National Folk Festival Interview: Bloodwood

Image Courtesy of Bloodwood

Seminal Alice Springs based bush band Bloodwood have a long history with The National Folk Festival, having first appeared in 1979, and they’re returning this year to help celebrate the 50th anniversary. We sat down with Bloodwood vocalist/guitarist/fiddle player/mandolin player Bob Barford to chat about the band’s long history with The National and what it took to get Bloodwood back together.

Gareth Hugh Evans: Bloodwood have reformed for The National Folk Festival this year. What is it about The National that got you guys back together?

Bob Barford: It was an opportunity to get the band going again, particularly to represent the Northern Territory seeing as though it’s a special event this year featuring all of the different states. I just thought “you can’t really feature the Northern Territory without having Bloodwood“. So I put in the application then I told everyone else that we should do it.

GHE: So you got accepted into the festival then told the rest of the band?

BB: That’s basically it.

GHE: Bloodwood has a really long association with The National. You’ve played there numerous times, you’ve even organised and hosted in in Alice Springs when it used to travel.

BB: That’s right. Indeed, for the 1979 National Festival which was in Melbourne one of the reasons Bloodwood got together in the first place was to promote the 1980 festival which was to be held in Alice Springs. We went down there and had a fabulous reception. We had terrific posters and terrific t-shirts and all that stuff designed by a lady in Alice Springs. It was a knock out design and the strange thing is we were actually asked to stop promoting the 1980 festival by the Melbourne organisers because no one was buying their t-shirts. That is deadset true!

GHE: And as a result did you get a big turn out for 1980?

BB: We did! It was the first time the festival had been held outside a capital city. The first time for a long time that it turned a profit. It was very very successful.

GHE: Who did you have playing that year?

BB: I remember we had Eric Bogle. Ernie Dingo was a big drawcard. We had all the stalwarts like Phil Lobel, John Dengate – there was tons of the old timers. And Scotty Balfour [singer/guitarist/accordian player for Bloodwood] was the festival director.

GHE: So The National Folk Festival and Bloodwood is forever intertwined.

BB: That’s right!

GHE: Is it also true that another driving force behind Bloodwood getting back together was as a way to showcase founding member Barney Foran as a poet?

BB: I don’t think I’d quite put it that way. I think the Bloodwood ethos was to revive or put some new feeling and life into some of the traditional music and along with that came the poetry. Barney was a driving force in getting Bloodwood and along with that went the bush poetry. In my opnion Barney breathed a huge degree of life into the bush poetry scene back in those days. He was the one who really got it moving and you see it reflected in the various ways that poetry is portrayed these days at festivals – it’s no longer the finger-in-the-ear, dum-de-dum-de-dum-de sort of stuff. It really has got life and that’s what Barney gave to it.

GHE: And Barney’s going to be joining Bloodwood at The National this year.

BB: Yeah – I reckon that’s great. It’s a real extra added bonus, if you ask me, that Barney’s going to be there with us and doing some of his poetry.

GHE: The Bloodwood that’s going to be presented at The National is going to be a super-group of sorts – with members across the band’s history all coming together. Yourself, Scotty Balfour and Dave Evans as the core members and then people like Barney Foran, Ross Muir (bass) and Barry “Skippy” Skipsey (vocals and guitar) who have all made major contributions to the band over the years.

BB: Skippy’s been such a terrific songwriter – we’ve taken on board quite a few of his songs and we’ll be featuring them in various concerts. And Ross is such a good musician – to lay down that strong bass line to really make that gel. He’s been playing with the band now for 15 or so years so it’s not as if he’s a newcomer!

GHE: Over the career of Bloodwood you’ve had a lot of highlights – overseas tours, appearances on national television and more. Do you have a personal highlight?

BB: That’s a hard one! I’d have to put The National Festivals that we went to as the highlights. I certainly enjoyed some of the presentations that we did in and around Alice Springs including Ayers Rock and out at Ooraminna. As far as tours are concerned I think the Edinburgh Festival tour we did was probably the highlight tour. We stood on our own feet for that one – the other world tours that we did were courtesy of the Northern Territory Tourist Commission.

GHE: So I know at The National this year you’re doing a presentation as one of your shows. Is that right?

BB: That’s right – it will be more like our early style of presentation. Each of those have been themed – so in the past we’ve had things like “Boom, Bust, Banality, Brigands and Blacks”, “And Then We Chocked Down”, “Droving Australia” and so it went. And all of those were concerts that presented songs, poems and items that illustrated a certain feeling within our folk culture. This one is called “Our Red Centre” and basically it’s going to be us reflecting on why we chose those songs, what those songs mean to us, how they came about, how we changed them and made them our own, why we wrote them, etc. It’s sort of divided up into a few sections from our early days on – the songs that we put together and the songs that influenced us, the thoughts that came to our mind as we were presenting them and how they reflected the folk scene as it was in the 70s and 80s

GHE: What really what separates Bloodwood from your contemporaries who were also presenting bush and traditional music at the time is that focus on the NT and the outback – singing songs by local songwriters like Ted Egan and Barry Skipsey. How important was it to hold those songs up as being as important in the bush music canon as your “Lachlan Tigers” or “Click Go The Shears”?

BB: I’ve always been pragmatic about songs. Some people like to get all tied up in the tradition and the tradition carries on – thank heavens that it does, it’s a resource. But you get those new songs coming in and if they’ve got the passion, the flavour, if they tell the story as strongly as the old songs they have equal place in my mind. Sometimes we’re a bit naive of what we’re writing about and what we’re doing – we get sort of tied up in the time. And it’s only after time that we can sit back and reflect upon those songs and say “Ok, these guys were doing the shearing and this that and the other thing. But we were up there doing the prawning or we were sitting behind a desk pushing a pen”. Songs about those sorts of things have equal place as time goes by. My simple philosophy is a good song is a good song.

GHE: Before The National Folk Festival you have a couple of gigs in Alice Springs. Getting the band back together for The National was it important to play in Alice as well?

BB: I said it was and I said to my fellow compatriots that “I’m not coming to Alice Springs to rehearse if we don’t do a concert”. My reasoning was altruistic – I thought it would put the pressure on to make sure we had something polished enough to take to Canberra. Having said that, I think we owe it to Alice Springs to do it.

GHE: I think the town has given a lot to the band over the years. Not just as a place to gig over the years but also a spring board to launch yourselves nationally and internationally via the work you did with the NT Tourist Commission and other channels.

BB: Yeah. There’s the romance of Alice Springs – everyone’s heard of it. It conjures up images in peoples minds all over the world and I think that’s helped us tremendously. I think we owe it to Alice Springs to put on a couple of concerts.

GHE: I reckon you’ll play those shows and you’ll have a few of generations of people sitting in the audience – your contemporaries along with the kids who used to see Bloodwood at school bush dances or local festivals and venues and have now grown up. Everyone will be singing along – you’ll have a really nice atmosphere up there.

BB: I think so. I remember quite a few years ago we were singing at one of the pre-schools [in Alice Springs] and there was a mum at the back. We finished our little set of songs and she was bawling her eyes out, tears rolling down her cheeks. And I think it might have been Dave who went up to her and said “It wasn’t that bad was it?”. She said “No, no! I’m just crying because you used to sing those songs to me when I was a kid”. We’ve got history!

GHE: Well thank you so much for chatting today Bob – and good luck with the Alice shows and The National.

BB: Thanks Gareth – appreciate it.

The dates for Bloodwood’s Alice Springs shows, along with their shows at The National Folk Festival, are below:

Friday 18th March – The Watertank Cafe, Alice Springs, NT
Saturday 19th March – The Watertank Cafe, Alice Springs, NT
Thursday 24th to Monday 28th March – National Folk Festival, Canberra, ACT
– Friday 6:00pm – Flute ‘n’ Fiddle
– Saturday 11:50am – Flute ‘n’ Fiddle
– Sunday 8:30pm – The Lyric
– Monday 11:50am – Trocadero (Presentation: Our Red Centre)

1 Comment

  1. March 18, 2016 at 15:10

    […] “For the 1979 National Festival, which was in Melbourne, one of the reasons Bloodwood got together in the first place was to promote the 1980 festival which was to be held in Alice Springs. We went down there and had a fabulous reception. We had terrific posters and terrific t-shirts and all that stuff designed by a lady in Alice Springs. It was a knock out design and the strange thing is we were actually asked to stop promoting the 1980 festival by the Melbourne organisers because no one was buying their t-shirts. That is deadset true!” – Bob Barford from Bloodwood chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]

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