That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.

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I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.

Alice

On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Dermott’s Last Ride

So, when my time it comes  and at last I leave this place, I’ll walk out past the charge hand’s gate and never turn my face. Up to the gates and into the sun, and I’ll leave it all behind, with one regret for the lads I’ve left to carry on their grind.    Factory Lad, Colin Dryden

Dermott Ryder, poet, writer, collector and chronicler of songs and stories, singer and songwriter, stalwart of the seventies and eighties Sydney folk scene, one-time manager of the legendary ‘‘Liz” Folk Club, and creator and longtime presenter of the iconic weekly folk radio programme Ryder ‘Round Folk, headed off to his big gig at the great folk club in the sky on the night of Tuesday 3rd March.

A retrospective follows, but first, enjoy two minutes of delight with the theme to Ryder Round Folk: a merrie morris, a hornpipe, and a hoot!

Dermott and I go back a long way, though not as long as most.

He arrived in Oz in 1968 as a Ten Pound Pom. Before that, he’d spent five years in the Royal Artillery on a short term commission, seeing service in Germany and in Malaya,  avoiding the nasty places that proliferated during the declining decades of the moribund British Empire. Trained in management, accounting and IT, he worked in Papua New Guinea before settling down in Sydney where he became a pillar of the folk music scene. Since his retirement, he has devoted his energies to his music and writing.

Dermott In Bougainville

It was Victor Mishalow who first introduced me to Dermott in 1983. He was dropping into 2MBS for an interview on Ryder Round Folk, and he brought me and Yuri the Russian Storyteller along too. We had just launched our short and almost illustrious career as HuldreFolk. Dermott, as guru, mentor, and propagandist for the Sydney folk scene, gave us our first radio appearance. There is a famous photograph to commemorate it (Dermott’s archive of folkdoms’ seventies and eighties should be a national treasure. All the wannabes and could’ve beens, the famous and almost famous are celebrated therein).

HuldreFolk - Early Days. Ryder Round Folk 1983

The live concerts at 2MBS’s Chandos Street studios were a must-listen on the monthly calendar, with the good and the great of Sydney’s folksingers and musicians doing their thing. Guests included Victor, Yuri, Jim Taylor, Robin Connaughton, Penny Davies, Roger Illot, John Broomhall, Gordon McIntyre and Kate Delaney, Phil Lobl, Mary Jane Field, and the Fagans.

This was when Adele and I got to know Dermott and Margaret Ryder for the first time. We then learnt of his history: his part in the famous folk revival of the late sixties and early seventies, the first Port Jackson Folk Festival, the foundation if the NSW Folk Federation, and the famous Liz Folk Club in the Sydney CBD. He was among that first golden generation of folkies, including Colin Dryden, Gary Shearston, Declan Affley, Warren Fahey, John Dengate, Danny Spooner, Mike McClellan, Bernard Bolan, and Judy Small. Many other performers moved in Dermott’s musical orbit, including Andy George, Rhonda Mawer and the Shackistas of Narrabeen, Jim Jarvis, Al Ward, John Summers, and many, many more.

Dermott and I bonded further with our shared origins in the old country. He of Lancashire Irish heritage (Widnes, actually), and me, an Irish Brummie. We had a shared love of traditional Irish and English folk music. We probably even crossed bars in one of the many English folk clubs, in the ‘sixties. Most notably, the celebrated Jug O’Punch in the Birmingham suburb of Digbeth, run by the famous Ian Campbell Folk Group.*

        The Parting Glass

        Trad. as sung by Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem

Oh all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
alas, it was to none but me
For all I’ve done for want of wit
to memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
good night and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot that
that I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
good night and joy be with you all

Farewell, old friend.

Dermott and Margaret Ryder

  Leaving Can Be Easy

  By Dermott Ryder

  Leaving can be easy, when the right time comes.                                                                               Many will have gone before, in a long, long line.                                                                                 When it’s your turn, you look back, and smile,                                                                                     then look forward to your own new, far horizon.

 There are people to tell, and books to return,                                                                                 Broken bridges to mend now, better this way,                                                                                   leave no hurt feelings behind at the end of the day.                                                                           We are all travellers, and we will meet again.

 Don’t think of sleep. Keep that for much later.                                                                                    Give and take addresses and phone numbers.                                                                                  Make promises you probably won’t remember.                                                                                 Be pleasantly surprised and strangely grateful.

Welcome the crowd come to see you on your way,                                                                             and to share this rite of passage, to keep the faith                                                                             in this next step in the long tradition of the traveller.                                                                         Shake hands, and know that you cannot return.

* What a club that was. Back in the day, it hosted the cream of British folk music, including the Dubliners, the Furey Brothers, Martin Carthy, Peter Bellamy, and a very young and acoustic Al Stewart. Overseas guests included Tom Rush, an unknown Paul Simon, a young goddess called Joni Mitchell, and on an antipodean note, Trevor Lucas, who went to marry Fairport’s fair maid, Sandy Denny, and later, become a founding member of The Bushwhackers before his untimely demise in 1989.

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…

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.

Whenever they 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.