with Gary Shearston
© Jim Low
It was the last day of 2008. I was enjoying a leisurely stroll around the historic township of Windsor, one of ‘Macquarie’s Five Towns’, in the New South Wales Hawkesbury region. While stopping to explore a second-hand shop which reclaimed the ample space of a lost congregation in their old church, I came across a cardboard box full of photographs.
Discovering there was a black-and-white photograph of a man playing a guitar, I looked at it more closely. To my amazement I realised that it was a photograph of a young Gary Shearston. Through his songwriting and interpretation of traditional and contemporary songs, Gary Shearston gained considerable popularity as an Australian folk singer in the 1960s.
Shuffling through the rest of this miscellaneous collection, I retrieved about a dozen more photographs of Gary. A later visit brought the total to seventeen, all different and of varying quality and condition. On the back of each photograph was the same date, December 1963.
The first photograph I came across immediately brought to mind the cover photo that appeared on Gary’s first CBS LP (long playing) recording Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia. It was released in April 1964 and a month later I purchased a copy with money given to me for my sixteenth birthday. How I valued that collection of songs, one of the first albums that I owned. The songs on the LP came from a tradition of songs which told stories about Australian places and characters. These sparsely produced songs were sung in Gary’s clear, warm and unashamedly Australian voice. This LP was for me the ideal introduction to Australian folk music.
When I sent Gary copies of some of the photographs I had found in Windsor, they roused old memories for him too. In a letter written in June 2009, he expressed his appreciation and amazement.
“Moments of synchronicity never fail to fascinate! How extraordinary that these photos should turn up in some Windsor shop only to be discovered by yourself! Perusal of the cover of Australian Folk Songs and Ballads suggest they are part of a shoot done by legendary ‘Push’ photographer, Lou Horton – during a performance at The ‘Troubadour’. I remember it well because a mate of his who accompanied him was overly voluble over his coffee and I had to suggest he might like to tone it down a bit and cock an ear to the songs. Anyway … Same old ‘Tatay’ guitar, same shirt, same ‘moody’ black ‘n’ white atmosphere, so I’m 99% sure of the association.”
Late in May 1964, the very popular American folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary, began their first Australian tour. A photograph appeared in a Sydney newspaper showing the trio reading Gary’s album notes to the recently released Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia, thereby giving ample prominence to its front cover. In 1966 the group released their version of Gary’s song Sometime Lovin’.
I remember telling Gary in a telephone conversation in late 2004 how influential this collection of songs was for me. He told me the LP was recorded in about three hours in a little EMI studio, just after he and Les Miller, who played guitar and banjo on the album, had returned from an Arts Council tour. He described the recording session as resembling ‘a little concert’. The order of the songs was basically the same order as on the album, saving editing time. He felt that this gave the recording its ‘live’ feel. Jokingly, he reckoned the LP contains the fastest version of Brisbane Ladies in recording history. But he expressed a pride in the LP which he felt still ‘holds up’. He referred especially to the song Reedy River, a Henry Lawson poem set to music by Chris Kempster and featured in the musical of the same name. He also expressed strong attachment to the LP’s opening track, Don Henderson’s Put A Light in Every Country Window.
Gary’s friendship with Henderson had been a long and close one. He always expressed admiration for Henderson’s songs. He regretted to me, in 2009, that he never was financially able to make an album of Don Henderson’s songs which he said he ‘always wanted to do’. ‘I have to leave,’ he reflected, ‘all that on the shelf marked pipe dreams.’
As I have mentioned, Gary referred to my finding of the photos as one of those ‘moments of synchronicity’. In a later telephone conversation I shared with him another one of these moments that happened back in the early 1960s. Around this time a dilapidated, corrugated-iron building on the shores of Careening Cove, Kirribilli, was being transformed into the Ensemble Theatre. This became the new home for Hayes Gordon’s performing theatre company, of which Gary was a member. He reflected appreciatively on this time in his life in an unreleased song called Dropping A Few, in which he says, ‘I came to use what gifts I had, the better for passing through.’
Perhaps for convenience, he was soon living for a while in a new high-rise complex of flats in High Street, North Sydney, within easy walking distance to the theatre. And now for the ‘moment of synchronicity’. High Street was where my family had lived all my life. So I regularly saw Gary walking down my street, carrying his guitar case. If you are familiar with the cover of Gary’s third CBS LP recording Australian Broadside, released in March 1965, then that is pretty much how I saw him.
My own last three CDs were released through Rouseabout Records, thanks to Warren Fahey and Stuart McCarthy. At the time of his death in 2013, Gary’s CDs had been released on this label since 2001. More synchronicity perhaps?
Throughout his life, Gary continued performing songs from Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia. He also passionately applied himself to the song writing ‘trade’. As songs of our time, his reflect with honesty upon our uncertain world, always celebrating and inspiring a real hope and faith in humanity.
Whether the above-mentioned ‘moments of synchronicity’ had any related meaning or were just coincidental, for me they made our friendship something special.
© Jim Low
- Many thanks to Roger Ilott and Penny Davies of Restless Music for the opportunity to hear Gary’s song, Dropping A Few. Three posthumous CDs are available from restlessmusic.com.au
- Copies of Gary’s early recordings mentioned in this article are available at garyshearston.com
- His Rouseabout CDs can be found at undercovermusic.com.au