30 New Songs in 30 Days: WEEK 4

Montage

You can find all the songs on my YouTube channel: Brucewatsonmusic. Go to ‘Playlists’ and click on 30 Songs in 30 Days.

Done, finished, completed, achieved.

Thanks to everyone who listened to these songs — especially those who posted comments. You have no idea how much they mean to me when it’s the only feedback I have in this locked down world.

When I set myself this challenge I had no idea how difficult and all-encompassing it would be. To decide on a topic, write, learn and video a new song every day, no matter how you feel, no matter what else is going on, is not easy! Fortunately not too much else is going on during lockdown.

A few times I knew what I was going to write, but most days my first task was to come up with a topic. I would sit and think a while, or flick through my folder of song ideas, which early on I sorted and put the likely ideas at the top. Then I would decide what to write. Once or twice I changed my mind after following a dead end. If the song required research, I would then look up stuff on line. For the Normie Rowe song I skimmed through his entire autobiography. Sometimes it would take all morning to gather, read and take in this background material.

In writing, I generally start with the words first – key words, usually the chorus. I often have some sort of a tune in my head as I pull the words together. Getting a simple, strong, memorable chorus is a major key to getting the song right. In some of these 30 songs I have a great chorus, but had to rush the content of the verses. That’s what I will be working on over coming weeks and months.

A few reflections

The videos have had over 3,500 views so far. This will creep up over time. That is most gratifying.

I have reflected on the number of ‘hits’ the different songs got. The funny songs definitely outperformed the more serious ones. This is something I have to come to terms with, as I generally put in way more effort into the serious songs, crafting each word and phrase and ensuring the nuances are just right. Many of the funny songs are just one joke, one thought, stretched out to two or three minutes. Don’t get me wrong, that does take skill, but it’s so much easier for me than the serious songs. I also am very aware of the power of humour and its value in our lives, especially at this time, when many people need a bit of cheering up. If these songs give people joy, and people relate to them, then My Work Is Done. But overall, the songs I am most pleased with are not these ones. But those ‘quiet achiever’ songs often received very appreciative comments. I value those comments highly.

Of the 30 songs:

  • 15 were serious, 15 were funny. I actually deliberately alternated these day by day, to give some variety to the song writing task.
  • 6 were story songs — 4 about people, two about events.
  • 5 instruments were played (guitar, uke, charango, keyboard, glockenspeil)
  • 4 were about animals. That was a surprise to me!
  • 3 were about language
  • 3 were ‘compilation songs’, stringing together list of things. Maybe 4.
  • 2 were existing words set to music: one a Yeats poem, one a selection of Trump pronouncements.
  • 1 was a children’s song

So now I have 30 new songs in my repertoire. I am looking forward to performing them in the real world. Lots of them are album-worthy. I am even considering recording them all properly and putting them out as one album.  Time will tell.

And I know ONE person noticed that I wore a different shirt/t-shirt each day!

April 24. Song 24: The Sloth Song

When we were driving around the UK last year we listened to a lot of BBC4. It seemed to be the closest we could find to ABC Radio National. My main memory is of The Archers, and endless debates about Brexit. But one program examined sloths and their low energy life-style. They have evolved into a very efficient organism. They do everything slowly, including digesting, as well as moving, but they use very little energy. It works. For them.

So when I decided to write a song about them I thought it should be very slow, and have great economy of movement in terms of the melody. Each line of each verse is a single repeated note, and each line drops a note on the scale from the tonic in four gradual steps down to the dominant. Then it goes through the cycle again. Very slowly. Likewise, in the lyrics, very little happens. It’s a slothful song.

April 25. Song 25: The Wreck of the Schomberg

My wife, Jill has done a massive amount of family history research, and not only does it give us insight into where we have come from, but it also has proved to be a great way of learning about places and their history. Last December we visited the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool. It contains relics from the Schomberg, as well as the Loch Ard and other wrecks from this treacherous coast.

Jill’s great great grandfather, Jonathan Richard Saxby was the Third Mate on the Schomberg; the fastest and most luxurious clipper of its day, in 1855. At this time clippers were even faster than steamers; it was the last hurrah of sailing ships. On her maiden voyage, Captain James ‘Bully’ Forbes was attempting to break the record for the voyage from England to Melbourne — 68 days, which Forbes himself had achieved the year before. Instead, he wrecked it on the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ in western Victoria, in rather ignominious circumstances. He was playing whist with an 18 year old female passenger, and had had a drink or two. Saxby informed him that they were very close to land, but Forbes played on. You can see the reef on which the ship foundered from a lookout in Peterborough. All passengers were saved, but most of the valuable cargo, and the ship itself was lost. Forbes’ reputation was in tatters. Saxby went on to make a life in Australia. In skimming the details I made Saxby come out in a slightly better light than the complex evidence may justify. But he is my wife’s and children’s ancestor!

It’s a great story, but not well known. It’s a story of hubris, both of the ship builders and ‘Bully’ Forbes. This provided the moral conveyed in the last line of the song.

Like all story songs, the song writing challenge was to distil the essence of the story and convey the drama. I went for the ballad feel.  I am very pleased with the tune, which has the feel of a 20th Century maritime ballad, though I am not sure what makes it sound like that. But for some reason I found it extremely hard to learn, and it took me many takes to perform the song with something like the correct melody.

The coda to the song is a recording of the Schomberg Galop composed by Charles D’Albert in 1855 for the grand occasion of the ship leaving Liverpool on its ill-fated journey.

April 26. Song 26: I’m on the Train

Have you ever wished you didn’t have to hear the inane details of the life of someone on their phone in the train, very loudly? In this song, I AM that person.

It was the easiest song to write. I even had two spare verses I didn’t use. I have heard many of these conversations. The verse about seeing the doctor about thrush is based on a conversation Jill actually heard. And I didn’t really write a tune for this. It’s just a matter of shouting the words against a basic chord sequence.

Making the video was fun. I actually ‘sang’ it so loud that it clipped on a few occasions – but I was not going to re-record it because of the magic, unscripted moment right at the end.

April 27. Song 27: These Old Bones

Love songs are probably the most common topic for songs. But I have written only two or three over the nearly four decades. It’s like, how do you say something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before?

I guess writing from the heart and from your personal experience may be one way into that. There aren’t many songs written about long-lasting love. It’s all about passion, lost love, and the drama of it all. The warm glow of deep familiarity and connection is harder to portray.

It just so happens that Jill and I went on our first date on the Anzac weekend of 1976, and we celebrated with a meal (takeaway at home, of course) just a couple of nights ago. So it was the perfect time to write this song.

One of our favourite camping spots is Tasmania’s Gowrie Park, staring up at Mt Rowland, especially as the sun sets. We have done it many times, usually for a night or two after getting off the ferry at Devonport. I finally got to climb the mountain in January last year. Well worth it. There weren’t many other walkers, but all of them seemed to be bounding along far faster than me. That’s where the phrase ‘these old bones’ came into my head, and much of the chorus.

I am really delighted with how the words turned out. The chorus has been sitting with me for over a year, but I had no idea how to complete it, nor what to say in the verses. Just sitting and cogitating for a time did the job.

The tune has a hint of country, but I was careful to avoid musical clichés. It’s in the key of C, and the Em (the minor mediant chord) in the third line of the chorus gives it a great lift. That chord brings to mind the 1960s popular folk song genre (I’m thinking Peter, Paul & Mary), but I can’t for the life of me recall what songs.

April 28 2020. Song 28: The Palindrome Talking Blues

I haven’t written many surrealistic songs, but if you read the lyrics to this one, it looks like a bad acid trip!

This is what I call a ‘compilation song’, in the same style as I’ve Got Questions (Song 16). I simply had a bright idea: How about a song which is entirely palindromes! So it was then a matter of 1. Finding as many palindromes as I could; and 2. Compiling them into a song.

The first step is made possible through the internet. I love playing with language, but I am not a puzzle person, so making up palindromes (or anagrams, or doing crosswords, etc.) is not my thing.

The second step, compiling them into a song, may seem easy, but it was actually really, really hard in this case, because there is absolutely NO scope for tweaking the words to get them to rhyme or fit in with the meter, or fit the contours of the melody. Getting rhymes was the hardest part. Then putting them in a sequence that not only rhymed (sort of) but also made sense. Well, not made sense, really, but at least had some sort of thematic connection between the lines. Where that didn’t work, I just took a Dadaist approach, as in the line: ‘Kayak.  Party trap.  Radar.’

I got around the issue of fitting the words around the contours of the melody line by making it a ‘talking blues’. No melody!  Once I had that, I had the idea of adding in an introductory verse; the only part of the song which is not made up of palindromes. And I took the opportunity to take a friendly swipe at the blues genre (Some folks sing the blues about their lost lover / Or how they wake up in the morning, or something or other … ).

I do love the blues. In fact it was via the blues that I got into folk music. That route was via groups like the Rolling Stones, which led to an interest in the music that inspired them, which led to a love or real, honest music. The journey into folk was a short one from there.

April 29 2020. Song 29: We are All in the Gutter but Some of Us are Looking at the Stars

Today’s song is inspired by the famous quote from Oscar Wilde. It’s not just the meaning behind the quote (which comes from Lady Windermere’s Fan) that I love — I find the image of stars and looking at stars incredibly evocative, and this is made even more so by the contrast with the gutter.

Thematically, this song is similar to Half Empty Half Full (Song 13), contrasting positives and negatives — accentuating the positive. This is a theme I seem to keep coming back to: The Year of Wonders (Song 1), as well as Balance, the title song of my 2010 album.

So this song’s first challenge was to convey this message in a way which was new to me, with images I had not used in those other songs. I pretty much succeeded, although the image of the journey is common to this song and Half Empty Half Full.

This song went through quite a lot of musical and structural changes as it developed.

What ended up as the first verse was originally the chorus, but it was too long for a chorus, so I ditched the tune I had written for the verses, and just used that chorus tune, turning the final two lines (Dream on, sing songs … ) into the chorus. This is where the buildup is anyway, so that worked.

But then I was left with a tune that was the same throughout, which risked getting monotonous. So I turned the third verse into a bridge for some dynamic contrast. This is only the second song in this project that I have given a bridge, although I may add bridges to one or two more of the songs when I re-examine them. The verses were originally in a different order, but the one that refers to looking at the stars was the right one to make the bridge (as it is a commentary on the key concept of the song), so I did more rearranging.

I like putting in little references to things outside the song, such as other songs. A really nifty example of this popped into my head as I wrote the last verse, which contrasts doves crying (Prince) with bluebirds flying (Over the Rainbow).

April 30 2020. Song 30: I Did It!

I did it! I did it! I did it!

I felt I couldn’t write about anything other than the fact that I succeeded in writing a song every day. When I started I imagined that several of them would be fragments and sketches, but I am a persistent bugger, and once I got going, my determination to deliver was absolute.

But of course I had to take the mickey out of myself, so the song compares my achievement with humanity’s (other) greatest accomplishments. This is a trick I have learnt from Donald Trump.

For the tune, I had the idea of using the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Cannon in D — one of music’s greatest achievements. But I couldn’t get it to work, so after the first couple of chords it diverges significantly. In fact, line one of the verses sounds like line one of Let It Be, but I doubt that Paul McCartney will sue me.

Jill suggested I crack open a bottle of champers at the end of the video. We had one in the house, I shook it vigorously so it would froth out when opened, having prepared by putting a plastic sheet on the floor. I got through the song on the first take and opened the pre-shook-up bottle. It made a good sound but no froth. So I headed to the corner shop for another bottle. This time it took 8 takes — that’s what happens when you don’t get the first one or two. And it STILL didn’t froth up. I ended up using the first take anyway because it looked more natural!

Oh well. Two bottles to drink!

 

30 New Songs in 30 Days: WEEK 3 and a bit

Montage 3

You can find all the songs on my YouTube channel: Brucewatsonmusic. Go to ‘Playlists’ and click on 30 Songs in 30 Days.

My goodness! I really am in this for the long haul. I am over the hump now and can see the light at the end of the tunnel (or is it a train – see song 13: Half Empty Half Full)! Am I going to have enough ideas to get through the month? Can I keep up the massive effort of thinking of a topic, writing words and music, learning it and posting it? Every. Single. Day.

This week I tried a couple of new things. One was setting a poem to music (Song 17) and one was writing a round, and multi-tracking the video (Song 19). I also wrote a song to a traditional tune (Song 23), something I have done a couple of times before.

The surprise of this week was how last week’s song The Ballad of Normie Rowe started getting hundreds of hits. It turns out Normie Rowe himself had come across it and shared it among his many fans. This was both extremely gratifying, but also a bit cringe-worthy, because of all the songs I have done in this project so far it is the one I am least happy with! I think it WILL be a good song, but it needs a lot of work (see my comments about it in the previous blog). But fortunately it got lots of likes, and no dislikes. I guess that’s because the song rightly recognizes Rowe as a hero.

At this point the songs have had over 2,500 views – with the Trump song and the Normie Rowe song leading the way.

April 16. Song 16: I’ve Got Questions

I went for something light and breezy today after yesterday’s big effort on Endgame, the song about chess champion Bobby Fischer. It was an intense story, required a lot of fast research and lots of editing to shape its complex story.

So I went with a simple idea I had a couple of months ago, which was just the line ‘Questions, I’ve got questions.’ So I had to think of some questions.  I thought of a few, then resorted to stealing some off the internet, where, of course, people have posted lists of absurd and paradoxical questions. So I cherry-picked several of theses and set to work crafting them into a song, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. While in some respects it was a compiling exercise, it still required having to construct them so they rhyme, and making each question the right amount of syllables (or close enough!). But it was fun.

This song is all about the words, so I went with a simple, standard, uninventive tune, so that it carried the words without distraction.

April 17: Song 17: When You are Old (Words W B Yeats, music B M Watson)

Today I put music to a poem by W B Yeats. He wrote at the age of just 26(!) which I have liked since I came across it many years ago. It is a song of regret, of unrequited love. It just hits the spot so well. And I say that as someone who now considers themselves to be sort of old.

The big challenge in setting a great poem to music is that you really feel the need to do it justice. The aim is to come up with music that fits the mood just right, and a melody which highlights the right words in the right way – in every verse. You don’t have the luxury of being able to change the words in verse 3 if they don’t fit the cadence of the melody you wrote with verse 1 in mind. On top of that, this poem is set in iambic pentameter, a common rhythm in English language poetry, but not that common in songs. And the rhyming scheme is ABBA, which requires some thinking about how the lines in the verse sit together musically — I tend to think in couplets.

Pretty much every new song you write has its own challenges, even when you think it is going to be easy. That’s what keeps it fun.

The tune came reasonably easily on the keyboard, but I found it difficult to sing the original melody I came up with, so it evolved into something that maintained the feel, but was more singable. Interestingly I found the guitar worked best in the key of A major (sung in B major with the capo), which is a key I became familiar in my very early guitaring days when I played pretty much only Leonard Cohen for several years. So many of his songs are in A, and he keeps going for that F#minor chord. Mmmm, I LOVE it!

I sang it to Jill, who I thought knew the poem. She didn’t, but she recited back to me a French poem by Pierre de Ronsard which was obviously an inspiration for Yeats’ poem. That’s impressive! I think Yeats’ effort is far superior.

April 18: Song 18: What do you Know about the Pangolin?

Pangolins are in the news because they may have had a role in transmission of Covid-19 to humans. But what do you know about them? I knew pretty much nothing until today! So it was another one requiring quite a lot of research. Thank God (or Gore?) for the internet!

I got the idea for this song after reading an article on how Boris Johnson has been campaigning for years to save the endangered pangolin. Kind of ironic, given he’s come down with Covid-19 himself. Actually, not ironic, because if pangolins were not the most (illegally) traded wildlife animal in the world due to their use in traditional Chinese medicine, and if they were left to forage happily for ants in the wild, then it’s very likely they would not have been a vector for this virus.

So I learnt heaps — only a tiny portion of which made it into the song! Ask me anything!

The chorus came to me quickly, with the strong first word ‘What …’ then a pause before continuing the question ‘… do you know about the pangolin,’ hopefully drawing the listener in from the very start. A bit like the Questions song, the task then was how to fit the information in the verses into a manageable structure.

April 19: Song 19: Déjà Vu

Today I did two things I have never done before.

First, I wrote a round.  That’s an interesting musical exercise. My aim was to make sure all three notes of each of the chords I used were covered at all the key points in the song (on the main beats). Another aim was to make the tune interesting enough to stand on its own, and not just rely on the round singing for validation. Thirdly, I tried to have a contrasting rhythm for each of the four lines, so that when they are sung together they still sound distinct, and don’t sit on top of each other. I found this easier than I had expected, and had the song written within an hour or so.

It’s about the strange phenomenon of Déjà Vu. So I also played on the idea of repetition, especially in line 3, which provided an excellent contrast to the other lines. Line 3 of a four line set (verse, chorus, whatever) is often the climax line.

The other thing I had never done before was to put multiple pictures into the video, Brady Bunch (or Zoom) style. This is because I had to multi-track the song to get the parts bouncing off each other.  I use old video editing software called Sony Vegas, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get the Brady Bunch grid. I googled and googled to no avail. I even tried downloading two movie-editing software packages, but the downloads failed for some reason. And I toyed around with an app called Acapella, but I couldn’t face learning something new under the time pressure.

So I decided to do the recording and see what happens. That was a rigmarole, too. If you are not used to multi-tracking, it’s slow work. And I stuffed up a lot – not in performance, but in forgetting to press buttons, getting mixed up, and so on.  And then there’s all the lining up of tracks and mixing. Lots more work than the shoot & play that I have been doing up to now. And it got to dinner time, and when I sat down after dinner to work out how to do the grid, I had a new idea, tried it out, and it worked! Thank goodness!

I am really pleased with this song, and would love any choirs that come across it to give it a go.

April 20. Song 20: Oscitation (The Yawning Song)

We are all thinking a lot about contagion at the moment. And changing our lives significantly to prevent it. So it was fun, and even a bit transgressive, to think about encouraging a particular type of contagion!

It’s incredible how contagious yawning is. Just even thinking about it can make you yawn. In fact, as I write this I am yawning almost uncontrollably. I kind of like the idea of deliberately getting people to yawn as they listen to me singing, so this song is designed to do just that.

In a live performance this song would have a reveal at the end of the first verse. That’s hard to do on YouTube given that you have to give the song’s title. So instead of calling it The Yawning Song, I called it Oscitation. That’s not a word I knew before I looked I up. I think this discouraged potential viewers, because they have no idea from the title what the song is about!

The chorus focuses on actually yawning. The first verse leads up to the reveal, the second engages the listener directly as the victim of the contagion, and the third contains a punchline. That’s all the song needs. The chords are simple, but the melody bounces around quite a lot — and it has a hint of the introduction to ‘does your chewing gum lose its flavour’ in the opening line.

April 21. Song 21: The Land is a Map

This 30 Songs in 30 Days challenge is forcing me to actually work on some songs that have been sitting in the folder for well over a decade. Today’s song is a case in point.

I have often been struck by the blandness and irrelevance of many Australian place names, many being named purely to curry favour with some corpulent British dignitary who has nothing to do with this country. Prior to colonisation, every feature of the land had a name and a significance. Much of this was obliterated as settler society came in over the top. For a long time I have wanted to tell this story through examples.

So this is another song that required lots of hurried research, particularly as I was keen to focus on my home state of Victoria, where there is a shocking paucity of information about Aboriginal language and names. I wrote six verses but only used four. Each verse has the same structure, evoking the significance of the traditional name and contrasting it with the triviality and irrelevance of the ‘official’ name. The chorus is short and repetitive (as choruses should be). The song may benefit from a bridge when I get a chance to work on it.

Last night I participated in an songwriting group (online), and two of the songs used the subdominant minor chord (Fm in the C scale). I love it, and have only used it in one song ever. So I was looking for an opportunity to slip it into this song, and to my pleasure it came!

April 22. Song 22: VERY URGENT BUSINESS PROPOSAL FROM NIGERIA

We have all received lots of these scam emails. It’s extraordinary that they work, but they must do so, because the scammers keep doing it. They are often called ‘419s’ because this is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. In fact they come from many countries – mostly the USA and the UK, according to Wikipedia!

This song is not an actual email I received, but a mash up of actual ones, modified a bit here and there to get something like meter and rhyme. It’s probably about 90% real. I also changed the name to protect the guilty!

There’s not much going on musically here, as I wanted to keep it as simple as possible without being too boring. It’s a longer song. I also needed to ensure that the melody didn’t distract from the words. Keeping the melody simple, it also gave me the flexibility to work around the phrasing which I could only change so much from the original if I was to maintain the feel of a scam letter.

April 23. Song 23: The Three Lives of Shirley Andrews

My introduction to the folk scene was through dance, and I had the privilege of learning ‘colonial dance’ from Shirley Andrews OAM. At that time I didn’t realise that as well as being the Australia’s foremost authority on traditional social dance in Australia and the the chair of the committee that organised the first National Folk Festival, she was also a driving force behind the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights, as well as being a bio-chemist who made a significant contribution to the treatment of bi-polar disorder. Talk about an overachiever!

Shirley was such a hero to Jill and me – both inspiring and eccentric. We have fond memories of her at Colonial Dancers practice nights, teaching us the Swing Waltz from her book – trying to remember, ‘Was that bit meant to be 4 beats or 4 bars?!’ She got it right in the end and we’ve loved the dance ever since

For those who want to know more about her, there’s a wonderful episode of the ABC’s Hindsight all about her. I actually pinched my song title from this show, but don’t tell anybody! Three lives; one verse for each life!

My good friend Phyl Lobl also wrote a lovely song about Shirley many years ago, but it only focuses on her dancing, and I wanted to tell the story of her incredible range of achievements.

The tune for this song is the Mudgee Waltz, a traditional Australian dance tune that Shirley danced to many many times. And so have Jill and I.

One week to go!

30 New Songs in 30 Days: WEEK 2 & a bit

Montage 2

You can find all the songs on my YouTube channel: Brucewatsonmusic. Go to ‘Playlists’ and click on 30 Songs in 30 Days.

Well, I am really getting into the swing of it now, and into a bit of a routine.

It’s pretty much a full time job. I spend the morning thinking about a topic, often doing some research and background reading, then in the middle of the day I focus on the lyrics. I tend to write words first, but when I have the phrase and lines that I think are the key ones (chorus, or first few lines), I usually start playing around with tune ideas in my head. I usually do this without an instrument, but will often record melody ideas into a device, and occasionally play a bit of keyboard to experiment with melodic ideas.

When I have a first draft of the words, which I always write freehand, in a very messy way, with arrows and crossings out and so on, then I type the words out as a way of starting to put them in order.  Then I sit and look at the words with a ‘draft’ melody in my head, to see if the different verses and parts fit with the metre, melody, etc, and do some cleaning up. Then I go to the guitar, or more likely the piano, and noodle around trying to find the melody that is in my head, but also experimenting with alternatives. The piano gives me more melodic freedom than the guitar.

April 8. Song 8: Old Songwriters Never Die

Some of these scraps in my folder of song ideas go right back to the 1990s. I found an old 2005 interview in The Age with the great songwriter Jimmy Webb. Webb wrote some huge hits, including Macarthur Park, By the Time I Get to PhoenixWichita LinemanGalveston, and Up, Up and Away.  When the interviewer asked, ‘Do songwriters retire?’ Webb laughed and replied: “Old songwriters never die, they just repeat and fade.”  I had underlined this.

Now is the time to do something with this idea. Something short and sweet. Something with a country feel, full of ‘old ….s-never-die’ jokes.  I looked them up on the web, adapted a few, knocked them into some sort of metre. It seemed to demand a country tune, so I worked on writing something that would sound very predictable, but not totally boring. The use of the mediant seventh major chord was the way to bring it out of any doldrums, yet still sound country.

Then, of course, I had to end it with a repeat and fade!

April 9. Song 9: Two Feet and a Heartbeat

I have loved the bush and been a keen bushwalker since my very first bushwalk at Wilsons Promontory as a teenager (which incidentally, I did with Brian Nankervis of RocKwiz fame).

I first heard the phrase ‘two feet and a heartbeat’ on the ABC Radio National show ‘Off Track”. The phrase stuck in my head. It’s SO rhythmic. You can feel yourself walking as you say it. I’d obviously already seen some possibilities in the idea when I wrote down the idea scrap several years ago, because I could decipher in my scrawly hand the following words: ‘two feet and a heartbeat, I’m walking this land’. These ended up being the first and last lines of the chorus.

The chorus came very easily, words and tune together. The verses took a bit more work on both fronts. I find narrative songs generally easier because the story gives you the structure – although it can be hard to choose only the most relevant details, and also stick to the truth while also meeting the obligations of metre and rhyme. So I made verse 1 about getting out of the city; verse 2 name-calls some favourite places of mine, and verse 3 focuses on the joys of being out bush.

The tune and words still need to settle down a bit. I changed a critical chord right at the point of making the video, and also decided that the song needed a little instrumental break – the first song of this series that I felt needed that. I look forward to that part being played by a proper musician some day, rather than my not so ept guitar playing!

April 10. Song 10: The Thesaurus Song

I remember with my Year 11 English Teacher first introduced me to Roget’s Thesaurus. When I heard the name I thought it was a joke. But at some point I got one. I have to say I rarely use one in songwriting, whereas I do use a rhyming dictionary a lot. Of course you can access both online these days. And I tend to use hard-copy as well as on-line — I seem to find different things, even if the lists are very similar.

This is another song idea that is years old, and this project has been the stimulus I needed to actually get on with it. It’s basically a one joke song. But I was very happy to come across a nifty way to end it

Song 11: The Ballad of Normie Rowe

Today the overall tally of views for the project’s songs hit 1,000. Thanks to all those who are following the songs, and especially those who are providing encouraging comments.  I need them. Especially today!

For many years I was part of an ensemble with Wendy Ealey and Moira Tyers (who perform as The Dixie Chooks), developing and presenting a series of theme concerts called Unsung Heroes of Australian History. Before this project I already had a few songs that fitted in with this theme, and because of the show I wrote many more. And I continue to do so, because writing story songs about people is something I love to do for many reasons.

In 2015 we received a grant to write and present songs to schools in our area (Melbourne’s inner north) to commemorate the Centenary of Anzac. We each wrote songs about local people who had been involved in the war. Interestingly, given current circumstances, I wrote one about the Spanish Flu, because our kids’ primary school was closed in 1919 to be used as a hospital to deal with that pandemic.

I had intended to write a song about Normie Rowe but I never got around to it. Not only do I remember him singing on The Go!! Show, but I learned that he was a Northcote boy, and went to the same secondary school as our children. I was also aware that his selection in the draft had been rigged in an attempt by the Holt Government to gain youth support for the war. This move was inspired by Elvis Presley’s time as a GI some years before, which had enhanced the image of the US military.

This came when he was at the peak of his career, and by the time he returned from Vietnam, as well as suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, his time had passed. After a time of drifting, he hooked into the cabaret scene, and into TV acting and musicals. His powerful tenor voice has stood him in good stead, but he never recaptured the stardom that he had. He also experienced some personal tragedies that I chose not to address in the song. Rowe has been admirable in the way he has focused on getting on with things, and not reflecting bitterly on his experiences.

I found writing this delicate song and complex story very hard going under the time pressures I have set myself in this project.  I reckon I got a good strong chorus (but I have some changes in mind for that), and an excellent narrative arc, but did not have time to trim the lyrics as much as I would like. I also had difficulty marrying the tune in my head for the verses with that of the chorus. So I found it a hard song to sing for the day’s recording. At this stage the song is very much a first draft, a work in progress. I have ideas for how to improve it. It is a story worth telling.

April 12. Song 12: Donald Trump Goes Viral  (It’s Like a Miracle)
Lyrics D. Trump, Music B Watson.

I saw a post on Facebook a couple of weeks ago which was simply a list of quotes, in chronological order, that Trump had made about the developing Coronavirus crisis — full of inaccuracies, self-congratulations, inconsistencies, total lack of self-awareness and plain stupidity.  The time for laughing at this man is over. The US is suffering a human tragedy of immense proportions, and while he is not responsible, he is certainly undermining efforts to deal effectively with the unfolding crisis.

I found a few websites with more timeline quotes, put them together and just started singing and playing guitar to those words. It worked. Whatever his linguistic limitations, the cadence of his phrasing is beautifully suited to setting to music. I think because of the combination of short, simple phrases, paradoxically alongside rambling inanities. It works musically.

So this song pretty much wrote itself. Almost all the quotes are in the order he said them. I only moved a couple around for artistic reasons.

I then had to decide how to deliver it. I decided not to do a Trump imitation. I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, and anyway, I saw so much poignancy in the words that I felt that it required a more lyrical delivery. The subtitle, ‘It’s Like a Miracle’, captures the pathos of his approach in America’s current situation.

This song has been by far the most popular of the series. You could say it’s gone viral! This was a surprise to me, as I had no confidence that my approach would work. I guess it captures the zeitgeist. It will probably go out of date very quickly as events unfold. I don’t think it will. It possibly will. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)

April 13. Song 13: Half Empty Half Full

In the film “Baby Driver” the mail lady quotes Dolly Parton saying “Everybody wants happiness, nobody wants pain; but there can’t be a rainbow without a little rain”.  Now, that sounds like the hook for a song if ever there was one. I looked it up, and there is no song. There is also no evidence that she said it, other than references to that film.

So I was free to write a song with this as the hook. I scribbled down a few ideas, but it just wasn’t happening. I decided to abandon the idea, and started playing with an online Random Sentence Generator. I have used this as a tool in song writing workshops, but never actually written a song myself starting with a randomly generated sentence. Well, after a fair few uninspiring clicks, up came one that said “Some people see the glass as half empty, some people see it as half full. I found this confusing, so I just drank it.” It was a joke, but the philosophy of just getting on with life rather than arguing over it appealed to me. This would be today’s song.

And as I started developing the ideas about optimism, pessimism, good and bad, I suddenly realised that the rainbow/rain image fitted in with the theme, so it ended up being the concluding line of the first verse. The rhythm of the words suggested 3:4 (waltz) time to me.

I love the way the song writing journey takes you in unexpected directions.

This is one of my personal favourites of the project so far. It’s simple musically and lyrically, it’s got a slight country feel (I don’t think I totally let go of Dolly Parton in my thinking), and it’s got a message that I really identify with. And most of all, it’s in waltz time. I am a sucker for songs in waltz time.

April 14: Song 14: Cats on the Internet

It never ceases to amaze me how much pleasure watching cat videos gives people. Despite the lyrics of this song, it’s not something I indulge in. But I did have the idea for this song some time ago, and my folder contained a couple of newspaper articles I had kept. I read them, and did some googling. I am intrigued that there is this incredible technology behind the internet, and so much of its use is so trivial.

The song came as a first draft without too much difficulty, but I didn’t feel it quite hit the mark lyrically or musically. So I worked pretty hard on it, but didn’t have time to lift it to the standard I would like, so up it went as an early draft – another one to be worked on (perfected? purrfected?!) in the future. It seems to be receiving pretty favourable comments, but I think this is mostly because of the topic rather than the song itself.

April 15. Song 15: Endgame (The Sad Tale of Bobby Fischer)  

I had kept an article from way back in 2008 written shortly after Bobby Fischer’s death. I remembered well the extraordinary World Chess Championship between Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972. Basically a Cold War battle with all the intensity of international tension at the time projected onto chess, or all things. I was a kid. It was riveting. It was front page news.

But not being a chess-nut(!),I didn’t think much about him as he faded from public view. What a sad and powerful story the article told. He was clearly a difficult, demanding person from childhood: arrogant, brilliant, feted by the chess world as a prodigy from a very early age. His public pronouncements contained some sexist and anti-Semitic sentiments (although – or because? – his mother was Jewish). These ideas grew stronger in time, and his diva-like behaviour eventually alienated the chess world, and his government. When he played a tournament in the Soviet Bloc against the wishes of the US government, it set off a personal war between him and the US. He refused to pay taxes, tried to renounce his citizenship, was jailed, and so on. Was he a total prick, or someone with major mental health issues? I suspect a bit of both. But the sad fact is that he died friendless, poor and derelict.

The realisation that he died aged 64, which is the number of squares on a chessboard, provided a powerful link between his life and chess, so I chose this image to start and end the song. I wrote all the verses, and realised it needed a refrain of some sort. This came at the piano, and is one of the few times that I have written the music for something before the words.

This is the halfway point in the project. The songs have hit 1500 views. The enormity of the continuing challenge ahead daunts me!

30 New Songs in 30 Days: A Covid-19 Social Isolation Project. WEEK 1

Montage 1

When I run song writing workshops I encourage people to ‘just do it’. I suggest that if the give themselves a target of writing a song a week, or a fortnight or a month, then  after a year they will have 50 or 25 or a dozen songs – some of which will be usable. That’s better than waiting around for the perfect idea to come. That might take years.

But like most people who teach, I don’t necessarily practice what I preach!

So with the social isolation measures brought in to manage the threat of Covid-19, facing the prospect of a lot of time at home, with all gigs and social events cancelled for who knows how long, I decided that this would be my chance to set myself a song writing target. No excuses now!

I set myself the ambitious challenge of writing  and posting one song a day for the entire month of April 2020. 30 new songs in 30 days!

This blog records my processes and emotions in meeting this challenge and explores why and how I wrote each song.

The main thing I have realised is the ENORMITY of the challenge. Not only do I need to come up with a new song each day, I need to learn it well enough to video it. And even the writing of descriptions, posting to YouTube and Facebook, etc, takes quite a bit of time. I didn’t think all that through, really!  But I am loving it!

To keep it a more manageable size I will write four blogs: one for each week.

You can find all the songs on my YouTube channel: Brucewatsonmusic. Go to ‘Playlists’ and click on 30 Songs in 30 Days.

WEEK 1

April 1. Song 1: The Year of Wonders

As the current pandemic takes hold, we see terrible stories of tragedy in places like Italy and New York. We have also seen panic buying (toilet paper of all things!) and reports of fighting in supermarkets. But at the same time we see acts of generosity, sacrifice and creativity.  And in Italy we see people singing together across the streets from their balconies — an inspiring cameo of the indomitable human spirit. It’s easy to focus on and get depressed by the bad, and ignore the good. This is what my song Balance is all about.

So my first song directly addresses the current situation, accentuating the positive. We all need a bit of that at the moment.

The title is taken from Geraldine Brooks’ novel about the Plague Village of Eyam, Derbyshire, which in 1666 isolated itself from other towns in England to avoid the spread of the disease – as we are all doing around the world right now.  Everywhere else in England, as the first cases hit cities and villages, people fled for their own safety, thereby spreading the disease. By isolating itself to protect surrounding areas, Eyam suffered huge casualties, but saved the lives of many more in the vicinity.

Jill and I visited Eyam last year. The weight of history still lies upon this beautiful village. So Brooks’ title “Year of Wonders” has been in my mind, especially as the reality of the pandemic has gradually become clearer.

I wanted to evoke both tenderness as well as strength. I set the song in a major key, with the title line right up front, containing a leap from the tonic to the sixth, invoking triumph. The rest of the song is rousing, but I held it back from being anthemic — things are a little too raw for that. Lyrically I focused on contrasts, because our world is currently full of contrasts and contradictions. A note from musician friend Tracey Roberts provided some inspiration. I also invoked religion (count our blessings) and paid homage to Annie Kennedy’s beautiful song Unnecessary Things.

April 2. Song 2: Blobfish  

This morning I went to the filing cabinet and got out the rather thick folder of song ideas that I have collected and scribbled down over many years.  It’s 7cm thick! Hopefully that will keep me going for the duration! I went through all the scraps of paper and selected the ones that still feel appealing or interesting to me and made a list of ideas.

One of them was from 2013, when the much maligned Blobfish won the Ugliest Creature in the World title, following a vote conducted by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. They do look rather sad and ugly! It’s impossible not to anthropomorphise them.  They live at great depths and their adaptation to the massive pressure is to have very soft bones and a gelatinous outer layer. When they are brought to the surface all this expands, giving them the ‘Foo was here’ appearance. Sadly, they may be endangered as they get caught up in fishers’ nets.

I wrote this song with a jolly, bouncy tune, but it’s in a minor key to match the dolorous appearance of the blobfish. This gives it a bizarre feel that is at odds with the humorous approach I have taken to the song. It’s a musical style very reminiscent of the wonderful Bernard Bolan, whose music is, in turn, reminiscent of Jake Thackery’s. Not a bad pedigree!

April 3. Song 3: Birrarung

Birrarung means river of mists and shadows in the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people. It’s the name they gave to the Yarra River. We call it the Yarra because in 1835 the surveyor John Wedge asked the local Aboriginal people what they called the river. They replied ‘Yarro Yarro’, meaning ‘it flows’. It applies to any river, waterfall or cascades. What a pity we don’t call it Birrarung — river of mists and shadows.

I was born and bred in Melbourne and this river is very dear to my heart. I have spent a lot of time on its waters. When I was a child it was sadly degraded and polluted, but it has improved greatly over the last 3 or 4 decades.

My aim was to write a simple love song for the river; to praise it and tell its story. It does sound quite simple (like most of my songs) but I had a hell of a time bedding down the tune. This is because it’s sort of in the key of F major, but the chorus moves around the C chord, and the verse is in E minor. It works nicely with the transition between the story-telling verses in a minor key and the chorus in a major key, but it created some composition problems that this (musically) uneducated songwriter grappled with for most of the day. Normally I would have tackled these issues over several days, even weeks, but the song-a-day challenge required steely tenacity today!

April 4. Song 4: My Charango

This felt like a holiday after yesterday’s effort!

I have been a very keen fan of Andean music since I saw Inti-Illimani doing a concert at Melbourne Uni in the 1970s. They were on tour when the reformist Allende government was ousted in a CIA backed coup, and had become stateless, as their politics would have led to imprisonment or death if they returned to Chile. And years later Jill and I joined the Zampoñistas panpipe band. I had wanted a charango for years, and finally got a beautiful one some time ago through a chance meeting at the Yackandandah Folk Festival.

The charango has 10 strings in 5 double courses, and very interesting tuning which shares a lot with the ukulele. It’s more fun to play triplets on the charango because your fingers slip over the multitude of strings more easily than the uke. But getting those chord shapes is more of a challenge! I restrung it this morning after one of the strings broke, and that gave me the idea for today’s song.

How to get an Andean sounding tune? I went to the charango tutor book I have been learning from, and came across this progression – a very typical Andean sequence. So all I had to do then was come up with some words and melody. I am proud that I avoided rhyming charango with tango or mango!

This is the first time I have ever played it in public. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions!

April 5. Song 5: The Sunshine Factory (or The Ballad of the Birth of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission)

Somewhere or other I came across an English contemporary folk song called ‘The Cloud Factory’. That made me think of The Sunshine (Harvester) Factory. And I love the ambiguity in the name Sunshine Factory.

I was aware of the Sunshine Harvester Case and how pivotal it was in Australia’s labour history, but I didn’t know much about it. So I did some research on line and realised it made a great story. The Depression and Great Strike of the 1890s led to the establishment of Australia’s Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which in 1907 adjudicated on the Sunshine Harvester case. That judgement introduced the legal requirement that all workers should receive a ‘fair and reasonable wage’. This was a massive step for workers rights and justice in a system that was till then one of raw capitalism.

Being a workingman’s ballad, the story just cried out to be written in a Woody Guthrie style but making the tune my own. There is also a bit of a nod to Paul Kelly & Kev Carmody at the start, and to Henry Lawson’s poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’.

April 6. Song 6: Talking Underpants

In February last year I did five 20 minute songwriting sessions in a row with five primary school groups from south-east SA on the Friday of the Frances Folk Gathering (sadly now defunct). I got the kids to yell out ideas for song topics, then vote on them, and we used the same process to come up with the lyrics. It was pretty rapid-fire! Once we had a semblance of a structure, I came up with a very quick and simple tune and we practiced it. That was a quick 20 minutes.

So 30 songs in 30 days is not such a huge challenge after all – not after that experience!

My favourite idea was Talking Underpants. Only kids could come up with that! So I used the tune from that song. There were four couplets (it was a very short song) and so today I wrote lots more. I then selected my 9 favourites (one of the originals by the kids is still there), and added a bridge. Volià! The scatological humour is all mine!

April 7. Song 7: John Snow & the Map that Changed the World

When you mention John Snow these days people think of Game of Thrones. But the subject of this song is a far more important character, and not as well known as he should be. He is the Father of Epidemiology. He used mapping to establish that cholera was caused by infected water, not ‘miasma’. So he got the Broad St pump handle removed, thereby ending a shocking cholera epidemic in London in 1854. His methodology and findings set the stage for public health based on safe water supplies and for the science of epidemiology. At the moment the epidemiologists are playing an absolutely critical role in helping governments and individuals decide how to deal with Covid-19.

This is a story song not unlike the Sunshine Factory song, so my biggest song writing challenge was to give it a different feel both lyrically and musically from that song. Putting it in a minor key gives it a more dramatic and driving feel, and I wrote the words to fit in with that mood. More drama and less Woody.

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.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-4itVtdzKU

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: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150912976589607.414072.604839606&type=3

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 (www.brucewatsonmusic.com).

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 (www.unsungheroesofaustralianhistory.com). 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 (www.zamponistas.com).

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 (www.youtube.com/brucewatsonmusic), 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 (www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/aslec-anz) 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 http://outbackvoices.com/poems/mcarthurs-fart)

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 http://www.brucewatsonmusic.com/documents/They%20came%20together%20through%20song.pdf

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 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5H3tYAPhmY). 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!


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