Groovy hippy trip, man

Maldon hippy cropped

Photo: Trevor Pearson

Way back in 1987 I wrote a song called Save the Hippy It was one of the very first songs I wrote and it’s one of very few I still sing from those days.

Sometimes a song you wrote takes you on its own journey. You never really know which song it will be. I have written another blog  and an article on the adventures resulting from my song The Man and The Woman and the Edison Phonograph.

Save the Hippy is nearly as old as I was when I wrote it! It was inspired by the chai tent that was located beside the main stage at the Maldon Folk Festival for several years in the late 1980s.

Over the last 27 years the song has given me some great stage experiences and many fun times. But it has never led me into any particularly unexpected experiences.

That all changed in the Tablelands Folk Festival in October 2014. This is a beautiful little festival in the paradise which is the Atherton Tablelands, inland from Cairns. I had the best time at this festival with wonderful friendly gigs, and I made heaps of new friends. But it was the hippy thing, man, that really freaked me out.

Herberton pub

Herberton pub

The festival started up on the Thursday night in Herberton, a gorgeous jacaranda-filled ex-mining town that time has forgotten. It really is in the middle of nowhere. Some of us early arrivals did a show in the concrete ‘beer garden’ at the Royal Hotel – a great old Queensland pub.

I did Save the Hippy as part of my set, and as usual I got the crowd doing the arm waving thing. And as usual I told them that despite their enthusiasm, it just was not good enough, so they needed a Guru to show them the way. You never know what you are going to get when you ask for a volunteer to be the arm-waving Guru. It can make or break the performance.

So this night, up comes a woman called Sheilah. Guru Sheilah. She does a great job. Moves with the confidence and grace of a true dancer. But why did she give me that startled, knowing look when I got to the line about the Grateful Dead?

Later in the festival I was sitting with one of my new friends, Gary Dozier. Gary is one hot guitarist and runs a music shop in nearby Atherton. When he told me he grew up in Georgia I said, “Is that why you look like Jimmy Carter!” His response was, “Well, I am related to him.” But I digress.

Owsley Stanley, left, with Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) 1969

Owsley Stanley, left, with Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) 1969

Gary tells me that Sheilah was married to the late Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s soundman and the first private individual to produce mass quantities of LSD. He was an important innovator in live sound and is mentioned in songs by the Dead, the Mothers of Invention, Hendrix and others. He supplied LSD to the Beatles during the filming of Magical Mystery Tour.

Bear and Sheilah moved to the Tablelands in the 1980s when he became convinced that the Northern Hemisphere would be destroyed in a coming ice age. He was killed in a car accident in 2011.

Could I have picked a better Guru?

Things didn’t go to plan quite so well at Sunday’s festival gig, when I picked out a Guru who appeared to have all the trappings – long grey hair and flowing beard, the clothes. Yes, he was a true hippy all right, but when I ask him to show the crowd how to wave their arms, he only waves one arm. I ask him to wave them both. He says he can’t.

Turns out he’d had a stroke. Whoops. But he did a great job, full of enthusiasm.

With Joe and Harmony

With Joe and Harmony

But if that all wasn’t enough, another Beautiful Hippy Thing happened at the festival. I met psychedelic folk duo Joe Flower and Harmony Breeze, two genuine hippies who keep the counter-culture revolution alive, singing groovy 1960s songs, from Dylan and Scott McKenzie and the Mammas and the Pappas. And my goodness, what fabulous wardrobes they have.

In an act of blatant synchronicity, they had just uploaded a video of their excellent cover of Save the Hippy. So I asked to join me on stage for my Sunday festival gig, and we had a lot of fun.

It seemed that the hippy vibe was taking over the festival.  There was even a rainbow coloured Abbey Road type crossing up the top end of town. Joe, Harmony and I had to take the walk.

Why did the Hippy cross the road?  Because the grass is greener on the other side.

Why did the Hippy cross the road?
Because the grass was greener on the other side.

On returning home I found that some English dude has also made a video of the song in the English hippy haven of St Ives. This one isn’t a cover version, but he is lip sinc-ing to my recording.

That’s a far out trip, man!

It seems that my song has come of age.

Age of Aquarius, that is.

Peace and love.

Postscript: You can hear the original recording of my song here.

Green pepper demolition of the same flesh and blood, and other Chinese menu items

One of the delights of our recent trip to China was the food. There is so much more variety in the menu items than what you get at Australia’s Chinese restaurants.  We mostly ate at small local community restaurants rather than higher class restaurants which often tone things down to cater for western palates. Some were tiny places with only two or three tables. We tasted, or at least thought about tasting, all sorts of things such as ducks’ heads, bullfrogs, dragonflies, dishes of chicken with claws and heads poking out here and there.

Fortunately many of these restaurants had English translations on their menus. We were travelling with our son Rowan, who is fluent in Chinese, so we didn’t actually need the English. But I say ‘fortunately’ because the English translations provided us with one of the great amusements of our trip. Often it was only by Rowan reading the Chinese that we had any idea what the item actually was.  I mean, if you saw “Face Powder” on a menu, you’d never guess it was actually wheat-flour noodles, poorly translated, unless you were able to see the Chinese original.

This has been life changing. In our household sausages will always be known from now on as ‘hamburg intestinal’.

I hope to post a blog soon on some of the general highlights of our trip, but I couldn’t resist a post specifically devoted to some of the culinary delights we came across.  Here goes:

  • Fried pulled rotten son
  • Rub the surface of fish
  • Qishan smell of urine dried noodles
  • Baked you face kaolaolao
  • Stir fried pig foots with chilli (very good for skin)
  • Green pepper demolition of the same flesh and blood
  • Sauerkraut gluten
  • Handbag food
  • Mutton chops with soap
  • Japanese according to bum cuttlefish monsters
  • Flour pimple in chicken soup
  • Old Shan plasma surface
  • Face powder
  • Road rib beef pot alone
  • Hamburg intestinal
  • Old dopted mother
  • Pumpkin wowo
  • Daughter 45 degrees (drink)

Green pepper demolition

Takeaway chicken foots

Takeaway chicken foots

Bass Strait Paradise

Music can take you to the most surprising places.

Never would I have thought when I started strumming a guitar in Year 12 that one day itwould lead me to a stunningly beautiful, isolated island in Bass Strait.

And the wonderful thing about music is that when you go to a place like this you don’t just visit, but you are welcomed into the community and become part of it. It is a true privilege.

You get one of two reactions when you mention Flinders Island to people. It’s either “Oh wow, I’ve always wanted to go there!” or “Where’s that?” Part of its charm is that it is unknown to many. It has virtually no tourist infrastructure and most residents like it that way. So do I.

Whitemark airport must be one of the most beautiful in the world. You fly from Essendon, with its Beatles memorabilia, over Wilsons Prom and lots of little dots of islands (there are 120 named islands in Bass Strait), you come into a house-sized terminal, with Mt Strzelecki as a stunning backdrop. This ever-changing mountain dominates the south half of the island. Like a friend, like a threat, like a god.

Mt S in cloud

Mt S in cloud

Whitemark airport

Whitemark airport

Mt S from Fotheringate Beach

Mt S from Fotheringate Beach

Mt S from Walkers Lookout

Mt S from Walkers Lookout

                                                                I first became conscious of Flinders Island when I was writing my song The Man and the Woman and the Edison Photograph, about my great grandfather Horace Watson recording Fanny Cochrane Smith, who claimed to be the last Tasmanian. She was born a Wybalenna on Flinders Island where Tasmania’s Aboriginal population were settled in the 1830s.

Fanny Cochrane Smith and Horace Watson, 1903

Fanny Cochrane Smith and Horace Watson, 1903

That song has taken me on an amazing journey: hearing my great grandfather’s voice across 100 years, meeting descendents of Fanny Cochrane Smith, and more. And now it was at the heart of this physical journey. Ronnie Summers is a talented and respected elder who was born on Flinders Island, and raised on Cape Barren Island (next to Flinders), and grew up playing the unique local style of music, derived from the sealers who dominated Bass Strait in the 1800s. He is Fanny Cochrane Smith’s great great great grandson. We met through my song, and have performed it together on some memorable occasions. (There’s more background on this story here) Ronnie and his wife Dyan have recently moved back to Flinders.

Jenny Drake saw the Unsung Heroes of Australian History show at the Cygnet Folk Festival in Tasmania in 2012 and said we should take it to Flinders Island, where she was about to move to. I couldn’t let the idea go. Not only did I know Jenny, Ronnie and Dyan, but I also know jazz singer Judy Jacques, who had also just moved to the island with her husband Sandro. After some to-ing and fro-ing, the island’s regional arts council agreed to support a trip there.

From the moment we arrived we felt like part of the community. Sandro was on the tiny plane with us, and the delightful Sally Walker from the Regional Arts Council met us at the airport and lent us her Mitsubishi 4WD ute. Sally is 6th generation Flinders Island, and her family own the islands only supermarket and garage. Her dad Leedham Walker is an island institution who flies his light plane to Gippsland every week to get fresh vegetables for the shop.  Such a pity the clutch went on the Mitsubishi – not that we blame Wendy for that!

Dyan with muttonbird

Dyan with muttonbird

Dyan had us over to her place for afternoon tea in a trice! In fact we ate three times with Dyan and Ronnie and the various young family members, and had the honour of meeting elders Aunty Vicky, Aunty Colleen and Aunty B. Between them they are masters of traditional women’s craft, including shell necklaces, and baskets made from flax and bull kelp. And they were delightful company. Dyan fed us so well, including a special meal of muttonbird. The annual muttonbirding has been an important traditional island activity for Aboriginal people, for a very long time. Ronnie and Dyan have done it since childhood. You have to stick your hand down a hole and hope you don’t find a snake instead. The smell of cooked muttonbird is a bit overpowering, but the taste is pretty good, especially with Dyan’s damper and special sauce.

Muttonbirding on Big Green Is 1920s

Muttonbirding on Big Green Is 1920s

We also met a lot of the community through our music activities. We had such fun working with the local acapella group, led by the irrepressible Kathleen. They learned choral arrangements specially prepared by Wendy for two of the shows songs, and what a brilliant job they did.

Uke workshop

Uke workshop

Another joyous musical activity we led was a ukulele workshop. We had a great time doing what I call “Ukulele for beginners, with songs that don’t suck.”  People had so much fun that there was talk of getting a uke group going. They may have help from the mythical Butter Factory Boys, a co-op who make ukuleles at the old butter factory. Unfortunately they were off the island at the time.

Lady Mary MacTier

Lady Mary MacTier

And then there was Scottish Country Dancing – a Thursday night tradition on the island for 30 years, led by the redoubtable doyenne of dance Lady Mary MacTier. She is reputedly a real Lady, but no-one quite knows the details of her past. Just enough mystery to make her fascinating. She runs a tight ship, and fun is had by all. The thing is, Lady Mary is 99 years old! She didn’t dance, but she spent a good deal of the night standing up ordering us about.

Bruce and Wendy at the school

Bruce and Wendy at the school

The school community is part of the heart of Flinders Island, with fabulous facilities and a lot of very dedicated staff and helpers, including Sandro who tends the schools olive grove, and John the Juggler who helps the kids make djembes out of papier maché and wallaby skin from roadkill (more about roadkill later). The school is Prep to Year 10, with almost 80 students.Wendy and I did a school version of the Unsung Heroes show, plus a very fun time doing some silly songs with the littlies.

 The wildlife, including birdlife, is fantastic, as you might expect with such a fertile climate and so few people – and no rabbits or foxes – but a few wild cats. But back to roadkill. So, there are about 800 people on the island and 17 million wallabies! Consequently, when you drive on the roads you only see another car every several kilometers. But it’s hard to go 100 meters without seeing an ex-wallaby, and occasionally ex-wombat. So few cars, so much roadkill! Driving at night is extremely hazardous and to be avoided if possible.

There is one piece of graffiti on the island: a huge boulder by the roadside  is marked with the message: LOVE LIFE.

Life is slow. The few shops there are close at 5pm every night, including Friday, and nothing is open between midday Saturday till Monday morning. On Saturday mornings the bakery (beautiful wallaby pies!) and Freckles, the island’s only café, across the road open alternate weeks. This same pattern is repeated over the island where businesses cooperate rather than compete to ensure that everyone gets a slice of the (wallaby) pie.

As well as all our musical activities and socializing, it was also wonderful to have the luxury of time to do a little bit of touring. The island is full of places with great names such as: Fotheringate Beach, Palana, Tin Kettle Island, Badger Island, Big Green Island, Little Green Island, Killiecrankie, Trousers Point (don’t ask) and Lady Baron.  And the local language includes a few different words mostly derived from the early sealers, such as ‘badger’ for wombat and ‘porcupine’ for echidna, as well as ‘diamond’ for topaz, found on the north coast.

Wybalenna is a very sad place. Tasmania’s remaining Aboriginal people were settled there by George Augustus Robinson in 1834 to be ‘civilised and christianised’. They were forbidden to practise their old ways and were homesick for their lost country. In a very few years over 100 died there of respiratory disease, poor food and despair.

All that stands there now is the reconstructed chapel and the cemetery. In the cemetery the Tasmanians’ graves are not marked, although there are a couple of memorial plaques. They were buried outside the fence and unidentified, some remains were stolen for ‘science’. There are a number of European people’s graves.

Wybalenna is one of the most important historical sites in the country, but there are no markers of this importance. It is now Aboriginal land, and some in the community want to make it a place of memory. Others just want to forget. Aunty Ida West was one who felt passionately that it is important to remember. Next to the chapel under a large tree is a table with a beautifully carved stone carrying her message: It’s pretty important you know, the land, it doesn’t matter how small, it’s something, just a little sacred site, that’s Wybalenna. There was a massacre there, sad things there, but we try not to go over that. Where the bad was we can always make it good.

Aunty Ida West's message in stone, Wybalenna

Aunty Ida West’s message in stone, Wybalenna

But there are many happy places to visit. The Furneaux museum at Emita is run by another local hero, D’reen Lovegrove. It’s full of quirky aspects of the islands’ history as well as having a fabulous archive for research purposes.

There are so many beautiful beaches and bays. You’re almost guaranteed to be the only one on the beach. The wind may be pounding in at you or it may be calm and sunny, but it’s always beautiful. There are granite mountains above and rocks and builders with orange lichen. There are wild, uninhabited islands out to sea, there are seabirds, and there may be a lighthouse.

Killiecrankie beach is my favourite, with Mt Killiecrankie dominating, cray pots stacked on the foreshore, and fishing boats moored in the bay. Beautiful light, beautiful colours. A handful of people live there, and a few dozen more come in over the summer holidays – and most of them are from the south of Flinders Island!

Cray pots at Killiecrankie

Cray pots at Killiecrankie

We visited Judy and Sandro at their bush cottage near Killiecrankie. They fed us like royalty, with much of the food home grown.

We visited Judy and Sandro at their bush cottage near Killiecrankie. They fed us like royalty, with much of the food home grown.

Auntie B with shell necklace

Auntie B with shell necklace

Close up of maireener shells in necklace

Close up of maireener shells in necklace

Lady Barron is another stunningly beautiful spot, looking out over the Franklin Sound towards Cape Barren Island and a number of smaller islands. We were privileged to visit Aunty B (Bernice Condie), shell necklace maker, who lives there. Necklace-making is a Palawa tradition that has remained intact and has continued without interruption since before European settlement (see article). She explained to us the incredibly long and slow process of collecting and preparing the shells, and of individually drilling and stringing the necklaces, which have thousands of maireener shells.

Bruce & Neil atop Mt S

Bruce & Neil atop Mt S

Neil and I decided to climb all 782 meters of Mt Strzelecki before our Sunday gig. So we had to start early and push hard. It’s a serious climb. The views were fabulous – till we got right to the top, when the clouds came in. And we proved our manhood!

Unsung Heroes of Australian History on stage with Ronnie Summers

Unsung Heroes of Australian History on stage with Ronnie Summers

Concert finale with acapella group

Concert finale with acapella group

But of course, we were there to play music, and what fun we had! At the main concert at the Whitemark community hall we had about 10% of the island’s population! It was such a joy to share the stage with the acapella group, and of course Ronnie Summers. How moving for us to sing ‘our’ song actually on Flinders Island. We have been told that there is a bit of racism on the island, and were thrilled to be told that that performance opened a few eyes. We certainly know it brought Ronnie and his story to the attention of a lot of people who didn’t know it. If it helps build connections, I would be thrilled.  Anyway, on top of all that, we received a standing ovation. It was one of those evenings I will certainly remember all my life.

Dyan on uke with Bruce and Wendy

Dyan on uke with Bruce and Wendy

The other major musical event was an afternoon at the Lady Barron Tavern, with its to-die-for view. It was a real community affair, put together as a fundraiser for David Williams’ amazing Launceston-Hobart run to raise funds for cancer research. We raised quite a bit through donations and an auction, very skillfully conducted by Neil. But the highlight was the wonderful mix-and match musical items which had Ronnie singing some old Cape Barren songs backed by a scratch band, Judy singing for the first time in ages due to a nagging sickness she has had, Sandro belting it out on trumpet, the UHAH mob doing various bits and pieces joined by these various people and the acapella group. This was community music as it should be, and the afternoon flew by.

Judy, Sandro, Ronnie & Bruce play Cape Barren music

Judy, Sandro, Ronnie & Bruce play Cape Barren music

Singing at the Lady Barron Tavern

Singing at the Lady Barron Tavern

It felt like leaving home when we finally got on the plane back to Melbourne. But I reckon I’ll be back – by hook or by crook.

You can view more photos of the trip on the Unsung Heroes of Australian History Facebook page

Heart of Lightness: Journeying up the Mekong

There’s something about traveling up a river. Going downstream is not the same – it’s just going with the flow. Rivers at their end are tame, civilized, and known. Upstream is the wild, the unknown. That’s part of the power of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.

So our Mekong trip had to be upstream. From Saigon, chaotic, bustling, energetic – to Kampong Cham, a typical Cambodian town – with a coda in the heart of the Khmer empire’s temples, including Angkor Wat. In this case: the heart of lightness.

The darkness of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War) and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge sit just below the surface of any conversation or rural scene. Any questioning of people in Southern Vietnam about their parents seems to bring up stories of re-education camps and villagers negotiating their way between loyalties demanded by US troops (by day) and the Viet Cong (by night). And in Cambodia you don’t see many older people. A casual enquiry of one man in his 30s revealed that he grew up as a refugee and an orphan. One third of the Cambodian population died between 1974 and 1978.

So how can people be so happy, spontaneously friendly, and generous? Maybe that’s the only way you can cope with such a legacy. Maybe it’s Buddhism, which for most is a way of life, not just a label.  Go into a temple in Vietnam or Cambodia and you will find it bursting with life as people come to offer daily devotions or to participate in community events.

I’m no expert. These are just musings after our trip in June to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It was our first time abroad since we lived in the US in the early 1980s, which followed extensive backpacking through out Europe, Morocco, Indonesia and NZ. In the meantime we raised four children. We couldn’t afford 6 airfares. But now our youngest is 15 and all of them have had at least one overseas trip (almost all at our expense). So it was our turn!  Jill wrote 30,000 words in her trip diary. I can only give impressions and vignettes.

Some people hate flying. I’m not one of them. I love looking out the window. On our flight there we saw Lake Eyre in flood, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) the endless ridges of the Great Sandy Dessert, Bali, Mt Bromo (Java), hundreds of ships in Singapore Harbour, and the Mekong Delta, carrying water from the Himalayas, each of its many tendrils many times wider than any Australian river. That’s a holiday in itself! On our return flight we saw the Angkor irrigation systems and a sunrise to die for.

On arrival in Saigon we changed $50 and became instant millionaires (in Đồng)! A slightly dissolute French Colonial era hotel on the Saigon River made an excellent introduction to the city. Crossing the roads made me glad we were insured. Riding in a tuk-tuk was like being in one of those video games. There are 9 million people and 5 million motorcycles in Saigon. That’s two per bike, but you’ll often see 4 or 5 on the same bike. And they’re all in a hurry. We visited the Củ Chi Tunnels – a powerful echo or the war experience, but verging on being a theme park. The propaganda video was a highlight.

Our boat, the Saigon Pandaw

The river cruise started on the delta near Saigon. Our boat was brand new, but designed in Colonial style, with lots of wood paneling.

We’ve never had a holiday like this before: our every need was catered for, and we were traveling without having to organize transport, seek out meals and find accommodation. The world passed us by as we ate, sipped cocktails and chatted with other passengers and the crew. The food was stunning. The cabin was small and comfortable, not luxurious – but oh, the views!

After the first day, once we had passed the heavy industrial downstream section, river life was busy but gentle. Always a family or two in their boats casting, dragging or pulling in a fishing net, a ferry plying the river, larger boats transporting goods. From the banks, there always seemed to be children waving excitedly and running alongside as we gently swished by. There were more temples than you could imagine. Many of the towns and villages were beautiful. Some were polluted with industry, such as the dark satanic brick kilns.

The river didn’t appear to have much rubbish floating in it, but it is difficult to say how polluted it is. Things are definitely changing. China is planning a huge dam upstream, and so is Laos, the effects of which can only be imagined. The tour company rep on the ship said that she sees fewer and fewer fish being pulled up in the nets as the fish are disappearing due to fishing practices such as the use of dynamite. We visited a fish farm – most of the basa sold in Australia comes from Mekong farms – but I’d be careful of the chemicals and drugs they are given.

We did a side trip up (or down?) the Tonlé Sap River. It flows from the Mekong into the huge Tonlé Sap lake in the wet season, and reverses its flow as the dry season progresses.

We visited floating markets, where each boat specializes in a particular fruit of vegetable, and the buyers (punters – literally) tootle around between them in their boats.  Many of the boats are prepelled by people standing and operating two oars in a most serene and balletic fashion.

There are also floating villages, such as Kampong Chhnang.  Because the river height varies enormously, houses on shore have dizzyingly high stilts.  The more elegant solution is floating houses built on pontoons of bamboo or something more modern. These homes rise and fall with the river.  They are simple dwellings, but of course most have TV aerials or satellite dishes and the skyline bristled with mobile phone towers.

Floating village, Kampong Chhnang (note the satellite dish)

Every day we visited one or more villages. Most were off the beaten tourist track and had nothing to sell visitors, so the posse of kids chasing us were mostly there just for the fun of it, not as a ploy to get us to go to their family’s factory or shop – though there was some of that. We visited a couple of schools, and the kids were such a delight.

Village school, Angkor Ban

We visited a monastery school, and the sight of saffron robed youths on swings and play equipment was one that took me some getting used to. We had guides who spoke the local language who helped us have conversations with people sitting under their stilted houses, and we learned more about life that way than we might have had we been traveling independently.

Monastery school, Wat Han Chey

Cool line dance caller, Phnom Penh

We discovered that line dancing is an extremely popular activity at dusk in parks, especially by rivers, from Phnom Penh to smaller villages.

On the boat it wasn’t all canapés and cocktails (and crickets – did I mention I ate crickets?). There were lectures on history and culture, as well as on board performances of traditional music, dance and crafts. I was entranced by the musical instruments, including the dàn bầu (Vietnamese monochord zither) which is played using harmonics. I was delighted to pick one up here in Melbourne by chance recently.

Dàn bầu

Any visit to Cambodia is confronting. Phnom Penh is a place of such contrasts, with big European boulevards, and with towers of commerce under construction reflecting times of past and current boom –the period of Khmer Rouge rule in between only short but had such a huge impact. The Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh are a place of unspeakable horror where each new rain uncovers more clothes and remains.

S21 prison, Phnom Penh (internet photo)

The museum at the S21 prison, a former high school is utterly harrowing. Rule 6 on the billboard: “Do not cry out while being tortured.” The place is full of rooms with walls lined mug shots of the frightened or often simply bewildered adults and children who had been kept, tortured then executed.

Our holiday ended with some extraordinary days visiting the temples of Angkor Wat and the surrounding area. I can’t describe them. You just have to go there.

Preah Palilay temple ruins

We were transported by the wonderful Thun Chanthet in his tuk-tuk, who we are still in touch with. We were there off-season, so it was possible to get some peace and quiet at times and in some places. A delightful surprise was a trip to Kbal Spean, a clear stream tumbling over tiers of rock brimming with sacred carvings. It was a place of ritual purification and the water is spiritually purified by flowing over the carvings. And we were the only tourists there.

A fitting end to our journey into the heart of lightness.

Kbal Spean

There are more photos on my Facebook page:

Not my funeral (The things I do)

Have you ever been to a funeral and realised that you actually that you only knew one facet of the person’s rich life?

We all have so many parts that make up who we are, but many of our friends, colleagues, even relatives, don’t know the whole story. So I thought I’d do a blog surveying some of the different aspects of my life. So when you do go to my funeral (many many years hence), you won’t be too surprised!

Of course a short blog won’t capture the lot, but it’s a start. I may follow up some bits in more detail in later blogs.

Let’s start with my family. Jill and I have been together most of our lives. Our first date was around Anzac Day 1976, that’s exactly 36 years ago as I write. We celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary next month. We have four sons (‘just the four boys,’ as our friend Jasmine instructed us to say!) and they are grown up – or pretty close to it. Andrew is doing first year Arts at La Trobe, after a two year film and television course and a year overseas. He works part-time at Luna Park. Geoffrey graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2010 and flits between various productions, auditions and ‘secondments’ at dance companies across Australia. Last year he auditioned for several companies in Europe, but hit the depths of GFC arts funding cuts. Rowan finished school last year and is also doing first year Arts at La Trobe, with a focus on Chinese. He is into K-pop. Alistair is still at school, and he’s getting pretty good on the saxophone (check out the video). I have been an orphan since my Mum died last July. It’s something I’m not used to yet – and maybe never will be.

Work takes up the next biggest slice of my time. I have done various jobs in the Victorian public service for just over 20 years. It has mostly been policy formulation or program management. Currently I work in Aboriginal health, and for the past year or so have been authoring a major 10-year strategic directions document called Koolin balit (‘Healthy people’ in Boonwurrong) which is set to be launched in late May. In my previous job I managed Victoria’s $100m community health program, and oversaw some major legislative changes. I love my work and I think it’s important, but I am looking forward to when it takes a smaller slice of my time. I currently work a 9-day fortnight and have a few extra weeks of unpaid leave each year to ensure I have enough time other stuff. I ride a bike to work.

Music is a huge part of my life, and probably what most people reading this blog will know about. I didn’t grow up in a musical family, but loved pop and rock music from a very early age. In early primary school I learnt the drum and played as the students marched from assembly. I had a year of piano lessons in my teens. But I really got started when a friend and I taught ourselves the guitar as a way of getting through year 12. In the following years I picked up lots of songs from Cohen, Dylan, Young, the Beatles and that crowd, then gradually drifted into folk. Jill and I and two friends started a bush band in 1982, and out of that I started songwriting. The songwriting really picked up when the band broke up around 1986, and within two or three years I was playing in coffee lounges, folk clubs and my first folk festivals. The rest, as they say is history, and if you don’t know about it there’s more detail on my website (

As well as my singer-songwriter stuff there’s a few other musical things I am involved with. There is the Unsung Heroes of Australian History project ( This is a theme concert with a slideshow, scripted narrative and a set of songs about a bunch of people who have done amazing things but are generally unknown or little known. We’ve toured the show, played festivals, etc, and are currently developing educational resources for schools around the songs.

Then there’s the Zampoñistas! Yes, I am a member of Australia’s premier alti-plano Bolivian marching band. We are a bunch of around 20 great friends who get together fortnightly to eat chocolate, drink weird teas and blow on the panpipes. We do it in the traditional style where the musical scale is divided between two sets of pipes so each person only plays half the notes in the scale. It messes with your head. But we make great music, and have developed the genre of ‘guerilla panpiping’ in our street performances at festivals, where we raid stalls, concert venues, eating areas and various unsuspecting punters and surround them as we play. It’s not all traditional music; check out our extraordinary performance of Dance Me to the End of Love. I am about to oversee the development of the Zamps’ own website (

Zampoñistas – Dance Me to the End of Love

For the last couple of years I’ve run a ukulele group at work. This is so much fun. What’s really satisfying is how most of the people have come along never having played any musical instrument in their life, and without fail they’re playing along within minutes. Over the two years some have really improved. We play and sing one lunchtime each fortnight. Gradually some of the others are picking songs for us to do and leading the group through them. I help out when a bit of musical education is necessary. We’re not about performing, but we have done it, and acquitted ourselves really well. It does wonders having a bit of music in your day at the office.

Wicalele – Singing in the Rain

But there’s more! I’ve been doing quite a bit of work recently on music and Antarctica. My Big Plan is to get an Antarctic Arts Fellowship some day and get a trip down there to write songs about the place. As part of my background work I’ve been doing interviews for the National Library’s Oral History and Folklore Unit and researching songs and music written and played by Australians in the Antarctic. I have delivered a couple of conference papers on the topic and some publications are to follow. The dream I have is that one day you will see an Antarctic theme concert, album and possibly DVD coming out of the project.

And on the edges of my music activities are all sorts of other things, such as children’s shows (it’s a whole different repertoire and skill set), video editing – you can check out what I’ve done at my YouTube channel (, and conducting workshops on songwriting and performance skills (anything from one hour to 3 days). A conference presentation and my first peer-reviewed article since I stopped being an academic in the 1980s came out of the story of Horace Watson and Fanny Cochrane Smith ( and now I seem to be writing articles all over the place. Last year I joined the board of a wonderful organization called Community Music Victoria, dedicated to spreading people-made music everywhere!

So what do I do in my spare time?

What spare time?

Really, all the things I’ve mentioned so far except my paid employment are the things I do for love and for fun, so I suppose that’s what I do in my spare time.

I do love reading, but I don’t get enough time for that. Mostly there’s those 10 minutes struggling to stay awake in bed as the eyelids droop. I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, and am particularly fond of fine contemporary Australian fiction. I love movies, and we used to go to heaps, but got out of the habit when we were raising those four boys. I’m not so good on housework and handyman stuff, but I do get around to it every now and again. I enjoy good food but can’t say I love cooking, and I’m totally perplexed by the current fad for food shows on TV.

I recently did my first mosaic – it was a bit silly, but turned out cute and I really like it. That’s it up the top.

I bungy jumped once.

Travel and bushwalking have been a very big part of my life, but have also taken a back seat while we have been raising children. After I left school I hitch-hiked around Australia, and Jill and I spent a year backpacking around Europe in the 1970s. We also traveled to New Zealand and Indonesia, then spent two years living in the United States when I was studying at Princeton University. We did road trips throughout the eastern US and Canada, and across to the west coast. We were very keen dancers in those days, and happened to be at a dance weekend at Ashokan (NY) when Jay Unger wrote that beautiful tune Ashokan Farewell. We’ve done lots of camping trips with the kids (the only holiday we could afford – but fortunately something we love), including a six-month lap of Australia in 2002. In June, Jill and I plan to take a cruise up the Mekong for our 30th anniversary. Our first real trip alone for 24 years!

Well, that’s about as long as a blog should be – maybe too long, but, you know, there’s a lot to say.

Hopefully it will all be very old news by the time my funeral comes around!

A Curry House, going Lithuanian, Beanies in Detention and other Tasmanian adventures

The lights of Melbourne from the Spirit of Tasmania

Slipping out of Melbourne on the night-crossing of the Spirit of Tasmania is one of my favourite things. Sun setting over the Westgate Bridge as you load onto the ferry, watching city lights brightening as the day gently fades on a long languorous January evening, peeps of light around the bay during the 2 hour tip to the Heads. Sure beats traffic snarls to the airport.

I was the mule, taking the van full of musical instruments and other supplies for my Unsung Heroes of Australian History (UHAH) colleagues for the Cygnet and Tamar Valley folk festivals while they popped over on planes.  The only downside was that I couldn’t book a bed, and those bastards come and kick you awake at 1.30am if they catch you sleeping on the floor.

So I was tired but happy on deck at dawn getting that first dose of fresh Tasmanian air as we cruised into Devonport. Getting to Cygnet gave me my first chance to drive through the Central Plateau. From Deloraine you see the towering volcanic peaks of the Great Western Tiers, and within half an hours steep driving you’re right up there amongst them, looking down on valleys, glacial terrain, and the Great Lake. I took the opportunity for a bit of a practice of my repertoire and a play on my new stroh viol in a quiet spot by the lake.

My stoh viol on holidays, enjoying the Great Lake

Cygnet was a lovely, small, friendly festival. Our hosts, Jo-Anne and Michael Gissing were delightful, as was their straw bale farmhouse perched above the valley with stunning views and heaps of sweet, marauding ducks, chooks and dogs. For me, as ever, the highlights of the festival were sitting down chatting with various old and new friends in the pubs, cafes, venues, street, or wherever.

Mike, Wendy, Jo-Anne, Moira, Neil and Jenny relaxing at the Gissings

The UHAH show in the Supper Club went down a treat. As always, it flushed out a heap of passionate people with their own wonderful stories to tell about unsung heroes. My own solo sets also led to a bunch of fascinating conversations, from the Nicholls Rivulet locals who had connections with Fanny Cochrane Smith’s descendents, to those inspired by my provocatively titled concert: ‘Half Tasmanian, Half Australian”. I was in solid conversation with several people for an hour and a half after that one!

I had groaned when I got a last minute request to take part in the Great Poetry Debate, but there’s nothing like a deadline to force the issue, and my team mates (ABC presenter Justin Murphy and singer-songwriter Fred Smith) and I blitzed ’em and had heaps of fun in the process. We convinced – or bamboozled – the audience into acclaiming that ’30 years is too long for a folk festival.’

Historical footnote: My last go at a poetry debate was at the National Folk Festival some years back and I was also on the winning team, which meant we became Keepers of the Fart for a year!  The Fart is a bottle reputedly containing some of McArthur’s actual legendary fart.  (For the backstory, check out

On Monday I gave the other UHAHers a bit of a Watson’s Tour en route to the airport, taking in the Fanny Cochrane Smith church/museum at Nicholls Rivulet, Watsons Rd at Kettering, where Dad grew up, the site of Joesph Keen’s general store in Kingston, where he invented Keens Curry, the site of Barton Hall, where Horace Watson recorded Fanny CS, and the Keens Curry sign above South Hobart. For details of all of these, see

Horace's curry house, Sandy Bay

Where Barton Hall was, is now the Sandy Bay MacDonalds. On a previous visit Jill had suspected a shed behind the house next door was Horace Watson’s Curry House, where Keens Curry was made in the 1890s. I knocked on the door and the current resident confirmed it was. So that’s another piece of family history known. Tony Robinson had filmed it two weeks previously as part of a new series. The producers of the show have been in touch with me.

I spent that week doing my research on Antarctic folklore at the Antarctic Division and the Tasmania’s National Archives, and meeting some very helpful contacts. Most productive. I also managed to catch up with rellies and spend a day at the astounding MONA.

I squeezed in a delightful house concert in a bush setting just 15 minutes out of Hobart at Jane Bange and Tony Blake’s house. I was particularly thrilled that Melva Truchanas turned up.  It’s an incredible honour to sing my song about Olegas in her presence – although somewhat scary! She showed me a new Lithuanian book about Olegas which includes the lyrics of my song translated!  How good is that! ‘Olegas, tu isvaiksciojai Tasmanijos kalnus…’

The absolute highlight of the week was being part of a concert at the Pontville Immigration Detention Centre just out of Hobart. The amazing Erin Collins, who ran Cygnet put this together in her spare time! Pontville has only single men. Several performers from the festival went out and brought some Aussie and world music to this bleak, stark, hopeless place.  And what fun we all had. Getting in there was like something out of Kafka. Signatures, headcounts, briefings, warnings, metal detectors, this-es and thats. But it was so worth it.

One man I spoke to had been a refugee for 12 years: from Afghanistan to Iran to Indonesia to Christmas Island then to Pontville. He doesn’t know how much longer he has to wait, and what the outcome would be. Can you imagine living like that? Why can’t we just welcome these people? Some others used the opportunity to start talking about having violin lessons from fiddler Rachel Meyers. They lapped the music up.

The mob who performed at Pontville

On a freezing Tasmanian summer’s day we played under an outdoor shelter with a concrete floor and a tin roof. When it rained the noise was overwhelming. But the sun shone in everyone’s hearts as they sang along, danced, cheered. Between acts some of them pounded away on djembes and tambourines. I was thrilled that one of the moments of peak enthusiasm was when we all did The Beanie Song ( The delight and gusto with which they sang “You gotta have a beanie!” was overwhelming.

Now they are fully prepared for Australian society!

The last stage of the trip was back on the north coast at the Tamar Valley Folk Festival at George Town. While this festival lacks the street vibe of Cygnet, the sessions and concerts certainly make up for it – as did our accommodation right on the Tamar Estuary just out of town. My stroh got a good run at the session on the verandah of the Pier Hotel on Sunday.

Session at the Pier Hotel, George Town (players include Stephen Ray, Jane Ray, Peter Thornton, Mick Flannigan)

We finished the trip in fine style with a moving concert at the old folks’ home at Low Head, then a bit of a winery tour on the way to the airport. Tasmania’s complex cool climate whites are to die for. After dropping the others off, I spent a lazy afternoon swimming at Port Sorell before boarding the ferry.

The circle was completed as I staggered on deck to see the sun rise over the Mornington Peninsula and watch the steely glint of Melbourne’s skyscrapers in the morning light.

Thanks Tasmania!

Blogger Bruce

Bruce blogs! Welcome to the next step in my journey into the 21st century.

I hope to use this blog to share the things I am up to, and some of my thoughts. Many of these will relate to my musical endeavours, but they will also meander further afield.

2011 was a year full of terrible disasters on a world scale. It wasn’t a great year for me on a personal level either.  A new year is just a mark on a calendar, but I see it as a way of starting afresh. I come into 2012 full of hope and positiveness.

In 2012 Jill and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. We are planning our first overseas trip since before we had children back in the 1980s!

I wrote no new songs in 2011. I made a New Years Resolution to write at least one every month in 2012. I’ll keep you posted – but the first one is already born.

I have started 2012 with a wonderful trip to Tasmania, with two music festivals, two other concerts, and a heap of other great things. More on that in my next blog (my first REAL blog).

With my Unsung Heroes of Australian History collaborators, we commenced a crowd-funding campaign on New Years Day, to raise funds to develop educational resources linked to the show. So far it’s going gangbusters and the project is looking sure to get up. (

Our children continue their own journeys, sometimes blossoming, sometimes faltering. Two of our sons start university courses this year. Our oldest is about to move out of home. Another continues to explore dance and our youngest is full of enthusiasm for year 9 at school (now that’s a rare thing!)

So bring on 2012!  let’s have a wonderful time!

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