Category Archives: Rural Childhood

Peter Allen: the jazziest bush poet

WHEN he returned to Australia in 1971, Peter Allen would have been forgiven for wondering if his career in show business was over. But an unexpected piece of family history became the inspiration this boy from the bush needed to succeed on the world stage.

It had been a very long journey home for the ‘Boy From Oz’. Work offers were getting scarce for Peter Allen by the early 1970s. His mentor Judy Garland, who’d opened doors on both sides of the Atlantic for the young performer, was dead. His wife, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, had asked for a divorce.

Allen had been performing for two decades and was at the age when many former child stars find themselves washed up.

His first self-titled album had bombed and gigs to promote it had been hosted by a Manhattan venue known as The Bitter End, which would have seemed terribly ironic to the man who’d been introduced to enormous audiences in the company of iconic musicians throughout the late 1960s.

BOY’S BIOG The definitive biography of Peter Allen.

According to Allen’s biographer, journalist Stephen Maclean (author of The Boy From Oz) it was an offer to perform in Australia that led Peter to “look his past in the eye”.

Ensconced at his mother Marion’s Bondi unit in that 1971 winter, Allen spent hours writing on the rooftop overlooking the ocean.

“One day, while Marion was out at work,” Maclean wrote, “Peter found himself fossicking about the flat. In the course of this he came upon an aged newspaper clipping from his near-forgotten birthplace of Tenterfield.”

The snippet recorded that Peter’s grandfather George Woolnough, whose High Street saddlery was already renowned, had a library at the University of New England named after him.

Memories came rushing at the 27-year-old performer. Key to his life experience to that point was the shooting suicide of his father and the grief that led to his immediate family’s gradual departure from the Australian bush. The fast-paced city had been Peter’s home since the mid 1960s, but his country roots held the seeds of an idea for this budding songwriter.

Emboldened by his modest start in New York, Peter Allen took this family history up to that Bondi rooftop and penned a new song.

‘Tenterfield Saddler’ was the result, a ballad that has bridged Australian bush poetry and international show-business ever since he recorded it in 1972.

‘Applause rolled on and on’

Mixing lyrical rhymes in a tale about long journeys down a country track replete with kangaroos and cockatoos, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is every inch a bush ballad in the tradition of Banjo Paterson.

It brings to the fore a lesser-known character in the cast of bush legends: the saddler, responsible for the safety and comfort of your ride, but also a storyteller.

Like all the best bush yarns, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ has a dark side. In his grandson’s lyrics, the saddler holds the key to everyday life in a country town, but what the George Woolnough couldn’t give were the reasons his son had died at his own hand.

It is the suicide at the heart of ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ that gives it a place alongside one of Australia’s most enduring ballads ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In that song’s climax, the hero of the story, a swagman, drowns himself to avoid capture for sheep rustling.

When Allen recorded his song for the 1972 album of the same name, it made a small splash in the American music industry. But what this quirky ballad did, according to Stephen Maclean, was get Peter Allen noticed as a songwriter.

After a move to California in the early 1970s, despite having the barest of credentials, Peter Allen kept penning songs. He worked hard at his craft with other emerging writers and allowed his work to be recorded by artists on the brink of bigger singing careers.

In 1974, he eventually landed a hit when Olivia Newton-John released ‘I Honestly Love You’, co-written with Jeff Barry.

GOLDEN BOY Peter Allen (right) with co-writers Burt Bacharach, Carol Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross at the 1982 Oscar ceremony.

When he first performed the song live, long before Newton-John’s international number one single, Peter Allen recalled: “Everything stopped. Even the waiters didn’t move. The air was still and when I finished you could have heard a pin drop. Then they all began to applaud and the applause rolled on and on.”

Peter Allen went on to write with a range of collaborators, including Carol Bayer Sager. The two were part of the team that won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song with ‘Arthur’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the Dudley Moore film Arthur.

But Allen’s bush ballad ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ eventually took its place in the annals of songwriting. As Peter Allen’s fame saw him tour internationally, it became an audience favourite and graced the Australian charts multiple times. Bette Midler famously requested it every time she saw him perform.

And songs about travelling became a Peter Allen hallmark. By the time of his enduring 1980 ballad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ the boy from the bush was embraced by a nation.

Tenterfield celebrates

A quiet country town took its place in popular culture when the song ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ hit the world stage. Now, this northern NSW destination is set to celebrate its Oscar-winning son at an annual festival, starting this September.

According to festival co-directors Josh Moylan and Matt Sing, the idea of celebrating the life and music of Peter Allen and the town of his birth has always been of interest to Tenterfield locals.

“There have previously been a couple of concerts and tributes to the great man, but never a festival dedicated to him,” Mr Moylan said.

“A couple of years ago during a community discussion, there was a push for a regional arts festival in Peter’s name as a gift to the iconic entertainer.”

The new event has taken approximately 18 months of collaboration between the Tenterfield Chamber of Tourism, Industry and Business, the Tenterfield Shire Council and the Tenterfield community, Moylan and Sing said.

The pair also report that support for the event is widespread. “The response and feedback from the locals has been fantastic!” Mr Moylan said.

“We already have a few motels booked out for the weekend, with many other rooms disappearing quickly! There are also many businesses and groups hard at work preparing for how they can add to the celebration.

“This is our inaugural festival, so we want visitors to be blown away by the events, activities and our unique town.”

A Peter Allen tribute concert will headline the event. ‘Tenterfield to Rio’ is written and performed by award-winning entertainer Danny Elliott.

“We are also hosting the ‘Tenterfield Jam Session’, a concert showcasing the amazing talent of Tenterfield musicians, celebrating all-Australian music,” Mr Moylan said.

On Saturday, September 8, the main strip of Tenterfield will be closed and re-named Peter Allen Boulevard for a street party with markets, food stalls, family activities and entertainment. There will also be many satellite events including breakfasts, dinners and tours.

“Visitors in 2018 will be able to join us for what will be the first year of a spectacular regional arts festival.

“They will get a taste of Tenterfield, our arts and music scene,” Mr Moylan said.

Incredible life story
PETER ALLEN PIANO
PIANO MAN Singer-songwriter Peter Allen was known for his high-energy live performances.

According to the festival co-directors, visitors will also gain insight into the town that impacted the life and music of one of Australia’s greatest performers, and sense what it was like for a young boy with grand ambitions in entertainment to walk the streets of a small country town.

In addition, one of the major aims of the Peter Allen Festival is to platform the work of new talent.

“A young local performer might realise that they too can have ambition to take on the whole world,” Mr Sing said.

Moylan and Sing are keen to underline that Peter Allen’s story encompassed both his major life achievements and his ability to overcome trying circumstances, something that was reflected in his songs.

“What persists throughout Peter’s struggles and successes is that happy, bubbly, energetic and kind demeanour,” Mr Sing said.

“His closest friends and people who knew him or worked with him describe his two traits that never changed: his incredible energy and enthusiasm; and his genuine, kind and loving personality.

“The greatest reason that Peter is known to us, both then and now, is his incredible ability to write great, meaningful and well-loved songs.

“Peter had great skills in encapsulating a story. Each line in his songs had meaning. He would write wonderfully complex and catchy melodies, and would weave the lyrics and melody together to create art.

“He would then deliver it onstage with all his energy and enthusiasm, which would move audiences all over the world,” Mr Sing said.

“To this day his songs remain icons. One of the great examples of this is ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, a song full of meaning that was a gift from Peter to the town where he shared so many childhood memories.”

The Peter Allen Festival is already planning events beyond 2018, with the aim of fostering existing local groups and industries.

“The 2019 festival will build on this year’s event, introducing workshops held all year in craft, music and entertainment, event organising, sound and lighting,” Mr Moylan said.

“A flagship festival is planned for 2020. We aim to bring a major headline act with a connection to Peter Allen to Tenterfield.”

The Peter Allen Festival September 7-9, 2018.

Barnaby Joyce does not own New England

AS I approached the polling station at the Tenterfield Memorial Hall on by-election day in December 2017, I suspected Barnaby Joyce would put in an early appearance.

If Mr Joyce was going to cover New England glad-handing and holding babies, finishing in triumph at Tamworth, he’d have to start early in this town at the far reaches of the electorate that had recently been stripped of its sitting member.

Despite being a local boy, Mr Joyce had been found by the High Court to be a dual citizen of New Zealand and dumped from parliament under the clear terms of our Constitution.

I was at Tenterfield to hand out how-to-vote cards for CountryMinded candidate Peter Mailler, and as I tied a couple of Pete’s signs onto the picket fence, Mr Joyce arrived to greet his ‘Barney Army’ in their yellow National Party shirts.

He settled his nerves by introducing himself to the competition. As he approached me, I was struck by his height. On television he never seems to carry his 1.85 metres, but he stood on eye level with me. I saw his elbow draw back and his hand flatten into a shape akin to an axe, signalling in a manly show that a handshake was expected.

“I’m Barnaby,” he announced.

I’ve long believed in the importance of meeting politicians, particularly those who represent us. Having recently moved from the South East Queensland electorate of Bowman, I’d spent years challenging sitting Liberal MP Andrew Laming about his inexplicable fence-sitting on marriage equality.

Barnaby Joyce and I have more in common that he realises. I’m slightly taller, he’s a bit older. We were both born in the New England region, me at Inverell and he at Tamworth. Our fathers were both graziers. We were both dual citizens of New Zealand by birth, until he revoked his in order to stand for election again.

The similarities seemed enough for him to feel safe with me, until I opened my mouth.

“If you win the seat today, and you’re back in parliament in time, how will you vote on marriage equality?” I asked, since the opportunity was unlikely to come again, and the people of New England had recently returned a result of 52 per cent in favour of allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.

Barnaby looked at his feet (I realised then why he often appears shorter), rolled his eyes, winced, and proceed to huff and puff.

“Look, I always said I’d never vote against the will of the people,” he said, scuffing his feet together like a schoolboy.

“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thanks,” I added. Then, the clincher: “What about religious exemptions?”

I didn’t see Barnaby signal to his security guard. All of a sudden a blob of a boy stood in my face, but I kept addressing Barnaby, who’d moved out of the brief common ground we’d created.

“I’m your constituent, Mr Joyce,” I said, even though technically at that point he wasn’t our MP. “I’m allowed to ask you questions, I believe?”

With a distinct look of fear, Barnaby retreated up the pathway to stand with the yellow T-shirts, before he and his crew swept south across the electorate he’d go on to win back that day.

New England voters were almost universally slammed on social media for backing Joyce, but we were acutely aware that progressives expected us to topple the Turnbull Government. The voters of Bennelong had the same experience just one week later.

Not all of us voted for Barnaby, of course. Just shy of 40,000 voters picked someone else or voted informally.

He might have won in a landslide, but in running away from scrutiny, Barnaby Joyce was heading inevitably towards defeat.

Sooky Chook

As it turned out, Barnaby abstained from the final vote that brought about marriage equality in Australia’s House of Representatives on December 7.

I should have noticed him telegraph his intention to betray LGBTIQ. Despite being a major architect of the divisive public vote on human rights, Barnaby Joyce, ‘family man’ was never going to get his fingerprints on a policy that made his marriage equal to ours. His immature blather to me had been code for abstention.

Yet the rumour about his extramarital affair and the pregnancy of his new partner had done the rounds at the polling station and the district on the ubiquitous Bush Telegraph. I witnessed the fallout when comments deemed defamatory were removed from Facebook threads under stories published by my former employer, Fairfax Regional Media. Commenters were unafraid to detail what they’d heard about Barnaby’s trashing of his own family values, and angry the local media was inexplicably protecting him. One comment labelled Barnaby a “sooky chook” if he needed such protection.

What was more concerning about the local pre-election vibe was the struggle other candidates had getting cut-through for their messaging. Sixteen alternatives threw their hats in the ring and despite being a more natural Greens voter, I decided to back the grain farmer from Boggabilla who was clear about his support for marriage equality. In places where the Greens don’t usually register high numbers of primary votes on election day, I have often voted strategically this way.

I’d met Pete years before while sub-editing his columns for FarmOnline, and knew him to be a progressive thinker. I also knew he stood for holding the Nationals to account after years of taking the country vote for granted. After Tony Windsor endorsed him, I took it on myself to contact several national political journalists in case they were writing stories about Barnaby’s competition. The trouble is, most of them weren’t.

And Barnaby was thumbing his nose at all of us by avoiding public forums, a decision that provided fertile ground for gossip.

A pub fracas with another local posing questions to him at Graman was reported. Mr Joyce had not been in the mood for providing answers, not even to his constituents when delivered in person. Instead, he claimed he was being stalked.

A sooky chook indeed.

Out of place

Barnaby had expert social media support during the by-election campaign. One of the most intriguing examples was the video of his visit to Bingara cemetery where his great-grandfather is buried.

Here, in the heart of Kamilaroi Country, he whined about being called into question for possible allegiance to a foreign nation, using a relative he’d never known as evidence. Clearly, he exuded, he was a hard-done-by Aussie to his bootstraps and all this talk about dual citizenship was bull-dust.

What really struck me in that clip was how very out of place Barnaby Joyce appears in this electorate.

Held for eight decades by the Nationals (many of those under their old Country Party permutation), New England could be considered their heartland and not the Kamilaroi’s, if only it weren’t so very different on the ground for those of us looking closely.

After forty years living in other regions both in Australia and overseas, in October 2017 I returned to live at Deepwater, a stone’s throw from the place of my birth and the region my parents farmed outside Delungra, on the way to Bingara.

My ancestors have lived in and around Inverell for as long as Barnaby’s, and I have a different take on the experience.

Ever since I was a child I have known of my mother’s connection to New Zealand. I’ll never forget seeing her cry as she revisited for the first time since she was a baby, on descent into Christchurch as we passed over the west coast of the South Island.

She told me when I was a child about the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, which took place just a few kilometres from our farm. The crimes of settlers against Kamilaroi rang strongly throughout Bingara and Delungra families, and led to one of the country’s most enduring reconciliation projects, the annual Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

The day Richard and I moved into our new home, I drove the hire truck back to Glen Innes at dusk and saw the hundreds of wind turbines on the ridges. Since then, we’ve seen them in all directions, often situated with solar farms in upland valleys and ranges. Employment in renewables often tops the search engine results for jobs in the New England region, and plenty of farmers and greenies are allied in their desire to lock the gate against CSG exploration and mining.

In 2001, for the first time since 1922, the seat was won by independent candidate Tony Windsor, who was re-elected three times. Windsor’s incumbency broke the notion that the seat needs to be held by a deeply conservative National Party pollie in order for locals to be happy.

At the regional Farmers and Producers Market started at Tenterfield in late 2017, we’ve enjoyed working alongside African immigrants, also commonly sighted on the streets of Armidale. The resettlement program at nearby Mingoola has been an example of how refugee assistance can be mutually beneficial for remote Australian communities.

It seems out of character, but Barnaby has led the way.

Clearly, he is capable of being progressive when it suits him. It’s just one of many paradoxes about the man who once had a home base at Tamworth, but now seems to belong nowhere.

Border Country

Lately, I’ve encountered a few people who are shocked to hear that Barnaby Joyce comes from the New England region and not Queensland, where he entered politics as a senator in 2005.

Politically, he seems a more natural fit for the state that produced Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s not surprising, since the NSW New England region and Queensland’s Darling Downs are often blended into a kind of “border country”.

As kids at Delungra Public School we knew enough of Sir Joh to make up songs about this amusing old politician with a lyrical name. We used Queensland vernacular (“port” instead of “school bag” being just one example) and Brisbane was geographically closer than Sydney.

Queensland Nationals certainly claim New England. At Tenterfield polling station on by-election day Senator Matt Canavan and Toowoomba MP Trevor Watts put in hours handing out for Barnaby and posing for selfies with fans.

But where the pro-mining, ‘family values’ man who won’t countenance the Uluru Statement sits in the community of his birth, which is getting on with renewables investment, reconciliation and social progression regardless of him, is the question.

It’s firmly rural, New England, but it’s definitely not Sir Joh country. Quirindi-born Tony Windsor knows it. Pete Mailler knows it too. The Kamilaroi know it and I suspect even Sir Joh came to realise it. I doubt Barnaby Joyce has ever given it any thought whatsoever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A Myall in my shoes

A Writer on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

SWING
LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

“Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.”

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted, eye-popping racist responses from readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

SMOKE
WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.