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Early Tasmania part1


Malcolm J. Turnbull


The pre-history of the revival in Tasmania has proved tantalisingly elusive. On the mainland, the crusading endeavours of field-collectors and scholars like John Manifold, Dr Percy Jones, John Meredith, Ron Edwards, John Joseph Jones and Norm O’Connor had fostered the formation of Bush Music Clubs and Folklore Societies (ultimately, in each state), aimed at preserving and propagating the home-grown music of the proletariat. By the mid-1950s, American political and Labor songs, and the recordings of Paul Robeson, The Almanac Singers, The Weavers, Josh White, etc., were current within the left-wing arts and intellectual sub-cultures and milieux of major mainland cities. In the big capitals the activity or interest of a small number of zealots paved the way for the mass enthusiasm of the 60s folk boom.

By contrast, no systematic research campaign prefaced the Tasmanian chapter of the revival. In complaining that the collection of folklore on the mainland had always been largely left to enthusiastic amateurs rather than to academics, folklorist Edgar Waters lamented (in 1965): “Tasmania so far seems to have thrown up no amateurs of folk song”. There were a few exceptions. In 1945, for instance, O. Ingles, a CSIRO scientist based in Hobart, had transcribed a handful of ballads sung by an elderly hospital patient (a Mr Churchill). One of the ballads was ‘The Girls of Tasmania’, a whaling song learned by Churchill from his convict father. (“[F]olklorists may count it a … happy accident that this scientist showed a broader and more sensitive interest in the cultural heritage of his native island than many Australian historians or literary scholars would have done”, Waters has observed).

A decade later Frances Freeman, a Fullbright scolar from Arkansas, spent several weeks in Tasmania as part of her studies in comparative folk literature. According to a report by the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Freeman:

… sought, and indeed found, several ballads and songs which, from their origin or purpose, fall into this category: pieces whose words have become stabilised by common acceptance during innumerable performances, or whose versions vary according to local circumstance. Those songs, in fact, which originated not as formal composition, but grew up from the alterations and additions of many anonymous hands.

Historian Lloyd Robson made a subsequent attempt at field-collecting, tape-recording Mr Davies, an 88 year-old resident of an Aged Care home at Newtown. A former whaler, Davies provided Robson with versions of a handful of sea-songs (including ‘The Cyprus Brig’ and ‘The Ballad of Bob Mahoney’). In 1965 Sydney singer Declan Affley went so far as to borrow a tape-recorder and tour rural Tasmania hoping to make field-recordings. Itinerant country and blues singer Frank Povah recalls learning alternate versions of country songs from old-timers playing squeeze-boxes in remote rural pubs during his extensive travelling around the state, and cites this as a further example of the folk process at work.

Otherwise though, the general failure of significant material to emerge led ’60s folklorists to assume that virtually no traditional Tasmanian folksong survived. (For example: Patsy Adam-Smith’s failure to locate orally transmitted lore in the Furneaux Islands led her to believe that none existed). It was not until the 1980s that Rob Willis and John Meredith spearheaded the collection of pre-war Apple shed dance tunes and songs in the state’s south-west.

Steve Gadd, who currently collects traditional dance tunes in the Huon and Franklin districts, maintains:

There was a lot of pre-revival folkmusic in Tassie but most revivalists were either not interested in the local version or they looked in the wrong places. It did not seem to occur to people that the old players for local barn dances might still be alive and that their tunes might have a radically different lilt to their British and European source tunes. As for songs: my own grandfather knew and sang a lot of what I thought were boring ballads about railways, bushrangers, mines and local factory life … I recall a song about an accident that he had been involved in at the zinc works.. One of his workmates had composed [it]. In some circles this older type of ballad and song-making were still alive but they were not what the average ’60s folkie would think of as folkmusic.

In Gadd’s view, “the very lack of a solid bridge between Granddad’s music and the music of the revivalist” sheds light on the nature of the revival in Tasmania.

Nor has much evidence emerged to date of a nexus between the folk boom in Hobart and Launceston and an earlier Tasmanian bohemianism. There does appear to have been a low-key awareness of American musical trends within University and Art school circles and among the local jazz fraternity. Elsewhere, singer Christine Lincoln remembers hearing American Union and political songs (even a few Australian folksongs) growing up at Ferntree, a left-leaning artists’ enclave a few miles out of Hobart. Lincoln’s father played accordion, guitar and banjo and occasionally brought his family together in a makeshift skiffle band.

A handful of would-be minstrels heralded the advent of a formal folk scene in Tasmania. Malcolm Brooks, veteran performer and observer of that scene throughout its history, cites singing appearances by Alan Tweedie, a graphic artist, as the first stirring of general interest in folkmusic in Hobart. Tweedie, who accompanied himself on Spanish guitar, found an appreciative audience for his renditions of ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ and Weavers songs at Hobart High School, circa 1959. (“He was a big hit with the lads”, recalls Brooks). Tweedie also played intermittently (and for money!) at the Dutch Inn, a Battery Point eatery which had the distinction of being the first real restaurant in Hobart.

Brooks recalls subsequently seeing folksongs performed live at the old Adult Education building in Argyle Street, circa 1962-3, when the Hobart Jazz Club decided to include interludes by folksingers David Brownlow & Mark Pickering in its Sunday evening programs. Brownlow & Pickering teamed up as students at Hobart High and continued to perform for three years or so (while at university), their high point being winning a talent quest on local TV station TVT 6 in 1964. Brownlow was an enthusiast for popular American folk hits and admirer of the light-hearted approach of groups like The Limeliters and The Kingston Trio. His specialty was ‘The Preacher and the Bear’. Pickering took his folksinging more seriously. The son of legendary Tasmanian jazzman Tom Pickering, he had learned guitar as a child, well before that instrument attained mass popularity. He recalls that weekly lessons with Joe Gear (who played double bass with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra) were an ordeal:

To this day I still have trouble facing Tuesdays. I used to hide the guitar case under the bus seat because of the other kids. It was seen as a “sissy” thing to do. I kept it up because my parents advised me I would be glad of it later on.

Pickering brought to the duo an absorbing interest in black music, particularly blues like ‘Nobody Knows You’ or esoterica like Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’. The mix of material was well-received by jazz club patrons and Brownlow & Pickering were joined in time by several other budding performers, most notably Terry Eastman, Brian Connor, Greg Ferris and Patsy Biscoe. (Eastman was a student teacher. Connor was a trained guitarist with a talent for playing rock’n’roll piano, Jerry Lee Lewis style).

The Colonial Club, a cafe on Sandy Bay’s Long Beach, provided the youthful artists with additional gigs for a few months in 1964. According to the Mercury, co-owners Felix Parker (Hobart manager of an American publishing firm) and Joseph Kisvarda (reportedly a Hungarian count) were keen to provide locals with the mix of “good food … pleasant surroundings [and] genial entertainment” that had proved so popular overseas and on the mainland. Brien Connor remembers playing jazz guitar solos there, and providing backing for Patsy Biscoe on songs like ‘Single Girl’. While artists might be lucky enough to get the odd ten-shilling note (or coin donations from the audience), more often than not payment was in the form of “free cappucinos”.

Parties were another performing outlet. Brownlow & Pickering were hired a number of times to play at gatherings hosted by an eccentric, bass-playing antiques dealer in Liverpool Street, or at bohemian evenings organised by photographer Miles Quatermain, and attended by a predictable mix of Art students and English teachers, uniformly dressed in black and earnestly sipping cheap red wine. One enterprising batch of Art School students broke new ground by actually making a record. “The Group” teamed David Voigt, Janice Minchin, Dave Clark, Chris Fahlberg and Hilary Dixon with Alan Chong (a guitarist, then doing an Architecture degree at the university). The “A” side of the resultant 45 was ‘When Will it Be’, a folky anthem penned by Chong (“a whimsical, lyrical, questioning type of song” recalls Voigt); Dixon’s plaintive vocal bore a passing resemblance to the young Marianne Faithfull. (The “B” side of the single was an unabashed pop song called ‘Blue Blue Baby’).

Meanwhile, audiences elsewhere in the state had a first taste of live folksinging thanks to roving minstrel Buddy Bohn. A college drop-out from Salmon Creek, California, who boasted having previously hitchhiked “through 43 countries in 5 continents … [singing ] for royalty, Prime Ministers, Maharajahs, Dukes, Ambassadors and Sheiks”, Bohn made a similar tour of Tasmania early in 1963, “literally singing for his supper”. His local radio and TV appearances and impromptu performances of such tried-and-true crowd-pleasers as ‘Erie Canal’ and ‘Aunt Rhody’ (or more bawdy offerings like ‘The Temptress of Jerusalem’ which he learned from sailors while crossing the Arabian Sea) were so well-received in Tasmania and (subsequently) on the mainland that Leedon Records recruited him to make an LP, Buddy Bohn – Folksinger, before he returned to America. Around the same time, Lynton Till, a disc jockey with station 7LA in Launceston, attempted to emulate Melbourne’s Denis Gibbons by performing folksongs during his radio broadcasts and on the local television channel TNT 9.

Two pioneering Hobart folksingers managed to attain a degree of national celebrity. Greg Ferris, who learned his craft at the Sunday Night Jazz Club and the Colonial Club, sometimes dueting with a visiting American singer-guitarist Dick McKay, was a twelve-string guitar whiz. He came to folkmusic after a couple of years with Hobart’s first home-grown rock band, The Tasmen. (Mark Pickering recalls spending Saturday afternoons jamming with Ferris at his Battery Point flat, picking up instrumental tips and trying hard to undo the stylised guitar technique he [Pickering] had acquired as a child). After abandoning Chemical Engineering studies in order to hitchhike around the mainland, Ferris teamed up again with McKay and the pair made a strong impression on the emerging W.A. scene as The Travellers. Shortly afterwards, he became a member of The Twiliters, one of the most popular of the many collegiate-style ensembles which emerged during the folk years. (The Twiliters recorded for RCA, toured with Marlene Dietrich, and starred in their own TV series Good Grief it’s The Twiliters in 1968. Sadly, Ferris became ill during a tour of U.S. bases in the Far East and died of a brain tumour, soon after returning home, in 1970).

While Ferris was a successful musician who just happened to begin performing in Hobart, Patsy Biscoe gained rather more mileage as Tasmanian folk’s songbird representative to greater Australia. Born at Simla in India in 1946, the daughter of a British army officer/civil servant, she came to Australia with her family at Partition and grew up in Sydney and (from age 9) the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay. She was awarded a scholarship to study classical singing after making an unscheduled appearance at the St Mary’s College annual eisteddfod; a few months later she gave what she regards as her first public performance, singing ‘Panis Angelicus’ and ‘Ave Maria’ for a wedding at St Mary’s Cathedral. While a first year medical student, she started appearing at the Sunday Night Jazz Club, either fronting the band or rendering folksongs to Brian Connor’s guitar. (Connor taught Biscoe her first guitar chords). Her studies and fledgling career were interrupted when she was seriously injured in a car accident:

Greg Ferris and Dick McKay and I sang Peter Paul & Mary songs together, the boys playing guitar. Appearances included making a half hour special for Channel 6, Hobart, singing songs such as ‘All My Trials’ and ‘Five Hundred Miles’. It was, of course, black and white TV and was the only TV performance I gave before I was involved in the car accident which changed my face forever. My eyesight was very badly damaged and it was during the convalescence that I learned to play guitar.

Terry Eastman made frequent visits to the hospital while Biscoe’s eyes were still bandaged and spent hours tutoring her in basic instrumental techniques. Her big break came later the same year when she was chosen as a contestant on Bandstand’s Starflight International talent quest (competing for an overseas trip and a recording contract). She made it into the finals, as did Adelaide folksinger Robyn Smith (Archer) and Mervyn de Souza from Perth. Biscoe’s rendition of the perennial ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ was included on the Philips LP memento of the quest finale.

Patsy Biscoe headlined the first folk concert staged in Tasmania, an evening at Hobart’s Theatre Royal, 18 December 1964, which also featured Connor, Ken Wade, Adolf Sawoff, Launceston singer Lloyd Trenham, and Brownlow & Pickering. D.J. Garry Meadows compered. “In Tasmania the fight for recognition of folk music has begun”, she informed the local press at the time:

People from all walks of life and from all parts of Australia are making use of this folkmusic tradition as a medium of expression and of tying up the past to the future … Folk song belongs in a friendly home or amidst a group of carefree friends, young or old. In the alien atmosphere of sophistication it becomes meaningless. Folk singing is inanimate unless singer and audience together participate to bring it to life … Youth, whatever its temperament, can find its expression in this music.

Biscoe elaborated on her youthful attraction to folksinging recently (i.e. some thirty-five years on):

My strongest memory is that the mainstream world of music (and the harsh reality of commerce) passed me by … I remember very little of The Beatles for example, although I enjoy their music all these years later, and I truly grew up naive in the broad sense of the word … From my perspective there was a certain nakedness about performing as a folksinger in the early days. (Scary yet very satisfying). Just a guitar and voice demanded a tremendous purity of performance and didn’t give much chance to hide any flaws. It was also such a pure form of expression – to sing about the emotions and issues that touched your soul and which ultimately became an expression of your spirituality. The music itself also had to touch you.

Biscoe gained further national exposure on the popular Adelaide weekly Country & Western Hour, Dave’s Place, and a couple of Bandstand folkmusic specials. Her appearance on Gary Shearston’s Just Folk brought her to the attention of CBS Records and, in mid 1965, she recorded her first LP in Sydney. Doug Ashdown and Ed Gaston provided guitar and bass backing. Produced by Sven Libaek, The Voice of Patsy Biscoe was – and remains – eminently listenable. Certainly, its quality belies the haste in which it was made. Libaek later described the recording schedule as “one of the toughest we have ever had”: a little over 24 hours studio time to complete both the Biscoe LP and Ashdown’s debut album. The singers took turns recording, with Ashdown laying down additional instrumental tracks when their voices gave out. Immediately after the session, Biscoe made the long drive to Melbourne to connect with a flight back to Hobart.

The contents of the LP underline Biscoe’s affinity with children’s material, most notably her rendition of Don Henderson’s ‘When I Grow Up’, which was subsequently released as a single and charted in Perth and Hobart. Also included are creditable versions of Tom Paxton’s ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder’, George Tomsco’s sprightly ‘It’s My Song’, and the blues ‘Come Back Baby’ (all three songs strongly associated with American singer Carolyn Hester), Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, Phil Sawyer’s ‘I Thought I Heard Somebody Call My Name’, and Cyril Tawney’s haunting ‘Ogi Man’. All the tracks are elevated by Ashdown’s instrumental virtuosity and by the unadorned, straightforward classicism and simplicity of Biscoe’s approach. The undoubted highlight of the set is a moody and immaculate version of ‘Alberta’.

I remember Doug and I driving to Melbourne, both exhausted but very excited and feeling very close as we shared such an important musical experience. I remember listening to the ‘Ogi Man’ replay and to Doug singing ‘Chilly Winds’ very late in the night, towards the end of the recording sessions and the haunting quality of those moments is still with me.

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