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© Malcolm J. Turnbull
 [Formerly published in
Trad & Now, #26, 2008]l]

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Well-regarded on the Melbourne scene were The Coachmen, resident act in 1965-66 at the Colonial Inn in suburban Kew. Typically, Jim Kenny, Ron Cahill (later Chief Magistrate of the ACT) and John Wintle started playing while at school together, circa 1961.

I was turned on to folkmusic by The Kingston Trio  [recalls Kenny].  I made my own guitar out of a door-frame – open  tuning. I also constructed my own banjo. We played at parties, charity dos and dances … even had a youthful manager. Then we appeared on Christies’ Auditions on 3 UZ and earned three gongs. A lot of folkies tried out there. Through [presenter] John McMahon we played at foster homes, boys’ homes, Year 12 concerts, etc. I remember being stunned when we were paid 25 pounds for doing three songs as a Gas & Fuel Company luncheon. In 1964 we played our first coffee lounge gigs … two or three sessions at Prompt Corner, from there to the Copper Kettle. The Seekers, Garry Kinnane and The New World Trio also played there…. The Colonial Inn was two converted shiop fronts near Kew Junction. It served food – Welsh rarebit, cinnamon toast –  but was never really a restaurant. On a standard night The Coachmen went on at 9.00. Maybe four brackets a night. Hans, the owner, wanted quantity not quality … We did lots of requests: Trad stuff, Dylan’s ‘Oxford Town’, Kingston Trio, Australian songs and some of our own … There was a back room where those who were really keen could go to listen silently to the singing. It sorted out the really serious from those wanting a night out … Our other gigs included Showcase 66, New Faces … A highlight was playing a concert at Assembly Hall with Margret Roadknight and David Lumsden. Lumsden’s banjo-playing was a strong influence, so were Mooney, Wyndham-Read and Alex Hood … The group folded when we left university and went to work [1967].    

Another Melbourne-bred trio found a broader audience – and the proverbial ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ –  by moving to Sydney.  “I make no apologies for the fact we tried to copy The Kingston Trio, with the ivy-league shirts and the whole thing”, remembers John McMillan, leader of  The Green Hill Singers.  “As far as we were concerned, we wanted to just make music … The beauty of  it was working alongside the Marian Hendersons, the Declan Affleys and the Danny Spooners”. McMillan, his brother Alec and schoolfriend John Jenkinson had earlier enjoyed minor success, as The Vedetts, appearing every Sunday night on Dick Cranbourn’s 3UZ Radio show. Early in 1964 the McMillans teamed up with bass-player Chris Bonett and “it just all clicked. Chris was the talent we had to have to form a trio as we wanted it”. As The Green Hill Singers, the boys played on In Melbourne Tonight (IMT) and had the distinction of succeeding The Seekers as resident group at the Treble Clef in South Yarra. Winning Everybody’s Magazine’s ‘Big New Sound of 1964’ talent quest gained the trio a recording contract with HMV and a season supporting Shirley Bassey at the Palais in Melbourne and Chequers in Sydney. A single ‘Big Land’, a catchy celebration of the outback penned by Bonett, received substantial airplay, and the boys threw up their day jobs and moved to Sydney to appear regularly on the ABC TV series Jazz Meets Folk.      

Throughout 1965 The Green Hill Singers teamed work in the folk clubs (including the Carter venues) with gigs at RSL and Leagues clubs and appearances on Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music and Dave Allen’s Tonight Show. For a while, they were flown down every Friday to play on Noel Ferrier’s IMT, and at mid-year they recorded an LP for Festival, The Folk Sounds of The Green Hill Singers. John McMillan remembers the trio’s excitement when Dave Guard was called in to provide instrumental support on several cuts: “Am I dreaming here? This is the man I went to see in concert [i.e. with The Kingston Trio]. He’s sitting here in the studio playing 12 string guitar and banjo”. An even bigger thrill was meeting Peter Paul & Mary “at Gary Shearston’s flat at St Peter’s, and having Paul Stookey walk in, sit down and play guitar with me”.  

 Interestingly, Guard’s interest in the trio heralded a decisive personnel change. In the middle of recording the LP, he ‘head-hunted’ Bonett to appear in his own (Guard’s) group on the TV series Dave’s Place. Brian Godden was brought in to fill Bonett’s place and finish the album (which “sank without trace”). McMillan believes The Green Hill Singers was never quite the same without the versatile Bonett, and the trio disbanded, due to lack of work, in November 1965. (The McMillans played occasional m.o.r. gigs at restaurants for a couple of years. Godden subsequently toured extensively as backing instrumentalist for Alex Hood).

 At a time when opportunities to record were significantly fewer than they are today, it is surprising how many of the male trios managed to ‘crack’ the record market. Among the other “Kingston Trio clones” sufficiently successful to actually make it “onto vinyl” (to greater or lesser extents) were The Tolmen, a Sydney-based ensemble comprising Gordon Tolman, Geoff Turner and Lew Jones, who raised eyebrows within the folk fraternity when they were selected by the Arts Council of NSW for a sponsored tour of country towns and schools in 1964.   The Tolmen released 2 EPs, Pieces of Folk and Namatjira, and a single ‘Don’t Book Me Officer’, on RCA.

The Lincoln Trio unselfconsciously sported matching icecream jackets and specialised in upbeat favourites like ‘Midnight Special’, ‘The Queensland Drover’ and ‘O’Reilly’s Daughter’. Led by trainee business executive Brian Tonkin (the other members were Sean Flanagan and Gary Pearson), the trio recorded a single for RCA, ‘Wimoweh’ b/w ‘Go Lassie Go’, before disbanding when Tonkin’s firm sent him overseas. The New World Trio, comprised of Mel Noonan, John Kane and John Lee,  attracted favourable attention with their folky version of ‘Feed the Birds’ (from the film Mary Poppins), and released several folk-pop singles  (‘The World I Used To Know’, ‘Tom Tom Turnaround’, ‘Try to Remember’, etc) before and after reincarnating as the more m.o.r. New World. The Nomads Three (Walters, Grace & McCarter), a trio from Newcastle and stalwarts of venues like the Folk Sanctum, Adytum and the Purple Parrot, preserved their versions of Gary Shearston’s ‘The Voyager’ and  the Mitchell Trio’s ‘Hang on the bell Nellie’ and several bush ballads the albums Folk Songs from Around the World  and Faces in the Street for the local Vista label. The Norfolk Singers mixed classics like ‘The First Time Ever’ and ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ with topical drollery like ‘Nasho Service’ and ‘The Opera House is Falling Down’ in a batch of singles for CBS. Melbourne-based pop threesome The Unichords tapped into the nascent folk boom by remodelling itself as The Southern Folk Three for an album, Gotta Travel On, on W&G, and subsequently, as The Billabong Three for Outback, an EP of bush songs commissioned by the Golden Fleece Petrol Company. More modestly, The Coachmen produced a limited issue LP, privately pressed for St Francis’ Church, which included a self-penned civil rights lament ‘The Long Hot Summer’.      

In terms of long-term influence and/or groundbreaking contribution to the evolution of the Australian folk revival, the commercial male trios are hardly of primary importance. At the time, they were regarded with varying degrees of disdain by the so-called ‘real folksingers’ and the folk establishment amid claims they were diluting or synthesising folkmusic for fame or gain – or as mere “entertainment”.    Eminent folklorist Edgar Waters once dismissed The Wesley Three as “gimmicky undergraduates” likely to appeal to people who liked their folksongs sung by a “Village Glee Club”. (For Wendy Lowenstein of Australian Tradition, the Wesleys’ relevance  was  “at most … marginal”). Peter Wesley-Smith recalls purist criticism at The Wesley Three’s unauthentic approach and their failure to sound as if they “had dug potatoes” with some amusement. (“I can see a case for establishing your categories but to allow the categories to dominate everything is the height of foolishness”). “There was a strong delineation between the ‘true faith’ and those seen as ‘exploiting’ it”, notes Jim Kenny. Likewise, the collegiate trios failed to impress those earnest souls who insisted there must be a fundamental nexus between folksinging and socio-political activism. The Twiliters, for instance, deftly avoided overt political material (the comic ‘With You All the Way LBJ’ was an exception); their conservative image was underlined by their willingness to entertain Australian troops in Vietnam. Peter Wesley-Smith notes:

We were very much non-political as was the Adelaide scene generally. As an indication of how naive we were, we wrote a song about a strike at Holden Motor Works taking the side of management! We played it and only one reviewer objected. The Wesley Three did do some stuff in the protest vein but we weren’t passionate about politics … I recall that Gary Shearston didn’t like our version of ‘The Voyager’. They were very naive times, at least until Vietnam took off.

By extension, it is hardly coincidental that mainstream churches played something of a nurturing role in the careers of a number of the male trios. Just as The Twiliters found their first audiences at Christian Brothers College in Perth, so The Coachmen’s first paid gigs were through their local parish. “Folkmusic was deliberately cultivated as an alternative to rock’n’roll. We were three good Catholic boys who sang wholesome stuff”, recalls Jim Kenny. Similarly, The Greenhill Singers played around the Melbourne Presbyterian church network before ‘hitting the big time’. One Melbourne trio, The Glen Men, actually brought together three trainee priests. (The trio recorded an EP for W&G The Wonderful World of the Glen Men).

In hindsight, however, a sampling of recordings of the era confirms that contemporary critics often failed to acknowledge the skill, fervour – and undeniable affection for the material – displayed by the best of the collegiate trios. While the recordings – and the crowd-pleasing approach taken by the artists – clearly belong to an earlier, arguably less discriminating phase in Australian audiences’ folk consciousness, I suggest that they testify to a musicality and verve that continue to render many of the performances both enjoyable and still valid.