artists who stood out in the popular arena and especially The Weavers, Pete Seeger, A.L.Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and a cast of thousands.
My first real folk club experience was most probably the local coffee shop at Rockdale but it was the Greenwich Village at Kensington, near the NSW University, that became my second home. It was run by a Kiwi, Noel Raynes and it was always packed to the rafters with the best singers. Noel was a great chorus singer and, along with his wife, a great host. I was a bright-eyed kid and already a ‘folk sponge’. I couldn’t get enough of the music but, at the same time, kept wondering why I was learning Scots and Irish and American songs. I had already started to think about the Australian tradition.
When I left school I started to go to the Elizabeth Hotel, Elizabeth Street, Sydney, where Mike and Carol Wilkinson ran one of the first pub folk clubs. I became a firm friend of the Wilkinson’s and their associate ‘door man’ Harvey Green. The four of us, and Mike Ball, would usually have a meal every week followed by a night of stilton, pickled eggs and song. The Wilkinson’s were terrific singers and especially English harmony songs. Mike Ball, well, I always thought him a genius. He was an extraordinary English concertina player, singer and songwriter. He put many Robert Graves poems to music and I can still remember his setting for ‘Timothy Winters’. It was the nearest I ever came to crying over a song. Eric Bogle’s songs have the same effect.
The folk boom burst mid sixties and was considered ‘old hat’. It was a simple case of overkill. Gary Shearston was the number one artist and had released several landmark albums and hosted two television programs. Marion Henderson was equally big and then there was a line of other artists too long to mention. They all seemed to disappear, some bitter that the bubble had burst, others seemingly relieved.
Some of us saw it as an opportunity to re-group and re-organise. We moved the whole shebang into the hotels so we could automatically control the age limit and the door policy.
The Wilkinson’s had a strict policy in running the folk club. I suspect it was modelled on Ewan MacColl’s Singer’s Club in as much as you could only sing songs from your own tradition. They discouraged blues, jazzy songs etc and pushed British and Australian traditional songs. The main singers at the club, apart from the Wilkinson’s and Mike Ball were Colin Dryden, Declan Affley, Mike Eves (another good concertina player), an English couple called Charlie and Liz, Peter Parkhill (who had an impressive repertoire of ballads), Noel Raynes (who had closed his club), Derrick Chetwyn, The Montgomery Folk (Roger Montgomery, Tony Lavin, Christy Cooney). I ended up helping run the club and also organised the floor singers including the occasional spot for myself.
We also encouraged chorus singing and we really raised the roof with songs like ‘Fathom The Bowl’, ‘Shepherd’s Arise’, ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ and most of the Copper Family repertoire. There were always interstate guests like Peter Dickie, Phyl Vinnicombe (Lobl), Danny Spooner, Gordon McIntyre and so on. One by one, Mike Ball, Mike and Carol Wilkinson, Harvey Green, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Trevor Lucas and Brian Mooney all left for Europe.
It was around this time that I disappeared to take a job in Newcastle. I was appointed to a two-year contract as Activities Officer of the Newcastle, Tighes Hill, Student’s Union. One of the first things I did was establish a folk club. Gawd knows what possessed me but I called it the Purple Parrot Folk Club. We built our own premises under a walkway on the college site and over the next two years we put Newcastle folk on the map. I would drive down to Sydney so I could go to The Elizabeth Folk Club then ‘kidnap’ whichever singer would come with me, and drive back to Newcastle for the Sunday night club.
Every six months I organised a major event including the first all-Australian themed folk weekend. These Wild Colonial Weekends attracted people from all over and were huge successes even if they resulted in me becoming like a school teacher fearful of drug abuse (my gawd, is that pot you’re smoking?). Regulars at the club included Robin Connaughton, Bob Hudson, Jill Gartrell, Brad and Sandra Tate, The Maitland Bush Band crew and Jim Taylor.
On my return to Sydney the Elizabeth was in its death throes because of the departure of the Wilkinsons and Ball. I decided to step in so ended up running it every week but the landlord was getting pesky. I closed the club and immediately opened in a new and bigger pub around the corner in Bathurst street.
The Edinburgh Castle was a big success and attracted all the big traditional singers of the time. It had three rooms and I insisted (successfully) that any noise in the main room would not be tolerated and it wasn’t! I also held a very strict door policy – this was a club for traditional music ONLY. No contemporary song at all. I reasoned that this was the best way to improve the singing and the audience and, besides, there were other places catering for the contemporary singers (like PACT Folk). You wouldn’t do it today but, at the time, it worked. We ran to capacity every week with a small door charge (around $3) that was split with the main singers after advertising expenses and a 10% fee was deducted. By the time the club closed at midnight most of us were fully charged and went off partying to sing some more. I recall Charlie and Liz’s place was a popular one and also big Huffy’s Chippendale place.
I gave the Club away after I started Folkways but soon started another in the famous home of The Push – the Royal George in Sussex Street. This was a big pub with a wonderfully atmospheric basement. I ran the Boar’s Head Folk Club for a few years and had some great nights of music.
I was also involved in setting up the NSW Folk Federation with Danny Watson and Bernard Bolan. I had produced the first Port Jackson Folk Festival, which was also one of the early national Folk Festivals, and it was staged at Sydney University with the main concerts being at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown. They were wonderful concerts in a great old theatre full of atmosphere. The festival was also a success and the idea of the Federation grew out of that.
I went on to suggest a national body of all the fledgling state folk federations and the Australian Folk Trust was born and operated out of my Paddington office with me as Executive Officer. It was a bloody nightmare and I sometimes wonder why I agreed to do it. Too political with everyone suspicious of everyone else’s motives. It ended up surviving but I bailed out after fifteen months of angst.
My businesses, Folkways and Larrikin Records, had grown and demanded more time so I step aside of the folk clubs. All the Sydney city clubs folded soon after and never recovered. Of course, the festival circuit had already started and this was filling the bill for many people who still wanted to attend folk clubs.
The folk revival had already come a long way but still had a long way to go.
(this is a work in progress and I shall add to it as I get time. Other contributions welcome be you a performer or audience member)