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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Heavy metal dreaming in Adelaide

Last time I was in Adelaide I was 17 and had been working on a sheep and grain farm north of here, driving tractors through the long hot Australian summer.

I came down to Adelaide to see Metallica play. I remember getting there early so I could make the front row; feel the rush of air from the speakers when Lars hit the kick drum and see Kirk Hammett shredding up the neck just metres away. Quite a moment for a 17 year-old country boy out in the big world for the first time.
The next day I caught a bus for the long overland trip to Sydney and as I gazed out at the country rolling by I decided that when I returned to Adelaide it would be as part of world-dominating hardcore industrial metal band, in which I would be the guitar god rock star.

metal god

My next job was at another farm near Mudgee and one of the first things I did on a trip to town was walk down the main street, past the farm supply shops and tractor saleyards to the music store, where I proudly bought myself a $300 Ibanez electric guitar, in black.

And now here I am, back in Adelaide for the first time after a decade and a half away , returning not as a tattooed, seven-string ESP-wielding metal god, but as a f***** folk singer.

Funny how things works out.

Tasmania

Tasmania; the other Australia.

I’m walking amid mountains, between stunted, ancient snow gums with bark skinning off in long strips, pencil pines and pandanis with ludicrous heads and long leaves that clatter woodenly when you brush past them. Lower down the hill they cluster and tower; dinosaur-like, in sociable groves. My boots crunch through old snow. At one stage I enter a patch of nothofagus beech and my nostrils drink in the black, wet-wood smell of when I was a kid back in New Zealand with bare feet sinking into the leafy mat of the forest-floor. The track leads around tarns in prisons of dolerite, the rock tumbling and crumbling and shattering as if the Earth were exploding at geological pace.

MT FIELD NP

POND GUMS

swamp gums SMALL

At lower altitudes, the great swamp gums soar high and straight above me – the second tallest trees on the planet – racing for the clouds only to crash and topple and lie like sunken warships on the ocean floor. The battle over trees here has been long and bitter – the loggers and the activists have recently reached an uneasy truce – but Tasmania is far from the most affluent state in Australia and the tension between jobs and conservation still simmers palpably beneath the surface.

That was Mount Field, Tasmania’s first national park, on the day before the rain came. Yesterday it was still coming down but I wanted to keep moving, so I went out along the Tasman Peninsula and walked through the downpour to Cape Raoull. Here the dolerite maintains its spectacular organ-pipe structure along towering cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to a twisting sea. The storm whips up the cliff-sides, bringing nonsensical backwards-rain and gusting blasts that rattle the heath bushes and tear at my jacket hood.

This is a peninsula of pain; of iron shackles and stone walls, of bulldogs on frantic chains. Of sheeting rain. There is only one narrow way off this thumb of land, that’s why the British authorities built their penal colony here; it’s the sandy thread of Eaglehawk neck, where the line of dogs were tied against escapees. It was to this peninsula that the armed population of colonial Tasmania sought to confine the Aboriginal population when in 1830 their “Black Line” swept the island from coast to coast in an attempt to clear the land for sheep and civilization. The indigenous people, who have lived here for 35,000 years or more, knew the nooks and crannies far too well for that – only two were captured. Still the sheer mass of the Line was enough to daunt them to an uncertain truce that over two centuries later has never really been resolved.

Driving through this area I see the swath of destruction left by the fires which this year swept out of the hottest and driest summer on record, devouring valleys and homes. Schools and churches burned to the ground as fire crews fought desperately to control the conflagration. With the return of rains the blackened gum trunks are already sprouting bunches of fresh, bushy foliage, a reminder that fire here holds no terror for the trees.

It’s intriguing and fascinating; this other, strange and beautiful Australia.

bushfire damage

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

With a few days to spare before my gig in Adelaide I’ve headed over to Tasmania to visit some friends and escape the grind of Melbourne. Because in my mind, Hobart was a quaint and antiquated stone-walled little port town with not much more than a handful of fishing boats and a few souvenir shops. So I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback to find myself touching down in a sprawling, busy Australian city, complete with high rise buildings, malls and motorways.

oldest pub

Hobart was once a whaling and sealing port, the kind of place the heroes of the Davy Lowston song would have frequented, and so I was keen to visit the wharves and museums and see what remains from this time. Maybe those same sealers whose ordeal is told in the song once haunted the town’s foreshore, looking for work on one of the creaking vessels that lined the wharves, willing to forsake all trace of civilization for the dangers of the sea and the brutal life of sealing on remote shores far across the horizon.

This morning I spent half an hour on Skype talking Davy Lowston with Warren Fahey, who is perhaps Australia’s foremost collector of old songs. There is so much about this song that is wrapped in mystery – its origins, its antiquity, its author. It is a wraith of a song, which to me what makes it so appealing.

The tune of Davy Lowston has its origins on the on London’s Execution Dock, where the alleged pirate William Kidd was hanged in 1701. In those days, vendors made a penny selling “broadsides” – single-sided printed sheets of paper bearing songs detailing the goings-on of the day. They would stand on the street corners and sing the songs as a means of attracting buyers. One of these broadsides captured the plight of the condemned privateer, which later became the well-known folk song Captain Kidd:

My name is Captain Kidd
As I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Captain Kidd as I sailed,
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed.

Another song that appeared around the same time was “Sam Hall,”  which uses the same tune and tells the story of an unrepentent murderer as he makes his way to the gallows. (This song was recorded by Johnny Cash.) The tune and meter of Davy Lowston is almost certainly a plagiary of one or both these songs. Both “Captain Kidd” and “Sam Hall” would have been on the lips of sailors for more than a century before the composition of Davy Lowston, so it’s likely whoever authored Davy Lowston simply grafted their words onto this old melody and rhyme scheme.

I caught the bus into the city this afternoon. An Indian woman and her young daughter got on at the same time as me and as we travelled through Hobart’s streets the little girl starting singing the nursery rhyme “Where is Thumbkin;” which I remembered well from my own childhood;

Where is Thumbkin?
Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am!
Here I am!

How are you today, sir?
Very well, I thank you.
Run away.  
Run away.

The song, with its simple, repetitive melody is sung to the famous old french tune, Frère Jaques;

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Frère Jaques was first published about 1811, around the same time as Davy Lowston may have been composed. It has been theorized that it was originally composed to taunt Jews or Protestants. Since then, the melody has become ingrained in the cultures of many countries around the world, including China and India, with different lyrics being retro-fitted in many languages to suit many purposes. It has been used by gloating football fans  and patriotic Chinese communists; by the Beatles and the British military, and of course by mothers and children all over the world, including a 4 year old Indian girl on the number 39 bus into Hobart on this overcast Tasmanian afternoon. The process by which a song can travel through the centuries and around the world like this, morphing and changing as it does so, is the real subject of my inquiry into Davy Lowston.

P1000223I finally made it down to the wharves, where a handful of crayfish boats were tying up for the day. The fishermen here still use wooden cray-pots constructed from sapling branches, identical to those a century old you can find in the Tasmanian Maritime museum across the road. I got talking to one of the fishermen – he reckoned the crayfish are better attracted to the natural materials. When he saw me taking photos he rummaged around amongst the pots on the deck of his boat and pulled out this little bird – which he said they call a “Jesus bird” on account of its ability to “walk” on water. They often land on the decks of these boats and nestle down in the pots. I’m not sure what the species is – anyone?

jesus bird

Overland Sydney to Melbourne

Anzac bridge glides our taxi high over Sydney Harbour, gifting us a glorious sunrise view of the world’s most striking cityscape – the Opera House and famous bridge painted onto an early morning haze the colour of a galah’s breast and the city’s towering business edifices catching the suns first rays with the reverence of sun-temples on a strange planet.

The previous night Hana and I had played the Newsagency to a small and surprisingly raucous crowd. I had picked up an illness on the way over which all but floored me this night but we still made the 7:30 am departure of our train to Melbourne – 11 hours gently clattering and  bending through verdant beef and grain country – scatterings of Herefords grazing beneath gum trees, water tanks and homesteads, country towns dominated by looming, crumbling hotels; kangaroos standing on their hind legs to watch us pass. On board we ate scones and cream and watched the land unfold around us.

Finally we made Melbourne – finding Southern Cross station filled with black-and-white garbed Collingwood RFC supporters en route to the night’s big game against the Adelaide Crows. We took the northern line to the suburbs, leaving them behind for the quiet streets of a place called Reservoir.

On Saturday night we went out to sample the city’s famous music scene. Our friend Marlon Williams has just moved here to live and we were lucky enough to catch him playing a warm-up show for Melbourne band Sweet Jean‘s album release. Marlon, who along with Delaney Davidson recently picked up NZ’s best country song and album at Gore, was as brilliant as ever, interspersing Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Bonny Prince Billy covers with his own compositions and knocking each one out of the park with his incredible voice and musicality. I was particularly taken by Marlon’s own song about Minnie Dean, the Winton baby farmer, which struck me as an extremely well crafted piece of New Zealand country folk-noir. I get the feeling Marlon is gonna destroy Melbourne, and after that the world and he deserves every bit of success he gets. It makes me proud as a New Zealand folk musician to see a South Islander of Marlon’s calibre over here doing his thing.

marlon williams

On Sunday we’d been invited to this little show called Muscycle – a free benefit gig aimed at promoting cycling as a renewable energy source. The whole show was electrically powered by cycling participants and the headline act was Brian Ritchie, formerly of the Violent Femmes, who now lives in Tasmania. Brian is part of a group in which he plays a Japanese flute called the shakuhachi.

Tonight for us: The Old Bar in Melbourne, singing in the round with Donna Dean!

Heres a video of Hana and I playing “Shenandoah” at the Newsagency in Sydney…

On the trail of Davy Lowston: Neil Colquhoun

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Yesterday I borrowed a car and hit the motorway north of Auckland to visit Neil Colquhoun and his wife Barbie – the first foray into my film documenting the story of Davy Lowston. Neil is a former music teacher and composer and was one of the principle figures in the New Zealand folk revival. In the 1950’s and 60’s he was part of the Song Spinners, one of the first groups to bring old New Zealand folk songs back to life in the modern era. His book “Songs of a Young Country,” is one of the definitive collections of old New Zealand folk songs. It was Neil who returned Davy Lowston to New Zealand after locating it in the hands of an American song collector.

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Earlier in the day I had spoken on the phone to Michael Brown, who has previously researched Davy Lowston and other New Zealand folk songs for a PhD thesis. He told me there are many uncertainties about the true origins of the song – although it refers to a New Zealand story, it is almost certainly impossible to ascertain where and by who it was actually composed. Michael made the observation that although many performers and academics have claimed it as a New Zealand song, it is in reality a “song of the sea;” one that probably drifted around the ports of New Zealand and Australia in the early-mid 1800’s. I like that idea a lot – I have begun to see Davy Lowston as a landless song, an oceanic drifter, like an albatross or a shearwater. An idea of tragic beauty that formed in some long-gone sea-fearing mind and blew with the winds from port to port, only to vanish from sight, then finally to reappear, thanks to the work of people like Neil Colquhoun.

After finding Neil and Barbie’s place about 15 minutes on from Warkworth, I parked the car and walked in through a generously verdant garden, the centrepiece of which was a tangelo tree laden with fat orange fruit, a strange sight for a southern lad in the middle of winter. After lunch I sat Neil down in a  chair and we began talking. At the end of the interview, conversation turned to the grand piano in the corner of the room. On a whim, I asked Neil to play something so I could film it. He sat down and played the chords to Davy Lowston. The grand piano thumped and bellowed and from behind the camera I imagined I was on some old ship, bound for Australia with a hold full of whale oil and a headache from the previous night’s drinking –  with that tune rolling around in my wandering mind.

I write this from Auckland airport. I am bound for Australia today, not under creaking sail but in the cabin of a Boeing. My first stop is Sydney – where the Davy Lowston story has its genesis. Stay tuned for more…