It all started with the formation of The Heathcote Bushwhackers. In June 1953 a literary and musical evening held a Jack Barry’s house at Heathcote was to have an “Australian Night” - something unique in those days when our own culture appeared in danger of being engulfed in the flood of second-rate canned American music. Jack, Brian Loughlin and I got together with button accordeon and two of our recent discoveries; a tea chest bass and a lagerphone.
We stuck on false whiskers, dressed rough and gave out with our entire repertoire; Click Go The Shears, Botany Bay and Nine Miles From Gundagai. In spite of my whiskers falling off, or maybe because of them, we were an immediate success - as a comedy act! Chris Kempster joined us after that performance and then Harry Kay.
We were invited to perform our bracket of three numbers at a Tribune concert organised by the Australian Communist Party, at the Hurstville Rivoli Theatre. We were a sensation! The audience shouted, stamped and clapped for more and wouldn’t shut up. And we didn’t know any more. Eventually we went back and did Botany Bay again and invited them to join in on the choruses.
The idea of a group playing traditional instruments and singing Australian songs, straight and not in choral arrangements, was novel and soon we could not cope with the engagements that came rolling in. The following year we supplied the songs and music for four or five historical radio features written for the ABC by Nancy Keesing. We were joined by Alan Scott, Cec Grivas and later by Alec Hood. One day Brian Loughlin told me that someone had suggested that we form some sort of a club and after many bright and not so bright ideas for a name we fixed on The Bush Music Club.
Recently, while going through an old scrapbook, I came across the programme for what was probably Sydney’s first Folk Music Concert. Arranged by Lilli Williams it was presented at History House, then in Young St., on Wednesday 24th November 1954, by Leonard Theile and Patricia Martin...and The Bushwhackers Band. The first item after interval was How Many Miles To Gundagai?, described in the programme as “A bush operetta in one act, based on the controversy around the Dog on the Tuckerbox, using traditional ballads and ballads of the late 19th century, arranged by John Meredith”.
The inaugural meeting was like all other inaugural meetings; we all talked and argued a lot, elected a committee of office bearers, sang a few songs and went home, feeling that we had done a good job. I went along confidently to the second gathering, expecting an overflow house. Three of us turned up! Everyone else sent along excuses of Union meetings, influenza, hay-fever, teething babies etcetera. For that memorable second meeting there was myself, Tom Durst and Kenna Rushbrook.
For a while we made music with accordeon, fiddle and mandolin and thought it sounded quite pretty. So did somebody else! On another floor in the Ironworkers Building was the recently formed Trade Union Club - a licenced club, but which in accordance with existing liquor laws closed at 6.00 PM. A drunken woman came looking for grog and blundered into our recital. We ushered her out but she was back again within five minutes. After several repeats of this performance, we locked our door on the inside. It was a glass panelled door and on her return the frustrated and thirsty lady smashed the glass in her desperation, then fled down the stairs, hotly pursued by Tom Durst, who caught and escorted her to the caretaker where reparations were effected.
Our numbers soon increased. The Club took over the publication of Bushwhacker Broadsides from the band and then decided to publish its own journal.
Again great discussion for, a name. Finally our secretary, Karen Winter came up with Singabout, inspired by the geographical magazine Walkabout. We decided to hold a concert/folk dance night to raise money for the publication of our magazine and it was called a Singabout Night. Our quarters in the Realist Theatrette became a bit cramped and but still only a small space for dancing...and one big problem.
We shared use of the studio with the June Dally-Watkins Modelling Agency and Academy. They had an evening class which was supposed to end about fifteen minutes before we arrived. But rarely did. The crisis came one night when the Dally-Watkins lady organised her end-of-year graduation parade on our club night without consulting anyone. After a heated argument as to who was going to have occupancy that night, we hit on a compromise. The girls would model and while they were having their dozen or so changes we would perform, entertaining the models’ parents and friends with brackets of numbers lasting for 15 or 20 minutes.
It went off well, for we were entertained by all the young lovelies pussy-footing down the catwalk modelling swimwear, then sports gear, followed by formals, cocktail gowns etc. and finally, in a crash-hot finale; formal evening gowns. This is where we nearly wrecked the show. I’ve forgotten her name, but I can still remember the beautiful girl who made her stunning entrance, to the Dally-Watkins running commentary. The dress was black, backless and strapless; one of those creations that defy the laws of gravity. Dally-Watkins was just commenting that this was not the dress for every girl, that you must have the necessary physical attributes to support the thing...rhubarb, rhubarb..., when Jack Barry arrived, late as usual. He’d come straight from work, in his khaki overalls, with sports coats over the top, tea chest bass on shoulder. He walked in the door just as the mannequin had completed her walk and was doing her twirly bit, and just stood there, his jaw dropped and his eyes popping out like a lobster’s. Loughlin let out a guffaw and we followed suit. In a minute the whole audience roared with laughter, while the poor girl, who couldn’t see Jack, was visibly shaken and obviously thought something had come undone or fallen down which shouldn’t have. But Dally-Watkins, with her usual aplomb, broke off her resume; escorted Jack to his place and sent her pupil pussy-footing on her victorious, graduating way.
Soon after this episode we gave the Dally-Watkins best and moved to the Seamens’ Hall at the Quay end of Pitt St. Here there was a large floor, where we not only had plenty of room for cavorting about learning old bush dances, but it was large enough for our Singabout Nights as well. But alas, progress - nay, let’s call it development - was hard on our heels and the premises were marked down for demolition.
One of our members belonged to the Esperanto Society - he used to translate our songs into Esperanto - and he arranged for us to rent the Society’s rooms one night a week. These were at Milson’s Point, under the approaches to the Harbour Bridge. We had some wonderful time there and I feel that this and the ensuing period were when the B.M.C. really established itself.
Singabout Magazine was being published regularly, we had brought out a series of six Ned Kelly Broadsides, then bound them into a book and finally republished it in a smaller format. Here it was that we held our competition for the best setting of a Lawson poem, won by Gay Scott with her still-popular The Roaring Days to the tune of Ten Thousand Miles Away.
Alas, the bogey was still treading at our heels. Trams were abolished and replaced by buses. The old bridge tramlines were taken up and two more lanes made available to the motor car god, erection of toll gates for which meant the demolition of our rented clubrooms.
Our new home was with the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and a cosy home it was too. We had our own locker in the corner, a convenient kitchen and the room with its numerous portraits of Australian writers created a really nice atmosphere. Our close association with the writers at this period brought us into touch with a lot of people we would not otherwise have met. They invited us to perform at their functions and sometimes one of their members would address us. It was at Milsons Point that Duke Tritton first began attending club night and during the next few years was to become a big influence on our performing styles.
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”
During this period, in my opinion at any rate, both the singing and the instrumental music developed to quite a high standard. Under the MC’ship of Chris Woodland the programmes took on a new interest.
I remember the Clarence St. days also as a time when John Dengate developed his wonderful facility for writing topical and, to some people, shockingly irreverent songs. It was also the era when Beer and Cheese nights grew into a sort of wine and banquet night!
And it was just at this time when, with the publication of Folk Songs of Australia, I decided to devote all my spare time - to the exclusion of Bush Music Club activities - to my research on Frank The Poet and on the Kelly ballads; a step which I have not regretted, but which did deprive me of taking any further part in the activities and development of our club.
Perhaps some younger member can finish off this record by supplying details of the Burwood and Marrickville periods. Perhaps also, some other older members might set aright any errors or lapses of memory which might be obvious in this rough outline of our history.
Mulga Wire No. 17, February 1980, pp.5-10