notes

At the time of this interview, Gary Shearston had just released a new CD entitled Only Love Survives.

You can read a review here.

We really appreciated Gary's willingness to agree to an interview for Simply Australia.

Gary's website was established by his friend, Stuart Heather, a long—time supporter of my music, who lives in Melbourne. "I am very much in his debt for the incredible amount of work he has put in, both in preparing and running the site," Said Gary, "and in preparing my earlier albums for re-release."

Visit Gary's website

 

An Interview with Gary Shearston

Gary Shearston was born in 1939 in Inverell, New South Wales. As a child he lived on a farm at Tenterfield until almost a teenager, when drought caused his family to move to Sydney.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s he established himself professionally as one of Australia's leading folk singers of both traditional and contemporary song. In the 1960s he released seven albums which were very influential in the Australian folk music scene of the day. By this stage, he was also being recognised as a significant singer-songwriter. As one review said in 1966, he was "a unique composer of true stature on the Australian scene". His album, Gary Shearston Sings His Songs, released in 1966, further demonstrated his song writing ability. Included on this record was the song, Sometime Lovin', which Peter Paul and Mary were later to record.

In the late 1960s Gary left Australia, living and working in America and Europe. While living in England he recorded two albums, Dingo (1974) and The Greatest Stone on Earth and Other Two Bob Wonders (1975). From the former album his version of the Cole Porter song, "I Get a Kick Out of You", brought him considerable international recognition.

He returned to Australia to live permanently in late 1988. 1989 saw the release of his novel, Balkenna, co-written with Michael Thomas, and his album, Aussie Blue. In July 1992 he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church. In 1993 he was appointed as the parish priest at Hay in the south-west of New South Wales, a parish of some 15000 hectares. From Hay he moved to his present parish at Bangalow in northern New South Wales.

INTERVIEWER: Jim Low

JIM: It's great to see that your new CD is finally available. Can you briefly tell us what you have been doing since the “Aussie Blue” recording?

GARY: In July, 1991, I moved from Sydney to Narrandera, in the Diocese of Riverina, to complete my preparation for ordination as a priest, serving in the Anglican traditiOn. This last stage of a spiritual journey spanning some eighteen years took place under the personal mentorship of the Right Reverend Barry Hunter, the Bishop of the Diocese at that time. I remained in Riverina until April, 1998, serving in Narrandera, Deniliquin and Hay, before moving to the Parish of Bangalow, Diocese of Grafton. Several of the songs on 'Only Love Survives ' were written along the way, including Riverina 1984, co—written with Bishop Barry.


JIM: How much involvement did you have in the musical arrangements of the songs on the new CD?

GARY: I recorded the basic tracks 'live' in the studio with Mark Punch adding his primary acoustic accompaniment at the same time. Mostly, they are first takes. Subsequently, Mark, Phil and myself discussed what could be added here and there by way of other instrumentation, harmony vocals, etc. Respecting both their judgement and taste, I was then able to leave the overdubbing process pretty much to them while I got on with parish ministry here in Bangalow. Phil sent me dubs of the various stages as the tracks came together. I have been very greatly blessed by their appreciation for the songs, and by their unwavering support along the way. Mark Punch is an exceptionally gifted musician, and Phil is equally gifted in his engineering and production skills. As always, it has been a privilege to work with them — a privilege for which I am very grateful.


JIM: Do you have any set method for writing a song? ( For example, do you prefer to start with the lyrics or the tune?)

GARY: No. Sometimes some words will come along requiring a tune; sometimes the other way around. Some songs are born in seemingly no time at all — words, music, the lot. Others take longer to mature. Some get worked over quite a bit, others remaining virtually untouched from original conception. So I guess, in my case, it's more muse than method.


JIM: What is it about Don Henderson's song writing that appeals to you? What songs of his do you still sing?

GARY: The pungency and wit of his way with words, and his rock—like determination to argue the case for a better world. Basic Wage Dream; Put a Light in Every Country Window; It's On; Plastic; Lighthouse in the Harbour; Was War for Those Who Want It; Legend.


JIM: Can you tell us something about your association with Brother John Sellers and his influence on you?

GARY: Brother John came to Sydney in the early 196Os. He came with Alvin Ailey, the lead dancer and choreographer for the world—renowned Afro—American dance group performing under his name. Brother John was accompanied by Bruce Langhorne on guitar and Lesley Grenage on bass cello. They performed the blues, work songs, hollers and spirituals to which the group danced. I was mesmerized. They did a lot of songs which, as the CD notes mention, I had only ever heard on record, or seen on the printed page. I made it my business to meet up with them. They were staying in a hotel in Sydney's Kings Cross area, in the days when it was anything but that which it has become. They'd quite often get together in Brother John's room to run through this or that song, the young, white, Sydneysider sitting spellbound in the corner all the while. When the dance gvoup finished its tour, all except Brother John returned to the United States. He had decided to stay on in Sydney to avail himself of some bookings offered by such Sydney nightclubs as The Latin Quarter and The Birdcage. He played no instrument, apart from an enormous gospel tambourine on which he seemed able to establish a one—man rhythm section. So I got involved playing basic blues chords in the background. Our friendship grew out of those experiences. By this time, he'd moved to a small apartment building in the same Kings Cross area and would invite myself and other friends he'd made over to share the delights of his Southern—style culinary skills. One Sunday, when I was there for lunch, there was a knock on the door. Brother John opened it to discover Jim Carter offering a shy smile, his name, and his hand by way of greeting. He'd come to ask Brother John if he might consider being the opening act for the new coffee—house—style club he was establishing, to be called The Troubadour. Brother John introduced Jim to myself and Jim said he'd been looking all over for me, too. We all talked turkey a while and then Brother John advised Jim that he and “his good friend, Gary Shearston” would be only too happy to open The Troubadour, come the time. I didn't disagree — and the rest, as they say, is history. Brother John Sellers' main influence on me was simply being who he was, coming from where he'd come from, through all he'd been through, and knowing the people he knew. I'd seen his name in anthologies of blues and gospel singers. I'd seen his name in books on jazz. He was a legendary figure. Worlds apart in background, we became good friends. I can still see him in my mind's eye, belting it out on that tiny little stage area in The Troubadour, his tambourine whizzing over the front—row heads as it shook another song into roaring life. I watched him like a hawk, listened to him most acutely and, as a consequence, may just have learned a thing or two about his music, its roots, and its way in the world.


JIM: Over the years you have sung and recorded many traditional Australian songs. Do you have any favourites which you return to whenever you get the chance to perform?

GARY: Yes, many. The Springtime It Brings on the Shearing; Flash Jack from Gundagai; Bluey Brink; Click Go the Shears; The Road to Gundagai (Lazy Harry's); Shearing in a Bar; Moreton Bay; Jim Jones; The Wild Colonial Boy; Streets of Forbes; Brisbane Ladies, to name a few.


JIM: A while ago you mentioned in an interview that you still sing Ewan MacColl's song “Dirty Old Town”. What other songs from your 1960's repertoire do you still sing?

GARY: The above mentioned traditional songs, plus the Don Henderson songs previously referred to. As well, songs such as Twenty Summers (words by Mona Brand); Son of Mine (words by Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal); The Sailor Home from the Sea (words by Dorothy Hewett, music by Chris Kempster); The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards (by Dougie Young), together with some of my own songs, such as Don't Wave to Me Too Long; Bonnie Jess (words by Thomas Spencer); The Voyager, Sometime Lovin'; Duke's Song; Waiting for the Postman; etc.


JIM: How did you come to write “Song for Kimio Eto”?

GARY: The CD notes explain the background. At a particularly dark and difficult time in my life, I happened to buy one of his records one of a series put out on world—renowned masters of different instruments. I was interested in Zen Buddhism at the time which, I suppose, was basically the reason for the purchase. But, the minute I heard it, I knew that Kimio Eto's sublimely beautiful music and the artistry of his playing crossed all frontiers. As the notes conclude, “his music soothed my troubled soul, enflamed my weary heart, and inspired my creativity. It still does.” My song for him is simply an expression of appreciation and thanks. It took a while to figure out a piano riff that, in some way, echoed the sound and scale of a Japanese koto — especially as I'm not a piano player!


JIM: Many of the songs you wrote and sang in the 1960's were labelled 'songs of protest'. They covered a range of issues including attitudes to Aboriginal people, war and capital punishment. How important do you consider songs are in being able to inform people and influence their attitudes and behaviour?

GARY: The Anglo-French historian, essayist and novelist, Hilaire Belloc, once wrote, “It is the best of all trades, to make songs, and the second best to sing them.” I've always appreciated that observation. If I were to expand on it, I would probably say, “lit is the best of all trades, to make songs that inspire hearts, minds and souls to make the world a better place for every single human being inhabiting it, and the second best to sing them and hear others singing them.” That's probably a bit long-winded, but you may get my general drift. Songs born of struggle invariably inspire ways of resolving the struggle that gave them birth. 'Songs of protest' can reveal hidden agendas, stamp them clearly in the' consciousness of people from all walks of life, and lead them to consider, or re—consider, all sorts of ideological positions adopted by one crew or another. The truth will always out and, more often than not, the truth rings truest when carried on the wings of song.


JIM: Even when you were overseas for so long, many of the songs you wrote continued to reflect your feelings for and interest in Australia. Can you comment on this?

GARY: I took Australia, and things Australian, with me. 'Aborigine' was written in New York, in response to American enquiries regarding Australian Aboriginal culture. Similarly, 'Baiame, the Greatest Stone on Earth' was written in London for the same sort of reason. I sought to bring things Australian to the different scenarios in which I became involved. In early 197Os London, for example, I devoted considerable time and energy getting British and Jamaican musicians to listen to Aboriginal music — sometimes to advantage, sometimes to no avail. Some of the results can be heard on 'The Greatest Stone on Earth & Other Two—Bob Wonders', my second English album. Once, in a remote shanty in the wilds of County Donegal, on the west coast of Ireland, I sang the assembled Saturday night crew Sally Sloane's version of The Wild Colonial Boy. They'd never heard it before. Sung as a lament, it's very different to the usual Irish rendition, which is more of a knees—up, rebel—rouser. Three weeks later, when I turned up at the Tradition Club in Slattery's pub in Dublin, where I'd been booked to do a gig, I was asked if I was the same Australian who'd sung an unusual version of The Wild Colonial Boy in Bridget McShane's Crossways Inn, Glencolumbkille, County Donegal recently. I pleaded guilty. News travels fast in Ireland —one side of the country to another. Traditional music news seems to travel fastest of all.


JIM: After years of travelling to many parts of the world, was it difficult coming back to Australia and settling in one place for longer periods as you have done in Hay and Bangalow?

GARY: A favourite Aboriginal expression: 'When old, must have shady tree'. I've been writing a song about that shady tree for yonks. I haven t minded sitting under one for a while here and there in recent years, although parish ministry doesn't always' afford a lot of time for such occasions.


JIM: What part does music play in your ministry?

GARY: A considered, as opposed to considerable, part. Sometimes, a song may augment a sermon — or be a whole sermon in song. I've done numerous benefit concerts for different parishes, as well as for wider community causes. I use music sometimes for kids' clubs and for the classes in the schools in which I teach. I get asked to contribute a song or two to this community occasion or that, for one reason or another. I always try to respond, but am not always able to. As our world spirals into ever—increasing madness, I am often needed elsewhere by those to whom I am called to minister.