Some thoughts about John Dengate from Roseann Dale Dengate.
Drugged with summer cicadas song;
Drunk with freedom and sun …. in lines from Song of Childhood.
No subject was off limits for John and he wrote with wry humour about every aspect of the life of 'everyman' in the Australian setting including male illnesses such as rectal bleeding and bags associated with bowel cancer. His topics ranged from aspects of our lives rarely found in the text books in songs such as: The Answer's Ireland, The Battle of Castle Hill, Anti Metrics, Ballad of Les Darcy, Big Ben pies and Coopers Sparkling Ale, train trips and in Bill from Erkineville, about the difficulties faced by many workers trying to provide a home and support a family. He engaged with men and women from all walks of life and often made them feel they were his special friends. The amazing number of tributes that have poured in certainly confirmed these friendships.
John Dengate - a rich life
By Tony Smith*
Individual human existence has limits. While we all have a birth and a death, most of us celebrate the fact of our beginnings but resist and regret our ends as though they were not inevitable. Religions have developed ways of trying to take the sting out of death, but paradoxically, as western societies become more secular and rational, it is common to experience death ceremonies that are positive celebrations of the preceding life.
Such was the funeral of John Dengate. Publicly, John was known as a teacher, sportsman, folksinger, busker, songwriter, raconteur, humorist and political activist. Privately, as slides displayed during his recorded rendition of ‘Song of Childhood’ demonstrated, he was a son, a brother, husband, father, grandfather and friend. As John’s son Sean said in his eulogy, his father had a good life, a rich and full life. The secret to having such a life, Sean suggested, was to keep things simple and to place your energies into the things you love.
For John this meant rejecting the rat race and careerism and eschewing products such as cars and fancy clothing pushed by advertising. It meant giving priority to family and friends and standing firm by the values of working class Australians.
This adherence to things simple required great determination, which John’s marathon running showed he had in abundance. In John’s case a great sense of humour helped keep his priorities in order. Growing up as he did in the years immediately following the Second World War, he was infected with that dry, sometimes bitter sense of humour often associated with the Anzac spirit. While John always managed a wry smile at the world’s general unhappiness, he did not spare himself during personal misfortunes as shown by the self-deprecating humour in songs such as Skin Cancer Blues and Rectal Bleeding Calypso.
John spent his childhood around Carlingford near Parramatta in western Sydney. In the 1950s, this was a semi-rural district with orchards and other small farms. He went to teachers’ training college in Armidale then taught in the ‘Far West’ town of Menindee. He then moved back to the city and taught at the school in the Burnside Homes at North Parramatta. He did casual teaching round the inner city and retired early to concentrate on his interests. Fans and friends are grateful for that decision because it enabled John to hone his song writing skills and put more energy into activism.
Speaking on ABC Radio, folklorist Warren Fahey said that he thought of Dengate as the successor of Henry Lawson. Both Lawson and Dengate had the ability to look at the plight of ordinary Australians and tell their stories back to them. There are distinct parallels in the words of the two poets and Lawson would certainly have enjoyed songs such as Bill from Erskineville, Poker Machine Song, Tab Punter’s Song and The Randwick Races. It is unlikely that the Northern Suburbs Crematorium has seen a coffin covered in wattle flowers before. It seems less likely that it has heard the singing of Lawson’s ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ and Banjo Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
Those attending the funeral were greeted by the strains of the concertina. It is usual to call people attending a funeral ‘mourners’ and there is no doubt that the packed assembly regretted John Dengate’s passing. However, following the example of Dale, John’s wife of almost fifty years and his sons Sean and Lachlan, his friends expressed their love of the man with laughter and occasional applause rather than tears. While a death is always tragic and reason to grieve, John’s legacy has been humour and inspiration. He will be sorely missed, but his words will not be forgotten. Already, folkies are planning tribute concerts that will feature performances of his works and works about him by his many admirers. Another criterion for attributing a good life to someone is that they left the world a better place than they found it. John Dengate certainly did that.
John Dengate singing ‘Bare Legged Kate’ at the Loaded Dog Folk Club
JAM, NSW Folk Federation: John Dengate passes away,
Obit: John Dengate 1 August 2013,
Bush Music Club articles & photos
Shoestring Records: John Dengate Homepage,
*Author of: ‘Master of Dissent: the Music of John Dengate’, Australian Quarterly, 76(2), March-April 2004
First published in the September 2013 Illawarra Folk Club Newsletter & used by permission.
And I thirst for a private apocalypse as the paddocks thirst for rain.
I think of the stilted, sad good-byes and the handshakes through the years,
And it sometimes seems I have spent my life in a battle to hold back tears.
I struggle against the words ‘good-bye’;
I struggle against the pain:
I write in fear, for the day is near for saying ‘good-bye’ again.
It’s a farewell that you would think our old mate John Dengate had written for his own obituary. In fact he wrote it for another giant in the Australian Folk Scene, Declan Affley when he died some years ago and to me it encapsulates the real emotion that John’s work has always contained.
John died on August 1st and as he was a keen punter (songs such as the Trifecta song
and the Randwick Races reflect this) he would have appreciated the irony of saying goodbye to this world on the horses birthday. He was just two months short of his own 75th birthday.
John was a particularly good friend of the Illawarra Folk Club and on many occasions performed at our club nights. He always stopped down here when he performed as he didn’t drive nor possess a car. Train was his usual method of transport and it was only natural that both the best and worst aspects of railways appeared in his songs (Train Trip to Guildford, The Apricot Express, The Lidcombe train and the Bus To Broken Hill). Whenever possible he performed at our tripe dinners though I can’t recall him ever writing a song about that delicacy.
I do recall however his generosity of spirit - his songs were there for everyone and he freely shared them. One of my prized possessions is a tape that John made in Alan Musgrove’s lounge room one day in the early eighties. John and Alan had a bottle of whisky (maybe two) and John played as many songs as he could remember, (Alan reckoned that John had forgotten more of his songs than most people had written) Alan recorded them on tape – they were about Bob Menzies, the Vietnam War, Joe Bjelke and a lot of songs I had never heard before (or since)
He also recorded a couple of songs for me in my bathroom (sitting on the dunny- the seat was down) because that was the best acoustics in the house. I’ve thought perhaps I should get a plaque on the door and call it the ‘Dengate Memorial Dunny’.
John was our ‘Folk Legend’ at the Illawarra Festival - When our previous legend, Alan Scott, died almost 20 years ago the club replaced him with John. This meant he was automatically invited to every festival without having to apply. This was a good thing because he was no great shakes at filling in forms. He attended every year until ill health stopped him in 2012 and 2013. He either ran or performed in our memorial concert that we hold annually for his friend Alan Scott.
We will of course be having an annual memorial for John though at this stage we are not sure what form it will take. John’s wife Dale has given us a beer mug that she gave him in their callow youth as a trophy. It is of course an appropriate award for the Woolly Yarns Spinning Competition which John often judged and told a demonstration yarn so that yarn spinning novices knew what it was about. He also enjoyed a cold drink on a hot day, sometimes more than one as I can attest to. (Dale and my wife Bev thought we were bad for each other after a particularly bad ‘solving the problems of the World’ night at Albion Park)
The ‘Tumult and the Shouting’ has died - the packed funeral, the wake at Friends in Hand Pub in Glebe, the poetry the speeches and songs at the wake, the obituaries in all the folk magazines, A major obituary by Warren Fahey in the Sydney Morning Herald and tribute concerts are under way. The legend of John Dengate will however live on.
I know whenever some conservative politician does something outrageous – as they always do, no longer will I get a copy of the Dengate ‘take’ on the subject through the email to share with friends. But I know what folk will say over a beer on the subject - “I wonder what Dengate would have said about that?”
I wonder what Dengate would say about all the fuss that’s now being made of him. He’d probably write a poem or song about it.
‘Long’ Jim Chapman, one of our club members and a bush poet sent this appreciation to the newsletter;-
“He was certainly an inspiration to this old Pom! He was the bloke who actually remembered me at the next Folk Festival after the one at which I first took the stage - not only did he remember my name, he remembered my poem! That was a tremendous encouragement, believe me!
Above all Bush poets I've encountered he was the one who most convinced me that one can create a poem out almost anything! Listening to John reciting taught the lesson that if one had a tale to tell one should up and tell it - tall or otherwise!. Struth did he ever tell some tall ones!”
In case you didn’t catch the Herald Obituary here are some of Warren’s reflections.
“He never left home without a pen and paper.
John Dengate was the closest heir to the legacy of Henry Lawson that this country has known. He was a free thinker, poet, artist, teacher, songwriter, singer and street busker, ever ready to recite or sing, and always ready to take the mickey out of politicians, misguided business leaders and any visiting sports team.
Recently, he had become a familiar city sight, playing his tin whistle and singing at the corner of George and Market streets or at Central Station. Although he played guitar, his whistle playing worked better in Sydney’s noisy streets. His beautiful old Irish and bush tunes wafted over Henry Lawson’s ‘‘ faces in the street’’ . Like Lawson, Dengate enjoyed a drink or three but a few years ago, when he was ordered off the grog, he quit immediately. However, surgery for cancer, a weakened heart and the humiliation of the Aussie cricket team’s defeat by the Poms has dealt him a final wicket.
John Robert Dengate was born on October 1, 1938, and grew up in Carlingford. Three of his best known songs reflect on his early life: When I Was A Lad in Carlingford , Bare-Legged Kate, about his mother, and The Song of the Sheet-Metal Worker dedicated to his father, Norman.
There is no doubt that Dengate’s songs will live on. Many have already passed into that hazy territory where the song is known and the songwriter anonymous. He would agree to such musical freedom , especially as most of his songs were set to traditional tunes. Witty satirical verse was his stock in trade and he was brilliant in pressing the point while pressing the funny bone.
Dengate was a republican and loved Australia and its stories but he was never an angry man and preferred to make his point with humour. His last songs included Please Save Me from the Mad Monk and an attack on Rupert Murdoch’s phone-tapping spree.
He never left home without a pen and paper, scorning computers with their spellchecks and rhyme lists. He wrote thousands of songs, satires and poems and also had a repertoire of hundreds of traditional songs and knew the great Australian poems. His life has been documented in oral history interviews at the Australian National Library, and in three songbooks and various recordings.
John Dengate is survived by Roseann (Dale), sons Lachlan and Sean, daughter-in-law’ Mandy, grandchildren Roisin and Cal, mother Kathleen and, of course, his songs.
Gone the sharp, intellectual, the schoolmaster we all feared,
The gales of laughter over the pint,
And the tears for the bronze smith’s acid scarred hands.
He’s gone like Declan before,
And like Declan will his voice and face stay with us.
But more of the man lives in his songs,
That agile scalpel wit, barbed ambiguities,
precision of rhyme and metre.
Grieve for this bard, but mourn with pride,
For we have known him.
Vale John Dengate.
John and Jenni Cole Warner.
And he won’t merely do it from the grave, he will do it with the living voice of all those he inspired, who will sing his songs, recite his poems, and create new works spurred on by his example.
There has never been a more potent songwriter in this country, and nor has there been a more dedicated Australian. He loved this country with a passion for which words are manifestly inadequate, and he spurned with a vengeance cant and toadyism of any colour or dimension.
Had he been prepared to sell his genius to the highest bidder, to kow-tow to the sanitized sensitivities of television executives and advertisers, or even to make the slightest effort at self-promotion, his would be a household name across this country.
Instead, he chose passionately to identify always with Bill from Erskinville and all his battler mates, to spurn compromise and live forever an indominable free spirit. His is a life to celebrate. Let us do that, and by our actions do justice to his memory.
I can remember BMC folkus nights in the 80s, one in particular (just one of many) where John was the featured performer - his political caricatures and satirical songs were a delight. He called that night "No matter how much you stir the dunny can, the shit always floats to the top."
Of course singing his songs in Solidarity Choir was fun too.
In an age where economic rationalism and self interest are presented as the only way to approach life and the community, it serves us all to remember the example John set us.
We have lost our best, but his spirit lives on. Also, the superb body of songs he left us all.
Len Neary in Sydney
country. A genius with words and always with empathy for all people but
vitriol for phonies and parasites.
Henry, Banjo, the Duke and all of the others would be proud to work with
I don't think we will see his like again.
Bob Hart (via Chris Woodland)
John Woodland (Facebook)
link to blog article giving list of NLA Oral History interviews with John