Yuri The Storyteller

My old friend and Huldrefolk member, George Hofsteters, aka Yuri The Storyteller, passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday morning. Passing strangest is Yuri’s passing. He had such a life force. He was a force of nature, even, the kind of person you’d think would outlive us all. And it was ironic that he who raged so long against the establishment should go so quietly into the night. I would have expected a contrarian like Yuri to have been lynched by a mob of irate god-botherers.

Yuri’s departure brought me back to the dying decades of the last century, when the shadowy and iconoclastic HuldreFolk appeared out of nowhere with their unique combination of stories and songs, and then almost as suddenly, disappeared into the mists of memory.

I was playing at the celebrated Three Weeds Folk Club in Rozelle in the spring of 1983, performing a cover of Meniscus Diabetes’ song ‘Roman Holiday’. I was distracted by a cackling in the front row; and there was Yuri, laughing his head off. After my set, we got together and swapped notes on life, the universe and everything. Fate would have it that celebrated bandurist Victor Mishalow was also on the bill that night. And Yuri and I were enthralled by the magic of the Carlingford Cossack’s grand instrument.

Yuri told us he was a Russian Storyteller, and that he was performing at the Humanist Society the following Tuesday. “Come along and play some songs and tunes”, he said. And so we did. Yuri enthralled us with his spirited rendering of Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”. And it was there, in Shepherd Street, Surrey Hills, that HuldreFolk was born. Over the next two years, HuldreFolk, named for the mythical and mystical ‘hidden people’ of Icelandic legend, played throughout Australia.

One such occasion was the very first time I visited Coffs Harbour, a seaside graveyard with lights on the mid north holiday coast of New South Wales, sometimes known as the Costa Geriatrica (as fate would have it, we now live in the forest some forty clicks away from there). Looking fir a parking space outside the venue, Yuri cut into a space ahead of a car that had already bagged that spot. A few minutes later, the occupants of the car approached us, looking mean and moody. Tall, broad and hairy, they looked like bad news. Yuri was unperturbed. “My mate Paul is a black belt in karate”, he chirped …

On a return visit to Coffs Harbour, he and Victor Mishalow got a gig performing great on the back of a flatbed truck in the mall for a smattering of disinterested passers-by. When they’d finished, the organiser asked Yuri how much they wanted, “Two hundred dollars”, Yuri said. Before the paymaster could reply, Yuri added: “Each!” And they got it.

So Yuri! He could be a proper bastard sometimes.

Although the HuldreFolk pursued their own paths and projects, during the following decades, they would pop up in unexpected places, like their namesakes, in ones, twos, threes, and on occasions with guest HuldreFolkies. Their last outing as a trio was in October 2007 at the North By Northwest Poetry And Folk Club.

Such was his energy, after a series of concerts, I’d need several months away from him to recover. Whenever we had to do a road trip, Yuri would tell jokes non-stop – it was as if they were on a loop. Once he’d finished his repertoire, he’d automatically start again.

Whenever HuldreFolk worked together, their collaborations were creative and at times, crazy.

Listen to Victor’s haunting bandura arrangements behind many of Yuri’s stories, the bravado of ‘The Ballad of Boreslav’ and the wackiness of ‘The Song Of The Volga Shearers’. Back in the day when I was performing ‘I Still Call Mongolia Home’, ‘Brave Goliath’, and ‘Roman Holiday’, Yuri would say: “There has never been as song about the Spanish Inquisition. Why don’t you write one”. Or, “How about a song about the Vikings?” The rest, of course, is hysterical.

We would always introduce George as “The One And Only Yuri The Storyteller”. Watch him on You Tube reciting the epical ‘McArthur’s Fart’ or the poignant ‘Claudy’, and telling the magical story of ‘The Algonquin Cinderella’ or the faerie ‘Green Lady’, and you will see that he really was.

Goodbye old friend.

5 thoughts on “Yuri The Storyteller

  1. Hi Paul. I only just heard today about Yuri’s death. Here’s me with the late news!

    I met you at the Peasant’s Hut (wherever it happened to be that month) and also performed with Yuri at various times, mostly the spoken word. He used to call me the Poet Lorikeet of Bundeena even though I’m not primarily a poet, I write prose.
    Yuri also helped me launch my first book back in December 1999. The night of the launch we were driving back from a Christmas folk night (I remember Margaret Bradford was MCing) and Yuri, feeling sleepy, tried to pick an argument with me to help him stay awake (typical!). I really knew how to infuriate him – I refused to get angry. So he became more and more outrageous in the things he was saying, which I only found more fascinating. When I got home it was well after midnight but I could not sleep. Something Yuri had told me of his past misdeeds drove me to my extensive reference library and there I found it – evidence that Yuri had not lied, although he had definitely misled a lot of people… I laughed, then sat down to write one of my favourite stories. I gave Yuri a copy of it but I don’t think he ever read it. If I ever publish that story again, I can now give him posthumous credit.

    Over the years sometimes days, weeks or months would pass when I wouldn’t hear from Yuri. Then the phone would ring and he would want me to drop in so he could share his latest brilliant idea.

    For the last year I’ve not been living at home, so if Yuri rang, I would not have been there. I regret that. It is very easy to lose touch. We did occasionally cross paths in the local supermarket or when he was walking Chloe.

    I’m still in shock at his passing.

  2. I’m very sorry to hear that Yuri’s not around anymore. He was definitely one of my favourite story tellers. His telling of The Highwayman was brilliant. There were many favourites I could listen to again and again. The particular performance I’ll never forget is when he did “Mcarthur’s Fart” at the national with someone doing sign language alongside. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Jane Scott

  3. Oh! This is sad news. After a decade or so I finally decide to track down Yuri again. I wanted to tell him about the passing of a mutual friend (my ex-husband). But it would seem, Yuri has gone on ahead.

    We first met Yuri in 1968-9 at the Domain in Sydney. And strangely enough, that night, he came back to our house in West Ryde. We stuck up a long term friendship that covered many a mile and many a weekend.

    I did the graphics for the first and second HuldraFolk cassette covers. I loved Yuri’s story telling and named my pug dog after Orcheggie Usqua, in the Algonquin Cinderella story. But my favourite was the Chinaman with the flapping sole on his shoe.

    Over the decades, our paths crossed and our lives were enriched because we knew George Hofsteter on a personal level.

    • Hi Sally.
      Thanks for your reply. Yes, yuri enriched many lives. He and I sparked off each other in our captive endeavours, and many of my songs were actually written because Yuri would make a suggestion that I would expand upon, and we would perform them with one of his fabulous stories. There are many videos of him on You Tube and on my blog. Just search for Hukdrefolk or for Yuri The Storyteller. You will find Cinderella and the Chinaman, and many others. His passing was a great shock to us. He was always such a force of nature, and we reckoned he would outlive us all.

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