Wednesday 22 April 2020

From the Archives - Mulga Wire no.86, August 1991 - Alan Scott interviewed by Colin Fong & Karen McLean

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Published in Mulga Wire no86, August 1991, pp. 7, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Alan Scott Interviewed by Colin Fong & Karen McLean
An Interview with ALAN SCOTT.
The following interview was conducted during the Burrawang Folk Festival on 8th June 1991 The interviewers were Colin Fong end Karen McLean,
CF: When the Bush Music Club was founded in 1954 there was no television in Australia so people had to find their own entertainment. How did people provide their own entertainment?
AS: I can remember in my family the radio, or the wireless as we used to call it, was a very big thing. They didn’t have portable radios so we listened to the radio at home. A lot of households had a piano and people would sing around it. We never had a piano in my home — we used to play the gramophone. I remember my brother and I bought an old second hand wind-up gramophone. We also got a stack of about fifty 78rpm records that we used to play a lot. As far as group singing went, I used to go to church fairly regularly when I was young and enjoyed the hymn singing a lot.
CF: A few years ago in Hyde Park I remember hearing Don McLean ask the audience to sing “American Pie” - the singing was appalling. We’ve definitely lost the art of community singing which must have been a feature of people growing up in your time.
AS: I remember when Burl Ives came out here in 1952 - I was a great fan of his - and hearing over the wireless the ABC broadcast of one of his concerts from Sydney. He learnt a few Australian songs and asked the audience to sing “Waltzing Matilda” along with him. He sang the verses and the audience joined in the chorus. What interested me was that he sang the verses in his own individual way but when it came to the chorus the audience took over end sang the song the way they’d been used to singing it which was quite different to him ... I think possibly if Don McLean had chosen a different song he might have had a better response from the audience.
CF: I guess it’s also the fact that people don’t even know the words to songs. You ask an Australian audience to sing along with the national anthem - “Advance Australia Fair”. How many people know beyond the first two lines?
AS: But everyone knows “Waltzing Matilda’, which is just about the one song that they do know. It’s interesting that just as many people know “When the saints come marching in” - its entirely foreign to our culture but they know it.
CF: In the June 1991 Mulga Wire, Frank Mulheron suggested “the Bush Music Club since its first meeting has logically and sensibly involved itself in political and social activity~” Could you comment on this?
AS: I think that’s true. The policy of the club is that we encourage contemporary songs in the traditional style and, right from the start, we published contemporary songs that had a rather radical point of view, One that I remember was called “Wally, the weather man” and it’s about the atom bomb. It was heresy in those days to question the use of the atom bomb as a weapon of defence. John Meredith actually found the poem in the “Australasian Post” and it was written from a folk point of view, We felt that the bloke who wrote the poem was concerned about the way the atom bomb had affected the weather, We published it and John put it to a tune. We published others including one that Stan Wakefield had written about the Depression called “The Rabbiter” which is quite outspoken.
The chorus goes:
the men who scalped the rabbiters were the Sydney market boys
and the last chorus:
There’ll come a time...their day will come
when we scalp the market boys instead.
The club has been broadly political. A lot of songs that we sing today were political in their time. For instance, the bushranger songs were usually in favour of the bushranger. The official point of view at the time the bushrangers were around was that they were crims and villains. Some of the people today who sing bushranger songs probably wouldn’t have sung them in those days ... I had an instance the other day - I was busking and singing “Australia’s on the Wallaby” and a bloke with his wife and kids were listening to me. When I’d finished, he said: “It’s like that today, isn’t it?” and his wife asked: “What do you mean?” He replied that “On the Wallaby” means going out looking for work, looking around for a job – the position we’re in today. I think there’s a political message in “Australia’s on the Wallaby”.
CF: You were one of the original Bushwhackers written with an “h”, whereas the average Australian associates bush music ‘with Bushwackers without an “h”. Tell us what you perceive to be the main differences between what you played in the early fifties to what is being played in the nineties.
AS: I don’t see a great deal of difference really except I think the emphasis is more on the rhythm and beat of tunes and not on the words. I’m a believer that songs are for communication so grand opera in a foreign language doesn’t interest me at all and I can’t stand yodelling because it doesn’t mean anything. I think folk songs are a direct communication from the singer to the audience and if it’s lost with all the electronic beat and so on and all the hoopla and pizzazz that goes on, 1 think it’s just wasted. There are some good tunes but it’s the words that matter most.
KM: Do you think sometimes the music was made to dance to rather than to give a message or communicate some idea?
AS: That is so in some cases, but not in all cases. A lot of the songs started out as parodies, like “The Eumerella (Numerella/Neumerella) Shore” It is almost a direct parody on “Darling Nellie Gray” which was a popular American tune that came over here. If you have a look at the structure of the words it’s obvious that they’ve not only pinched the tune but they’ve used the form of words too to base their song on.
CF: Many folk songs have strong political overtones whereas other folk songs have more subtle messages. Do you have a preference?
AS: I’d probably prefer those with a message but not a blatant message. If it’s not poetic I don’t think it’s worth singing. It is possible to put across messages whether they’re straight out political or whether they’re broadly political. It’s possible to put them in a poetic way and dress them up well. I think there are some great contemporary songs. There’s an enormous number of songs being written today. There’s hundreds of song writers around, and they’re all writing a great number of songs. My feeling is that now and again they’ll write a good song but, I feel, there’s an awful lot that don’t have much value at all, There’s just as many good songs being written by country and western song writers as there are by people who call themselves folk song writers.
KM: Country music used to be so American and so ‘hoedown’ but I’ve noticed that in the last few years that there is a broader spectrum of people who really enjoy it.
AS: I feel country music is changing. It’s very accessible and a lot of the songs that are being made up could just as easily be sung in folk clubs and called folk.
CF: Someone like John Williamson is making country music more accessible.
AS: I don’t think he even calls himself a country singer any more. I sing a couple of John Williamson’s songs because I think they’re so good. He’s a song writer who often has a message in his songs.
CF: He got into trouble about the woodchip song at the Rugby League grand final.
AS: And he doesn’t make any apologies. I remember hearing him on the radio the morning after he got his golden guitar, up at Tamworth. He was on the radio the next morning telling the farmers they had to plant more trees instead of cutting them down. I think he’s a great bloke.
KM: Do you go up to Tamworth?
AS: No, I’ve never been up there. I really don’t want to go. It’s too far out. I’ve mentioned that country music is developing into a more Australian thing but Tamworth is ten gallon hats and high heeled boots. A bit too much for me. This weekend, Kookaburra Records is having a bush verse weekend at Tamworth. I think eventually country music and so called folk music will merge together. It might take a couple of decades but I think eventually it will.
KM: What’s the main difference now between country and folk music?
AS: It’s the sound and the attitude.
KM: I think the sound is changing too. Some people don’t sound so ‘country’. Do you listen to "Australia all over” on Sunday morning?
AS: Yes, when I can.
KM: it’s one of the most popular programs on at the moment, even for Sydney people. They like hearing about the average person, what they’re doing. It’s got a huge audience.
AS: Kevin Baker said that Ian McNamara who runs it, is giving Australia back to Australians.
KM: I think the ABC was amazed at the response of the program. It’s just great to hear voices, average voices just talking about their lives and where they live, why they like living where they live. Kids ring up, older people ring up, all ages.
AS: Yes, some mornings it’s absolute magic. They started about 4 years ago putting out an album: “Australia All Over”. The one that came out last year (Number 4) had me singing “He should have been a champion” written by Denis Kevans, I took a number of songs into Ian that I said he ought to have and he played that one a couple of times and he got such a terrific audience reaction to it that he put it on the record.
KM: Do you write the songs and put the music to them?
AS: No, I’m a very bad song writer. I’ve only written about four songs in my whole life. I’m not good at it at all, but I can tell what I like. Even some good songs that I recognise are good songs, I realise that I can’t sing them. I can’t put them over.
Some of the stuff John Dengate writes I admire. I admire all of John’s songs. I think he’s the greatest song writer that Australia’s got at the moment and I sing a lot of his songs but I couldn’t sing all of them. Some of them are very individual and I wouldn’t be able to put them over.
KM: With song writing you’ve got to really believe in what you’re singing about, don’t you?
AS: I think so, but I think there’s a lot of song writers who don’t. They’re just writing because they think it might be successful.
KM: There’s a market out there.
AS: Yes, that’s right.
KM: It comes back to the point you made before that you often like songs that have a message.
AS: yes, if it’s a good song it’s got a message, it might be hidden a bit.
CF: So, you don’t like the commercial aspects when you’re talking about folk or country music. We buy the material which becomes part of our culture, but it’s an imported culture.
AS: I think the main reason for that is that the imports can undercut the local market. Recently, most of the record companies have been taken over by Japanese companies, end they are happy for American rock music to be played here. The rock music industry is all the time looking around for new ideas in music that’ll take over - reggae, rap or whatever. If it’s a successful record in the United States then they’ve made their money and profit. They can afford to sell it out here and even at a loss or much cheaper than the local product. Unfortunately a lot of Australian musicians sing with an American accent. The origin of Australian songs are not only Anglo-Celtic (meaning they don’t only come from the British Isles). I gave the example of the "Numerella Shore” as coming from an American pop song. “Click go the shears” is an Australian song using the American tune “Ring the bell Watchman". "The gum tree canoe" and “Another fell of rain” also use American tunes. There are quite a few.
KM: Besides the influence of the British Isles and America, Australia has so many different cultures now. It hasn’t been reflected in its songs yet, has it?
AS: I don’t think so.
KM: Maybe with the folk songs now, they reflect more country living and I guess that a lot of our migrants who settled in Sydney and Melbourne are city people. We tend to clutch to what is happening in the country, don’t we?
AS: Very much so. Historically there’s always been more people in Australia living in cities than in the country. I think song writers turn to the bush for inspiration and subject matter because it is individually Australian much more so than the cities. Our cities are more like cities overseas, so to make a thing distinctly Australian, they turn to the bush ethos.
KM: Did you come from a musical family?
AS: Although my immediate family were not musical, my grandfather on my mother’s side, Archibald Christie was a singer and had a book of Scots songs. I can remember him singing Scots songs out of this little book. He came from Ayrshire, Scotland.
KM: So you haven’t had any formal training?
AS: I was in the “Fife and Drum” Band at school. The fife is a transverse flute. When I joined the Bushwhackers in 1954, John Meredith suggested I could take up the tin whistle and I found the fingering the same
CF: When did you encounter folk singing?
AS: I had encountered Australian folk songs in Brisbane, before I left, and knew John Manifold and Ron Edwards, about the time they brought out their Bandicoot Ballads. I learnt the ‘Drover’s Dream’ from John Manifold. When I came to Sydney on holidays in 1954, my girlfriend took me to see Reedy River which featured the original Bushwhackers, It was a real revelation for me to see the way they treated the songs After the show I talked my way backstage I already knew Harry Kay and met John Meredith for the first time Next day I visited John Meredith who played me some of his field recordings that he had just started recording end that really inspired me end I’ve been singing the songs ever since It was a big incentive for me to move to Sydney and before the end of 1954, I became a member of the Bushwhackers.
CF: The Bushwhackers Band was formed before the founding of the Bush Music Club?
AS: The Bushwhackers used to get a lot of requests, from people at our shows. We set up the BMC to teach people the songs So when the Bushwhackers folded up in1956, the BMC was there to take up the job and has continued ever since
KM: Was Sydney the first place to have a bush music club with those sort of goals?
AS: Yes, followed by Brisbane and Melbourne We were close to them in the early days. The wider folk movement started in the 1960’s following the American trend. We had hundreds of carbon copies of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Folk music had a boom on the hit parades and that’s where contemporary folk songs had a start
CF/KM Thanks very much for spending time with us.
AS: No worries!

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