The Legend of John Dengate

John Dengate
Image Courtesy of SMH

There is a song called “Train Trip to Guilford”. I heard it one night played at The Bush Music Club and I have loved it ever since.

It is one of the few songs that made me rethink what it was to be a songwriter, what topics I could broach, how I could use humour, how to structure verses and the perfection of my rhymes.

Waiting, waiting for the twenty past four to arrive
The twenty past four doesn’t run any more
the next train’s at a quarter to five

Time is money they say
So I must get to Guilford today
Did they say platform nine for the Liverpool line
Do I have to change trains on the way?

It was written by a man called John Dengate.

In 2009 I went to the Illawarra Folk Festival, I was hanging around with some bush poets when I told a stranger about my love affair with this song. My new friend stopped me mid sentence and scanned the room.

“The bloke who wrote it is sitting down there,” he said, pointing to a small elderly man sitting at a table.

As a songwriter it is very rare that you get to meet one of your idols, more often than not they are from another country or another generation or even deceased, but for me here was my chance. I walked up to him and stood behind his shoulder.

“Excuse me Mr Dengate,” I said, ever careful of my manners. “I just wanted to say how much I love your song “Train Trip to Guilford””.

“Thank you mate,” he replied, giving me a smile.

Around that time I was starting a folk night in Erskinevile. The aim of the night was to combine old and young poets and performers on the same stage.

Given how influenced I had become by John’s work, it was important for me to get him to perform on the first night. I felt compelled to share this man with a young audience, to allow them to see all the brilliance that I had witnessed. I asked him over the phone one night and fortunately he agreed.

So that night, armed with his amazing wife Dale and his acoustic guitar he came along and entertained the youngish audience. He played a few traditional songs along with some of his hits like “Bill from Erskineville”, “Bare Legged Kate” as well as a recital of “The Lanes of Waterloo”.

I was SO proud to have him there.

As he was playing I was thinking to myself, “people this IS folk, this is IT! You need to listen!”

And listen they did.

For two years I ran the club. We had singers cover Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and a sway of popular songwriters, however without a doubt the songwriter that was covered the most was John Dengate.

A year later I saw John outside a school where he used to work in Marrickville. I didn’t know he had been a primary school teacher and was buoyed by this, as now John and I had one more thing in common.

We went for a drink that night and John told me about his busking down at Central Station on a Friday morning. A few Coopers Pale Ales later I had agreed to meet him outside the Commonwealth Bank on Elizabeth Street.

At 8 o’clock I arrived. Sure enough John had been there since 6:00 tin whistle in hand. Dressed in an oversized coat he was standing amongst the crowd singing. It was a wonderful scene, here amongst the bustle of the rush hour was one of Australia’s greatest songwriters seemingly oblivious to the chaos of peak hour, and instead standing proudly amongst it all, singing his songs.

I loved it. I stood behind him and leaned against the walls, taking in his perfectly enunciated lyrics and listening closely to the melodies he piped out of his tin whistle.

Often after a song John would turn to me and explain the song’s origins. “That was an old Civil War song,” he would say.

After the busking we retired to a café for a coffee. Once seated our conversations would start small and then build and build momentum. Often it would be a piece of forgotten Australian history that John would bring up, such as the presence of US marines in Brisbane during the Second World War. John would tell stories of barbed wire across Brisbane streets, or skirmishes between the soldiers spilling out of pubs. Although starting in Brisbane in the 1940’s, our conversation would then shift across decades and continents.

Entwined were poets and verses, Shakespearean characters, soldiers, cricket stars and politicians. I could never keep up; every story was as rich and enticing as the last, full of vivid information. But there was just too much and often I would leave our meetings feeling like a soaked sponge in a bucket of water, holding only a fraction of information.

Our meetings became a semi-regular event. Sometimes we would meet for busking, other times we would meet at The Friend in Hand for a pint of Guinness. In the afternoon light we would carry on our conversations, moving from Grafton beer (Jacaranda Juice) to etymology and then across to Papua New Guinea and the Kakoda Trail.

While these conversations were going on John was still for me a singer-songwriter first and foremost. So often I would pester him for stories of songwriting. While addressing my songwriting questions inevitably a host of characters from his past would find their way into his tales.

“Duke Tritton once told me,” said John one afternoon, “if the audience can’t understand the 8th word of the 16th verse, you’ve buggered the song up”.

During the school holidays I would pop over to see John and Dale for a cup of tea. As usual the conversation, while starting at school and teaching, would evolve into something else. Soon we were talking about the Catholic influence in the Labor Party in the 1950’s; we would then move onto Gough Whitlam and Pine Gap before doing a complete 360o and begin a conversation on cricket.

I can still remember John’s advice on being an opening batsman: “when the bastard at the other end tries to knock your block off, you just take it on the body and stare him down, as if you want some more.”

So why was he a legend?

For me it was in his songs. His songs are amazing, amazing like very few others are. They are the absolute cream. He used his words with such care it as if they had been sculpted instead of written. They also possess a sing-ability to them that most songwriters would die for. I have seen it and heard it so often, from my own folk club to the stages of the National Folk Festival – when someone plays a John Dengate song the crowd joins in.

His scope as a songwriter is exceptionally broad. There are songs about struggle and oppression, song about underdogs, songs about workers, songs about horse racing and songs about soldiers.

Then there was his humour. Many of John’s most famous songs involve humour, sometimes it was observational humour while often it was political satire. His political satire is arguably without equal and he turned his pen on a vast number of politicians and business figures who have littered the Australian electorates and newspapers for over five decades.

Apart from John as an artist, part of the legend stems from John as a character. He was a man who stood for something. He was a man of principles and beliefs. These beliefs, while permeating his songs and his poems, were also lived out every day by John. He didn’t just write union songs, he stood for unions, spoke for unionism and was proud of it. In the same way he wrote songs that mocked big business and economic rationalism. These were not issues exclusive to John’s songs, they were beliefs he held and adhered to everyday.

Some of the last words John wrote reflect the anti-establishment beliefs he held and which were part of this legend of character.

We won’t surrender, won’t give in, although our hair is graying;
We come from tough rebellious kin…
Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win…
We go on disobeying.

The last time I saw John was during the Easter holidays this year. We were sharing a cup of tea when I asked him, “what are you John? Are you a singer/songwriter? Are you a storyteller? Are you a poet? Are you a unionist? Are you a cricket tragic? Are you rebel? What are you?”

John paused for a brief moment, thought about it and said. “I’m an educator.”

John Dengate, my inspiration and friend died on the 1st of August 2013, just shy of his 75th birthday. I was shocked and saddened when I heard he had passed.

Goodbye Mr Dengate, songwriter, hero, rebel, husband, father, teacher, humorist, satirist, unionist, cricketer, golfer, poet, friend … and educator

Cj Shaw
11th August 2013

2 Comments

  1. September 6, 2013 at 15:56

    […] “His scope as a songwriter is exceptionally broad. There are songs about struggle and oppression, song about underdogs, songs about workers, songs about horse racing and songs about soldiers. Then there was his humour. Many of John’s most famous songs involve humour, sometimes it was observational humour while often it was political satire. His political satire is arguably without equal and he turned his pen on a vast number of politicians and business figures who have littered the Australian electorates and newspapers for over five decades” – Cj Shaw pays tribute to John Dengate. Blog here […]

  2. March 2, 2016 at 17:29

    What a lovely write up! Mr Dengate was certainly a memorable educator – he was my 6th grade teacher at Marrickville West Public School. I only recently found out that he passed away. Kids at our school always wanted to be in his class. You started and ended every day singing folk songs where all the other classes would just do work. He was a rather strict teacher but definitely fair. Years ago, when I worked as a librarian for the City of Sydney, I would bump into him busking outside the QVB and we would have chats about his songs, his former students recognising him, his performing and rather touchingly his memories of my parents.


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