Luke Byrnes 13-04-2021
*Speakers: Kevin Bradley (K), Voice of Kathleen McCoy (M), Luke Byrnes (L)
*Location: NLA Theatre, LG1
K: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Kevin Bradley, I’m the Assistant Director General here responsible for the Collection which is a grand thing to be responsible for. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we meet on today, on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I thank them for their care of the land on which we live and work and on which the Library is situated. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Thank you all for joining us for this evening’s Folk Fellowship presentation. The annual National Folk Fellowship is jointly supported by the National Folk Festival and the National Library of Australia. It offers a unique opportunity for the recipient to discover, explore and use in their own artistic work the original collected folklore and related material held here at the National Library. Tonight after a forced hiatus, and I can’t tell you how much it hurts to have that hiatus and I'm sure you all feel exactly the same, but after a forced hiatus of which we were starved of much music, thanks to COVID-19 and many ongoing border closures between Victoria and the ACT, we are very pleased to finally be able to welcome the 2020 National Folk Fellow, Luke Byrnes, back to the Library.
Performing alongside Luke tonight is The Big Scrub Revival Band. In 2019 Luke spent four weeks in the Library investigating the musical heritage and folklore of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales and I personally found this a really exciting topic and a region to look at. It’s been an area of which much in our collection has been documented and which such people as the Library’s consultant and folklore in the 1980s and ‘90s, the late Dr Edgar Waters, was born and raised and was continually attracted to in his research.
Tonight, Luke will share his research into the songs, yarns, poetries and folk stories that he discovered as well as reveal how he has reinterpreted these original recordings into contemporary compositions arranged for a seven-piece ensemble. So please join me in welcoming to the stage, Luke Byrnes and The Big Scrub Revival Band.
M: [unclear] 2:38 and I still love like-minded music and I can’t abide it and I still love the old-time music and sometimes I’d be afraid for fear it’s all going to pass away and that’ll be the end of it and it’s a great pity that is if that happens but it seems like it. But even lately I notice some of the younger ones seem to be – the bush bands and things, they seem to be reviving it a little bit.
L: Welcome, everyone, and thanks again for coming tonight. I’d like to begin by acknowledging this project was developed on the lands of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr, the [Yagal] 7:33, the Wurundjeri, the Ngunawal, the Ngambri and the Ngambri-[Gumul] 7:33 people. None of the land on which this album was created has ever had its sovereignty ceded by its first nations people and therefore this land remains stolen and occupied by colonial Australia. This land will remain unlawfully occupied until a meaningful treaty can be negotiated that guarantees indigenous sovereignty over the places, we now call the Northern Rivers, Melbourne, Canberra and Australia. Within the context of a presentation on folk music from the Northern Rivers I’d also like to acknowledge that the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and the [Yagal] cultures have one of the oldest surviving folk traditions on earth and despite colonial attempts to extinguish those cultures, language and music, those traditions continued to thrive and those songs continued to be sung within those communities.
I’d also like to provide a cultural warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people watching that this presentation will contain names, images and voices of deceased persons. The voice you just heard before this song, before we came on, was the voice of Kathleen McCoy. She was an accordion player who lived around the Clarence region on Gumbaynggirr country, towards the southern end of the region that I’ll be defining as the Northern Rivers. I’ll come back to talk about Kathy and the piece we just played in a moment but first I’d like to give some broader context to what this project is about, how I did it and why in the first instance I thought it would be a remotely good idea to put together a brand new seven-piece string band to play across three different states in the middle of a pandemic.
So, this project will as the title suggests explore folk music and folklore from the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales so the first thing to try and flesh out is what is the Northern Rivers? The word Northern Rivers is perhaps a little bit misleading in terms of geography because looking at it in the context of a continental map it definitely looks more like the middle rivers rather than northern rivers. Its name is partly a colonial construct that conglomerates a bunch of rivers in the top corner of the colony of New South Wales however I don’t believe that the ontology of Northern Rivers is completely arbitrary or else I wouldn’t be doing its project. It’s got some pretty prominent geographical boundaries etched out by the coastline to the east, the border ranges to the north, the New England tablelands to the west and the Dorrigo to the south.
The region also possesses a distinctive cultural heritage defined by the different groups of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and [Yagal] nations and following colonisation the region has experienced a series of shared economic and cultural shifts resulting from a series of migrational waves to the area ranging from the first [cedar-cutters] 10:03 who were brought in by the lure of red gold to the pastoral and agricultural exploits of the region throughout the 19th and 20th century and to the more recent counterculture movement that has gifted the area its contemporary rainbow region moniker.
So those are the regional parameters that I set for myself for this project and the next thing I’d like to talk about is what inspired me to do this project. I embarked on this journey in an attempt to understand the historical and cultural heritage of my home in greater depth. I grew up in the region and my family’s lived in the region now for over seven generations – sorry, for exactly seven generations. So fundamentally I see the Northern Rivers, its people, its places as a concept that’s shaped by myself and many of those I love and so I wanted to know more about what had shaped it.
My interest in traditional music and field recordings intersected with my attachment and love for my home in the Northern Rivers and so I decided to apply for this fellowship to explore the region through the lens of folk music and to my disbelief I was granted the National Folk Fellowship. Just a big shout out to the National Library’s Fellowship team for taking a massive gamble on a bluegrass punk from the Northern Rivers. I hope it pays off.
So, my preliminary and slightly delusional fantasy that I would unearth a secret collection of recordings revealing a clearly delineated Northern Rivers folk tradition very quickly collapsed. Instead I found myself rummaging through fragmented and conflicting stories that included such things as railway navvies go on strike at Bexhill for better wages, Gumbaynggirr fiddle players teaching their daughters to stepdance at Razorback, environmental activists sing songs from the Terania Creek blockade and lighting up spliffs in the middle of an interview for the National Library’s archives, Bundjalung pastors fighting against assimilation at Coberwey, early colonisers at Broadmeadows exhibiting white fragility when reflecting on the tenuous [nativities] 11:54 of the land that they occupy, local musicians bringing rural communities together for dances at Newton Boyd and those same families along the Boyd River ostracising one another due to interracial marriage. Old drovers living near the Aurora River telling ghost stories and talking about early transgender identities, Yaegl songwriters at Yamba singing teasingly about their friends’ search for love at Yulgilbar. The first hippie commune led by a false Messiah outside of Mullumbimby, composers from Nymboida writing locally inspired waltzes and commemorating folk gatherings within the area and countless more regional tales and tunes that are evoked by celebration and shame for my home.
My attempt to tell a neat conclusive narrative of the Northern Rivers through music proved as impossible as an attempt to bail out the Richmond River with a bucket. Instead this project developed into more of a collage and my aspirations for this performance that represent just a few of the many different pails that I drew from the never-ending stream of Northern Rivers stories in hopes of inspiring a richer appreciation for the region’s complex history and culture.
The music created for this project and the stories and context behind them were largely drawn from field recordings taken from the Northern Rivers that are now stored in the Oral History Department of this Library or whatever that department is now called after the Library restructure. I drew heavily upon recordings collected by Dave De Hugard, Chris Sullivan, Rob Willis, Margaret Gummo, Jennifer Gall, Marjorie Oaks, Russell Ward, Edgar Waters and John Gordon.
The Northern Rivers is an area that I believe was unfortunately underappreciated during the Australian folk revival. I’ve asked some of the collectors that I mentioned previously about their thoughts on why the area wasn’t explored as much as other regions in New South Wales and there are few answers. Perhaps the area was not seen as rural enough and therefore didn’t fit the national Australian bush narrative the folklorists were trying to construct at the time. Also, perhaps the region was just too far away from Sydney for folk collectors to bother to make the drive up.
Thankfully however there was enough material in the available collections to piece together not just one album but several and became a difficult process of selection to choose what to perform for both the album and this presentation. For this presentation I’ve made a selection of songs and tunes with the intention of trying to exhibit a broad canvas of Northern Rivers folk music and the first tune from this selection was the tune that we just played which was learnt from the accordion playing of Kathleen McCoy and was collected by Dave De Hugard.
Kathleen McCoy was an accordion player who lived around the Clarence region of the Northern Rivers in Gumbaynggirr country. She was born on the 11th of June 1901 and she inherited her musical gifts from her parents, Howard Didham and Charlotte Brown as well as her grandmother, Maryanne Monahan, all of whom were prominent musicians in the Clarence Valley region. Playing button accordion and piano accordion from the age of 13, Kathy learned most of her repertoire from her mother and grandmother and she attributed herself playing directly to their early influences, insisting “…I stick to the way that my parents played ‘cause they were the old old-timers and that’s what I think is right”.
The piece we just played was a nameless tune however after playing the tune Kathy remarked that “…that was the first tune I learnt to play, and I thought I was Christmas on a stick after I played that”. So, in light of that conversation I named the tune as ‘Kathy’s First Tune’. However, unbeknownst to me it had already been titled by the collector, Dave De Hugard, as ‘Christmas on a Stick’ so for this project we’ve retained both titles.
Kathy’s First Tune or Christmas on a Stick was passed on to Kathy McCoy by her mother, Charlotte Didham, who used to play for the second figure of popular square dancers at the time, The Lancers. The Lancers were a global square dancing phenomenon and the tunes that were originally composed for the Lancers were often lost during the process of transplantation as the dance travelled from Europe to rural New South Wales. So, the dances accompanying music in this transplantation process was instead usually replaced by tunes that musicians knew locally. This track is one such example of this local process of transmutation taking place for the originally intended tune being replaced by a piece that Charlotte and Kathy had learnt locally by ear.
Conceptually I often like to think of set dances such as the Lancers as providing the black and white outlinings of sketching with the accompanying tunes breathing life into and colouring the black and white figures outlined in that sketch. In this way one can think of Kathy and Charlotte dying a global dance phenomenon with the selection’s local melodic colours drawn from a unique palette of music circulating in the Northern Rivers at the time.
The next tune I’d like to present to you is a piece called Uncle Billy’s Hornpipe and with this piece I’d really like to elaborate more on the creative process that I took in arranging this album and this project. So, what I'm going to do is I’m going to play the original tune which you’ll hear now and then take –
L: So that was the original piece and now I’m going to demonstrate how I translated that accordion arrangement into a fiddle tune. I’m going to let Grace show the first step of the process which is translating the accordion melody into a fiddle melody. Take it away, Grace.
L: So that was a highly condensed version of the process that I went through in arranging these tunes with these folks. So the piece that you heard which we’ll play in full next is called Uncle Billy’s Hornpipe and it was learnt from the accordion player, Laurie Cobley, who you heard before who was a nephew of Uncle Billy Maskie 18:58, the namesake of this tune. So, Laurie Cobley was born in 1916 and lived around the Clarence Valley region. He learnt this and many other tunes in his repertoire from the playing of his Uncle Billy, a notoriously gifted fiddle player, button accordionist, mouth organ player and tin whistle player who lived near Razorback Creek just off the Boyd River.
The Maskies and the Cobleys both lived together on the shared family property at Razorback and during his interviews Laurie recorded many local musicians gathering from around the area to play at the Maskies’ house while camping and fossicking on the creeks around Razorback. It was during these gatherings that Laurie learned most of his tunes. Billy Maskie or Uncle Billy was born in 1889 and lived most of his life in a three-bedroom wooden house that he built and resided in with his wife, his 14 children and his grandmother, Jane Maskie.
Billy was highly regarded within the wider community and Kathleen McCoy, the voice of who you heard at the start of this presentation, praised Uncle Billy’s talents, saying he was the most musical person you could see and they always had him up there for dances. Laurie, Uncle Billy’s nephew, also asserted that when it came to musical gatherings Uncle Billy was the boss. Unfortunately for us, Uncle Billy was never recorded however his tunes live on through the collected recordings of his nephew, Laurie, and his influence exhibited in the number of unique and interesting tunes within Laurie’s repertoire that bear Billy’s name such as ‘Uncle Billy’s Waltz’, ‘Uncle Billy’s Funny Waltz’, ‘Uncle Billy’s Step Tune’ and of course the piece we’re about to play called ‘Uncle Billy’s Hornpipe’.
Uncle Billy himself was the son of an English man, William Maskie, and a Gumbaynggirr woman, Jane Guard. His mother’s facial identity was the subject of wild speculation in the area. As a young girl she was separated from her parents and adopted by a white family and subsequently exploited by them as a young girl servant. William and Jane were ostracised by the rest of the white Maskie family due to discriminatory stigma around interracial marriages. Their son, Uncle Billy, having been labelled a half-caste confronted racism from his own family and the broader community. Despite this, Uncle Billy was active in all aspects of community life around him that made spirited contributions to the social and cultural fabric of the area through his music and dance.
Billy Maskie also had a fascinating connection with Kathleen McCoy, the voice you heard at the start. Kathleen and Billy were related as in-laws through Kathy’s great-grandfather, Henry Brown, who had married Billy Maskie’s auntie, Eliza Maskie. However, it seems that Kathleen McCoy, despite her extensive knowledge of family connections in the area, was unaware of this relationship, probably due to Eliza ostracising her brother, William, after he decided to marry Billy’s mother, Jane.
Billy Maskie also shared an existential connection to Kathy McCoy after he saved her from drowning in the Boyd River. Kathy was crossing the river with her mother in a sulky on the way to Newton Boyd during a flood and after her mother misjudged the depth of the stream Kathy was swept off the back of the sulky and plunged into the floodwaters. Thankfully, Billy Maskie had offered beforehand to accompany Kathy and her mother across the river, and he was able to rescue Kathy from drowning by reining her in by the hair. Saved her life so I suppose that’s a plus.
Another important connection shared by Kathy and Billy and the relationship by which they both drew equal admiration from each other was through music. Billy learnt a large part of his repertoire from Kathy’s mother, Charlotte Didham and she taught him to play violin after he received his first fiddle at the age of 21. Billy would often play at the same dances as Kathy’s mother and would accompany her fiddle-playing with the tin whistle accordion or concertina. Because Billy and Kathleen’s repertoire both stemmed from Charlotte Didham it can be speculated that several of his tunes have in common within the recorded collections of Laurie Cobley and Kathleen McCoy, stem from the same musical source as Laurie Cobley drew the majority of his repertoire from his uncle, Billy Maskie who in turn drew large parts of his repertoire from Kathy’s mother, Charlotte.
We’ll introduce this tune with a quote from Uncle Billy’s daughter, Shirley Maskie.
Male: And also Kathy told me about Billy [Maskie], the music.
Shirley: Yeah well he was the most beautifulist violin player you ever heard and he’d just play it by ear, he’d just play it. He’d just pick any tune, if he’d hear it he could play it. He’d just – it’d just – his darling hands and fingers and he was just [unclear] 23:26 just play, play, you know just play anything.
L: Thanks, guys. So, the next tune I’d like to introduce is one called ‘Where Are You Going, Bonnie Cook?’ This was known from the singing of Alexander Cameron who was recorded at Pippi Beach at Yamba in 1968 by John Gordon. Alexander Cameron was a Yaegl man that spoke and sung in his own Yaegl language as well as Gumbaynggirr, Bundjalung and English. He was born in 1890 at Ilmara and grew up on the Aboriginal missionary school at Ulgundahi Island. He learnt traditional corroboree songs from the elders within his community as well as writing his own contemporary songs in local language and English. Alexander Cameron’s songs are just a few examples among hundreds of recorded indigenous folk songs that demonstrated the rich musical tradition of the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl people of the Northern Rivers region.
There's a wealth of these recordings from the area stored in the AIATSIS oral history collections and dozens of these songs are still performed and kept in circulation across indigenous communities throughout the region. This particular song was written by Alexander while he was visiting his friend, Bonnie Cook, who lived at Cabastri 28:06 Island along the Richmond River. Bonnie Cook was setting off to work at Yulgilbar Station in search of a girlfriend and while he was departing Alexander sang this song to remind him that if he ever did find a girlfriend that he better make sure that he doesn’t forget to invite him ‘round for wedding cake.
Bonnie Cook himself was a Bundjalung man and a noted musician within the Cabastri Island community. Bonnie was also one of the many indigenous employers to work at Yulgilbar Station which you can see on the screen here which was a pastoral station that was set up in the upper Clarence region by an early coloniser, Edward Ogilvie. The Yulgilbar Castle and small pastoral empire is often attributed to the pioneering legend of Ogilvie however it should also be noted that like most early squatters Ogilvie built his fortunes on the stolen land and wages of local indigenous people such as Bonnie Cook. Musically Alexander’s songs, ‘Where Are You Going, Bonnie Cook?’ Contains consistently irregular bar lengths in a similar fashion to many crooked fiddle tunes within the old-time string band tradition which is the kind of music that we play.
With these musical parallels in mind I’ve applied the asymmetrical structure of Alexander’s vocal melody to an instrumental melody for fiddles while also retaining the original lyrics and melody of the song, so we’ll perform that for you now. We hope you enjoy it.
L: Thanks folks. The next tune that I’d like to play is called ‘Reggie’s Tune’ which was learnt from the playing of Jean Winters and was collected from Jean by Dave De Hugard. This tune was passed down to Jean who you can see here through her aunties and uncles without a name and so it came to be known as ‘Reggie’s Tune’ after a friend of Jean’s had adopted it as his favourite tune. Jean Winters was a button accordion player that grew up around Baryulgil and was the daughter of Priscilla Hamilton and James Rogan. She began playing tunes for the dances at the age of eight and I’ll play a clip for you folks now where Jane talks about learning to play in her early years.
Jane: I think my family were all very musical and I think it was just something that happened. The accordion was there and one day I picked it up and I found that I could get a tune out of it. The first tune that I could ever play was ‘Moonlight and Roses’ and I started off just with the keys and then I was able to add a base to it and I was away. I can remember playing extras for dances when I was eight. I’d be sleeping under the seat like most children did while their parents danced, and they’d wake me up to provide an extra and then I’d do that and go back to sleep again. Dances those days used to last ‘til 3 or 4:00 in the morning. In fact, I can remember plenty of them where they used to put bags up at the windows to stop the daylight coming in so they could dance longer.
L: So another tune in the Northern Rivers that pops up with remarkable similarity to a section of ‘Reggie’s Tune’ which is a tune we’re about to play, is a tune that Laurie Cobley, the person you heard about before, a tune that he played called Arbadela Waltz which he learnt from a local accordion player called Arthur Olive. I’m going to play for you folks an excerpt of the of these tunes so you can listen to the relationship between the two melodies.
L: So, this is Reggie’s Tune from the playing of Jane Winters. Then the next excerpt that I'm going to play you is the playing of Laurie Cobley.
L: I can see some heads bobbing in the audience, so it’s obviously got a catch to it. In looking at these tunes it’s fascinating to see the creative permutations that have occurred in Northern Rivers in such a short period of time. My own creative licence was also exercised when interpreting this tune and although my arrangement remains faithful to Jean’s original melody and her embellishments the piece that we’ve made has been slowed down significantly and it’s been reharmonised to blunt the cornier edges of the tune’s A section and further explore the meandering qualities of Jean’s B unique section in greater depth. So, this is Reggie’s Waltz. 41:21
L: Thanks, folks. The next piece that I want to introduce is a song called Native Land Waltz. Native Land Waltz was learned from the accordion player of Kathleen McCoy who you’ve heard plenty of times before and was collected by Dave De Hugard. Kathy learnt this tune from her mother, and she recited lyrics that she recorded her mother having sung to the tunes saying ‘…give me a home in my own native land in a tall shady gum tree in Australia’s fair land…’. During one particular interview some additional words were recalled that go ‘…give me a hut in my own native land out in the bush where the tall gum trees stand, no matter how far in the bush that may be with a dear native girl there to share it with me…’.
Kathy responded to these words by recalling a story where she asked her mother whether the native girl in the song would have been a dark girl and her mother responded by rousing on Kathy yelling no, she wasn’t. I was already experiencing some discomfort around embracing a tune called Native Land Waltz and this conversation really brought to the fore some uncomfortable questions surrounding nativity, land and race. I believe that colonial Australia has always had a fragile relationship with its connection to place on this continent but this claim to land and nativity founded on the precarious colonial logic of white possessiveness and an aetiology of settler victimhood.
Much of the pioneering legend of colonial Australia rests on a mythology that frames white colonisers as victims of settlement, battling through trials of adversity to build brighter futures in connection with the new land. Although these tales of adversity in early colonial history reflect a partial truth what this narrative intentionally fails to engage with is that colonial Australia’s connection to land is fundamentally predicated on removing indigenous people’s connection to that very same land.
When the supplanting society’s legitimacy over holding this land and its claims to nativity are questioned the fragility of white Australia is often exposed and responded to in anger, whether this be Kathy’s mother lashing out in anger over questions over her nativity at Newton Boyd, a series of history wars following native title claims or residents of the Northern Rivers fuming on public forums over national holidays being brought into question.
Author, Aileen Moreton Robertson, comments that Aboriginal perspectives towards colonial Australia bring into question the very formation of that nationalism and that doesn’t make Australians feel very good and this is true, it’s not a comfortable experience examining one’s own connection to place. However, this process of critical reflection and truth-telling is necessary if we are to move forward together and call the Northern Rivers or any other place on this continent home with any integrity.
To incorporate this reflective process into this song I’ve kept the original verse while adding two additional verses. One of the verses recounts a story told by Pastor Frank Roberts senior about his father, Lyle Roberts, resisting government harassment and assimilation efforts in the Northern Rivers. While the other is a personal reflection, my own, on how to reconcile my own connection to the Northern Rivers whilst also recognising that this connection is entangled with indigenous dispossession.
Musically the melody of this particular tune pops up in places all over the globe. Dave De Hugard recognised it after playing it with Kathleen McCoy as a Swedish tune called ‘The Waltz of Old’ and in later years he found another piece from the United States called ‘Give Me A Cot in The Valley I love’. It shared similar lyrical themes and melodic motifs. Recently I’ve identified the melody is an Acadian waltz from Canada called ‘Waltz Aurelian Jomph’ and closer to home the recordings of Dooley Chapman and other musicians playing this waltz across New South Wales.
The melody to this tune is as Kathleen McCoy describes very salubrious and a reharmonisation of the B part also permits the melody to move into a more pensive temperament that hopefully allows the listener space to pause and reflect on their own particular connection to place. Hope you enjoy.
L: Thanks heaps. We are going to run over time so I won’t be offended if people do have to leave or go to the toilet and come back if you prefer to do that as well but the next piece we’re going to play is called ‘The Tweed and Lismore’. So, ‘Tweed and Lismore’ is a railway ballad and was originally written by a railway navvy called Ned McElligott, who’s here, while working on the Tweed and Lismore railway line that was built between 1891 and 1894. This section of the railway dubbed by a local politician at the time as a line from nowhere to nowhere was constructed as the first piece of North Coast Railway interconnecting the isolated agricultural regions of the Northern Rivers to nearby coastal ports in Sydney.
An old Northern Star article reports that Ned penned this ballad during a period of enforced idleness imposed on him by flood - surrounded a railway camp in Bexhill. I know there’s a Bexhill member in the audience so that’s the name drop that I mentioned earlier. The song came to be known by all workers along the line and it documents the poor wages and harsh conditions that McElligott and other workers experienced during this time at the hands of exploitative construction company bosses.
Navvies such as Ned were labourers that travelled around the continent seeking work on largescale civil engineering projects such as the Tweed to Lismore railway line. Their employment was often precarious, and they performed hard manual labour under notoriously bad conditions for low wages kind of like the gig economy now. For 10 and sixpence a day wage that McElligott bemoans in this song eventually led to an industrial dispute in November 1891. You can see the newspaper articles that were written about that strike just three months into the construction of the railway.
This song constructs the damming working class counternarrative to what was printed in the press at the time about the railway construction company, Carol and Carroll. McElligott’s fierce disdain for the railway boss is made clear at the end of the song when he says ‘…Carroll himself is a rotten old boar…’, and this scathing description stands in stark contrast to the character profile ascribed to the railway boss, Harry Carol, by a newspaper obituary that stated, ‘…his business activities were always characterised by uprighteousness and probity and while he was one willing and anxious to meet on fair grounds he would always stand up for what he thought was right and proper.’ Unfortunately, Carol subscribed to the same capitalist logic that exists today which sees exploitation of human labour as right and proper.
Our version of the song was adopted from a field recording taken by Russell Ward and Edgar Waters and Ned McElligott’s son, Paddy McElligott, who was recorded singing the tune near Corikai in the 1950s. The recording features Patty singing nine verses unaccompanied and I’ll play a section of the field recording for you folks to give you an idea of how the original sounded which is what came on this slide. There we go.
L: There’s many more verses after that so don’t worry, we’re going to perform them all. Alright.
The melody that the ballad is sung to is derived from the 19th century whaling song called ‘Paddy and the Whale’ and it is likely that this melody would have been brought over from Europe when Ned’s father moved the McElligott family over to this continent from Glin Limerick in Ireland in 1865.
Sonically it can be very challenging to sustain interest in a nine-verse ballad and in this arrangement that we’ve created our intention was to move progressively through a series of different string band textures so as to engage the listener over the course of an eight-unit epic, so strap yourselves in. We’ve also slowed the tempo of the song down for some increased melodrama and our base player, Frances Evans, took this arrangement into true prog folk territory when she lay the foundations of a dream line string in mandolin into it midway through the song. We hope you enjoy this rendition.
L: So we got two more songs, I promise to get out of here by whatever that is, 7:30. So the next song I want to play for you folks is a song called ‘Let’s Go Down to the Forest’ that was written by Paul Joseph, the man you saw here, in 1976 in preparation for the first meeting of the Terania Native Forest Action Group. The meeting was held at a farmhouse in the Nimbin Valley where 20 people met and decided to create a film and accompanying soundtrack to begin campaigning against the imminent logging of the last remnants of the big scrubs, the namesake of this band. The campaign led to the successful halting of logging in Terania Creek in 1979 and eventually resulted in the 1982 rainforest decision by the New South Wales State Government for 100,000ha of state forest, was placed under protection for timber production.
Paul Joseph, the author of this song, moved to the Northern Rivers following a violent interaction with New South Wales Police during a Vietnam war demonstration in Sydney. After moving to the region Paul leveraged his musical gifts along with his desire for radical change to become an integral part of the Northern Rivers counterculture community where he assisted in organising the 1973 Aquarius Festival. He helped establish the Tuntable Creek community, facilitated the collectivisation of Nimbin’s cultural infrastructure and aided the formation of the Terania Creek protest movement.
I just want to play a clip of Paul Joseph singing a song at the Terania Forest blockade to give context to what the original song would have sounded like.
L: For our version of the song I’ve changed the eclectic folk style you heard before and moved it into a bluegrass aesthetic with some accompanying instrumental breaks in the beginning, middle and end of the piece. I’ve also added a verse and chorus of my own to reflect my own experiences in contemporary environmental direct-action campaigns. Unfortunately, the logging of native and remnant forest still occurs throughout this country and in this presentation, I want to connect these stories of past forest blockades in the Northern Rivers to current actions being taken in the region and the country at large. So I asked my friend, Sienna, who’s currently at Camp Nunguu on Gumbaynggirr country near Bellingen if she could make a video for the audience today to let folks know about a forest blockade happening right now in the north coast at Newry State Forest and here is Sienna.
Sienna: Hello, my name’s Sienna and I'm on Gumbaynggirr country in the beautiful Newry State Forest. This is the next forest under threat from Forestry Corporation New South Wales. It’s a really biodiverse, koala rich forest that’s incredibly significant to the Gumbaynggirr people so the community’s come together and we've set up a camp called Camp Nunguu. It’s a blockade where elders have given a full invitation to bring as many people in as we can to stand up for Newry and protect this forest.
As you’ve heard about today this area has an incredibly rich history of forest activism and a lot of the national parks up here are testament to those last campaigns. We’ve had some really big wins here in the last year with Nambucca and Wild Cattle Creek and we hope that Newry will be the next on the list.
L: Thanks, Sienna. If you’d like to support or get involved with Camp Nunguu blockade you can find out more details in the Newry Native Forest Blockade website.
Also just wanted to mention that I wrote and recorded these lyrics in response to 2019/2020 black summer fires and you can see the damage that the fires caused around Terania Creek here in this video that I took during that summer. I’ll turn the volume down ‘cause it’s got some miscellaneous speech of me that may be a little bit rude.
L: In this video that I took during the summer when we went out to help make some fire breaks to prevent the fire spreading into the Tuntable Creek and Siddha Farm Communities. The lyrics I wrote for this song and our version of it talk about the need for broader economic and structural changes to address the climate crisis that is driving these fires. Unfortunately capitalism and a healthy planet cannot coexist so this is our version of ‘Let’s Go Down to The Forest’ and I'm going to play so you can see here that very same forest that was protected when this song was written has been completely burnt. But we’re going to play it with a little happier backdrop behind us which is the forest action taken to protect the Terania Creek native forest.
L: So, the next tune and last tune in this set is a tune called The Train Won’t Run to Murwillumbah and was learnt from the playing of Len Duncan and the tune was also collected by Chris Sullivan. Len was the nephew of Bob and Hughie Duncan and the two uncles who were attributed authorship of this tune and its lyrics and it can be seen here on the right of this picture. Bob and Hughie Duncan made a living as timbermen and they operated a bullock team delivering goods between Beechmont, Gilston and the train line in Narang. Both uncles lived their lives together in the same shared house and their nephew, Syd Duncan, recalled regular congregations of people gathering at their home on a Sunday to stepdance along to Bob and Hughie’s music.
The tune itself that we’re about to play appears to be a transplanted German polka picked up by Bob and Hughie Duncan from around the region. Len, their nephew, recalled that both he and his uncles often shared the stage to play dances with German musicians in the region and recently Maria Zan sent me another German tune collected in southeast Queensland from Percy Span called – and I'm going to stuff this pronunciation up – [speaks German], translated ‘Potatoes in Liverwurst’ which shares the same melody and onomatopoeic refrain that defined both tunes which you’ll hear in a moment.
The railway lines referred to in the song are the Queensland South Coast Railway Line that terminated at Tweed Heads and the Tweed Lismore Line that terminated at Murwillumbah. The New South Wales Government refused to fund an extension between Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads because as the state government said at the time, it was not in the interest of the state that the line should be constructed as the chief result of it would be to enable Queensland to compete with New South Wales for the general merchandise and business of the Tweed and Richmond districts. So, Bob and Hughie Duncan would have been acutely aware of this railway gap and the squandered interstate markets that resulted from it as they supplied trade to rail freight through their bullock-driving team.
In our arrangement of this piece I’ve saturated the tune with the flurry of passing tones to fill the melodic gaps in the original tune and have added several instrumental breaks to transform the slightly dorky original German polka into an old-time breakdown banger.
I’ve also added an additional verse that touches on another transport issue plaguing the region at the time, the hazardous entry to the Richmond River at Ballina. The first vessel to be wrecked at the Richmond Bar was John Skinner’s [Herara] 16:14 in the 1850s, [Joe Yerara] 16:18 with countless numbers of craft and life lost thereafter as you can see in these pictures. This was just a small handful of pictures from one book.
This was also a song that was helped out on the recording of the album by the gang vocal talent of the National Library’s own Oral History Department and you can see Fiona, Mark, Eva and Duncan really giving it their all here. Thanks a lot for that, Fiona and Duncan.
So before we’d like to finish I just wanted to let you know that if you’d like to listen to more of these tunes and more Oral History Department gang vocals we have a CD available to purchase and it contains more than twice the amount of tracks that we’ve been able to squeeze in this performance this evening. Apologies in advance for this shameless social media plug but we’d also really appreciate it if all those watching today could go and follow The Big Scrub Revival on our Facebook and Instagram page ‘because this is our second only show. It’s our first amplified show so we’ve got a lot more coming up and it’d be great if you could all follow that. The artwork here is done by Polly Bestow and Sophia Sebar and I’ve also written a 24-page booklet included with the CD that explores the context and history behind the music that we play. The CD’s for sale for $25 and we’re sending half the money made from the album to the Mirror Bay Aboriginal Language and Cultural Cooperative which is a cooperative working to conserve and disseminate Gumbaynggirr, Yagal and Bunjalung language and music.
So money from this album will be going directly back into efforts to support Northern Rivers folk culture. I’ll play this and finish with some closing words after the tune. This is The Train Won’t Run to Murwillumbah.
L: So that’s the last song we’ve got for you guys, but I wanted to wrap this up, this presentation with a few words about my thoughts on Northern Rivers folk music and folklore as it exists today. This will be very brief. I believe the folk music and folklore continue to thrive in the Northern Rivers. I believe it exists in traditional and folk music gatherings and sessions like those held at Woody Head, Dorrigo, Barkers Vale and Lismore but I also believe that it breathes just as deeply in the music played at antifracking blockades and forest blockades, in indigenous communities and cultural centres across the region, in the drumming circles of the German markets, in the New Year’s festivities of tropical fruits, in the bloom of Grafton’s Jacaranda Festival, in the parades of Nimbin’s Mardi Gras, in the lights of Lismore’s Lantern Festival, in the community dances at bush doofs. In the hard core and punk house gatherings of Lismore and Byron Bay and anywhere else in the Northern Rivers where music and culture exists in service to the community in which it is practised.
It is my hope that this project will contribute an additional thread to this rich tapestry of Northern Rivers folk life. I’d like to thank my band for joining me on this journey over the last year. Can we get a massive round of applause for Grace Bigby on the fiddle, Felicity Law on the other fiddle, Claire Alloway on the cello, Frances Evans on the biggest fiddle, Lali Hodgens on the banjo, Jasper Bell on the mandolin and guitar. This is the image I’ll leave you with, this is a picture of my mum and dad’s place in Kenoba and my baby nephew, Finn, who I always try to sneak in photo opportunities wherever I can.
I wanted this picture to accompany the closing thank you that I wish to make which is to the Northern Rivers community for continuing to sustain me. After travelling the east coast for the last 10 years you still remain my home, thank you.
K: Thanks very much to Luke, that was absolutely brilliant and I'm so impressed with the way the complexity of the geography, the culture, the whole region of the Northern Rivers was woven into that and the band provided such a brilliant musical backdrop to the whole thing, I think it was fantastic.
K: I should point out those of you who are worrying terribly that’s a heritage clock and it shows heritage time, but we need to readjust back to 2021 which is about 10 minutes ago. We have unfortunately run out of time for this evening but for those of you who are interested to know the National Folk Festival has agreed to again partner with the National Library for next year’s Folk Fellowship and the applications are open as of today with a closing date of the 21st of June which is – spread the news, let those – now I think also in the audience is Archer Broughton. Archer, where’s Archer? There’s Archer up the back. Archer is this year’s Folk Fellow who began his journey through the collection this year and I think he’s been impressed with what he’s seen up on the stage, but we’ll be seeing more from Archer in the future.
So please join me again in thanking Luke Byrnes and The Big Scrub Revival Band, thank you.
End of recording
Catch Luke Byrnes and the Big Scrub Revival Band's presentation and performance of folk music and folklore of the NSW Northern Rivers.
Luke has been investigating the musical heritage and folklore of the Northern Rivers region, searching the National Library’s oral history and folklore archives to find songs, yarns, tunes, poetry, dance, craft and folk stories collected from the region over the last 80 years. Stylistically Luke has reinterpreted source recordings of solo singers, box-players and fiddlers into contemporary compositions arranged for the Big Scrub Revival Band.
The Big Scrub Revival Band is assisting Luke with the reinterpreted findings of this project.
The National Folk Fellow is co-funded by the National Folk Festival.
Learn more about the National Folk Fellowship.