National Folk Festival Interview: Dave Oakes

Dave Oakes
Image Courtesy of Dave Oakes

Liverpool born, Central Australian based singer-songwriter Dave Oakes is ticking things off his bucket list. Having finally recorded an album of songs written throughout his almost 40 years in the red centre, Oakes is heading to The National Folk Festival for the first time since it settled in Canberra. We sat down with Dave Oakes to talk about his music and his new album Made In Alice Springs.

Gareth Hugh Evans: Creating the new album Made In Alice Springs is ticking off a big thing on your bucket list right?

Dave Oakes: I become a pensioner in two weeks or three weeks time when I actually have my birthday and I’m 65. So before that for a wee while I thought “I’ve got to get a bucket list together” of the things I really needed to do. Like I’ve never, ever had any inclination to have a tattoo, I always thought they were for bogans only. But then I thought “bugger it, you haven’t got one, go and get yourself a tattoo” so I did, of a Liver Bird [for the Liverpool Football Club]. And then I thought I’ve got all these songs – and I’m still writing, I’ve got lots of new ones – so I’ve got to get them down. There’s a couple of new ones on the album album like “Ain’t Been Lost” – I wrote two years ago. That’s relatively knew compared to “Beneath Uluru”, “Wings of an Albatross” and “Ross River Cowboy”. And then last year at the Top Half Folk Festival I wrote “Ted” for the songwriting workshop, but I never performed it. It’s very hard to perform “Ted” because I don’t have the violin – I could play the part with chords but it’s not the same as having the violin come in.

GHE: Almost all of the songs on the album speak to your time in Central Australia covering a lot of the characters in Alice Springs and the countryside surrounding it. Were you a songwriter before you got to Alice?

DO: I’ve done it since I was about 14. In Liverpool I grew up in pretty central working-class Liverpool in Walton. When I grew up there at the bottom of our street as a lad just after the war they built a library. And in the library one of the head librarians, a fella called Harold Hikins, and he was into poetry – in them days poetry was pretty big. And when I was doing A Levels at school, from 15, 16 on, my English teacher was Roger McGough – he later one got into a band called The Scaffold – and he was into poetry as well. And he knew Hikins. So from that sort of start of writing poetry and that in the early days to picking up a guitar. When I was 19 I went over to Europe – I didn’t want to go to university like my parents wanted me to, it was 1968/69 and the Beatles were only just about to split up and everyone was going to India. There was no way I was going to go to University. To do what? I haven’t regretted that move ever. So I was in Europe with my guitar and went busking and started writing. The early ones are busker’s songs, very jingle jangley. I got myself a dobro for on the street because it was nice and load and my voice was always nice and loud. From busking it got from there to actually going and playing in the pubs.

I’ve always written songs and there’s a load before the Alice Springs stuff started coming up. Then there was loads of songs I wrote just for songs that we’ve done, me and [Rob] Laidlaw doing Astro – there were loads of songs I wrote for other people to sing as well.

GHE: Coming to Alice Springs in the 70s the Central Australian Folk Society was a big presence in town. Was having something like the folk club a big influence on you as a songwriter and performer?

DO: Absolutely. The folk club, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing to compare with it now in any way whatsoever. You could write a song in a week and go and perform it in front of people and get feedback as to what they thought it was like. You can’t do that anymore hence the reason it takes me a long time to write songs. It takes me even longer to remember them. I can remember writing “Ross River Cowboy” when I was out for two weeks in the desert – I came back into town and I knew all the words and chords and I could just stand up there and play it. Whereas nowadays, I think “Ted” took me about three weeks to get into my head. The Folk Club definitely influenced everything. It was a great folk club, it was vibrant. The people that came there, just passing through people, were absolutely fantastic. It really was quality. There’s still nothing like it today I don’t think. But then again I’m getting old.

GHE: Living in Central Australia for coming up on 40 years, it’s been such a major part of your life. The characters and the landscapes seem to inspire your songs.

DO: And also 10 years living with Pitjantjatjara people and speaking Pitjantjatjara, that was an enormous shock to my system. I’m still not an inverted racist, I still think blackfellas can do wrong, I don’t think the sun shines out of their arse or anything. But I must admit that the sense of humour that the Aborigines have, it’s quite wonderful. The Pitjantjatjara people were lovely people to hang around with and hence the reason on “Kata Tjuta” where it says “I’m glad friend’s a desert fella, a black person fella” – that’s the translation. That says it all.

Where I used to live in Giles Street Caravan Park there was nothing between me and Kata Tjuta. I literally did look out of my window at Kata Tjuta, the spinifex plains were all that was between it and me. Every Friday night I’d get a slab in and my mate Charlie Walkabout would bring a mate with him, a good drinker, never causing any trouble or anything like that. That song’s basically about Walkabout. Without him I wouldn’t have stayed there that long – he taught me an awful lot about people, about life, about culture in the Pitjantjatjara way of looking at it. That was a great influence as well to me.

That’s why I left, because Walkabout died. There was no way I was going to hang around there with anyone else being the boss.

GHE: So on to The National Folk Festival – this is the first one you’ve played?

DO: Except the one we had in Alice Springs.

GHE: Except the Alice Springs one of course. What was behind the decision to apply for The National?

DO: I was looking after my mother for about 15 years, I brought her over from England. Hence the reason I had to work all the time and do things like that. She passed away last April, she was 93 and had a really good innings. When she passed away suddenly I had all this freedom – I could do anything I wanted to. So when I saw you could go to The National as long as you applied before June the 31st or something like that I just applied. I thought “they’re not going to have me, I’m an unknown”. And then they did! They said “no worries, we haven’t had anyone from that sort of area for ages and ages”. I know Ted [Egan]’s going to be there, and now that I know you’re going to be there I’ll know two people.

GHE: And you’re going to be at the Top Half Folk Festival at Glen Helen near Alice Springs which is your “home” festival as well. Every time it’s in Alice you play and you’ve played when it’s in Darwin as well.

DO: I did Darwin last year and that was great. It was the first time I’ve actually played alone for a long long time. I much prefer playing solo – you can make mistakes. And you can change your mind on what you want to play. I am looking forward to being alone at The National as well. The thing about the album, they’re really good with just the guitar.

GHE: I might leave it there mate – thanks so much.

DO: No worries. Look forward to seeing you at The National!

Made In Alice Springs is available now. Listen to the track “Wings of an Albatross” below:

1 Comment

  1. March 27, 2015 at 15:56

    […] “The [Alice Springs] folk club, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing to compare with it now in any way whatsoever. You could write a song in a week and go and perform it in front of people and get feedback as to what they thought it was like. You can’t do that anymore hence the reason it takes me a long time to write songs” – Dave Oakes chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]


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