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

Review: Shut The Folk Up! Feat. Eirwen Skye, Billygoat and the Mongrels, The Green Mohair Suits, The Ryhmer From Ryde and Ron-G-Flex

Eirwen Skye
Image Courtesy of Eirwen Skye

Shut The Folk Up! feat. Eirwen Skye, Billygoat and the Mongrels, The Green Mohair Suits, The Ryhmer From Ryde and Ron-G-Flex
26th May 2011, Hive Bar

Strangers linked arm in arm, open throats inviting additions to the rich cacophony of “CC Rider” bellowed mellowly across the inviting yellow sooth of the Hive Bar’s second floor by The Green Mohair Suits and Billygoat and the Mongrels. Girls atop the benches with hands at a height for hallelujah, dictating the rhythm of the room with a sway lazier then a Sunday morning. The sweet harmony and melody accompanied, equally overwhelming and welcoming, flooded over the folk club like ripples in a rock pool amidst a sea of kind kisses.

Though we never saw the folk revival of the 60’s and 70’s, and were not alive to witness the end of the Vietnam War or the celebrations that sung its closure on the streets, on record and within the tightly knit folk clicks that litter history, last night we had our own momentous folk moment.

As two bands melted together, harmonies embracing like the strangers all around, mandolin, accordion, bass, banjo, harmonica and guitar casting a warm web around the crowd, allowing vocals to roar, eyes to close and bodies to sway.

Upon completion, in abundance there lay a unity and understanding of the power and potential of community and of music. Shut the Folk UP as never before as our ascending generation of folk musicians were carefully handed the blessings of folkies long gone, with the greatest gift music can bring, unity.

Pardon my hyperbole.

Let’s start from the start. For nights to end on such a high there needs to be a flow and rhythm that prepares the universe for such swell and it started with Eirwen Skye. Draping lighted flower bulbs around her mic stand, this folk pixie delivered thickly rich emotive music, layered skilfully like a wedding cake. She wove guitar loops around each other, like schoolyard braids, adding percussion to link these loops to a heartbeat of rhythm. Her vocals then took hold as feathers on the breeze, painting her narratives effortlessly, filling the dimly lit room with soaring strokes of melodies and sweetly rich, edible harmonies.

To return things back to the word and the rhyme, we then turned to the one and only Rhymer from Ryde. A well known bush poet on the circuit, The Rhymer rhymed his way through a tight set of emotive and comical narratives. Dancing around his microphone, keeping the audience primed for his couplets, The Rhymer reminded Shut the Folk UP of the craft of bush poetry and why our man from Ryde is number one. Jumping from classical, war stained verse to laconic social commentary, from empathetic retellings of natural disasters to out and out humour, The Rhymer from Ryde entertained as a true professional. Our first Bush Poet at Shut the Folk UP, but hopefully not our last.

Next up we had one of Sydney’s best bands, Billygoat and the Mongrels. Fresh from a hiatus where the group worked in the studio, the band and the front man were in blistering form. Billygoat flooded the upstairs with his heartfelt bellow, pounding through a set of classic country covers from the likes of Hank Williams and Bob Dylan as well as the tragic and the life affirming originals he is known for. The two acoustic guitars and acoustic bass traded perfectly in the warm heart of folk club, with soundman Dave “Maddog” Perram layering mindful slide guitar across Billygoat’s purposeful strumming, anchored safely in the arms of the bass. Ending with a sing along that warmly warned of things to come, Billygoat and the Mongrels allowed the crowd to open their throats widely to the music, enticing life to pour forth in audible bites of epic delight.

Ron-G-Flex, the one and only, grabbed the mic soon after. A man known on the scene for the screaming reality and honesty of his poetry, Ron took hold with poems rich in experience, delivered like a final burst of life at first light of Sunday morning, with empty pockets and wild ideas. The crowd baited him and he delivered with poetry rich in wit and wordplay. A man of vocabulary he flooded the room with the bold and brash, upfront repetition of the confrontational, making room between verses to let it wash hot and cold across the room. Daring and unapologetic, Ron-G-Flex returned to the poetry scene with the bravado of language, subject matter and execution he is lauded for.

Finally, as the crowd swelled to capacity we brought forth the feather in the folk cap, the one and only ethereal The Green Mohair Suits. Tapping back into Hank Williams the four piece, huddled tightly about the lone microphone at centre stage, opened their perfectly tuned throats to deliver their achingly pure and beautiful rendition of “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”. The applause that followed was deafening, an applause equal in wonder and appreciation. There was something magic that surrounded the bluegrass band, as, along with the four mesmerising voices, there was an air of inclusiveness and fun throughout the set that acted as a magnet to draw band and audience closer together. As the members took turns to sing lead the crowd was exposed to each vocalist’s charms and enchantments, which, when layered atop one another became a treacle sweet sonic treat of harmonies and resonance.

As the night drew to a close Billygoat and the Mongrels jumped onto the crowded stage alongside the applauded The Green Mohair Suits for their blistering rendition of “CC Rider”. For everyone who was there, they took home a special gift of folk which they may remember forever, for those who were not there, return to the top of the page.

Review: Shut The Folk Up! Feat. Jack Carty, Timber and Steel, Brent Harpur, Pat Drummond and Annaliesse Monaro.

Jack Carty
Image Courtesy of Jack Carty

Shut The Folk Up! feat. Jack Carty, Timber and Steel, Brent Harpur, Pat Drummond and Annaliesse Monaro.
28th April 2011, Hive Bar

Sydneysiders know that when the rain comes it moves in like an unwanted, unemployed couch surfer. As the rain stained the Hive Bar windows I looked out into the deluge like a forlorn star-struck lover wondering if any bums would bless the many empty seats of Sydney’s sexiest new folk club, Shut the Folk Up!

Alas, there was no need to for concern as before too long one heaving, mindful, eager crowd piled into our little red cocoon at an unprecedented rate. Seats got occupied, corners got colonized as bodies bounced and weaved seeking free space to witness some first class folk. The numbers continued to increase and as I welcomed all to folk club volume 11, I was welcoming more faces than ever before.

First up – Annaliesse Monaro

With the stylish swagger equally owing to Leslie Feist and Emmy-Lou Harris, Annaliesse took our little folk stage with her right hand man Adam Pringle on electric guitar. With a sound that echoed like a quilt handed down through generations, the two-piece sent Australian folk music out beyond the ranges. Where, beside the campfires they wove beguiling tales of family, travel and community. The honey-rich sound of country authenticity drew equal weight from Annaliesse’s velvet vocals and Pringle’s bittersweet lead guitar.

Next up we had folk royalty, as Mr Pat Drummond took the stage. With a swag of songs to choose from (over 400 in total), Pat selected his tunes with the care of a three hated chef choosing ingredients to feed The Dali Lama. He wove his tales like a long technicolour thread through intricate and beautiful melodies. Atop his effortless guitar picking sat the stories of the many women and men Pat has met along his travels. With a professional sensibility Pat has empathetically and honestly retold their stories through song. After 35 years of not having a real job, Pat drew upon his strength as an entertainer to keep the crowd caught up in his colourful spell. Employing sing-along, humour and a wealth of experience Pat led us through his intriguing back catalogue, and left us speechless.

Our resident poet for the evening, the very approachable Brent Harpur took microphone after a quick break. Brent employed his two strengths of humour and imagery to paint the creative space with his beautiful words. Preceding each poem with personable and funny anecdotes Brent allowed the crowd space before they would embark again upon his colourful and poetic journeys. A man new to the scene in Sydney we welcome him with open arms and hope to see that curly afro for many nights to come.

Timber and Steel
Image Courtesy of Annette Wilson (Post-Gig Gigs)

What I really liked about Macca and Gareth “Evan Hughes” Evans (Timber and Steel) is how their folk sensibilities belie their precious years. These two musicians are the real deal and carry on a long and wonderful tradition of folk music, giving mindful, equal measure to entertainment and musicianship. Wearing their folk on their sleeves they opened with a hilarious parody of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (an act which in itself could potentially call for their excommunication from the folk scene). From then on the lads carried on a journey through the modern and the old, mixing in an original (in B minor), with the works of Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn then ending on a beautiful, version of Robert Allen Zimmerman’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”.

Legend has it too, that these lads were responsible for bringing many of the wonderful and respectful crowd that filled the Red Cocoon. So I would like to take time out from this impartial review to thank the crowd for coming, staying till the end and being so appreciative.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen we had Mr Jack Carty. The tallest man in folk removed his boots and took to the stage. Snapping into his set with his hard working fingers bouncing across the six strings in guitar-picking majesty; he then lent these melodies his soulful falsetto and completed the picture of a real folk gem with great potential. As folk club guided towards midnight for the first time, Jack Carty performed a first-class set, combining humorous on-stage banter, with his beautiful and evocative songs.

Well, the rain came but so did the people, braving the elements for a memorable evening of song, humour and prose.

Let me leave you with some final advice: Shut the Folk Up! May 26th, same time, same place

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