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Early Tasmania part4


Malcolm J. Turnbull


Apart from occasional talent quests or amateur variety concerts which might afford an aspiring young folksinger the opportunity to try out his/her skills in front of an audience (albeit a generally not very discriminating one), the chances to hear or participate in live folksinging outside Hobart were few and far between until mid-decade. In a pattern certainly not peculiar to rural Tasmania but one which was undoubtedly compounded by particular circumstances of the island state, a number of adolescent singer-guitarists who would become prominent on the local folk scene by the late 60s/early 70s initially acquired the basics of instrumental technique and a working songbag in isolation – only rarely recognising that there might be others out there who shared their passion. Joe Binns, a student radiographer of Launceston, who taught himself to play listening to The Beatles, Peter Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan, remembers first meeting like-minded enthusiasts at a Folk Night held at the (Old) Teachers’ College building in September 1966.

The evening was organised by two young trainee teachers, John Husband and Guy Carey. Husband was a recent arrival from Sydney, where he had seen mythic venues like the Troubadour, the Last Straw and the Folk Attick at first hand. Carey had grown up on the north-west coast listening to country music. Hearing The Seekers’ ‘Morningtown Ride’ on radio inspired him to learn to play.

There were guitars at home. Dad played Hawaiian guitar. I took the high bridge off, put on nylon strings and attacked the chord charts.

For Carey, discovering folkmusic was opportune: “My dad died at the beginning of 1966 and I was an angry young man”. He and Husband found themselves sitting around, trading songs and jamming together in flats or at the Glen Dhu caravan park. Chris Landor, a singer in her final year of teacher training, sometimes joined them to perform PP&M songs and, a couple of times, the trio squeezed into Carey’s FIAT 600 for the round trip to Hobart and the Wild Goose.

According to Joe Binns, who offered up a rendition of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, also making its public debut at the Teachers College Folk Night was a trio consisting of Paula Kennedy, Hetty Van Der Aa and Alex Tkaczuk, all senior students at the Sacred Heart Convent. (Legend has it that the girls performed ‘Four Strong Winds’). A flat shared by Carey and Husband, at 273 Charles Street, subsequently functioned as a drop-in centre for aspiring folksingers. Further occasional folk-nights at the Teachers College or Nurses’ Home, or guest spots at the Launceston Jazz Club or Cosgrove Park retirement village, provided them with more formal performing opportunities.

Live folkmusic subsequently took off in Northern Tasmania with the inauguration of several coffee lounge venues in 1967-8. The first was the Crescendo Club in the historic township of Georgetown, 30 miles up-river from Launceston. It was the initiative of Eddie Smith, a jazz-buff well-acquainted with live venues in Sydney, and Peter Lyall, a trade union organiser and long-time Kingston Trio fan. (Lyall’s interest in folkmusic had been nurtured by witnessing Brian Mooney’s inspirational performance of ‘The Patriot Game’ at a concert at Launceston’s Windmill Hill). The Crescendo Club opened an ambitious three nights a week. Smith and Lyall initially hoped to offer a mix of jazz and folk. However (Lyall recalls):

The popularity of Folk soon overcame the Jazz side … The popularity was so great that we had to borrow chairs from the Methodist Church. The club was a converted teahouse. We had a stage, decor, subdued candles, fish-nets, record covers on the wall. Although it was dark, people still wore dark glasses … We sang PP&M, Ian & Sylvia, Limeliters, Clancy Brothers, Julie Felix, Joan Baez, Judy Collins … Later on there were Bob-Dylan-style performers, nearly all bloody dreadful … The boats that used to come into Bell Bay always had seamen on [them] and as soon as they heard there was a folk club … a lot of Brits and Irishmen and Scotsmen would come in. It certainly added to the atmosphere … There were two policemen in town … great blokes. We managed to bribe them with heaps of booze. They would come around to drink at the club and keep the local football club away … Many romances blossomed at the club … (Running a folk club, I’m like a priest in the confessional. I never repeat anything I’ve learned over the years.

Resident artists at the Crescendo Club were David Voigt and Howard Eynon, both veterans of the Wild Goose, who (according to a contemporary press report) “joined to sing anything from traditional folk to bawdy self-composed folksongs. When they sing apart they sound quite different but together they have a unique harmony. Both play guitars – Howard a 12-stringer”.

Howard and David loved the place [recalls Pete Lyall]. When later down the track we lost our regulars, even though they were getting gigs at the Hotel Tasmania and were “on the way” professionally, they played for nothing ’til we called it a day. They were grateful to the Crescendo for giving them their start … Dave was teaching at the local high school. Once when I was leading a picket line at Georgetown, he sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ from the back of a truck.

The Crescendo Club attracted the bulk of its (mostly student) audience from Launceston. Inevitably interest declined within a few months when an alternative (and more accessible) city venue emerged. Around the same time, Lyall, as union organiser, fell foul of management during an industrial dispute. Unemployable locally, he moved to Western Australia for several years.

Initiated by Joe Binns, Carey and Husband, David Humphries (another student radiographer and a future policeman) and Dick Porch (an electrician), the Copper Pot was convened in Charles Street. Porch installed the stage and lighting. “Most of the time it is a sedate coffee lounge” reported the Launceston Examiner, “but each Friday fortnight it is invaded with the ‘folk set’’”. Opening night, June 9, attracted some 70 people. “We were packed out completely. It was fantastic”, noted Alex Tkaczuk who recorded her impressions of the venue in her diary:

The stairs were always crowded with people, and I had to fall over them [coming] down, carrying a weapon. Ian D. (Lynch) and I always sat halfway up the stairs where we could see all and could be within easy reach of my “axe”. It used to be absolute hell trying to tune up in the upper room, 10 people at once. Nick Munting tore around with his flashbulbs, taking photos madly. Tony Naylor and John Edwards gave tremendous renditions of blues, especially ‘Hootchy Kootchy Man’, ‘Summertime’, etc. Great people singing there: Guy Carey, John Husband, Ian Clarke, me, Hetty Van Der Aa, David Voigt and Howard Eynon, and assorted others. And a few times, the guy whose brainchild “The Pot” was, Dave Humphries, came too. Chris Landor from Hobart appeared a couple of times, which occasioned much drinking at 273 Charles Street.

The Copper Pot lasted about six months and was succeeded by two other Launceston venues, the Lemon Tree and Snoopy’s Hollow. The Lemon Tree, which met at Monaghan’s Cafe in Brisbane Street (in the heart of Launceston), lasted for a few months during 1968. Prominent in its running were Humphries, Porch and John “Ted” Myers. By day a trainee metallurgist with the Comalco aluminium company, by night Myers was a dashing figure either clad in black velvet and ruffled linen (and resembling a romanticised Georgian highwayman), or sporting a coonskin cap and carrying a wine-filled leather pouch. Snoopy’s Hollow endured for half a dozen evenings upstairs at the YMCA in Brisbane Street.

A permanent core of popular performers emerged out of the various venues, notably Binns (who worshipped – and specialised in – Dylan), Guy Carey (who revered The Clancy Brothers), a poet who called himself Ian D., and a duo who styled themselves The Islanders. Gospel duo Ian & Edith were Salvation Army officers who played the Copper Pot “in civvies” and were surprisingly well-received there. Peter Turner was an early – and earnest – devotee of Leonard Cohen. Lester Wahlquist, a talented singer-guitarist from South Australia, is still remembered for his distinctive rendition of the Child ballad ‘Matty Groves’.

Joe Binns remembers that Voigt & Eynon were “top class”. Eynon’s immaculate open-tuned guitar work was something of an inspiration to youthful instrumentalists. (The duo folded in 1968 when Eynon moved to Melbourne. Voigt teamed up with another art teacher, Wal Sutherland, as The Walkabouts, and the duo performed ‘Mountain Dew’ on Showcase 68. Voigt also moved to Melbourne in 1970; Eynon subsequently recorded a creditable album, So What if I’m Standing in Apricot Jam, for Spectangle). Ian Clarke was unusual among the northern folkies in having spent a couple of years listening to live folkmusic on the mainland. Deeply influenced by performers like Alex Hood, Declan Affley, Margaret Kitamura and Brian Mooney at the Colonial Inn, the Folk Attick and the Folk Terrace, he invested 10 pounds in a Jason Nevada guitar, and acquired a repertoire of robust Irish rebel songs, protest material (he cites Kitamura’s rendering of ‘The Crow in the Cradle’ as inspirational) and satirical ditties like ‘Plastic Jesus’, before debuting at the Copper Pot. He even sang the occasional traditional Australian ballad. Bluesman Tony Naylor coupled appearances at the folk clubs with fronting local rock groups The Rejected and Ida May Mack.

Alex Tkaczuk was undisputed leading lady of the Launceston scene, excelling at gentle Anglo-American or British ballads like ‘Barb’ry Allen’ and ‘Dainty Davy’ or Carter Family standards like ‘Sweet Fern’, accompanying herself on Spanish guitar and autoharp. She was, effectively, the local Joan Baez, whether singing solo, with Hetty Van Der Aa (herself the possessor of a shimmering and ethereal soprano) or, for a short time, as half of the duo Betty & Dupree with Joe Binns. Launceston singer Phil Rainbird once paid tribute to her voice in song:

Crystal bells, crystal bells,
How I love the magic tales you tell,
Tingling, tangling chimes soften,
Jingling jangling rhymes,
With a voice clear and pure as Crystal bells.

The daughter of post-war Ukrainian and German refugees (she was born at the Uranquinty migrant hostel near Wagga Wagga and came to Tasmania aged three months), Tkaczuk bought her first guitar (for $25) as a schoolgirl and served her musical apprenticeship at the Launceston Jazz Club, the Copper Pot, the Lemon Tree and the Five Believers (the last while studying Psychology – briefly – in Hobart). She also spent a short time as vocalist with a rock band, The House of Simon, and appeared twice on the nationally-televised Showcase 68 (and, later, on Showcase 70). She has remained at the centre of folksinging activity in the north from that time on.

Similarly well-known in the late ’60s were Joe Binns & Hetty Van Der Aa who first started singing together in 1968. Fondly remembered for an eclectic repertoire which drew on Dylan, Donovan, Baez, PP&M, Ian & Sylvia and Arlo Guthrie, Joe & Hetty honed their act with weekly appearances at the Matador, a Launceston restaurant, from 1969-71. Like Tkaczuk, Lloyd Trenham and The Walkabouts, they gained wider exposure with an appearance on Showcase (in their case, performing ‘There But for Fortune’ in 1970). For those who were there, Joe & Hetty’s versions of ‘Ten Thousand Miles’, ‘Girl of the North Country’, ‘Coming into Los Angeles’ and ‘Nancy Whiskey’ remain treasured memories of the era.

Another highly influential singer, somewhat older (and certainly infinitely more experienced) than most of the corps of Tasmanian performers, was John Fulton-Stevens. Born at Papeete, Stevens grew up in Adelaide where he first started performing country & western songs. On a trip interstate he heard Glen Tomasetti sing at a Melbourne coffee lounge and was immediately captivated by folkmusic. In due course, he opened and ran the Folk Hut, Adelaide’s premier folk club, nurturing up-and-coming singers like Doug Ashdown, Robyn [Smith] Archer, Irene Petrie, The Wesley Three and Hobart’s own Patsy Biscoe. Fulton-Stevens spent several years (1968-72) in northern Tasmania, working for Dillingham Thermal Power and the Hydro-Electric Commission. He quickly adopted something of a paternal role on the Launceston scene, compering folk nights and concerts, chauffeuring artists to Hobart (and the Ad Lib) in his Jaguar, and actively encouraging emerging talent. A deft instrumentalist, whether on his unique hand-modified 9-string Hagstrom guitar or his classic 1925 Martin, Fulton-Stevens possessed a winning baritone, a potent repertoire (Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Richard Farina, comedy numbers) and a professional gloss. He knew how to work an audience. “For Stevens a set of songs was a whole experience”, recalls Ian Paulin. “It was about taking people on a journey. He nurtured an audience from one end of a set to another”. On his first Tasmanian appearances at the Lemon Tree, he wowed the crowd with Louisiana swamp songs like ‘Sugar Babe’, material unheard in Launceston up to that time. He is also remembered for a number of self-composed songs, such as ‘Everything’s Coming Up Bare’ (a conservation song to the tune of ‘Joshua’s Gone Barbados’), the cheeky ‘Sugar Plum’, the beautiful love-song ‘Jennie’, and ‘Doctor King’, a stunning tribute to the great American civil rights leader. Fulton-Stevens, himself, was the inspiration for the song ‘Georgetown’ by good friend Doug Ashdown.

An artist who became prominent following the demise of the venues mentioned here was Joe Van Tienen, a self-effacing specialist in Simon & Garfunkel, Beatles and John Denver standards, who accompanied himself on 12-string guitar. Rhiannon Geerlings, a trainee teacher with a glorious, classically-trained alto voice, sometimes dropped by at college folk-meets or parties and sang the odd folksong (like ‘Four Strong Winds’).

“The folk scene was not a huge scene ever in Launceston”, remembers Alex [Tkaczuk] Myers, “but it used to attract more people than possibly it does now … Folk was more mainstream then than it is now … it also attracted the people who would later become the alternate lifestylers”. Parallel with the evolution of the Crescendo Club, the Copper Pot, the Lemon Tree and Snoopy’s Hollow, there was peripheral activity west of Launceston in the coastal Devonport-Ulverstone- Burnie region.

The Gateway Folk Club commenced operation around August 1967, meeting fortnightly at the Adult Education theatrette in Devonport. Exactly who was responsible for its founding is unclear; prominent in its running were Malcolm Dick, a local wine-maker, and Hobart artists Chris Cruise and Frank Povah. Povah was semi-regular m.c. An extraordinarily skilled instrumentalist, he was a dogmatic and somewhat volatile individual who, on one occasion, invited an audience member to settle an argument over the “folkworthiness” of an American country standard by stepping outside. (“I used to get really angry, and still do, about people doing things like the Carter Family and then saying it’s not folk”). At the same time, Povah could be highly sensitive in his encouragement of nervous newcomers. A lunch-time concert by Cruise & Povah at Devonport High School proved inspirational for young Phil Manning who took up guitar as a result.

Povah’s gritty renditions of classic blues like ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ or ‘Electricity Blues’, a self-penned satire on the proposal to flood Lake Pedder, simultaneously startled and delighted his audience. Another original composition, modelled on the traditional ballad ‘Moreton Bay’, drew tears from more than one listener (and reportedly did so on another occasion when Povah performed it to a roomful of prisoners at Risdon Gaol). Povah recalls that ‘The Port Arthur Song’ grew out of a visit to the old penal settlement:

Tasmania was quite an experience for me. One of my great-grandmothers could remember, as a young woman, seeing men in chains working on the road-clearing. It reduced her to tears … Convicts were in Western Australia much later than elsewhere … When I went and saw Port Arthur itself and saw the Punishment books, it really brought home to me how terrible it was.

Povah was the stand-out act at the Gateway which appears to have lasted, in all, for only three months or so. Other performers who gained experience there included a couple of local women singers who veered more towards C&W than folk; Sally Temple-Smith, daughter of a local magistrate, who played and sang a mix of Nina & Frederik, Belafonte and PP&M; and 15 year-old Malcolm Turnbull, from Ulverstone, who played mostly American songs.

During the same time-frame, an enterprising clergyman, Ken Ogier, took note of the outreach initiatives made by his peers on the mainland and set up a Friday night coffee shop in the hall of the Ulverstone Methodist church, in a bid to provide some sort of activity for local teenagers. Ogier was a controversial figure locally by virtue of his subscription to Christian Pacifism and his public statements against U.S. and Australian intervention in Southeast Asia. “These days, 30 years or more later, it would seem tame to street kids and the like”, he states, but at the time the establishment of the coffee shop attracted a degree of community criticism, not least because of the prominent display there of Peace signs (“behind which lurked … social agitation mildly stated against the Vietnam war”). Once a month (or so) the coffee shop would feature live folksinging sets. Malcolm Turnbull played regularly for a couple of years (1967-69), while James Graham and Guy Carey (both from Burnie) also appeared on occasion.

Other coastal church groups followed Rev Ogier’s lead and set up similar coffee shop-style drop-in-centres, usually at a modest cover-charge of 20c. One such setting, initiated by Catholic priests in Ulverstone, gave two aspiring singer-guitarists their first public exposure. Neil Gardner and Mike Raine, senior students at Marist College in Burnie, dueted a mix of Beatles, Stones, Dylan and blues (like ‘See that My Grave is Kept Clean’) there before moving to Hobart and the Ad Lib, Blues’n’Stuff milieu. The Bonny & Clyde coffee shop (which changed its name to the Eastside following complaints that the original name glorified crime) was set up by Rev Jim Colville in an under-utilised Methodist church hall in Devonport. During the same period, occasional folk nights, organised by Guy Carey, were held in Burnie, either at the Napoli Restaurant or the Adult Education Centre. Wild Goose veteran Terry Eastman was active for a couple of years, in and around Burnie, combining teaching at Parklands High School with leading guitar classes at the Adult Ed Centre, performing at local functions, and occasionally appearing on variety programs like Line-Up.

[continued … ]