(by John Thompson, aged 43 and a half)
I bought my first guitar so that I could take it to Maleny. They were having a folk festival up there. Now, I didn’t really know what a folk festival was, but it sounded good. It was back in the early 1980s and I’d just started hanging around one of the folk clubs in Brisbane.
They were a funny mob in Brisbane. I remember the first night I walked into the pub where they played: the New Exchange Hotel, down Charlotte Street. I was at Uni at the time (although I wasn’t really studying – I was enrolled and everything, but I wasn’t what you might call ‘applying myself’). Back then, I didn’t know that people played music except in bands. 1982 and I was mad keen on the Dead Kennedys. I thought (and still think when I turn my mind to it) that Jello Biafra was a rock god. The Kennedys, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Radiators – they were my musical heroes. And like any good wannabe soft-punk, thrash-skin, alt-faux-new-romantic-pop-metal individual, I was wearing black. Black jeans, black boots (canvas and rubber – I was in the middle of my committed vegetarian period), black t-shirt, and (I can admit this now) a slightly weird, geometric, hanging-angular-fringe, haircut. I wasn’t confident that I looked great, but I had my hopes that I’d at least wandered into the range of acceptable alternative wear. Oh yeah, and studded belts (vinyl, of course). One to hold the jeans up and one purposefully low-slung for effect. Cool.
And that’s how I went to the folk club. You’ve probably guessed that I didn’t plan this. At the time, The New Exchange was the venue for an alternative dance club where anyone who didn’t want to go to the New York or one of the gay clubs down the Valley could hang out.
I turned up early – 6 o’clock. (I figured I could find a good spot, sit and have a couple of drinks and by being there early generate the image of being a regular – a type of cool insider who knew things worth knowing and would be good to talk to). The pub was packed. It wasn’t dark and so I realised immediately that lurking was going to be impossible. The lights were firmly on. There were large people everywhere. People with beards. And guitars. In fact there were musical instruments every way you looked. There were 2 big rows of tables running across the width of the pub, every seat taken, every inch of the tables covered in beer glasses, jugs, ashtrays… and violins! There were whistle-players, guitarists, banjos, squeeze-boxes, mandolins, mouth-organs. Up until this point, I’d only heard dark rumours, whispered in lonely alleys on misty nights, that you could actually play music on a saw!
And the music. I forgot every shred of desperate clinging to cool when I heard this music. It wasn’t cool, no way (at least not what I thought cool would be if I ever encountered it). It wasn’t cool – it was everything.
The tunes hit me first – Irish, English, Scottish (and later I found out, Australian). Bush tunes, dance tunes, jigs and reels, slip-jigs, polkas, varsoviennas, and airs. Your feet moved when you heard them. They felt familiar, warm. It’s hard to explain, but they felt right. I felt right. I felt like I belonged with this music, these sounds, these people. I’d just walked in – looking like some sort of Duran-Duran wannabe, and already I felt like I belonged in the middle of this weird flanny-clad diaspora. I walked into the room and over to the bar. The guy before me ordered a cider. Not wanting to appear conspicuous, I ordered one too.
I leaned up against the bar and listened. The tunes carried on for what seemed like an age – melding, shifting, blurring into one another. It looked like everyone could play them, and everyone knew what to do next. Rolling, trilling, sweeping, faster and faster. Then at last they stopped. All the players just looked at each other. No-one said a word, they just leaned forward and grabbed their pints. A few smokes were rolled up and lit. And then someone sang. I don’t know who she was. I don’t even remember what she sang, but I remember how it made me feel. If the tunes had a sort of primal impact, the song was everything I’d ever dreamed about beauty: all the grief, all the love that’s ever been. And it was there in the room with me. As it went on, I wanted to scream, to weep, to shout with joy. It was unbelievable. This beauty, this sheer, mind-numbing perfection of, of … this music was happening right in front of me! And it wasn’t just me. Everyone had shut up and they all sat there listening. This was so far beyond what I thought of as the range of normal human experience that I wasn’t sure it was real. At the end, everyone cheered. Tears were wiped from the odd eye or two. And then the tunes started again and I got myself another cider and sat down.
Over the next couple of hours, I heard more music than I knew existed. A million tunes (or maybe just a couple played over and over again in different ways – I couldn’t tell), and a heap of songs. Funny songs, Australian songs about sheep, long ballads of ancient love gone wrong. And there were poems – mostly involving leaping on the table as part of the performance. They were great.
By asking one of the less fierce looking beards, I found out that these people (‘the session’, as they were apparently called) met at this pub every Friday and Saturday night. And that this was a quiet night! After that couple of hours, the music stopped, the guitars were packed away, the lights dimmed and the whoomp of the bass drivers of the dance club replaced the dream that had played out before me. I decided to go back the following week.
And I did go back, and I kept going back, over time meeting the dedicated, the obsessed, the beginners, the tunies, the singers, the experts, the drunks, the people that made up the amorphous bunch that were the Brisbane folkies of the 80’s.
That Brisbane mob ended up having a festival one year when the National was on over in Perth and we couldn’t make it. A little place up in the hills called Maleny. They told me it was going to be at the showgrounds, that I’d need a tent and that there’d be sessions and concerts and workshops. So I bought a tent, and organised a lift. I’d gotten sick of waiting around for someone to play something I knew before I could have a sing myself, and so I finally summoned up the courage to go into a music shop and buy my own guitar. It was a Marina, and I took it up to that first Maleny festival and started to play. Badly. Other musos offered friendly advice and slowly I started to be able to make the strings behave in a way that roughly related to what I intended. I starting tagging along whenever I heard there was going to be some music, listening, singing, joining in whenever I could.
Since then, I’ve been to a lot of sessions. I went back to the Exchange many times. I followed when they moved to the Story Bridge. I’ve ‘roamed through the valleys where the lillies and the roses’… kept us up until the sun came up. I’ve watched fiddle-players fall asleep playing; I’ve played until my arms hurt, and I couldn’t manage another note. I’ve been drunk and in love, and been indulged when I’ve succumbed to the need to sing the greatest love song I’ve ever come up with in the past hour and that I’ve scrawled on this beer coaster. I’ve discovered the ‘secret session’ in a little Irish town after walking up and down the street, because it wasn’t really a pub, more a shop where they sell beer sometimes. I’ve sung with groups of English hard-core folkies, laden-down with ancient druidic rituals that determine whose turn it is to sing next: the sort of group who consider any song that’s been recorded to be the work of the great satan of commerce, the worst form of sell-out bastardry and who carry the power of the ultimate insult, reserved for the worst transgressions of taste and performance standards – ‘It’s not really folk.’ I’ve even heard an Italian fiddle player in County Clare in Ireland shout ‘Onya boyo!’
A thousand gatherings, players from all over the world, travellers, locals, regulars. All in search of the perfect session.
And every time, I’ve been welcomed. Every session has said, ‘Come on in.’ Every group has shared of themselves, valued each others’ songs, tunes, passion and music. We’ve learnt from each other (even if, sometimes, all I’ve learnt is what not to do next time). We’ve laughed with each other, we’ve gotten stuck into the music and played hard. And that’s how we learn. Every session, every tune, every song is a new chance to get it ‘right’ – to be as good as we can be. To keep this music alive.
This week, I’m heading up to Woodford. I hear there might be a session on.