The search for traditional Australian music was beginning to feel like an impossible task. The contemporary Australian bands I'd come across on Triple J1 were stunning, but the only rootsy music I'd heard was didgeridoo music packaged up for tourists, and myriad chill-out albums with titles like Tropical Rainforest, Red Desert and other such inspiring names. I wanted to discover music from the days of convicts and colonies, and the Huon Folk Festival in Cygnet seemed the perfect place to try.
The coach from Hobart to Cygnet passed through truly gorgeous countryside – Tasmania is one of the most beautiful states in Oz – and eventually I ended up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere called Huonville, waiting for the only bus out to Cygnet. Cygnet is very near the coast and only has a population of 960, which might give you a vague idea of how isolated it is, so I killed time waiting for the bus by buying a copy of the Hobart Mercury, to find out what had happened to the two women in the car accident. I read with a sinking feeling that they were dead on arrival, and tucked away in the depths of the photo on the front page was me, peering out from under my bush hat, gawping into the dock along with everyone else. It was rather unnerving, to be honest.
The Metropolis of Cygnet
I eventually got to the hostel on Friday night, a lovely place nestling on the side of a valley 2km out of Cygnet. It was beautiful – the view down the valley to Cradoc was spectacular, the perfect setting for a folk festival. The people at the hostel were very friendly, especially three of them: Tommy from Ireland, who taught English at Sydney University and was on summer vacation, and Cathy and Maureen, both lawyers from Adelaide. It wasn't long before the four of us were heading into town to check out the food and the folk scene, accompanied by a fifth hosteller called James, who was buzzing with entertaining stories about how he'd slept on the beach at Broome for six blissful weeks...
The pizza restaurant – the only food place open late at night – was a complete delight. The waitress described the pizzas as being more like gourmet meals with pizza bases, and after some live music entertainment from the baldest and most talented guitarist in the universe, she was proved right. Meanwhile James had bumped into a friend of his whom he hadn't seen for a year and who was heading off drinking, so we all wandered off to check out the pubs.
Country folk don't piss about with silly pub names: the three pubs in Cygnet are called the Bottom Pub, Middle Pub and Top Pub, for geographically obvious reasons. Just like beer fat, everything seems to congregate around the middle, so after sampling the local brews in all three, we settled for the spacious Middle Pub, and this was where my eyes were really opened.
Sure, I've seen folkies in pubs before. The Normandy Hotel in Melbourne, where Chris and I went a few times when I was staying with him, had a bunch of locals who got together to play jigs and reels, but that was more the sort of music that stayed in the background and made you glad that it did. In Cygnet, however, the whole pub revolved round the folk circle, with all these singers, fiddlers, guitarists, accordion players, penny whistlers, mandolin players and goodness knows what else... you name it, it was there, right down to the double bass. At first I thought the whole thing was rather random, but the way it works is that when someone finishes their song, someone else starts up, either as a solo, or as a riff (for want of a better word) and everyone gradually joins in. It's all from memory, and it's incredible. I sat there with Tommy, Cathy and Mo until about three in the morning, soaking up the atmosphere and the Cascade Draught. Before long James had disappeared, and we eventually decided to head off home.
Scrumpy and Love
That set the scene, really. The next day we bought tickets for the various concerts and marquees around, and just went from pub to concert to pub to concert, meeting people on the way. We bumped into James and found out he'd stayed in a teepee that night, which had really set off his hay fever, so he was looking for the chemist; the poor bugger's face was like a balloon. There were some stunningly good performers: Alistair Hulett, a brilliant nationalist Scottish singer; Danny Spooner, an overweight, overbearing Londoner; the Fagans, a prodigiously talented family ensemble that elicited as much jealousy as joy from the other performers... I'd never heard of any of these people before, and it made it all the more fascinating to discover them.
There was one more element of folk festivals that, as yet, we hadn't discovered: scrumpy. As if by magic, we bumped into a stall in the Middle Pub that served 10oz glasses of scrumpy for A$2, with a variety of brews, all with different flavours, and all at nine per cent alcohol. It tasted divine, so while the girls headed off to a concert in the Town Hall, Tommy and I stayed in the Middle Pub to sample the wares and enjoy the music.
And that's when Tommy, bless him, fell in love, and I learned how to make a farting sound in a didgeridoo, though not necessarily in that order. I started chatting to these two guys at the bar, one of whom was playing his didge, and he told me how it had taken him four weeks to get the hang of the constant breathing technique required to play it properly. He let me have a go, but I sounded shit, not surprisingly.
Tommy, meanwhile, had spotted these two lovely girls sitting in a corner, enjoying the folk gathering in the next room, so we went over to chat to them. The man from Ireland was right, too: they were lovely, and it was obvious that he was falling for Verity Rose, the cutest one. It was a good sign when they walked up the hill with us on the way to the hostel, before heading back off to their campsite. As Tommy said, while walking the 3km back to the hostel at dawn, 'I'm a gone man.' Bless him.
That walk was a bloody effort, though. Dawn was breaking as we trudged up the hill, but the view was incredible. The valley bottom (which we were above) was filled with low cloud, so we could see right down the river, with this cotton-wool effect of the fog slowly evaporating as the sun rose. I saved a little bird's life on the way, as its foot was tangled up in some wire that I removed, and when we got back sleep wasn't long in coming.
The formula for Sunday was similar to before, but Mo and Cathy had to fly back to the mainland, leaving just Tommy and me. We spotted James in the street, on his way back from visiting the local Russian witch; she'd prescribed him some herbal drops that had completely sorted out the problem... which, funnily enough, seemed perfectly normal and in order.
After a truly excellent concert on Sunday afternoon, we headed up to the Middle Pub for the last session, and a real session it was. To Tommy's eternal delight we spotted Verity and her two friends, so he set about charming the love of his life while the rest of us settled into the scrumpy. Then – horror of horrors – the other girls decided that, as they had to be up early to pick fruit in the morning, they had to go to bed, so I was faced with staying with Tommy and Verity and being gooseberry of the month, or going off to find another spot to explore. Being tactful I chose the latter option, and this is when the good god of folkies smiled on me.
There were two rooms at the Middle Pub; one, the large one, was where we had spent most of our time, and where the big folk sessions were happening, but the other, a small room on the other side of the pub, was where the festival performers had decided to gather to play. I spotted a gap in the corner by the bar, and after telling Tommy that I was going to join in the session, I slunk in with my scrumpy.
What an experience! The session was all singing, which is the best type because people listen to the songs then, and you can sing anything you like: folk songs, ballads, the works. Anyone can sing, and anyone is welcome, and after a bit more scrumpy – well, OK, a lot – I realised I wanted to sing a song. The only problem was that I didn't know any folk songs from memory, so I thought it appropriate to educate the cream of Antipodean folk with some Billy Bragg, the Big-nosed Bard from Barking. So I started to sing Valentine's Day is Over, just me with no instruments...
Some day boy you'll reap what you sow,
You'll catch a cold and be on your own,
And you will see that what's wrong with me
Is wrong with everyone that
You want to play your little games on.
Poetry and flowers, pretty words and threats,
You've gone to the dogs again and I'm not placing bets
On you coming home tonight anything but blind...
And at that line the man whom everyone had been referring to as the 'Master of Ceremonies' – an ancient guy called Colin who was obviously highly respected as an elder of the festival – shouted out, 'That's me!' referring to being 'anything but blind' (drunk), and it totally threw me. I had a complete mind-blank as to the rest of the song, but they all wanted me to continue, so I finished off the chorus, and they loved it. Imagine: me, a folk singer! Thank God I was drunk...
After the session deteriorated – only because the landlord closed the pub – and Tommy had had a sing and arranged to meet Verity at 11 the next morning, we hung around outside for a while, putting off that bloody walk back to the hostel. It was here that the dregs of us left from the session continued to sing for a couple of hours, watching dawn creep slowly over the mountains.
The next thing you know half the dregs have wandered off, leaving four of us: me, Tommy and these two really nice middle-aged women, Delores and Moya, who had heard us sing and had sung themselves. Just as I was about to fall asleep on my feet – or on the steps of the pub, to be more accurate – they suggested that, as they had a car, perhaps we would like to come to their friend's house for breakfast, where they were staying? Of course we would!
Home Sweet Home
You've never seen anything like it. The house sat on the shore of the river that flows through Cygnet, quite a long way from the town, where the river looks more like the sea (possibly because the mouth of the river is very close). The owner Rob, originally from London, had built the entire house himself, from foundations to roof to furniture to plumbing to goodness only knows what else you do when building a house, and he'd done it all single-handedly. We sat on the shore, drinking coffee and eating toast, as I slowly became more incapable of staying awake. The next thing I knew Delores was waking me up, the sun was about to start frying me, and I was dreaming of huge, menacing blowflies. I've never been so happy to take up the offer of a free bed to crash in.
So, Monday morning disappeared into Monday lunchtime, and I woke up, utterly alone in a strange house, and miles away from my bags. It was rather disconcerting, but eventually some strangers came back to the house – a woman called Pam and her son William – and we got talking about the festival and Australia in general: she had come over from England years ago, so we had some common ground. It's incredible how often that happens, as so many people have recent ancestors who were from England, and lots of middle-aged people can remember coming over as children. Most of the people I meet are originally from Liverpool, for some strange reason.
Eventually Delores appeared – she'd been asleep upstairs, but I hadn't seen her – and Moya and Rob returned from town, with a bunch of other folkies. We had a spot of lunch, and sat around feeling sorry for ourselves, as Moya hadn't slept at all and Delores and I had had precious little. Plans were laid to get to this party that was being held to celebrate the end of the festival, and they very kindly invited me along, as Tommy was out with 'the Lovely Verity' and probably wasn't coming back.
Quite why it took us 45 minutes to get there and only ten to get back I have no idea – the map has been blamed – but it was a simply gorgeous venue for a party. The house was out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and there was a barbecue, folk music on the veranda, and all the wonderful people I'd met over the three days were there, along with many more whom I met that night. Delores was on fine form telling jokes – there is surely no finer exponent of this art than Delores2 – and we met this wacky hippy teacher called Claire who had us in stitches, and ended up getting a lift into town with us.
Jammo was another excellent character at the party: he was thrilled to hear that everyone in Queensland calls each other 'bloke', as in 'G'day bloke' and 'How are you bloke?' He also told me all about the wonderfully poisonous snakes that live in Tassie. Jammo's moral was, 'Watch where you piss, bloke.'
After dark Moya and I went for a walk down to the river, and as we approached the pool of light coming from the little house's garden, folk music lilted down the valley. It was a perfect sight, a collection of folkies all cosy in the light of the lanterns. It was just like something out of books I'd read as a child, and I was privileged to be a part of it; what a way to celebrate the end of a wonderful festival.
1 Triple J is an excellent national Aussie radio station that plays alternative music pretty much all the time. Anyone wondering what modern Australian music is all about should check it out; the fact that Aussie music doesn't tend to break beyond the country's shores is no reason to ignore it. When Australians rock, they rock.
2 Here's one of Delores' jokes for you, just to give you a feel. Take note of the emphasis in the punchline and imagine, if you can, an animated Delores telling it...
A man walks into confession, sits down and says, 'Father, I'm a married man, but last night I slept with two gorgeous blonde 18-year-old twins, and I don't regret a thing.'
'That's disgusting', says the priest, 'How can you call yourself a devout Catholic if you don't respect the holy union of wedlock?'
'I'm not a Catholic,' says the man.
'Then why on earth have you come to confession to tell me that?' says the priest.
'I'm telling everyone!' says the man.