Posts Tagged 'bruce watson'

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.


Heart of Lightness: Journeying up the Mekong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our boat, the Saigon Pandaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floating village, Kampong Chhnang (note the satellite dish)

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

Village school, Angkor Ban

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

Monastery school, Wat Han Chey

Cool line dance caller, Phnom Penh

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

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

Dàn bầu

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

S21 prison, Phnom Penh (internet photo)

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

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

Preah Palilay temple ruins

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

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

Kbal Spean

There are more photos on my Facebook page:

Not my funeral (The things I do)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zampoñistas – Dance Me to the End of Love

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

Wicalele – Singing in the Rain

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

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

So what do I do in my spare time?

What spare time?

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

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

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

I bungy jumped once.

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

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

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

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