Malcolm J. Turnbull
Around September of that year, Brian Mooney was hired to sing Irish and international songs on Thursday evenings at the Paddington jazz joint the Bird and the Bottle. At this early stage, Mooney
– who, of course, was to become one of the major contributors to the Melbourne scene – cited blues greats Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as key influences on his music. Another early lounge was “a place in Double Bay, behind the Wheatsheaf Hotel”, where “reefer-jacketed hoons used to drink”: Mooney and Johnny Earls performed there. Folksingers surfaced for a time at a restaurant run by Mexicans at Vaucluse, while Bill Berry performed a number of paid gigs for union members at the Ironworkers Hall A year (or so) later, live folksinging was also featured at the Flying Dutchman, a basement coffee lounge in the city centre, at 55A Elizabeth Street. The best-remembered of the performers there was GARY SHEARTON.
Shearston was born at Inverell in 1939 and spent his childhood on his grandfather’s farm at Tenterfield, in northern NSW. (He later evoked his rural childhood in the song ‘Shopping on a Saturday’). The family was musical – particularly his mother who played piano at concert parties for army camps in the north during World War II – and the youthful Shearston became interested in performing after hearing country singer Buddy Williams. Forced to move to Sydney with his parents when drought devastated northern NSW in 1950, he left school at age 16 and worked intermittently as a cadet journalist for United Press International. By this time his interest in traditional music (including Australian folksongs) had been aroused. He became friendly with another young bush song enthusiast, Lionel Long, and remembers spending Saturday afternoons learning guitar chords and trading verses of songs at Long’s parents’ home at Rose Bay. Increasingly disillusioned with the seedy side of journalism (the “last straw” was receiving an eyewitness report of the execution of Caryl Chessman), Shearston opted to try his luck as a full-time musician.
His first professional engagement, at age 19, was inauspicious. Recruited by the manager of a Brisbane pub to go on unannounced and “warm up” the audience for champion whip-cracker Johnny Brady, he “died a death … You couldn’t have gone over worse”. The publican was irate, insisting he would never work again. Brady kindly intervened, demanded the boss “give the kid a break”, and went so far as to introduce the young singer at the start of the second show. Subsequently Shearston was able to eke out a living, occasionally accepting casual work as D.J. at a King’s Cross dance-hall, or as a puppeteer and in the fledgling children’s television industry (The Tintookies for a year and the TCN9 show Name That Tune). Weekends were spent playing punishing schedules at RSL, Leagues and sports clubs and pubs (“there was no such thing as coffee lounges” at that early date) – contending with antiquated PA systems (often only one microphone), inadequate facilities and low pay, and fighting to be heard over the noise of poker-machines .
His repertoire, which initially interspersed calypso, American railroad songs and occasional bush ballads, became more focused as he ordered American imports (Cynthia Gooding, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie) through Edels’ record store, and began to frequent the singabout evenings convened by the Bush Music Club. Wear-and-tear on his guitar first put him in touch with Les Miller, guitar specialist at Nicholson’s music store. Through Miller (who, with harmonica virtuoso Richard Brooks, would later provide instrumental support for Shearston in concert and on record), Shearston became acquainted with Don Henderson and the circle of performers (Alex and Gabrielle Hood, Daw, Marian Henderson, Doug Rickard, and so on) who frequented 90 Queen Street, Woolahra. (Shearston’s own home address, a block of flats in Phoebe Street, Balmain, subsequently became another focal point for pioneer folksinging activity in Sydney. Eminent folklorist Dr Edgar Waters lived on the other side of the building while a big flat in the centre housed a passing array of enthusiasts and performers such as Chris Kempster, Jeannie Lewis and Dave de Hugard). By mid-1962, when he appeared at the WEA’s first weekend folkmusic school, Shearston had acquired an extensive Australian songbag and was attracting a following. He later cited a series of folksong presentations with Hayes Gordon’s Ensemble Theatre as a major break-through.
Shearston would go on to become one of the biggest names on the national scene.
A significant degree of popular acclaim was also attained by LIONEL LONG. Long, indeed, was already one of the most widely-exposed performers of folksong in the country (via radio, TV and records) when his boyhood friend was still struggling to eke out a living as a professional musician. However, he enjoyed little of the respect earned by Shearston. Long’s debut albums Waltzing Matilda (1961) and The Wild Colonial Boy (1962) made him a household name, as did appearances on Sing Sing Sing, Bandstand and his own show Music Time, but they elicited strong condemnation from the folk establishment. His failure adequately to acknowledge the original sources of material he published in his book Australian Bush Songs (1964) also rendered him persona non gratus with the pioneer folksong collectors and scholars.
According to music historian Eric Watson, Long’s first musical love was C&W and it was only at the insistence of Columbia Records that he started to mine traditional material. The son of a skilled violinist, he grew up in the Hunter Valley and worked briefly as a jackeroo before attending Hawkesbury Agricultural College and studying commercial art in Sydney. His folksinging days represented a relatively short part of a lengthy creative career which encompassed film and TV acting (he was in the cast of the series Homicide), painting and film-making. Long himself countered accusations of commerciality as “all self-conscious stuff and garbage”, claiming that he had more first-hand knowledge than most of his critics, having “drunk heartily of outback life, shearing sheds and the open land”. In his view, there was “no excuse … for the lack of interpretation or imaginative presentation or phrasing to any song, particularly a folk song”.
Long’s sentiments were endorsed by The Tolmen, an early commercial folk ensemble, who once insisted: “These coffee-shop people are simply jealous of anyone who looks clean and is a success on television”. [Cover-notes, Lionel Long, Songs of a Sunburnt Country (1965); Bulletin, 14 Nov 1964]
While somewhat slick and marred by orchestration or arrangement (the relentlessly buoyant presence of The Delltones, for instance), in hindsight Lionel Long’s recordings now seem harmless enough, and imbued with rather more honesty and love of the material than the critics have conceded. His output was also more varied than has generally been recognised. In addition to his Australian albums (including Songs of a Sunburnt Country and two volumes of songs glorifying The Bold Bushrangers), he recorded a superior album of shanties (Songs of the Sea) with backing from ex-Kingston Trio member Dave Guard and guitarist Don Andrews; an album of traditional English songs, Long Ago; two records of contemporary folk, Amberwren and Today; and an LP of self-penned bush songs, Walkabout.
Like Melbourne’s Denis Gibbons, Long played an important popularising role, bringing Australian folksongs to the general public some years before the folk boom – and the major Sydney venues – got underway.
The Marmosa [Mimosa?], the Bird and the Bottle and the Flying Dutchman notwithstanding, it was not until 1963 that a discernible folk coffee lounge network appeared in Sydney. Far and away the most important of the venues produced by the boom was the Troubadour which served as a focal point for organised folksinging activity in
Sydney much as Traynors would do in Melbourne. It was the brainchild of JIM CARTER.
Born at Taree in northern NSW, Carter (1928 – 1976) was a self-made businessman with a background in the rag trade. According to one report, his ancestry was “a wild colonial mixture, with a good dash of Welsh”, and his appearance was “more Spanish than anything”. A tall, thin, sallow-faced and sickly bachelor with a rapidly greying mop of hair, an “almost inaudible” voice, and a liking for flashy cuff-links, striped shirts, corduroy jackets and suits “with a matadorish cut”, Carter was a vegetarian before vegetarianism had become fashionable and carried a constant supply of unshelled peanuts in his coat pockets. (“He looked as though he needed a good feed of meat”, recalls Sean Cullip). He astutely invested 3000 pounds into converting an old dress factory, at 155 New South Head Road in Edgecliff, into the Troubadour. It opened at the beginning of 1963 with visiting American gospel artist, Brother John Sellers, as the first headliner. [Syd Sun-Herald, 27 Sept 1964]
Sellers was a charismatic figure who attracted audiences with the sheer exuberance of his renditions of traditional spirituals and work songs – plus he had about him the aura of authenticity. He first started singing in public as a four year old in travelling tent shows in the southern states of America, and, by age 15, was lead soloist at the Church of God in Christ in Chicago. While he did not hesitate to inject elements of “showbiz” into his performances, he was able to call upon more than two decades of touring and playing with the likes of Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy. He was also intimately connected to the Greenwich Village folk scene. Sellers toured Australia several times during the 60s. On his initial visit, with the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe, he performed a tribute to blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, supported by guitarist Bruce Langhorne and bass-player Les Grinage (both of whom went on to tour and record with Odetta for several years).
Fascinated by Australia, he stayed on in Sydney for nearly a year after the rest of the Ailey troupe had returned home, living in show business digs at King’s Cross, performing, and gathering around him a circle of young disciples who were charmed by his extensive repertoire and his vivacity. For devotees of black music, like the Melbourne blues duo Graham Squance and Ken White, Sellers’ visits were every bit as inspirational as Pete Seeger’s would be to mainstream folk artists. He had a similar life-changing impact on Gary Shearston who remembers being transfixed when he first saw Sellers perform with the Ailey dance troupe. Indeed, Shearston’s big break came thanks to Sellers. Approached by Carter to open the Troubadour, Sellers agreed to accept the (low) remuneration offered only on condition that “my friend Gary” be engaged also.
With Brother John Sellers an exotic international star attraction, and budding local boy Shearston in support, the Troubadour’s prospects looked hopeful. Carter promptly set about milking its potential by assembling a roster of local performers. First off was The Folkway Trio, consisting of guitarist Bill Sanday, banjoist (and multi-instrumentalist) Les Miller, and a girl singer, Sonja Tallis. Formed late in 1962, the ensemble hoped to cash in on the dramatic international success of Peter Paul & Mary. Each of the members was a talented musician in his/her own right but, try as they might, the hoped-for musical magic failed to materialise and the trio parted company after nine months. “We just kept practising for months on end and nothing ever happened, we just didn’t click”, Tallis later remarked. Sanday and Miller remained active on the Sydney folk scene, Miller earning a solid reputation as a backing musician, but it was Tallis who went on to make a major impact on the Sydney scene.
Sonja Tallis was a strikingly pretty 19 year old, rendered mildly exotic by her Norwegian and Greek parentage, her fondness for wearing black, and her avoidance of make-up. According to one press report, she also indulged a liking for fast cars, water-skiing and Bacardi rum. Just starting out in the newspaper business as a copy-girl while studying journalism part-time at Sydney Technical College, she had her sights set on higher things. She had already begun acting with fringe theatre groups and, as folk music became more and more fashionable, she threw in her day job “and took on casual work hoping to find another group or another person to start with again”. A mutual friend (a Kingston Trio devotee) suggested Tallis audition a young advertising cadet, Sean Cullip. Although he had learned piano and ukelele as a child and knew a few guitar chords, Cullip had no previous involvement in the folk scene. He remembers that, at the first meeting at the Prince Edward Theatre (in September 1963), the pair could find only one song they knew in common (the Peter Paul & Mary hit ‘Lemon Tree’). Tallis responded to his voice and enthusiasm however: “We found we both had the same ideas about music; so then we began working on arrangements and numbers”. The duo rehearsed singlemindedly four to five hours a night for nearly four months. Cullip recalls those practice sessions as the most interesting part of the work. “If either one of us found a phrase or a line in the music that we particularly liked, we would work at it again and again”. In the process, he believes they became so “in tune” with the music they were creating that they became “one person”. Their biggest problem – always – was finding songs suited to two voices and palatable to audiences.
Sean & Sonja made their debut early in 1964, playing one night a week at a folk lounge in Market Street in Sydney’s central business district. “Sean was still working”, Tallis later recalled, “but I was living on that one night’s earnings”. They also tried out (on unpaid come-all-ye nights) at the Troubadour, hoping to impress the management enough to land a paid spot. A Folk meets Jazz evening staged by Suzie Wong’s Chinese Restaurant helped augment the budget as did a few nights at a pizzeria at beachside Newport, although little of the fee was usually left by the time the duo had paid for bus fares, cigarettes and pizza. The gig proved productive, even so. Margaret Kitamura, who heard Sean & Sonja play at the pizzeria, was sufficiently impressed to recommend them to the management of El Toro in Missenden Road, Camperdown.
That one night a week at El Toro turned out to be the duo’s big break. Around the same time, Betty Douglas, the coffee-maker at the Troubadour, tackled Jim Carter, and insisted he sit down and listen to the pair. As a result Sean & Sonja were hired (at two pounds a night) and added to Carter’s regular roster. After less than a year performing together, they effectively stole the show when Carter organised a major Town Hall folk concert in August 1964. With Sonja clad in a stunning purple thai-silk shift, they opened the program and mesmerised the audience singing a capella a stark, perfectly harmonised version of the ancient British ballad ‘The Greenwood Sidie’. A number of TV appearances followed, and (via guitarist Andy Sundstrom, with whom Sean shared a colonial cottage in Barker’s Lane for a short period) the offer of a recording contract with the prestigious CBS.
For Cullip the CBS offer was one of the undoubted highlights of the duo’s career. Where most of the Australian folksingers would be more than happy to record for small, home-grown companies like W&G, East, Crest or Score, CBS was a mainstream, international mega-player. Its folk catalogue alone boasted American greats like Carolyn Hester, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Brothers Four and Pete Seeger; it was even the local distributor for Warner Bros and Peter Paul & Mary. Up to that point, Gary Shearston had been the only Australian folksinger to make it into the recording “big league”. After releasing a self-composed single on Leedon, ‘The Ballad of Thunderbolt’ b/w ‘The Crayfish Song’ (a variant on the American song ‘Crawdad’ which he learned from Brother John Sellers), and in the wake of his success at the Troubadour and other venues (as well as appearances on national radio and TV shows like Bandstand), Shearston had been recruited by CBS for a series of strong-selling LPs. From 1964-66 he recorded Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia, Songs of Our Time, Australian Broadside (a response to Pete Seeger’s suggestion that Shearston write his own topical material), The Springtime It Brings on the Shearing, Bolters Bushrangers and Duffers, and Gary Shearston Sings His Songs. Gary Shearston Sings His Songs was withdrawn shortly after release when BHP threatened legal action over the song ‘Old Bulli’, and subsequently reissued without the offending track. Furious at the censorship, Shearston demanded – and got – release from his contract. (The following year, he reprised some of the material on a more commercial-sounding album for Festival, Abreaction, released not long before he left Australia for the USA and Britain). Two CBS singles made the hit parade, the satirical ‘Sydney Town’ (from Australian Broadside) and Shearston’s own ‘Sometime Lovin’’, a poetic pastorale which was covered by Doug Ashdown, Sean & Sonja and Peter Paul & Mary.
Sean & Sonja’s first album (self-titled) elicited critical hurrahs (albeit amidst claims by Edgar Waters, Craig McGregor, etc, that the duo was unacceptably commercial in its approach), and sold extremely well (10,000 copies in Japan alone). Two others followed: A Very Good Year and Sometime Lovin, all within less than twelve months.
By the time Sometime Lovin’ was in the record stores, Sean & Sonja were seriously reconsidering their future: Sean was conscripted into the army at the beginning of 1966, and for two years Sonja attempted to re-establish herself as a solo act, then in a duo with actor Tony Bonner and a trio called The Newtones. Neither of these recaptured the old magic, however, and in 1968, Sean & Sonja reunited, playing a mix of folksongs and more commercial light rock and folk-pop material. (They remained a popular act on the club circuit, and in concert and cabaret throughout South-east Asia, finally disbanding 11 years after their first meeting, in 1974). Other folk artists who were fortunate enough to gain recording contracts with CBS were Doug Ashdown, Patsy Biscoe, The Idlers Five and Tina Lawton, while the equally prestigious RCA included in its Australian roster The Twiliters, Shirley Jacobs, The Lincoln Trio, Tina Date and The Kinsfolk.
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