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Early Tasmania part5


Malcolm J. Turnbull


The Tasmanian Folk Festival, convened at Longford annually from 1977 to 1986, was a major event on the national folk calendar. Boasting headliners like Vin Garbutt, Martin Carthy, MacColl & Seeger and Steeleye Span, it drew audiences from around the country and, according to one source, was “thought by many to be the best [such event] of all”. Milestone that it was, however, the first Longford event was not, as was widely believed, the first folk festival to be staged in Tasmania.

In 1967 the inaugural national Intervarsity Folk Festival was convened in Sydney, attracting delegates from campuses around the country. With TUFC sponsorship, a handful of Hobart representatives enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to travel to the mainland and see at first hand what was going on in the larger folk industry. Unlike many of their more jaded peers, the TUFC contingent studiously attended everything on the schedule (and more) and so impressed Festival organisers that Hobart soon became first choice as host campus for the following year.

The Second Australian University Folk Festival was a week-long affair, May 20-26, 1968. Convenor Beth Sowter reported:

Despite the fact that Tasmania’s shores seemed to border on the Antarctic, thirty odd (sic) delegates crossed the mighty expanse of Bass Strait to make the … Festival an outstanding success … [An] important facet … was the encouragement given to those who perhaps were only beginning their folk career … by the singers who normally sing professionally. The number of people who have gone back to their home states enthused with the idea of starting a jug band is remarkable … The two concerts also showed the broad scope of folk music with which Australia is involved. American music was predominant, although this is perhaps because Tasmania itself tends more towards this style, be it blues, bluegrass, mountain or contemporary. This does not deny, however, the presence of top-class singers who were involved with the music of their own country.

“I ran everything from inside my head – wish I could do that these days”, Sowter reminisces:

We housed all the interstaters in three venues, my flat in Derwentwater Ave., Suzette and Tiiu’s flat in Molle Street, and someone else’s house … Andy Kruger, Karen Le Gay Brereton, Greg Goldsmith and another lovely lad from Armidale, New England, Graeme Turner, a bass player called Eddie …

The festival opened informally with a Sunday night get-together at the Five Believers. Events during the week included two evening concerts, a come-all-ye to entertain patients of the Lachlan Park hospital, a packed “Booze cruise” on the Cartela, and a combined campus jazz and folk clubs bus trip to Port Arthur. Alex Tkaczuk’s ‘Seagull in the Land under Waves’, based on an old Hebridean myth, won second prize in an Original Tunes competion; first place went to Sowter & Salter for their collaborative effort ‘My Song is Written’. An intense young newcomer (remembered only as “Alan”) amazed listeners with his ability to improvise material:

[He] made up songs on the spur of the moment and … said he was going to top himself … [He] performed the most amazing song at the concert … and we recorded him in Bron Holly’s loo where the acoustics were wonderful.

Seminars on American jug bands, Irish folklore and Furneaux Island “antifolklore” were led by Chris Cruise, Maeve Chick and Patsy Adam-Smith respectively; unable to attend in person, Hedley Charles sent down a taped talk on bluegrass. In the course of the week, a national body of student folk groups, the S.F.A., was formed with Queenslander Andy Kruger elected first president. Kruger subsequently shone at the festival’s closing concert, leading a rowdy finale of ‘Paddy Doyle’s Boots’ after polishing off a bottle of scotch.

The island’s compactness ensured that frequent crossover occurred between the Hobart and Launceston folk scenes, and between Launceston/Hobart and the coast, particularly as Teachers College and University students graduated and were posted elsewhere in the state (usually to schools). Launceston pioneer Guy Carey settled in Burnie. Frank Povah worked all over the state, including a stint with a Devonport sawmill and the H.E.C. while he was co-running the Gateway; Chris Cruise regularly made the car-trip up to the coast to perform with him. (Povah & Cruise were head of a TUFC/Five Believers delegation which staged a concert apiece in Burnie and Devonport one weekend circa 1968. Also involved were Johnny Bird, Tony Endersby, Suzette Salter and Beth Sowter). Voigt and Eynon debuted at the Wild Goose before moving north to the Crescendo Club and Copper Pot. Alex Tkaczuk took time out from Launceston to sing (and study) in Hobart. Terry Eastman hitchhiked all over Western Europe, singing for a living, before returning to teach in Burnie. Beth Sowter, Neil Gardner and Mike Raine were among the north-west coasters who were prominent in Hobart circles while shuttling back and forth across the state. Suzette Salter took up teaching jobs in Devonport and Launceston and transmitted her enthusiasm for folkmusic (and what she had seen of the Hobart scene) to senior students in both towns. However, the first formal gathering of musicians from all over the state did not occur until June 1969 when the First Tasmanian Folk Festival was held at the Excalibur disco in Burnie.

Rather more modest than the name suggests, and certainly much less ambitious than the intervarsity event had been, the festival comprised an afternoon and evening concert. It was attended by around 100 people with proceeds ear-marked for the Miss Tasmania quest. John Fulton-Stevens compered. Alex Tkaczuk’s diary notes:

15 June – Ted Myers drove us there … us being Dave Voigt, Ian Clarke and Susan Rolfe. We arrived to the tune of autoharp and guitar, and astounded the local lads with our old Humber. We had lunch at the beach and then went round to the Excalibur to the meet. Surprises when Suzette Salter, Beth Sowter, Steve Vertigan, Anna Vertigan and Roger Stone turned up … John Stevens opened the show and we all performed well … Standard was very high and everybody is now singing ‘The Galveston Flood’ … We left a wild party about midnight and rolled home.

Although both shows were disrupted when the local taxi company’s transmission interfered with the concert sound system, the festival was sufficiently well-received to permit a successor.

Attendance at the Second Tasmanian Folk Festival, held upstairs at the Burnie Town Hall on June 14, 1970, “easily surpassed” that of the previous year. One estimate placed the overall figure at around 200 people, and the two concerts (afternoon and evening) were generally declared an unqualified success. Recorded on tape by C&W authority Hedley Charles, the festival was compered again by Fulton-Stevens who (reportedly) “took his role as m.c. in his stride, and interspersed the other brackets with [selections] in his own down-to-earth Australian style”. The line-up brought together Helen Henry and Anna Vertigan (from Hobart), John Lavery and Mike Raine (“north-west coast boys” then studying – and performing – in Hobart), Guy Carey, a trio dubbed The Quintesses and Neil Gardner (Burnie), Suzette Salter (Devonport), Malcolm Turnbull (Ulverstone), Ian Clarke, The Islanders, Alex Tkaczuk and Joe & Hetty (Launceston), and – as a crowd-pleasing change of pace – a talented bluegrass trio (dobro, fiddle and guitar) from the Smithton-Stanley district, the Beau Chatwin Trio.

Reviews of the concert highlighted The Chatwin Trio and Gardner’s performance of his own songs such as the well-received ‘Nervous Breakdown’ (plus a comic rendition of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dear Doctor’). Otherwise, Salter’s version of the tragic ‘Cod’ine’, Clarke’s hard-hitting bracket and the “magic harmony” of The Quintesses and Joe & Hetty were all singled out for mention. An enthusiastic Fulton-Stevens was glowing in his praise of the performers (“the artists have done a marvellous job”) and he also acknowledged (as “fantastic”) the responsiveness of the audience which ranged in appearance from “very folksy” (ponchos, headbands, felt hats, fringed jeans) to “collar and tie”: “All blended in beautifully”. (Fulton-Stevens attempted to co-ordinate an LP by artists at the festival. Several performers went so far as to record tracks for the compilation, to be released by Van Diemen Records as Folkmusic Tassie Style. As far as anyone knows, the project never reached completion).

Local journalist Greg Pullen expressed a widespread view in his report on the festival for the Advocate:

From outside it looked as far removed from a folk cellar as one could imagine but once inside, the strains of quiet music took over. With the aid of candles, tables and blankets hung over the windows, the Town Hall looked as though a folk concert was a regular happening in Burnie. But, as many people complained, this was not so, and it is only once a year that anyone on the north-west coast is able to sit back and listen to some folkmusic … The only criticisms I heard as I left the hall were those which were repeated throughout the day: “Why can’t this happen more often?”

A bid to make it “happen more often” came a few months later when the Brumida organisation staged its first festival/concert at the Eastside coffee shop in Devonport.

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