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THE GREAT FOLK REVIVAL – Some Issues, Debates and Controversies


© Malcolm J. Turnbull

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In researching the history of the 60s revival  (over several years), I have enjoyed the enormous privilege of speaking with many key players of the era, and of sharing their memories of the folk scene in its heyday. I am acutely aware that the interview process
sometimes entailed invoking people’s personal demons: the spectres of unrealised dreams and lost ideals, general disillusionment, marriage and relationship breakdowns, alcoholism, mental illness. With surprisingly few exceptions, even so, veteran performers and former audience members have tended to recall the period nostalgically and with affection. Not least of the charms of that time was the camaraderie which developed between people from diverse backgrounds who shared veneration for (and immersion in) the music. Such communion encompassed the local and interstate performing networks, with aspiring singers and guitarists taking their lead and inspiration from more established performers. Hearing Glen Tomasetti first turned Adelaide country singer John Fulton-Stevens to folksongs, for instance. Lyell Sayer started singing and playing in public after attending the Emerald Hill concerts, and consciously patterned his style after Martyn Wyndham-Read. Peter Laycock acquired the basics of guitar technique and a working songbag of Australian ballads from the eminent collector Ron Edwards and, in turn, allowed 16 year old Trevor Lucas to learn from his performing experience. Tasmanian singer Ian Clarke’s lifelong passion for folkmusic was first nurtured by hearing Declan Affley, Alex Hood and Margaret Kitamura on the mainland. Dave Brannigan was “turned on” to folksong by hearing Brian Mooney sing ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ at Traynors.

On occasion, this communion extended itself to international celebrities,  as canny entrepreneurs cashed in on the folk boom by bringing out the biggest names in the industry. Away from home, many of the stars sought out the society of like-minded individuals and local artists found themselves mixing socially with their peers and idols at Traynor’s, the Troubadour, the Folk Hut, the Folk Centre, or at parties around town. In some cases enduring friendships were established. Singer Peter Dickie remembers shaking hands with the legendary Josh White and wondering what other (immortal) hands White must have shaken in his lifetime. Dickie swapped songs with Lou Gottlieb of The Limeliters and Bill Svanoe of The Rooftop Singers one evening at the Workshop in Melbourne, and later spent a day showing Judy Collins around Melbourne. The great gospel singer Brother John Sellers significantly boosted the career of Gary Shearston by insisting that his young protege share the bill with him at the Troubadour. Melbourne poet Martin Smith and his wife Rosie got to know American musicians Leslie Grinage and Bruce Langhorne when they toured Australia with the New York Ballet; through them they became close friends with Odetta. The Smiths also played host to the Clancy Brothers during a gloriously “mad week” in 1965. Paul Stookey taught John Fulton-Stevens claw-hammer guitar one night in Adelaide while Tina Lawton’s family befriended a homesick Peter Yarrow. Mary Travers relaxed by riding horses at Judy Jacques’ property on the outskirts of Melbourne. Graham Squance came to the rescue with his own instrument when Bob Dylan’s guitar was damaged en route to Melbourne.

 Due acknowledgement and reference should be made also to the contributions of a number of nurturing non-performers to the folk scene. Restaurateur Tom Lazar was responsible for folkmusic being featured at both the Reata and Little Reata. Frank French, who established the Pigalle in Sydney, later reactivated PACT Folk. Tasmanian enthusiast David Paulin co-ordinated a series of concerts and minor festivals in Northern Tasmania and founded a shortlived folk club as late as 1971. Probably the most influential of the enthusiasts was Peter Mann, proprietor of the specialist Discurio Record store in Melbourne. Mann, who was active in the Peace movement, organised Pete Seeger’s first visit to Australia, imported crucial reserves of recorded music from Britain and America, and went a step further, producing and releasing a series of LPs by Australian artists: Affley, Mooney, Wyndham-Read, Spooner, Lumsden, McIntyre, etc.

For many of us – the so-called baby-boomers – the time and music represent our youth. “We enjoyed ourselves. We weren’t driven by a compulsion to make millions”, observes Tasmanian singer-songwriter Mike Raine, expressing pleasure that, in many cases, bonds forged between participants then continue to resonate 30-40 years later. “A wonderful time – my formative years”, “a time of hope … a lovely period”, Martyn Wyndham-Read and Glen Tomasetti have recalled respectively, echoing the sentiments of most of the artists I interviewed. (Interviewed in 1999, a few years before her death, Tomasetti cited the immense satisfaction she felt at being able to earn enough money in an evening’s playing at the Cafe Ad Lib or elsewhere to buy groceries and feed her children the next day: “Singing for my supper”. In her view, the coffee lounges were ideal venues for the performance of folksong because they fostered intimacy, warmth, naturalness, spontaneity and ease between artist and audience. Peter Laycock concurs: “It never got any better than that”, he notes of playing to enthusiasts at the Ad Lib).  “I generally loved it all”, recalls Lenore Somerset. “I never saw a hand lifted in anger towards a player or a patron during the folk years”, remembers Adelaide entrepreneur and singer John Fulton-Stevens. Melbourne club organisers Don Carless and Mary Traynor agree that, by and large, died-in-the-wool folkies were “great people” and that the folk era was characterised by its overall decency. (So much so that incidents like the misappropriation of proceeds from the West Gate bridge fundraiser, the theft of Gordon McIntyre’s guitar after a Town Hall folk evening, or the theft of some of Tomasetti’s most treasured records during a party she hosted, are still seen as glaringly uncharacteristic). “There were very few assholes”, assesses Danny Spooner.

[In addition to printed sources and recorded interviews held by the National Library – cited in the text – this paper draws on my own interviews & conversations  with David & Lynne Lumsden, Danny Spooner, Brian Mooney, the late Denis Gibbons, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Gary Shearston, Marian Henderson, the late Glen Tomasetti, Phyl Lobl, John Lavery, Neil Gardner, Alex Myers, Beth Sowter, Bernard Bolan, Anne Infante, the late Wendy Lowenstein,  the late Stan Arthur, the late John Fulton-Stevens, Jim Maguire, Mick Counihan, Keith McHenry, Ken & Fiona White, Don Carless, Peter Dickie, Mary Traynor, Garry Kinnane, Ian Clarke, Lyell Sayer, Mike Raine, Peter Laycock, Cris Larner, Ian Parossien, Sean Cullip, Jim & Anna Kenny, Duncan Brown, Dave de Hugard, Kath Lumsden, Chris Shaw, Peter Wesley-Smith, Dave Nicholson, Mike McLellan & Mark Gregory]

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