The Dream of Bill Case
© Rob Willis
The message on my answering service from Maureen Aston the daughter of Bill Case was short "Just to let you know that Dad has passed away peacefully". My first thought was how could Bill Case die peacefully, he would be having a final stir with a nurse, doctor or priest somewhere along the line. I remember visiting Bill in Mt Gambier Hospital a couple of years ago. Olya and I had been told that he was "pretty crook" and called in to say hello. Bill did indeed look a bit "butchers hook" but still entertained us with stories of his early days and his music. My next phone call from Maureen reported that Bill had indeed survived and was playing music again.
Bill Case was born in 1917 the son of a rabbit trapper and the family existed in extreme poverty. They operated a pie cart in Mount Gambier during the depression and Bill's stories of this era are hilarious. Bill's dad played the button accordion and fiddle and it did not take the younger Case very long to start on the accordion playing this instrument with a deal of flourish, and often getting into trouble with his father for being "too flash" in his performance. Other instruments including the fiddle followed and young Bill soon became an accomplished dance musician playing at various functions around the area. His talents as a raconteur and Master of Ceremonies also developed over this era and the Larrikin humour for which he was renowned was emerging. Bill told the story of how he gained a reputation as a "Mr fix-it" at dances, being able to solve problems from lost watches and jewellery to obtaining milking cows of a particular breed whilst he was playing at different venues. This came to a halt however when a young, single girl approached him and said "Mr Case, can you help me? I am pregnant". Bill had no answer to this quandary.
I first heard of the man and his music through Prop and Maureen Heazlewood of Victoria who had heard Bill play on a number of occasions and, as they often did, recommended that he should be recorded. Prop and Maureen are both keen collectors and players of traditional music and have made many valuable videos over the years. Prop and Maureen along with John Harpley and myself recorded Bill, his daughter Maureen Aston and good friend Don McBain in April 1995 at Don's property at Nelson Victoria. Don had converted a barn into an old time dance hall, complete with kerosene lights and every so often people would be invited to a night of dancing and entertainment with Bill Case.
After our initial contact Bill Maureen and Don were invited to the National Folk Festival in 1996 and were recorded in the studios of the National Library prior to Easter. Bill's appearance at the Festival was appreciated and the memory of him performing solo on the fiddle for a couple of dances will long be remembered. When the concept for the "Sharing the Harvest" series of concerts was mooted for the Illawarra Folk Festival at Jamberoo and we were looking for the best of Australia's traditional performers Bill was one of the first we considered. I knew he was not in the best of health and indicated that if he did come he would not be expected to play much. Daughter Maureen organised the trip and along with Don McBain they bought Bill to the Festival. Nothing had changed.
Bill immediately captivated the audiences with his wit, charm and brilliant musicianship. The good natured banter between him and traditional fiddle player Eileen McCoy was a delight. The younger (and older ) musicians were sorted out and by mutual agreement Bill was the "Leader of the Band" a role in which he excelled. We all learnt something from Bill Case.
During one of the concerts I asked Bill to tell us a yarn about his days in the Army when he was a cook. He fixed me with that steely look of his and with a slight grin said "This might take a while Rob". For about twenty minutes this man held the audience spellbound, he had them in the palm of his hand. A feat I am never likely to see again. Bill was also a very sensitive man with a great respect for, and love of, all classes of people and this side of him was also shown at Jamberoo.
When one of my "special people" dies I take a few moments to play something that had been learnt from them. Many years ago Bill composed a lovely waltz in his sleep and had entitled it "My Dream" and this was my choice. The comment was made at Jamberoo that it was Bill Case's dream to provide entertainment for people during his lifetime. I believe he succeeded.