Yet again it all came together late on a Sunday night, in a little room in the Pier Hotel on the north coast of Tasmania. But this time I got the whole song out, and the listeners weren't just punters, they were the performers...
Another weekend, another folk festival: this time it was the Tamar Valley Folk Festival, held for the fifth year in the industrial town of George Town on the north part of the Tamar River. Have you any idea how it feels to walk into a completely strange town, having only been in the state for a week, and to meet loads of people you know? It's quite a buzz, but it started getting confusing when I'd go for a piss, and the bloke next to me would go, 'G'day Mark, how's the travelling going?' This happened on more than one occasion, but the scary thing was I couldn't remember meeting these people in the first place (though it must have been from the folk festival in Cygnet).
The weirdest thing happened on Saturday night, though. I was standing in the back bar at the Pier, watching these mad people do some strange Scottish dance, and this old boy taps me on the shoulder and says, 'My mate here says you're travelling round Australia. How's it going?' Now I'd never clapped eyes on either of these blokes before, and they hadn't been at the folk festival in Cygnet, so how the hell they knew I was travelling was beyond me, but they obviously knew me as the travelling Pom who goes to folk festivals. Fame's a funny thing, you know.
Getting to George Town
Claire (whom I'd met in Cygnet) had offered me a lift from Launceston to George Town on Friday afternoon, so I spent the morning wandering round Cataract Gorge, this amazing river valley just outside the city. That's one of the lovely things about Tassie: the cities are small, and are generally close to stunning scenery, so you can walk out of the centre and, bang! It's all gorgeous gorges and valley vistas.
Unfortunately George Town doesn't fall into the category of 'generally': it's an industrial town, and it's not a particularly pretty picture. The folk festival, small as it was, was centred around the Pier Hotel and its grounds, where the marquees had been set up. The hostel where I stayed was, oh, let me see, about 30 yards from the pub where all the sessions happened, so there was no more of this walk-for-forty-bloody-minutes-to-get-home malarkey we went through in Cygnet. Unfortunately they'd run out of beds, so I ended up on an inflatable mattress in the front lounge, but at least I was inside.
Claire had some friends who had opened up a restaurant in George Town, so we went to visit, and had the most wonderful meal. If you find yourself in George Town, visit The Buffalo Café, and ask them to show you the electric cactus. You won't regret it.
And so I arrived at my second folk festival in as many weekends. They're interesting these things; a lot of the people at George Town were also at Cygnet, and most of them seemed to remember the Pom in the Hat. Again I met some wonderful people, and although it wasn't quite as atmospheric as Cygnet – heck, the pubs closed at 2am, which was when things were just getting going in Cygnet – a splendid time was guaranteed for all.
The weather went ballistic on the Saturday afternoon, drenching the folkies and blowing down the marquees, but it soon dried out, and I spent most of the day indoors, listening to workshops by people like Alistair Hulett (on the history of the Poll Tax) and Martin Pearson (who spoke about ancient myths and legends).
That night we all went dancing, but perhaps this was where I ended and real folkies started. I eventually bottled out when this middle-aged woman grabbed me for one of these dances, and I told her I didn't know the steps. 'I'll show you,' she said. 'It's right foot there, left foot and slide, and then break into a normal waltz.'
'Ah, waltz,' says I. 'Now that's where I have the problem.' Thank goodness the dance finished then; she found the concept of someone not knowing how to waltz quite alien. Modern times, I don't know.
The concerts were good too, with such folk luminaries as Fairport Convention's Dave Swarbrick, a trio of amazing singers called Simpson, Gillespie and Wright, and people like the Fagans, who had played Cygnet. Sunday, however, would prove even better.
Sing Along Again
When I eventually got up on Sunday 'morning', everyone else was hanging out somewhere in the festival, so I just wandered about, and eventually ended up having brunch in The Buffalo. What luck: just as I was finishing a divine BLT sandwich, in walked Simpson, Gillespie and Wright to do a singing workshop. These three women are really rather talented, and Claire had been going on about how great they were for days before, so how chuffed was I to join in the workshop? Just a little: it's actually quite a laugh singing these folkie tunes, in the round, in harmony and all the rest. You just have to get over the clothes first...
It's also an interesting way to watch folkies in action. It's always annoyed me a little the way that folkies constantly smile when they sing their little songs, but I started to get a glimpse of what it's all about. The one thought that went through my head, watching people young and old singing traditional songs from olde England, was that I hoped they had also tasted the joys of other types of music. For my part, I've got drunk to heart-rending blues, I've enjoyed headbanging to the heaviest thrash metal (and even strained my neck in the process), swung to funky jazz, drifted to guitar-layered indie rock, danced for hours to happy house music, cried to beautiful ballads, and done goodness only knows what to all sorts of other types of music. But your average folkie doesn't understand what they call 'bloody heavy metal'; when someone put the jukebox on in the pub, they all sat there complaining about the noise, and all I could think was that Live's 'I Alone' was a damn good song, and I wished they would stop fiddling and accordioning and turn the bugger up. It takes all sorts, I guess.
Then, after the farewell concert, came Sunday night. The session was in full swing, with Beatles numbers, traditional folk songs, anything that people knew really, but then Claire came back from getting a round in, and whispered that there was a lovely little session starting up in a tiny room at the front, and it looked worth joining. So off we went, and found this tiny gathering of about eight people, which included two of the Fagans, Martin Pearson, Kerrie Maguire, one of the organisers (whose name I didn't catch), one of Simpson, Gillespie and Wright (though I don't know which one) and some others I'd seen on stage. Claire and I pulled up a stool each, and settled in to listen.
They were doing 'a round' – not the type of song, of which 'London's Burning' is an example, but the sort where you go round the circle of people, each person singing a song of their choice. The criterion was that the song had to be English, and they each sang a song, brilliantly. My heart missed a beat when Claire whispered, 'You'd better get a song ready, then', and I realised we were sitting in the circle. And then they were all looking at me expectantly, waiting for a song. I didn't have the heart to tell them that the only round I was familiar with required a bar, so I launched into song.
Now I'm no singer, but they loved it. Good old Billy Bragg: I knew that, one day, playing his albums incessantly would come in handy. I sang the same song I hadn't managed to finish at Cygnet, 'Valentine's Day is Over', and this time I got through to the end without stumbling; the thrill of having a whole room fall silent to hear you sing – a room of the cream of Australian folk musicians, no less – sure beats a lot of other thrills... and so ended another wonderful Tasmanian folk festival.