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|Harry with his son Peter at Jamberoo, 1997 (Bob Bolton photo)
Farewell Harry Kay by Karen Fong
The Australian folk scene and especially the Bush Music Club is a lot poorer with the passing of Harry Kay at 95 last year on the 19 August.
Harry Kay was a life member of the Bush Music Club and is remembered as being one of the Bushwhackers Band (1952-1957) In early photos of the Band, we see Harry playing his diatonic harmonica. Harry Kay and Chris Kempster joined the Heathcote Bushwhackers, consisting of John Meredith, Jack Barrie and Brian Loughlin. The band then became known as The Bushwhackers, singing Australian songs such as Botany Bay, Click go the Shears and Nine Miles to Gundagai to appreciative audiences at events such as union get-togethers. Alan Scott, Alex Hood and Cec Grivas joined the Band later.
All of the eight Bushwhackers were members of the Eureka Youth League, which originated from the Communist Party, and all had started out in a trade. Harry Kay was an apprentice at the Sidchrome Electrical Company in Brisbane, joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and later worked as a fitter and turner when he came to live in Sydney.
The play Reedy River by Dick Diamond in 1953 in Sydney played an important part in Harry’s life. The musical Reedy River was based around the shearers’ strike of 1891 and featured The Bushwhackers playing and singing Australian songs composed in the folk tradition. In the second production of the play in Sydney, Harry played the part of Nugget, a shearer, and had this to say about his acting ability (in an interview with Keith McKenry nearly two decades ago): And I’ve always said that the best acting I’ve ever done in my life is to drink a beer and pretend that I liked it. Because I hate the damned stuff. I can’t stand the taste of it! That and Marmite, or Vegemite.
Harry’s wife Anne, who he met in the Unity Singers choir, was also in this production of Reedy River as one of the dancers. Anne went on to teach folk dancing at various venues with Harry often playing button accordion or mouth organ.
When The Bushwhackers stopped playing as a group in the later 1950s, Harry Kay, Alex Hood and Chris Kempster played on as The Rambleers. They did a couple of recordings: a 10-inch 33 rpm record called The Old Bark Hut in 1958 and a 7-inch 33 rpm record called Waltzing Matilda with the company Wattle. The two records also included dance tunes which Harry played solo on his mouth organ. The Rambleers were joined by two singers, Barbara Lisyak and Denis Kevans on some occasions.
Although we often see him playing his mouth organ, Harry Kay became proficient in many instruments. In the interview with Keith McKenry in 2004, Harry told Keith that, needing a bit of extra money, he was looking under ‘M’ for machinist in the Herald and saw an ad for a ‘Music teacher’. Harry had already taught himself how to play the English concertina and button accordion but the job in the Herald required a teacher for the mandolin and guitar. With the help of the Beresford School of Music Guitar Book, Harry taught himself these instruments and was soon teaching students. This love of teaching music continued throughout Harry’s life. Even in his early nineties, Harry managed to play a tune or two on his harmonica.
Fong, Karen 2023 Interview with Anne Kay, Northmead on 13 January 2023
McKenry, Keith 2004 Interview with Harry Kay, Baulkham Hills on 17 March 2004 available at the National Library of Australia
McKenry, Keith 2014 More than a Life: John Meredith and the Fight for Australian Tradition Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, Dural, NSW
The Rambleers CD recording 2002 National Library of Australia, Recordings in the Wattle Collection.
Photos from the Kay family album used with permission
|Harry & Ann playing harmonicas, 2018
|Harry teaching his grandson Ben how to play the harmonica, Kiama 1985
Blog articles about Harry
From the archives - Harry Kay
Life Members - information on our 25 Life Members - part 4 Dave Johnson, Frank Maher, Don Richmond, Helen Romeo, Harry Kay.
From the Archives - A fine pair of Schottisches from Sally Sloane - Mulga Wire no.82, Dec 1990
BMC members and friends mentioned in Sydney New Theatre's Wiki.
Rambleers reunion, Illawarra Folk Festival, Jamberoo 2002
Archival photographs: The P-series of photos from the early days
From the Archives - Harry Kay collection (items scanned
50th Anniversary Reunion of The Bushwhackers, National Folk Festival 2002, part 2 - Reedy River with link to video
BMC Anniversaries - 40th 1994
From the Archives - 50th Anniversary, Golden Jubilee, 2004