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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.