2019 National Folk Festival

April 28th, 2019 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore, Poems for adults, Poems for children

Maggie Somerville and I attended the National Folk Festival again this year, and it proved to be extremely busy, enjoyable and rewarding for both of us.

In contrast to previous years, I took the Thursday before Good Friday off work so that we could drive up and not miss the Friday of the festival. I know Google says it is a seven hour drive, but it always takes me eight, allowing for a couple of stops. The extra time and money devoted to preparing my old Subaru Outback for the journey paid off, as the car behaved admirably throughout.

We set up camp in what has been the traditional place for me for many years and, in more recent years, us (Maggie and me), managing to complete the erection of the tent in the dying hours of daylight. Then we caught the Opening Concert at the Budawang, before retiring to bed at a reasonable time to get plenty of sleep prior to Friday morning’s Poets’ Breakfast. I think the highlight of the Opening Concert for me was the singing of Eric Bogle (sadly, without John Munro), who had been awarded the 2019 National Folk Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. I still regard his first (studio) album, “Now I’m Easy”, as his best, and he performed two songs from it – the title track, and ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’ I would have loved to have heard one of the two songs he wrote about his mother, ‘Leaving Nancy’ and ‘Since Nancy Died’, but you can’t have everything.

There were four Poets’ Breakfasts from Friday to Monday, each one lasting for two hours from 8.30 am – 10.30 am, each MC’d by two people – one for the first hour, one for the second – and different MCs for each Breakfast, for a total of eight. (Maggie and I shared the job for the Monday Breakfast.) The four Breakfasts quickly start to blur together in my mind, and I struggle to remember them as distinct, individual events. Suffice to say they were all excellent, and I think the general standard gradually rises every year.

The format is simple. One of the MCs seats himself at a table outside the Flute ‘N’ Fiddle tent (that’s the name of the venue) at about 8.15, armed with a pen and a piece of paper, and poets/reciters approach, with a view to having their name added to the list of performers. They are then called to the stage in the order in which their names are on the list. Having said that, many performers ask for their name to be placed later down the list. The reason for this is that audience number generally build during the first hour, and reach their peak somewhere around the middle of the show. (They often fall off a little towards the end of the show also.) I harbour no great ambitions as a reciter these days, so am generally happy to kick things off as the opening performer.

Here is a selection of photos from Friday, beginning with Maggie singing a song from her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed’ (poems of Mary Gilmore, music by Maggie Somerville). Geoffrey Graham is seated to her left, as MC.

Some of you may be wondering, why is a song being sung at a Poets’ Breakfast? It was generally felt, as the song was based on a poem by Dame Mary Gilmore, and the guitar playing is fairly subtle, that this was quite reasonable.

You will notice that the faces are generally very overexposed. This was due to the stage lighting, which I was unable to correct for using the camera on my phone.

Cameron Ritchard

Peter Mace

Maggie Somerville

Geoffrey Graham

Three of us – John Peel (the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award), The Rhymer from Ryde and myself were then roped into a most unusual event – a trivia quiz – to be held at 1 pm at the Majestic tent, the three teams being ‘Bush Poets, ‘All Other Poets’, and the audience itself. We were the bush poets. We came well behind the two other teams (I think the audience might have won – not surprising, as they did outnumber the poets, but not by all that much!), and would have come last if the gentleman on the keyboard playing gentle background music had not become a surprise fourth team. We beat him by half a point!

I now know that the National Folk Festival began in 1967 (not 1966, as I first suggested), and that the ACT ranks seventh out of the eight states and territories, not eighth (as I first suggested!). The Northern Territory comes last in terms of population. I also now know that the ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds are crafted in Helvetica font, and that Demos is a moon of Mars, not Jupiter (as I first suggested!). You get the idea?

Here are a couple of photos.

Maggie was programmed to co-host ‘Poetry in the Park’ with David Hallett at 2.30 pm and, as it was the first poetry event she had ever MC’d, she was feeling understandably nervous. The weather was glorious, however, and she soon found she formed an easy rapport with David. She performed her duties beautifully, and was relieved to have the first one under her belt. This is a relatively new event, and has not drawn big audiences in the past, with MCs often having to make up for a short fall of ‘walk up’ poets. This was not the case this year, however, and it was often a struggle to make sure everybody was able to perform.

David Hallett

Alan Wright

Sandra Renew

The Rhymer from Ryde

Geoffrey Graham (with co-MCs David Hallett and Maggie behind him)

The final poetry event for the day was ‘Poetry in the Round’, held at 7 pm in ‘The Terrace’, a spacious, comfortable, quiet, air-conditioned, but somewhat sterile room above the Session Bar. The format is that the three featured poets (in this case, David Hallett, the Rhymer and Ryde and me) do a short bracket – about 15 minutes each – after which there is a short session for ‘walk-ups’, then another short bracket for each of the feature poets. There is no designated MC, and the task of organising the walk-ups fell by default to me, as I was the last of the three featured poets to perform. In retrospect, I should have been a little tougher in terms of restricting their numbers, as we ran over time, and each of the featured poets had to perform a truncated version of their planned second bracket. Unfortunately, the event overall was not very well attended. Perhaps this was not so surprising. It had been a busy day for poetry, with bright sunshine and good crowds generally.

The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday was again a great success. I performed my poem “Jesus and his Yoga”, and was surprised by how good a reaction I got from the audience.

Maggie and I were next scheduled to perform in the Victorian Folk Music Club’s musical presentation by their ‘Billabong Band’ on the theme of ‘bushrangers’ at 10.30 am in the Trocadero (we had had to leave the Poets’ Breakfast early). Maggie was an integral part of the show, playing in nearly every song, and singing one of her own. I had a cameo role, performing my poem ‘Victoria Has Ned Kelly!’ towards the end. The show was very well put together, giving us a picture of Australia’s bushranging days in chronological order, beginning with the escaped convicts, and finishing with Ned Kelly. An excellent narrative, written by Bill Buttler, bound the show together. The show was a vast improvement on their presentation last year, which was a little ragged in places, and was well received. (The Trocadero, by the way, is a gorgeous venue to perform in, and tends to be feature shows with a historical bent. When in doubt, head for the Troc!)

Maggie sang a song about Ned Kelly’s lesser known sister, Margaret. She had taken a poem by Keith McKenry, and set it to music.

(Thanks to Jill Watson for these photos.)

The Billabong Band

Our official duties concluded for the day, Maggie and I were free to consult the programme. After a brief celebratory cuppa with fellow VFMC members, Maggie and I dashed off to a songwriting workshop being held by WA-based comedy acapella act ‘The Ballpoint Penguins’. I had seen their act on festival programmes for many years, but had never had a chance to see them. Besides, I always like to attend poetry writing and song writing workshops at festivals. Sadly, it looks as though I may have left it a bit late in this case, as they announced they would soon be retiring. Nevertheless, we were able to get a good taste of their very clever and entertaining songs and performance, and some insight into their ways of working.

The Ballpoint Penguins

Maggie took the opportunity on Saturday afternoon to further promote her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed.’

Further information can be found here:

The Forest Prayed

and here:

https://www.crookwellgazette.com.au/story/5976607/album-launch-of-dame-marys-poetry-in-crookwell/

The CD is available for sale at Readings bookshop in Carlton, Melbourne.

‘Poetry in the Round’ was again scheduled for 7 pm in The Terrace, this time featuring Jason Roweth, his daughter Megan, and Sandra Renew. Maggie and I attended as ‘walk-ups’. The event was a little better attended this time, and I was able to relate the errors of the previous evening. Sandra ran a ‘tight ship’ so far as ‘walk-ups’ were concerned, with the list being completed before the show even began, and the evening went well. Megan in particular struck me as a remarkably self-assured and mature performer (and poet) for her age. (She is only 11.)

Jason Roweth

Megan Roweth

The Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday was another great event. Maggie chose to perform ‘The Dead Poet’, Mary Gilmore’s tribute to Henry Lawson, in response to a bracket of Lawson poems that Jason had performed the previous evening. She was surprised and thrilled at the audience response.

However, we were now filled with excitement and anticipation, as our principal performance of the festival was looming. I am talking about the presentation of C.J. Dennis’ ‘Digger Smith’, with Geoffrey Graham, at the Trocadero at 12 midday. A final intense rehearsal took place before it was back to the camp-site for the various props and costume changes.

‘Digger Smith’, published in 1918, was the third major book about Bill, Doreen and their friends, following ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ (1915) and ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’ (1916). (It is the fourth if you include the booklet ‘Doreen’, which contained four poems only (1917).) It tells the story of ‘Digger Smith’, an old mate of Bill and Mick from before the war, his homecoming and subsequent difficulties re-integrating into civilian society. It is also a reflection on World War One more broadly. Maggie and I performed it with members of the C.J. Dennis Society at the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival last year to a very small audience, and again with Geoffrey Graham at Newstead Live! in January this year to a slightly larger audience. Would we attract a larger audience at the National Folk Festival this year?

Well, I am pleased to say we did! An audience of 40 – 50 stayed with us for the full 90 minute journey, and made their appreciation known in no uncertain terms at the end. It was exhausting, but went off (largely!) without a hitch.

Thank you to Jill Watson for this photo…

…and to Jan Lewis for this one.

There was no time to reflect on our success, however, as Geoffrey and I were MC’ing ‘Poetry in the Park’ at 2.30pm. It proved another well attended event, with plenty of poets, in beautiful sunshine.

Our official duties for the day once again completed, Maggie and I attended the show by John Schumann and Shane Howard at the Budawang. It was the first time I had seen these two performing together, and we heard the best of Redgum and Goanna with a couple of other great songs as well, and a large, powerful backing band. it was a very emotional show. I took a number of pictures, mostly from the screen nearest us. Perhaps this is the best of them.

The final Poets’ Breakfast awaited us on Monday morning, with Maggie and I rostered on as MCs. It was the first time Maggie had hosted a Poets’ Breakfast and, being the final Breakfast, was also the event at which the winners of the coveted awards – the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for best original written poem (a new award last year) and the traditional Reciters’ Award – would be announced. Maggie acted as MC for the first half of the Breakfast, and acquitted herself well. Our performance of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, Maggie’s musical setting of another of Mary Gilmore’s poems, including my recitation of part of a speech made by Australia’s then Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1941, was well received.

The results of the judging were then announced by John Peel, the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award. John did an excellent job, going through the highlights of every day in some detail before making the final announcements. I was thrilled that my poem ‘Jesus and his Yoga’ cracked a mention. The presentations followed.

Irish Joe Lynch was announced as the winner of the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for his beautiful love poem to his wife, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, and David Hallett as the winner of the Reciter’s Award. Both were very popular and well deserved winners. Irish Joe is a very powerful performer, and a previous winner of the Reciter’s Award. He is one of the few spoken word performers who can command an audience in their own right. David Hallett is also a superb performance poet. He has been swimming against the tide to a degree in recent years, as the principal free verse poet in a sea of rhymers, and richly deserves this reward for his courageous persistence.

(Thanks again to Jan Lewis for this photo.)

Here are a few more shots of the morning’s performers.

Alan Davies

Mona Finley

Phil In

The Rhymer from Ryde

Laurie McDonald (above) announced his retirement as Director of the Spoken Word Programme of the festival. Laurie has done a wonderful job in this role over the last 7 – 8 years, and has done much to raise the profile of spoken word events. There are now many more such shows programmed each year, there is a greater variety, and they are better attended. He is to be commended, and greatly thanked, for his efforts.

Laure announced that another Canberra-based poet, Jacqui Malins (above) will take over as Spoken Word Director for next year’s festival. I wish Jacqui every success in the role, and am sure she will perform it well.

Of course, no festival is ever complete without Campbell the Swaggie!

We had one more show to go! It wasn’t starting until 2.30 pm, and we then faced the long drive back to Melbourne, so there was time to take down the tent, pack the car and get ready to go beforehand. Fortunately, we achieved all this before the inevitable rain came down! The timing was perfect, as it held up until the festival was almost over.

Our final show, ‘Desert Island Poems’, in The Terrace, was a qualified success. I began the show three years ago as a spinoff of ‘Desert Island Discs’, a BBC radio show in which celebrities are invited into the studio to nominate the seven songs they would take with them if they had to spend the rest of their lives alone on a desert island, and why. I invite two poets (one male, one female), to nominate three such poems they would take with them. The show lasts for an hour. This year I chose as the poets Laurie McDonald and Maggie Somerville. An animated hour of discussion followed, and the small audience were well entertained, and thoroughly engaged in the discussion. Laurie chose ‘The Play’ by C.J. Dennis and ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield (which is interesting, because Dennis and Masefield were mutual admirers). He also chose one of his own poems, a ‘work-in-progress’ children’s picture book manuscript – though how he would arrange to submit the poem to the publisher from the desert island was never explored. Hopefully he would have a good internet connection!

Maggie chose several classic poems – ‘The King’s Breakfast’ by A.A. Milne, ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ by A.B. Paterson. A well worn early edition of the poems of A.A. Milne was passed around the audience.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was time at last to hit the road. It had been an exhilarating but exhausting four days, and the focus was now on getting back to Melbourne in reasonable time to get some sleep, and get through a long working day on Tuesday. It was after 1 am by the time my head hit the pillow, but it had all, most definitely, been worthwhile!

Album launch – ‘The Forest Prayed’

April 10th, 2019 | Mary Gilmore, Music, Poems for adults, Songs

Last Saturday I had the great privilege of attending (and performing at) the launch of Maggie Somerville’s new album based on the poetry of Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘The Forest Prayed’. Maggie has taken 16 poems by Mary Gilmore, written music for them, and recorded them as songs. We believe this is the first album of songs based on the poems of Dame Mary Gilmore to be recorded (but would be happy to be proved wrong).

Maggie felt the most appropriate place to launch the album would be Crookwell in New South Wales, near the place of Gilmore’s birth, and home of the Upper Lachlan Shire Mary Gilmore Society. The Society holds an annual Mary Gilmore Festival, which Maggie has attended for the last two years. The driving force behind the festival and the society is Crookwell resident Trevene Mattox, who has become a great supporter of Maggie in recent years.

Trevene enthusiastically agreed to organise the launch, to be held at the Memorial Centre, and very kindly allowed us to stay at her house.

She did an excellent job of advertising the event.

Trevene is a superb organiser, and does a wonderful job of bringing local community groups together. It is always a little nerve-racking in the minutes leading up to an event such as this. The best organisation in the world does not guarantee that an audience will turn up. Fortunately, on this occasion, they most definitely did!

The hall had been beautifully decorated, with great attention to detail.

The launch began with Elaine Delaney (left) and Trevene (right) welcoming the many groups and individuals who had attended.

The Upper Lachlan Shire Mayor John Stafford then introduced Maggie and me.

Our moment had arrived! Maggie performed “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, with me joining her for the choruses, and doing my best to impersonate Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1941 ‘speech to the nation’ in response to the threat of the invasion of Australia by Japan during World War II (which features on the album).

Dame Mary Gilmore’s great great nephew, The Hon Scott Morrison PM, had been invited to launch the album, but was otherwise engaged. The local member for Hume, The Hon Angus Taylor, was also unable to attend. However, his lovely wife, Louise, did most graciously agree to launch the album, and spoke entertainingly, in great detail, and with glowing praise for ‘The Forest Prayed.’

We had been warned that the audience would be satisfied with the performance of one song only but, in fact, they were thirsty for more, so we followed with a rather impromptu (but nonetheless successful) rendition of ‘Never Admit the Pain.’

A very healthy number of CDs were sold during the course of the afternoon, and we can only express our most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Louise Taylor and Mayor John Stafford, and to Trevene Mattox and Elaine Delaney and their large team of tireless and hard working assistants. I realise I have neglected to mention the food which was both varied and delicious, and available in large quantities! All in all, it was a great event for which, I hope, Dame Mary Gilmore herself would have been very proud!

I went for a bracing walk along the road to Bathurst the following morning, and became better acquainted with some of the locals.

More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ album, including details of future launches to be held in Melbourne, can be found here:

The Forest Prayed

The YouTube video of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’ can be found here:

2018 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

October 25th, 2018 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore, Music, Photos, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Stories for adults, Stories for children

The lead-up to the festival this year was disturbed by the very sad news that Vic Williams, co-owner of The Singing Gardens, and husband of Jan Williams, is very ill. My thoughts are with Vic, Jan and their sons at this difficult time.

This year’s festival was very enjoyable and went well, but numbers were significantly down on previous years, which is prompting some soul searching. The cold, wet weather no doubt was a contributing factor, but I am not convinced that this is the whole story.

It began, as always with the Awards Ceremony. This was one of the best attended events of the weekend. Numbers of entries were up on last year, and the standard, as always, was very high. In addition to the prize money and certificates, award winners also received a copy of the festival booklet containing all the winning poems, beautifully produced by Daan Spijer, and a copy of Jack Thompson’s CD, “The Sentimental Bloke. The Poems of C. J. Dennis”, a number of which had been kindly donated to the Society. The new category of short story (500 word limit), now in its second year, appears to be working well. It was especially gratifying to see Jan Williams win First Prize in the ‘Adults Writing for Children’ section, as judged by children, for her poem ‘Scruffy Dog’.

The ‘Open Mike’ and ‘C. J. Dennis Showcase’ followed, with great performances by Jenny Erlanger, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Ruth Aldridge and Daan Spijer.

At 5 pm we commenced the performance of ‘Digger Smith’, published 100 years ago, in 1918. Several rehearsals had been held, we were dressed for the part, and I think we acquitted ourselves well. Unfortunately, we played to a very small crowd, which was disappointing. That said the audience, though tiny, was highly attentive and appreciative – and complimentary! We broke after an hour or so for dinner, and then continued for another hour after dinner, completing the book. (The food, it must be said, was as superb as ever!)

(Photo by Tim Sheed)

The Poets’ Breakfast the following morning was attended by myself, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Christine Middleton and Tim Sheed. It was great to have Christine and Tim there. Christine is a beautiful harpist, and Tim is an excellent reciter of Australian bush verse.

Christine performed some of the melodies she plays in the course of her work as a music therapist.

Tim recited an old Dennis favourite, “An Old Master”. It was exciting to be able to inform him that he was pretty much standing on the slopes of Mt St Leonard himself as he performed the poem!

We were honoured with the attendance of the local Member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish (State Member for Eildon). I think she was expecting a larger turn-up, but she hid her disappointment well, and in the end I think she really enjoyed the performances.

Maggie Somerville had put the poem “West” from “Digger Smith” to music, and performed it after David Campbell and I had provided something of the context. It was very well received.

David took the opportunity to perform his poem “A School for Politicians”, and I then changed the mood slightly with one of my poems for children, “Yesterday’s Homework”. Maggie and Christine played “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” together to finish the morning show. This poem, by Dame Mary Gilmore, has been put to music by Maggie. She has recorded the song, with Christine playing the harp. However, Christine was recorded in a different studio at a different time to the other musicians, so this was the first time Maggie and Christine had performed the song together.

(Photo by Tim Sheed)

Maggie and I have worked together to create a YouTube video of the song, which can be found here:

(from left to right, David, Tim (back), Christine (front), me, Cindy and Maggie – photo by Melanie Hartnell)

The sun came out after lunch, in time for the ‘moving theatre’ and the children’s ballet. ‘C.J. Dennis’ and ‘Henry Lawson’ received a surprise visit from ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’. ‘Henry’ took the opportunity to introduce the audience to little known poems by Banjo Paterson’s younger brother Ukulele, and Henry Lawson’s younger brother Leroy.

The numbers were swelled considerably by the families and friends of the dancers without whom, once again, the audience would have been very small indeed.

We then moved inside for afternoon tea, and Jan Williams presented David with the Marian Mayne award for First Prize in the Open Poetry section.

Congratulations, David!

Jim Brown was not able to attend the festival this year, and was therefore unable to perform his traditional rendition of ‘Dusk’ to close the festival. I performed it in his stead, with musical accompaniment from Maggie.

The gardens looked splendid as always. The weather was rather dismal on the Saturday, but picked up on the Sunday. Jan and her band of helpers performed admirably as they always do and, as I mentioned before, the food all weekend was delicious. The only thing missing was a good-sized audience!

It is hard to know precisely the cause(s) for this. We have an ageing membership, and are not attracting many new, younger members. The festival has been running in its current format for a number of years now, and perhaps a change is needed. Suggestions received included reducing it to a single day (probably the Sunday), or running it every second year. Further suggestions are welcome.

In summary, the festival this year was enjoyable and successful, but it would have been nicer to have had a few more people there!

Mary Gilmore Festival (Crookwell, NSW)

November 7th, 2017 | Camping, Festivals, Mary Gilmore, Music, Photos, Songs

Early on the morning of Friday, 27th October, Maggie Somerville and I headed north up the Hume Highway to Crookwell in New South Wales for the Mary Gilmore Festival.

Maggie has put a number of Mary Gilmore’s poems to music and the Festival Director, Trevene Mattox, was keen for us to attend. (There is also ample scope for a poet at the festival.)

To get to Crookwell, you go past Yass (not through it, as we did; it is a very pretty town, but does not get you any closer to Crookwell, as we found) and leave the highway at Gunning. You then climb steadily for an hour or so through open country until you reach Crookwell, at an elevation of about a thousand metres.

After erecting our tent at the Showgrounds, we drove into town for the opening of the festival at the art gallery by the local member of parliament, The Hon Angus Taylor MP, Member for Hume.

Angus made the point that, while Dame Mary Gilmore was undoubtedly a highly admirable woman, she and he differed in their political views.

The following morning, we were invited to perform to the local market goers. Maggie sang a number of her songs to an appreciative audience.

The Reserve Bank was even in attendance showing off the new banknotes, with Dame Mary Gilmore and the opening words of “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” on the ten dollar note.

During the afternoon we witnessed a showcase of the local youth talent, and in the evening we were treated to a performance by a women’s choir from Wollongong. The performance took place in a pavilion with a corrugated iron domed roof. Unfortunately a short, sharp rain shower completely drowned out the first item of the evening’s concert! The choir was superbly rehearsed, with numerous lavish but highly efficient costume changes taking place over the course of the show.

The following morning was the “Poets’ and Balladeers’ Breakfast” and Maggie and I had ample opportunity to perform. Maggie sang the remainder of her Mary Gilmore songs, while I performed a newish Ned Kelly poem that went down well.

At the end of the show, Maggie was asked to draw the raffle.

(I should add that this was also Maggie’s birthday!)

Alas, now it was time to leave Crookwell and begin the long drive back to Melbourne – in time to be at work at 9 am the following morning.

Maggie and I are extremely grateful to Trevene Mattox for giving us a lovely weekend. We were looked after extremely well, and had a wonderful time.

It was also great to catch up with poet Laurie McDonald and his wife, Denise, from Canberra. (Laurie and I shared MC duties for much of the weekend.) Laurie explained that the Crookwell festival used to have more of a bush poetry focus, but in recent years the emphasis has been on Mary Gilmore, and music. That made sense to me, because I have vague memories of submitting poetry to a competition in Crookwell in years past.

It was also wonderful to meet Stephen Lindsay, a local musician who owns a studio and is doing a great job recording local musicians and personalities on CD.

These rustic dwellings caught my eye as we left town.