A talk given at the National Folk Festival, Canberra, Easter 2012
In 1947, my father took me, a child of 12, to see my first play (Woman Bites Dog) at the New Theatre, then at 167 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. This was a small amateur group performing plays on a repertory basis since 1932, covering a wide range of plays from Shaw to Shakespeare, Cliff Odets to Arthur Miller,topical political revues, parodied versions of Gilbert and Sullivan, plays with a political or social theme or ‘message’, plays with a working-class bias, plays dealing with racism, social justice and peace in the world. They encouraged and supported Australian playwrights.
In 1952, as a starry-eyed teenager, I joined the New Theatre and was keen for any ‘walk-on’ part. Then in 1953, there was a buzz in the theatre. Theywere going to do a production of Reedy River by Dick Diamond. This had been done earlier in the year by Melbourne New Theatre with great success. This musical, based around the shearers’ strike of 1891, used Australian folk songs and songs composed in the folk tradition, and it was the right play at the right time. There was an awakening of interest in our past, particularly the rural life of Australian workers, and the songs of the show expressed and captured that life so genuinely.
Reedy River required many actors, singers, dancers and a new type of ‘orchestra’. This was supplied by the Bush Whackers Band with its ‘lagerphone’ and ‘bush bass’. I do not know whether RR made the Bush Whackers Band or the other way around, but I do know that my love of Australian bush songs started with being in that first production of Reedy River.
I was a city/suburban girl from a Celtic/Anglo background singing the English and Irish songs of my parents with no knowledge that there were any ‘Australian’ songs except for the occasional radio broadcasts of songs from the war – “There’s a brown slouch hat with the side turned up” and “Road to Gundagai” etc – so these bush songs from Reedy River grounded my youthful psyche to Australia, and not to a strong but never-the-less second-hand, distant culture of my parents.
The opening night of Reedy River was a-buzz with excitement, not nerves, for we knew we had a success on our hands. The foyer was decorated with the wonderful reproductions of the Holtermann photos of the goldfields of the 1870s whose negatives on glass had recently been discovered. The usual run of a show at New Theatre in those days was eight to ten weeks but Reedy River, with its theme and songs, struck such a chord in the people who came to see it, and the strength of ‘word of mouth’ publicity, that the season was extended to nine months with changes of cast and extra performances added. Even when the season ended at the New Theatre, the cast and crew were kept busy taking the show to school halls and outer suburban areas. I graduated from chorus singer to playing the female lead, Mary, opposite Milton Moore’s Joe Collins.
Ten years later I again played Mary opposite Pat Barnett in a new production of Reedy River and I think I brought a deeper understanding to the role and the songs because, in the intervening years, my husband and I joined the Bush Music Club and often performed at their Singabout nights. Here I also worked with Chris Kempster who set the Lawson poem of “Reedy River” to music when he was only 16 and who played the part of Snowy in the 1953/54 production.
It was at the Bush Music Club that I learnt more Australian bush songs and came to appreciate the great work done by John Meredith and Duke Tritton in collecting and saving from oblivion the songs from shearers and drovers etc. There weren’t many songs from a woman’s point of view, but young men such as Chris Kempster and Mike Leyden were setting the poems of Lawson and other Australian poets to music and John Dengate was writing his own satirical words to traditional tunes, and, although not truly ‘bush’ songs, they were well-crafted songs and a pleasure to sing.
By 1964 I had three children and it was great to be able to bring them to the Singabout nights held in the Building Workers Industrial Union building in George Street,, Sydney. I remember hot summer evenings with the upstairs windows open, hoping if I was singing a quiet, sad song that the orange-clad Hari Krishna group would not go banging and jangling their way up George Street on a noisy Saturday night. Those nights of singing and dancing were great! We could take the kids with us – no need to organise a baby sitters – and they could join in the dances with the kindly teenagers and older people helping them to learn the steps and guiding them down the line of dancers.Arising out of these Singabout nights, one could learn how to become a performer by trying out new songs on an understanding audience.
Through this experience I teamed up on with Chris Kempster and we sang anti-war songs at Save Our Sons rallies during the Vietnam War. We also sang at folk clubs, Lawson festivals and peace rallies. One memorable night we performed Australian songs to a huge crowd at the Rushcutters Bay Stadium before visiting Chinese officials – was long before China was recognised by the Australian Government. At that event, a very youthful David Gulpilil performed an amazing kangaroo dance. We sang at a concert at the unfinished Chalwyn Castle in Cremorne for Pete Seeger on his first visit to Australia and we gave him a taste of Australian songs. It was here that a young Jeannie Lewis sang the Queensland version of “Waltzing Matilda”.
Through my background of Reedy River and the Bush Music Club, I was part of a series of short films being made by Wattle Recordings with the film makers of the Waterside Workers Federation (Keith Gow, Jock Levy and Norma Disher). Keith Gow was co-director of the 1953/54 production of Reedy River at the New Theatre and Norma was the costume maker for both the productions of Reedy River I was in. These short films used Australian songs sung by Alex Hood as a background to a film version of the song. Again I acted Mary to the Lawson song “Reedy River”. These films were sold to the ABC to be used as fillers when programmes finished early due to the ABC not having advertisements.
In 1967 my husband Tom and I were asked to perform some Lawson songs at the University of Sydney celebratory dinner in honour of the 100th anniversary of Henry Lawson’s birth. On the same programme was John Clements from Western Australia reciting Lawson’s poems, and he later asked Tom and I to tape some songs for a recording of Australian songs he was involved in producing. This became an album called Singing Australia with some songs from the Sydney Bush Music Club being acknowledged in the credits.
Now in my late 70’s, some things have come full circle. With an aging voice, but my love of songs and singing still intact, choral singing suits me perfectly, and with my New Theatre philosophy from my youth, of art being used for a wider meaning than self-expression, I joined the Sydney Trade Union Choir. Who should be there but Paula Bloch, a founding member of the choir and a singer in the 1953/54 production of Reedy River. And who should be the first musical director but Tom Bridges, the son of Doreen Bridges who wrote the music for “The Ballad of 1891”, one of the most stirring songs from Reedy River. Now our present musical director is Margot McLaughlin who is the daughter of Cedric McLaughlin, who played the part of the Swaggie in Reedy River and whose very moving singing of “My Old Black Billy” still rings in my memory. One of the Sydney Trade Union Choir’s favourite songs, “Four Strong Women”, about British peace activists, was written by Maurie Mulheron, the nephew of Pat Bennett who payed Joe Collins in the 1964 Reedy River with me.
It is not only the times spent in Reedy River and the learning and performing songs for the Bush Music Club’s Singabout nights that one remembers, but the almost 60 years of pleasure and purpose which sprang out of that twin birth of New Theatre’s Reedy River and the Bush Music Club, and for this I owe them my heartfelt thanks, my well-being and my best wishes for the future of both of them.
Silvia Salisbury is a long-standing member of the Sydney Trade Union Choir.