Gary Shearston

TrackAlbum
Reedy RiverFolk Songs & Ballads Of Australia
Bonnie JessFolk Songs & Ballads Of Australia
The Springtime It Brings
On The Shearing
The Springtime It Brings
On The Shearing
Jim JonesBolters, Bushrangers & Duffers
The Death Of Ben HallBolters, Bushrangers & Duffers
Sometime Lovin'Sings His Songs
Faded Streets, Windy WeatherAbreaction (On A Bitumen Road
With Soft Edges)
I Get A Kick Out Of YouDingo
DingoDingo
A Voice From The CityAussie Blue
Salvation BluesAussie Blue
Riverina DreamingReverently

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Gary Shearston photo

Gary Shearston

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

It began with a strummed guitar part which bore a passing resemblance to similar intros to other early 1970s hits such as George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and The Eagles’ Take It Easy. From then on, however, things became slightly stranger. Was this really a relaxed and seemingly casual Aussie guy covering this Cole Porter classic, one more often associated with urbane and sophisticated singers like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett? Unlike those singers, Shearston sang the song with a refreshing directness, almost with the air of someone leaning over a fence telling a ‘yarn’ to a friend. The arrangement itself was also a quirky one, featuring an unusual mixture of instruments and incorporating one of the most original violin solos ever to appear on a chart record.

While it is unlikely that anyone would claim this was the best version of I Get A Kick Out Of You (my vote would probably go to Ella Fitzgerald) there was a warmth and an engaging quality to the record which gave it an appeal all of its own. As a result – and despite Shearston’s own later description of it as a ‘throwaway’ record – it became an unlikely hit, reaching No.7 in the UK chart in 1974. Sadly, this was to be both his first and last major chart success there, although he had a number of brushes with commercial success in his earlier career in his native Australia and he continued making music (albeit with a few major career breaks) right up until his death in July 2013.

While I Get A Kick Out OF You appeared to be something of an incongruous hit when seen against the backdrop of the early 1970s , it is rendered even more so when one takes into account Shearston’s own earlier musical career. After a short-lived flirtation with pop music, he had emerged as a key figure in the Australian version of the ‘folk revival’ in the early 1960s. The ‘revival’ movement there also owed a good deal to wider cultural, political and social changes which were taking place in Australia from the late 1950s onwards. Such changes included the attempts then being made to develop a distinctively Australian voice (free from the previous over-reliance on English influences) in literature and the arts. The pioneers of this movement included the great writer, Patrick White (the publication of his classic novel, “Voss”, in 1957 was a particular landmark in this regard), and his slightly younger contemporaries such as Randolph Stow and David Malouf, and painters like Sydney Nolan, John Reed, various members of the Boyd family and later successors like Brett Whiteley. This period also saw the first stirrings of the development of a distinctively Australian cinema, although this did not really reach fruition until the later 1960s/early 1970s.

This movement in the arts also helped to lay the foundation for a gradual shift away from the conservative political orthodoxy which had largely characterised the country from the late 1940s onwards. In the early 1960s, these various progressive strands came together in the campaign against the Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam and the associated movement for the advancement of Aboriginal rights. Both of these movements were also linked with a rise in student activism in Australia and all of them could be seen as more muted versions of political and social developments which were already underway in the USA.

As in the United States, some of those involved in progressive politics in Australia began to develop an interest in exploring the folk music of their native country. For many of those who did so, ‘folk music’ was seen as giving an avenue through which to explore the ‘authentic’ voice of the ‘ordinary’ working people there. It was also believed that folk music had an honesty and integrity to it which the commercial music of the time lacked. In this regard, it appealed particularly to people who were on the left of Australian politics. Unlike many of these, however, Gary Shearston’s political activity throughout this time was driven far more by his commitment to social justice (which was, perhaps, largely inspired by his religious upbringing) than to any strong ideological commitment.

Ironically, however, it had been folk singers from outside the country who had first initiated the revival of interest in Australian folk music in the 1950s and early 1960s. Among the most important of these was the American folk singer and actor, Burl Ives, who recorded a full album of songs from the country in 1953. His pioneering efforts were later followed up by folk singers from the United Kingdom like A.L. [aka Bert] Lloyd and Martin Wyndham-Read. Before their efforts, Australian folk music had been largely disregarded and had been dismissed as unimportant when compared to the folk music traditions of those countries from which the convicts and settlers there had come. Indeed, the few Australian folk songs which had entered the popular canon were usually recorded in a stilted and formal manner and were generally performed by singers trained in the classical tradition like Peter Dawson. At this point, however, a new generation of singers who included Shearston and close contemporaries like Warren Fahey were determined to bring a new more pared-back and straightforward approach to the singing of such songs. With the assistance of academics such as Edgar Waters, they also began to collect material from rural Australia which had not previously been recorded.

While Shearston’s own origins were in rural New South Wales (in the area around Inverell and Tenterfield) he had not displayed much interest in the traditional music of the area in his youth. Once he embraced folk music, however, Shearston rapidly became one of the most popular performers on the then very small scale folk circuit in Sydney. In that early part of his career, he was also strongly influenced by the example of the American blues, jazz and gospel singer, Brother John Sellers. Sellers had first come to Australia with the Alvin Ailey dance group and had stayed on in Sydney after the rest of that troupe had returned to America. With Sellers’ support, Shearston became involved in launching the Sydney folk venue, the Troubadour. Eventually, his performances there brought him to the notice first of the Australian label, Leedon Records, and later of the Australian wing of the CBS label and of the TV station, Channel Seven, where he briefly presented a music programme, Just Folk (one of Shearston’s earliest TV appearances can be seen here.

Along with this TV work, Shearston also released his first album, Folk Songs & Ballads Of Australia, in 1964. It provided a showcase for his rapidly evolving skills as both an arranger and interpreter of such songs. From it, I have selected for inclusion his version of the Chris Kempster setting of the great Australian ‘Bush’ poet and short story writer, Henry Lawson’s poem, Reedy River (it can be heard here). This version also includes some finely interweaving guitar work between Shearston himself and Richard Mills. As with much of his early work, Shearston’s singing here has a gentle, introspective and, at times, almost dreamy quality to it which is reminiscent of the great American folk singer Paul Clayton’s vocal style. This quality also distinguished both men’s work from the more ‘macho’ style of folk singing which was generally popular in the English and Irish versions of the folk revival. My other choice from Shearston’s excellent first album is another adaptation of a poem by a ‘Bush’ poet, in this case one by Thomas E. Spencer. Shearston wrote the fine melody to which he set the poem, Bonnie Jess.

Over the next few years, Gary Shearston was to release a series of first-rate albums, which established him as one of the finest contemporary interpreters of Australian folk songs. He also demonstrated that he was keeping up to date with developments in the revival outside Australia by covering songs by other contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan and Ewan MacColl (his superb version of the latter’s Dirty old Town can be heard here). With typical generosity, he also recorded several songs written by other young Australian songwriters, such as Don Henderson and Dougie Young. In this period, he also had his first Australian hit, with the song Sydney Town, which incorporated lyrics written by the well-known Australian writer, Frank Hardy, and also appeared to be indebted to the calypso-like melody from Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Free.

At this time, Shearston also made what are probably his two best collections of folk songs. They were both thematically based; the first, The Springtime It Brings On The Shearing, being a collection of shearers’ songs, while the second, Bolters, Bushrangers & Duffers, concentrated on ones derived from Australia’s long tradition of convict and bushrangers’ songs. My first selection for inclusion from them is his superb version of the title track to the first of these two albums, The Springtime It Brings On The Shearing.

This is one of the best songs in the Australian canon and Shearston’s rendition does it full justice. Jim Jones from the Bolters album is another classic Australian folk song and again, Shearston’s version of it is close to definitive. His rendition of it also helped to popularise the song and, perhaps, inspired the subsequent version of it (with a slightly different melody) recorded by the Australian folk group, The Original Bushwackers & Bullockies Bush Band in 1975. It was this later arrangement that Bob Dylan used as the basis for his classic rendition of the song on his 1992 album, Good As I Been To You. It is, of course, also possible that Dylan may have heard Shearston’s version of the song before this, as both briefly shared the same manager, Albert Grossman.

My second choice from Bolters, Bushrangers & Duffers is Shearston’s fine rendition of the classic bushrangers’ song, The Death Of Ben Hall. In other hands, this song has sometimes appeared rather mawkish and maudlin. However, Shearston’s take on it is beautifully judged and stays on the right side of that thin line between pathos and sentimentality.

Having established a reputation as an extremely gifted folk musician, like many of his contemporaries Shearston then began to move into writing his own songs. These included both ‘topical’ songs (perhaps the best of these were the powerful Old Bulli, strongly critical of the mine owners in that town for their neglect of the safety of the men there, and the beautiful The Lost Soldier which Shearston wrote after reading about the death of an Australian soldier in Vietnam) and more personal ones.

In the case of the latter, Gary Shearston quickly developed a particular mastery in writing bitter-sweet love songs. Many of these were about apparently doomed relationships or ones which were already in the process of breaking up. Perhaps the best of these was the poetic and elegiac Sometime Lovin’, set to one of Shearston’s most beautiful melodies, which first appeared on his 1966 album Sings His Songs although the jazz influenced version which appeared on Shearston’s next album, Abreaction, is also well worth checking out.

While on a tour in Australia, the American group Peter, Paul and Mary picked up on the song and they subsequently included a version of it on their imaginatively titled 1966 record, Album. The pop influences which had become apparent in his work by this point were to become even more pronounced on Shearston’s next album, Abreaction (On a Bitumen Road With Soft Edges). There was also, at times, a slight jazz feel to the record, perhaps reflecting Shearston’s own early interest in that type of music. My choice from it, Faded Streets, Windy Weather, is more free-form than most of his earlier work and also includes some lovely glistening piano playing by Sven Libaek. Despite the overall excellence of the record, however, its experimental feel meant that it did not have the same commercial success in Australia as some of his earlier records had done. This failure also led to difficulties in Shearston’s relationship with his record label, CBS.

As a result, he began to explore pursuing a musical career outside of Australia. Through the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of Sometime Lovin’ his work had already started to attract interest in the United States. Indeed, it had prompted Albert Grossman, then one of the key figures in the American music industry through his relationship with Bob Dylan, to look into arranging a contract for him with the Warner Bros. record label. However, his attempts to gain entry into the United States were stymied, when the Australian intelligence agency, ASIO, filed an adverse intelligence report on him with their American counterparts. Their main reasons for doing so were on account of Shearston’s resolute opposition to the Vietnam War in his home country and his strong support for the movement for aboriginal rights there. In combination, this was enough for ASIO to suggest that he should be considered an ‘undesirable alien’ by the American authorities. Following their advice, he was officially barred from the country and ultimately decided to travel to England instead. Although eventually – albeit after a long struggle and with the support of a number of prominent US politicians like Edward Kennedy – he was given the right to enter the USA; this was only done on the basis that his ability to publicly perform there should be severely restricted. In career terms, this was an extremely difficult period for Shearston and the obstacles he faced at this time eventually led to his abandoning the record he had intended to make there.

The ultimate outcome of this unsettled period was that he eventually relocated to the United Kingdom where his next album Dingo was recorded. As we have seen, in I Get A Kick Out Of You, it also produced the most successful chart single of his career. From that album, I have also selected his fine song, Dingo. Like many of his later songs, it is a superb evocation of the Australian landscape. Indeed, it is one of those songs that bear out the late John Peel’s contention that he could “sense the ‘heat and wild friendliness of Australia” in Gary’s voice. Some other commentators have also seen the song as an oblique commentary on his experiences while living in America.

Given the rather anomalous nature of Shearston’s commercial success with Dingo, it was perhaps unsurprising that he found it difficult to follow up on it. This led him to pursue a number of alternative career paths in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These included brief periods working as a music journalist, a short-lived involvement in researching film scripts, and writing and publishing a novel set in rural Australia, “Balkenna”, with his friend, Mike Thomas.

Gary Shearston eventually returned to Australia on a permanent basis in 1989. In the same year, he released perhaps his most accomplished album as a songwriter, Aussie Blue. On it, all of the various influences which had underlain his career up until that point came together in an integrated and fully coherent whole.

These included folk (the superb Crafty Old Captain and his brilliant adaptation of the Henry Lawson poem, A Voice From The City, country (the autobiographical Shopping On A Saturday and the quintessentially Australian song Aussie Blue) folk-rock (with the beautifully meditative Above Below) and pop. There was also an element of spiritual searching in the album, best exemplified by the excellent blues-flavoured Salvation Blues (on the 1990 reissue and later re-recorded as Deliverance Blues for his 2009 album The Best Of All Trades). The track also features some tasty Dobro-playing by Dom Turner of the great Australian blues band, The Backsliders.

Although there had been hints of this shift in direction on Aussie Blue, Shearston’s next career move was one of the more unusual in music history. He became an Anglican priest, in which role he was to work in various parts of rural New South Wales from the early 1990s up until his retirement from the ministry in 2003. Even after that, he continued to work as a locum priest in various parishes right across Australia for several years afterwards. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this latter part of his career was the burst of creativity which he was to enjoy in the years from the release of his 2001 album, Only Love Survives, onwards. In the period between then and his final release, he recorded no less than five albums (one a double CD) and left behind enough material for two fine posthumous ones as well. One of these, Hills Of Assisi, is a superb exploration of the spiritual journey which led to him becoming a priest.

What was particularly striking about these late albums was the fact that Shearston’s songwriting remained as strong as ever, despite his lengthy break from the music business. Also, while there was a strong ‘spiritual’ element to his later work, there was nothing preachy or sanctimonious about his songwriting. Indeed, he often related his religious convictions to his overcoming of the various personal struggles he had faced in his earlier life. His sympathies were also always with those whom the Churches had claimed to represent – the poor, the marginalised and the outcast – but whom they had frequently failed. His work also remained deeply infused with a desire for social justice and with a profound indignation against those people and institutions that prevented it being achieved.

At the same time, he retained a tolerant and balanced world view and took on his opponents with a nicely wry and very Australian sense of humour. There is also a lovely autumnal mellowness to these fine records which make them well worth exploring. I have chosen Riverina Dreaming from his 2013 album, Reverently, for inclusion in this list as it shows that his superb ability to evoke the Australian landscape remained as keen at the end of his career as it had been at the beginning.

As Gary frequently acknowledged throughout his career, the non-indigenous folk music of Australia with which he was most associated was largely based on the traditional music of the British Isles and, to a lesser extent, of that from other parts of Europe. This was the music which the convicts and later the settlers brought with them to the country. Over time, however, as he argued, they had adapted that music to the strange and exotic circumstances in which they found themselves.

In his early career, he proved himself to be one of the very finest interpreters of that tradition Australia has ever produced. As time went on, he also demonstrated a rare ability as a songwriter. Indeed, although some commentators have described him as an Australian ‘Bob Dylan’ or ‘Johnny Cash’, in my opinion his work more closely resembles that of the great Texan songwriter, Guy Clark and that of his Canadian counterpart, Gordon Lightfoot. All three men’s work is also firmly grounded in a highly developed sense of place. With Shearston that place is the area in rural New South Wales where he grew up. With Clark, that ‘place’ frequently was the semi-rural small town Texas in which he grew up. In a similar way, Lightfoot’s songs frequently refer to the area around the town of Orillia in Ontario, Canada which was his birthplace. There is also a strong historical sense in all of their work, with many of Gary Shearston’s songs reflecting his deep knowledge of, and interest in, Australian culture and traditions. It is in this company of the very finest craftsmen songwriters that his superb body of work deserves, in my opinion, to be considered.

 

NOTES

1. The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that this is a 12-song Toppermost. My rationale for this is that as I Get A Kick Out Of You is so unlike Gary’s other work the list would work best as a +1 … then I couldn’t decide between Salvation Blues and A Voice From The City so included both!

2. I would like to thank Stuart Heather of the Gary Shearston website, Penny Davies and Roger Ilott (who worked with Gary on his later albums), David Lewis and Fiona O’Connor for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this piece. Their help is very much appreciated. I am also indebted to Gary Victor Hill’s excellent short book on Shearston which can be downloaded here.

3. The best quick introduction to Gary’s music is through the excellent 2CD anthology Here And There, Now And Then issued by Rouseabout Records in 2007. It and all of Gary’s other albums are also now available from GaryShearston.com.

4. Salvation Blues was recorded at around the same time as the Aussie Blue album but was probably intended for a later release. It later appeared as one of the additional tracks featured on the reissue of the album by the Australian budget record label J & B in 1990. It is also likely to feature in the near future on a collection of unreleased and rare material to be compiled by GaryShearston.com. I am grateful to Stuart Heather for this information.

 

Gary Shearston (1939–2013)

 

Gary Shearston official website

Gary Shearston discography

Gary Shearston biography (iTunes)

 

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Guy Clark, Paul Clayton, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter, Paul & Mary

ONE HIT WONDERS ON TOPPERMOST
#1 Jody Reynolds
#2 James Ray
#3 Richie Barrett
#4 Mickey & Sylvia
#5 Scott McKenzie
#6 Blue
#7 Chris Kenner
#8 Dawn Penn
#9 Shep and the Limelites
#10 The Poni-Tails
#11 The La’s
#12 Thomas Wayne
#13 Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford
#14 Carl Mann
#15 Duncan Browne
#16 Harold Dorman
#17 Ned Miller
#18 Gary Shearston

TopperPost #680

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Dec 1, 2017

    That accent: ‘I get no kick from champaaaiiiinnnn’. Few are as broad, and in that unique baritone/bass tone. Tenterfield also gave us Peter Allen, so I don’t know what’s in the water up there (about 5 hours from where I grew up), but nonetheless, it did something special. (I don’t want to point out a typo I missed – it’s Inverell – there’s a range of Scottish towns up that way – Armidale, Glen Innes, etc). He deserves much more coverage – hopefully this will start a reappreciation of this remarkable work.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Dec 2, 2017

    David, thanks for this. I think that singing with an Australian accent (rather than a ‘mock’ English one) was a major part of the folk revival It also opened the way for later artists as different as, say, Paul Kelly and The Go-Betweens. I also like the way Shearston uses Australian phrases, especially in ‘Salvation Blues’ (‘touchy as a taipan’, ‘roos in my top paddock’ , ‘side show alley bounders’).

  3. Dave Stephens
    Dec 3, 2017

    Andrew, thanks for a fine intro to Gary and Australian folk music in general, a field in which I’m a total novice.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Dec 4, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this. Can’t claim that I knew much about it myself when I moved here first. The only exception really was hearing covers of Eric Bogle’s songs by The Clancy Brothers and The Pogues and seeing the man himself play live many years ago. Discovering Gary’s work, however, has given me an entry point through which to explore Australian folk music further.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓