Loving the Common People

A lot of folk song, due to its origin, speaks about poverty. Some songs that immediately come to mind are Poverty Knock, A Begging I will Go, Four Pence a Day and some that have been recycled several decades apart like Four Loom Weaver (from the Poor Cotton Weaver). No accident that these are all songs I found in Colin Dryden’s repertoire during my recent research work on his career. Colin was clearly a man with a social conscience.

Where I grew to be a Man, by Dorothy Hewett is a good Australian example, often sung under the title Weevils in the Flour. Many of the songs and poems recited by Max Cullen and Warren Fahey in their brilliant adaptation of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson’s work, Dead Men Talking, deal directly with poverty and its consequences, sometimes from personal experience of the author, and other times as a compassionate observer.

Songs (and poems) like this have been sung by those with lived experience to draw attention to their plight, to seek solace in a shared expression of their circumstance or simply to ensure that their misery is not lost to history. I don’t think there can be any argument against the value of this, except maybe from those who are the cause of their poverty or profit from them remaining in that state.

There is another side to songs about poverty. I remember listening to the Paul Young version of Love of the Common People on the radio when I was in school. I doubt anyone performing or in the audience of this recording would recognize a ‘common’ person in the street or have any personal lived experience of living on starvation wages or dealing with the prejudice, violence and disenfranchisement which so often comes hand in hand with poverty.

I can believe that John Hurley, one of the writers of the song back in the 1960s, probably did have enough experience, if not personal, then at least from direct contact with people living in poverty. John’s family put this video together of family photos over John’s own recording. You would have to grow up quickly as a child performer in Pittsburgh bar-rooms in the 1950s.

Some of the names that covered John and Ronald Wilkins song include Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Elton John and Leonard Nimoy (yes that one). It is probably safe to say that at the time of recording, none of these people were short of a penny.

Here is where the sticky line of morality arises. Just like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes singing about hard drugs, womanizing and the challenges of life from their white middle-class bedrooms at the age of twelve can hardly be convincing, what does it mean when wealthy, or ludicrously wealthy, people sing about being terribly poor?

There are some famous musicians and singers that have made tangible efforts, often at personal risk or expense to make the world a better place. Joan Baez immediately comes to mind with her efforts to end the Vietnam War and establishment of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. A cynic would equate this to the study of non-wet water, but at least there was a genuine and tangible action taken seeking a change.

What about those who sing songs about poverty purely to make a few dollars from a bit of virtue signalling and convenient alignment with a topical social issue? An episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America? captures this so beautifully when he gets a Bachelor in Paradise contestant to agree to be photo-shopped into a picture showing her helping African people suffering from Ebola.

Maybe when Elvis sang In the Ghetto, his intent was to trigger social change and not just about needing a top 10 hit after a four year drought. The detail here on Elvis’ charity efforts seems light-on for someone with the lifestyle Elvis was leading. The discussion here during the recording is also enlightening.

And why does it sell? It certainly isn’t people living below the poverty line forking out $20 to buy an album or $200 for a ticket to hear songs about being poor. To use one of the things I hate, made-up academic terms, Poverty Fetishism is what I think is at play here; people who like the idea of being poor, or are thrilled by imagining themselves in a romanticised vision of poverty for a few minutes before purchasing their next Latte or Louis Vuitton handbag.

Love of the Common People was one of the songs in our choir concert this season, which is what got me thinking about this topic. I’ve done a cover here based on the version done by one of my favourite bands, Indigo Girls. I don’t think you can get much more earnest or authentic than the Indigo Girls when it comes to singing about social issues. I know that when they sing this song, it is to share the story of those who are poor with those who might not be so poor, with respect and out of a shared humanity. I hope this is what comes across in my own music.

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A Factory Lad – Final?

With the publication of ‘A Factory Lad: The Songs of Colin Dryden’, this phase, at least, of my research into Colin has come to an end. You can listen to the full album for free on YouTube, and it is also available on most digital streaming platforms.

It was fortunate that tonight I was recording ‘The Outside Track’, Henry Lawson’s poem set to music by Gerard Hallom. I was looking for this version by Danny Spooner when I happened upon this video from 1965. About 3 minutes into the video, Colin, just ten weeks off the boat, sings a blues number. Later in the program, about 20 minutes in, he sings ‘The Holy Ground’. As far as I know, this is the only published footage of Colin singing.

While ‘Just Folk’ was a weekly program, most film from that era was wiped. I’m not sure if Colin appeared on any other episodes.

It feels like a fitting gift from the universe at this point in the journey.

I’m not sure what the future holds for this research, but it has been quite an emotional process for me personally. There is something about Colin’s confident and poignant delivery of whatever he was singing that makes it a great shame to have it lost to the world.

There are efforts underway to get some of the existing recordings of Colin made widely available, hopefully they will bear fruit soon.

I want to say a thankyou again to the many people that have shared their own stories with me, and also Colin’s niece, Naomi, for being so generous with her own research and understanding of an outsider’s desire to learn more.

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A Factory Lad – Part 5


On 10 May I had the great honour of singing a few songs at Duke’s Place in Marrickville, thanks to an invitation from Sandra Nixon. While the audience was small, it was an inspiration to sing in a place that has been part of Australia’s folk music history since 1954. I’m not sure if Colin Dryden ever sang at Hut 44, but the fabulous people I had the chance to meet and speak with were certainly part of the Sydney folk scene that Colin joined in 1965.

Hut 44

Hut 44

The opportunity to sing Poverty Knock and Four Loom Weaver in a venue like this was special indeed. There is no small irony in the fact that the complex which Hut 44 is part of was once an army base. Turning the engines of violence and war into community spaces for music, culture and conscious living is a poignant victory (and don’t we need them at this point in history).

Best of all, after giving a lift home to Margaret Walters, I was handed a CD of 1971 recordings of Colin at the Elizabeth Hotel, a venue which was a key part of the Sydney folk revival and mentioned by Warren Fahey here. My three hour drive back to Yass was filled with some truly fabulous music, including Margaret’s own album Steadfast, which I highly recommend.

Australian Folk Albums

Australian Folk Albums

Thanks to some other CD’s that I’ve been chasing for many years, I’ve also been able to significantly expand my collection of John Warner covers (another severely under-appreciated Australian songwriter).

I have made a recording of Lassie Wi’ the Yellow Coatie, which Dermott Ryder tantalisingly mentions as a regular part of Colin’s repertoire in his homage article to Colin’s work in 2012. The CD of Colin at the Elizabeth, from a collection of recordings made by Peter Wheeler (but never published), has a very poor recording of Colin doing this song. With this song, I’ve only got a few re-recordings to do before the tribute album is finished.

Album Cover

Album Cover – Final

I made some minor tweaks to the painting for the album cover and will get started on the final layout.

It is bittersweet to reach the end of this project, which has been a rich emotional journey. My hope is that one year soon, the National Folk Festival will host a concert of Colin’s songs, performed by those who knew him and those who have been inspired by his music.

Meditation in the Park

Meditation in the Park

I was fortunately enough to time my trip to Sydney with the annual gathering for early  morning Qi Gong exercises in Hyde Park to mark the birthday of the founder of this particular style on May 13. It was a relaxing start to the day before the long drive back to Yass. I was also delighted to find the, rock history themed, Brewsters cafe in Bowral for the essential mid-drive coffee.


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A Factory Lad – Part 4

B-250 Tractor

Wherever you go in society, politics are sure to come up. After spending a day listening to the Australian Folklore conference speakers at the National Library on 18 April and speaking with more people who were part of the Australian folk scene in the 60s and 70s, it seems clear that there were circles within circles, which always leaves some folks on the outside.

Whether the lines are drawn around religion, social class, morality and ethics or the ‘right’ way to play the Mudgee Waltz (very enjoyable talk by Dave de Hugard), all communities seem to find ways to divide themselves.

I continue to hear from many new people with re-collections of Colin and some have been kind enough to put their memories in an email or share them over the phone.

I spent a few days listening to four of the songs Colin did on the Mike Eves collection. I decided not to attempt Colin’s version of the Sheffield Grinder because his tempo and guitar skills are beyond me. I hope it gets published soon, as it demonstrates the range of Colin’s talent. This isn’t the ‘music hall’ version of the song, but instead this version from 1847. Here is a 1975 Scottish folk rock group called Finn Mac Cuill doing the song, but to a different melody.

The four songs that I recorded, after listening to Colin’s versions in the car for a week, are nicely mirrored in the songs that he wrote, Sither and Pit Boy. Two of the songs are about weaving, and two about mining. I suspect that Colin would have heard these songs while growing up in Yorkshire.

In each case, Colin sings these songs in a unique way; not like Ewan MacColl, who was recording them in the 1950s, but with a visceral artistry. Colin was able to embody the emotion of the song, rather than just repeat words to a melody.

I have not been able to find anyone else performing these songs quite the way Colin did. I have included detail about each of the songs in the video description.

Four Pence a Day – is a song about young children working in the lead mines of Teesdale prior to 1842.

The Blantyre Explosion – is about an 1877 mining disaster at High Blantyre in Scotland

Poverty Knock – describes that plight of, mostly, women weavers in the 1860s in Yorkshire

Four Loom Weaver – is a re-working of a much earlier ballad (1805) applied to the Cotton Famine in Lancashire in 1861.

Each of these songs are performed in a different style by Colin, but each in a way that would make a room fall silent.

Colin’s connection to working people’s songs was not an affectation, his most well-known song, Factory Lad, was most likely autobiographical. The B-250 tractor was being manufactured in Bradford, Yorkshire when Colin was there. One of the people who knew Colin describes his intense response to seeing one of these tractors on a farm in Australia, saying “this is what we were making”. Here is a site with some history of the International Harvester tractor factory in Bradford, Yorkshire where Colin most likely worked before coming to Australia in 1965.

I only have a few more songs to re-record, and will then be ready to publish my album.

A Factory Lad – Part 5


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A Factory Lad – Part 3

I spent today at the National Library of Australia hoping to hear some of the recordings of Colin made in the 1970s. I found one recording from the Port Jackson Folk festival in 1970 and two recordings in the Mike Eves collection.

From this Mudcat post it appears that Mike passed away in the US in 2009, but his family must have handed his recordings over to the National Library. Sad to say that from several internet posts it looks like Mike got mixed up with Scientology in the US.

The 90 minute long recording of the Song Workshop at Port Jackson festival in 1970 included more blues and experimental psychedelic-rock style music than I was expecting, mixed in with some beautiful Irish tunes and folk ballads. Most valuable to me was listening to Colin speak between performers.

Colin spoke knowledgeably about the global folk music scene and offered his frustration at musical ‘gate-keeping’ in the community; traditionalists that look down on the ‘new’ music and extreme modernists who reject the old.

About 60 minutes into the workshop there is a beautiful Gaelic ballad sung by someone whose name I couldn’t make out in the recording.

It took a few hours to get the other two recordings, one of Colin in the studio and another set of Colin singing unaccompanied, both recorded by Mike Eves. I ended up spending close to 6 hours at the Library as when the copy of one of the CD’s arrived it had failed to burn. The library staff were very helpful and re-burnt the CD.

The studio recording is probably as close as Colin came to making an LP. It features an autoharp and a significant amount of rubbery double-bass and improvised flute (a la Jethro Tull). The session is dated 1973-1974, so would have been a few years after Colin’s work with Extradition and Tully on Sea of Joy. To my ear, it sounded like an attempt to break through into the progressive/psychedelic/acid rock that was emerging in Australia. There was not much in the way of folk influence, except for a rambling 7 minute version of Scarborough Fair. Maybe it would have done well at the time, but to my ear the style did not play to Colin’s strengths. The recording reminded me of Phil Och’s, Pleasures of the Harborin it’s attempt to change focus in order to capture the mainstream market.

The second Mike Eves recording was a goldmine for me. This recording had Colin singing all of the songs mentioned at the end of my previous post. The recording quality is quite good and will provide a reference to, hopefully, do a reasonable recording in the same style.

I have almost finished the album cover (just need to make him look less like Lionel Richie), and set the painting process to my best attempt at a Blues version of the Ryebuck Shearer. Thanks to Hrothgar on Mudcat who mentioned that Colin had done a blues version on this thread.

Searches online have failed to turn up evidence of Colin playing at other locations around Australia, though several people have confirmed he was in Perth at some point.

For the next few weeks I’ll be busy preparing for a performance at Duke’s Place in Sydney on May 10, and letting Colin’s treatment of the remaining 6 songs marinate before trying to record them.

Many thanks to the several folks who have contributed stories and suggestions on this Mudcat thread and others who have contacted me directly.

A Factory Lad – Part 4


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A Factory Lad – Part 2

According to the National Archives search of ship arrivals, Colin arrived in Australia on 22 May 1965, listing his occupation as ‘fitter’ and that he intended to settle in NSW.

Tracking Colin’s time in Australia will be quite a challenge as he does not appear to have  left any published journals or letters. This notice in the Sydney Tribune on 14 Feb 1968 places Colin at the Port Phillip Festival, which from the account sounds like a fantastic event.

Colin appears again in Morton Bay in April 1969, when the National Folk Festival was held there. Colin is listed as specialising in North Country ballads. The article appears in the Sydney Tribune on 26 March 1969.

This article in the Tharunka on 22 April 1969 has Colin performing with Colin Campbell in an anti-conscription concert on 13 May. Conscription for the Vietnam War had started in Australia in 1964.

Colin was part of the first Monaro Folk Festival in Canberra over the June Queen’s birthday long weekend in 1970. This article was published in the Canberra Times on 6 June 1970. Colin was back in Canberra for a concert on 5 December 1970, published here. A separate article about the same event claims that Colin has a repertoire of 3,000 to 4,000 songs and mentions his collaboration with the Australian Progressive band Tully and also the psych-rock Australian attempt at Fairport Convention Extradition.

Comparing Colin’s own style to that of Extradition on the album Hush, I don’t get the feeling that Colin had much influence on the album.

Again in Canberra in March 1971, Colin was on the program for the Aquarius festival of the arts at the Australian National University, article from the Canberra Times on the same day. Colin gave a workshop on contemporary folk music.

On 24 April 1971 Colin was part of the Monaro Folk Music Society concert at the Methodist Centre in Forrest. The article indicates the Colin was on the program with Warren Fahey (of the Australian Folklore Unit). Colin appears a few times alongside Bernard Bolan.

Unfortunately a number of recordings of Colin are not available online from the National Library (I’m waiting on access to listen to them in person). This recording from some date in the 1960s (must have been after 1965 when Colin arrived in Australia) provides the setlist:

  • Blantyre explosion
  • Four pence a day
  • Poverty poverty knock
  • Davie louston (sealing)
  • Sheffield grinder
  • Four loom weaver
  • The pit lad
  • Sither

Here is a map of the locations I know of, and a link to the detail in Google Maps. I will update the information as more comes to light.

Since the last posting, I have recorded the first track for the album here and also started work on the album cover painting.

A Factory Lad – Part 3

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A Factory Lad – Part 1

I first heard Margaret and Bob Fagan sing Factory Lad at the National Folk Festival in 2008. The song was part of the feature album for the festival, showcasing NSW folk talents. No doubt they mentioned Colin Dryden as the author, and I assumed he was a bearded gentleman in his late sixties with volumes of songs to his name.

I was struck by the beautiful melody and also by the poignancy of the lyrics. I’ve never worked in a factory, but can relate to the drudgery and depression that can come with repetitive, unrewarding work which can exist in the office building just as it does on the factory floor. Of course, at the desk and conference room table the work is without most of the debilitating long-term physical effects of strenuous labour.

I learned the song and began including it in my performances at various folk events.

It wasn’t until Colin’s niece commented on my YouTube upload of the song and pointed me to her 2013 Tumblr post about Colin that I was prompted to dig a little deeper.

Thanks to Naomi’s post, I was able to listen to the recordings of Colin that Warren Fahey had put together on his site here. And also a number of Colin’s songs that Naomi had gathered from various recordings.

After making some rough recordings of my own in this playlist, I realised that there are no downloadable albums of Colin’s work, other than the many hundreds of (sometimes unattributed) covers of Factory Lad (sometimes as Turning Steel). Broom Bezzums being one example here.

<rant on> It really annoys me the way record companies pay no attention to the original writers of songs when they re-publish albums on streaming media like YouTube, Spotify, iTunes. Even if the covering band did the right thing in the liner-notes of their album, this detail is un-ceremoniously stripped from any Internet publication. </rant off>

Colin’s Pit Boy and Sither are just as brilliantly written songs as Factory Lad and deserve a wider audience. I think these three songs, as discussed here by Dermott Ryder, represented the pinnacle of new folk ballads written in Australia in the 1970s.

I will go into the detail of Colin’s life in a future post, but he was only in Australia for twenty one years from 1965 and passed away at 43 soon after returning to England (Yorkshire) in 1986.

I plan to use this blog series to catalogue my research into the music and life of Colin Dryden and document the process of putting together an album of the songs and tunes that he wrote and sung.

Happy for anyone who would like to contribute an anecdote, or a favourite song to contact me here or on my Facebook page.

A Factory Lad – Part 2

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Stand and Deliver

Daoiri Farrell’s latest CD includes the ballad, Valentine O’Hara, sung here in 1978 by Frank Harte. While doing some research before making a recording I came across this Mudcat.org thread linking the song to Allan Tyne of Harrow. To me this sounded like a mystery to be solved, involving highwaymen and possible appropriation of Irish culture by the English. The game is afoot!

Highwaymen are by no means a novel subject of poems, songs and stories. With the antics of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) immortalised in penny dreadful and broadsides and even the great bard himself includes Falstaff as a highwayman in Henry IV Part 1. And of course one cannot forget the Blackadder episode Amy and Amiability.

So to the task at hand, there are at least three different incarnations of this ballad, with different sets of victims and protagonists.

I’ll include the text of one of the ballads for reference, from the Bodleian library:

Daring Highwayman  

I am a daring highwayman likewise a gallant rover,
From London town I surely came since I became a rover,
For a maid who proved with child for England I sailed over,
I left my parents almost wild since I became a rover.

How many battles I’ve been in thro’ France and Spain and Flanders,
And always fought with courage bold under my brave commanders,
But thro’ the usage I received no one shall e’er control me,
Resolved for my liberty strong wall ne’er should hold me.

Back to England’s shores I came as fast as wind could blow me,
Resolved for my liberty, no one should e’er control me,
Back to England’s shores I came and found my name deserted,
My parent’s heart was almost broke and I was much more frightened.

For want of money and a friend, then poverty came on me,
For want of money and a friend it brought destruction on me,
The very first man I ever robbed it was a lord of honour,
The nobleman I did insult all in a roguish manner.

Give me your gold my lord and make no more denial,
If you resist it is my design with powder and ball to fire,
I put my pistol to his breast which made him for to shiver,
Two hundred pounds in bright gold to me he did deliver,

Besides a gold repeating watch to me he did surrender,
I thought I had a noble prize to be thus be-friended,
With a hundred guineas in bright gold I bought a famous gelding,
He could jump over the turnpike gate I bought him of Jem Sheldon.

Now mounted on my gallant steed I looked bold and daring,
Resolved on the road to go no man I e’er did fear him,
The very next man I robbed it was in Covent Garden,
And in two hours after in Newgate I was fasten’d.

I have robbed both lords and dukes of silver plate and money,
All for to maintain myself and my dearest Polly,
But now in Newgate cells I lie until I am convicted,
For my folly I now mercy crave for I am sore afflicted.

This Daring Highwayman appears in several broadsides with the same title and same lyrics, publication dates range from 1819-1844 and 1828-1829.

A Scottish book published in 1826 includes Allan Tine O’Harrow along with Highland Laddie and Bonnie Wood of Craigie lea. While the lyrics are almost identical, several differences are included:

Protagonist: Allan Tine O’Harrow
From: Hills of Tarrow
Horse Bought From: Mr Fielding
Victim(location): Lord Arkinstone (Covent Garden), Earl of Warren, Revenue Collector (Turnham-green)
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

The same version was published in 1825, alongside Jack in his Element and The Beds of Roses.

Here is where the story gets weird, this un-dated broadside has a song titled Valentine O’Harra, with almost exactly the same lyrics and story except for:

Protagonist: Valentine O’Harra
From: Hills of Tarra
Horse Bought From: Mr Shielding
Victim (location): Lord Edgers (near Covent Garden), Attorney Harding
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

This version, and the Tine O’Harrow, have an additional ‘Robin Hood’ verse about not stealing from the poor and also giving them money. While the broadside is not dated, it is published with a song (play?) about an accident at the Victoria Theatre that occurred in 1859; a gas explosion after a Christmas play that killed 15 people, reported in Australia here.

This would seem to lend itself to the theory that a generic Highwayman song from 1825 was reworked into Allan Tine of Yarrow, and then later re-imagined 30 years later with an Irish protagonist, whose name is based on the Mondegreen Valentine O’Harra with the politically motivated inclusion of a ‘Robin Hood’ verse.

The fly in the ointment here is this entry in the Ulster journal of archaeology, which references the publication in 1802 of a song book featuring A Second Song in Favour of Henry Meade Ogle along with  Adventures of Valentine O’Hara and the Flying Irish Highwayman. This predates both the Daring Highwayman and Allan Tine by 25 years. Unfortunately I cannot find any links to text from 1802.

I made some efforts to search both the list of executions at Tyburn Hill (1196 until 1783) and the proceedings of the Old Bailey (1674-1913). Other than a small-time highwayman called Patrick O’Hara, executed in 1763, there is no mention of either a Valentine O’Hara or an Allan Tine/Tyne.

Correspondingly, the victims named in both later versions of the ballad do not appear to be real people, a Lord Arkinstone/Lord Edgers would have been listed in the peerage, but are absent. This would suggest that the names are fictional and made up for the ballad.

If this particular highwayman is a concoction, were there any real Irish highwaymen? Based on the 1799 book by J. Cosgrave, A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Rogues and Rapparees, yes, there were many to choose from. The life of Redmond O’Hanlon is quite fascinating and bears some similarity to Valentine O’Hara with impoverished origins (thanks to Cromwell) and a stint in the army. However, rather than a mere highwayman, Redmond was the mafia boss of Ulster. Unfortunately he was shot (by his foster brother) rather than hanged and there is no record of him using Valentine as a pseudonym or needing to flee to England after getting a girl pregnant.

William Macquire (alias Irish Teague) has more similarity in that he was an Irish highwayman in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1691. James Butler was born in Kilkenny, but fought in Spain and deserted before briefly becoming a contract killer in Florence. James ended up robbing on the highway in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1716. Any of these three men could have been the subject of an early 1800s ballad about real Irish highwaymen.

A note of interest made within Cosgrave’s book is that in some cases the real family name of a highway robber was suppressed if they were from a noble family.

So the conclusion here, short of finding a copy of the 1802 text, is that this ballad is probably entirely fanciful, re-made twice, once for English and once for Irish audiences.

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The Economics of the Independent Singer-Songwriter

Last month I took my second album, ‘Wolf at the Door’, down from digital distribution. I published the album in February 2017, and to keep the album published on all the distribution services (Google, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc.) has cost me a total of US$70 (around AUS$100).

I published through Reverbnation, and over the next few months will take down my other albums as the annual renewal ($50) comes due. It just isn’t worth the cost.

My total revenue from Wolf at the Door was $9, which was mostly from a single iTunes purchase. Of interest, 203 Spotify streams earned $0.28, Google and iTunes paid similarly minuscule amounts.

It will be more viable to only publish albums on my Reverbnation site, which doesn’t attract an annual fee (just a 17% cut of each sale). I had looked at cdbaby, which charges around $50-$70 per album, but then takes a 10% cut of your revenue forever.

Last year was the first time I made an effort to publicise an album. Zombie Sheep of the Murrumbidgee (still up on stream services until June). I did several radio appearances, on local radio in our small town, and also in the bigger city an hour’s drive away. I performed at several local events for free prior to the launch and then organised a ticketed album launch concert.

I also ran a crowd-funding campaign to try and get the album professionally produced, but the campaign never came close to the $1000 goal (thanks to those who did bring it up to $200).

The Zombie Sheep album opened up some fantastic opportunities for me, playing for the Irish Ambassador in Canberra, being part of the ceremony in Sydney commemorating the Irish Famine Memorial and also participating in the Bush Traditions Gathering.

As a folk singer/songwriter, I feel that this album was definitely a pinnacle in terms of my writing, performing and the relatability of the content. My three previous albums were mostly obscure, self-indulgent, and unlikely to attract broader interest.

Over the past 8 months I would have sold close to 25 physical copies of Zombie Sheep, totalling around $200. I usually sell them for $20, but sold about 10 during the launch concert for $15.

So why have this rant? I need to replace a piece of recording equipment, which is going to cost around $200. As an independent musician, the economics of what we do matters. All of the income from album sales and paid gigs over the past five years probably comes close to half of the cost of equipment (instruments, recording and live sound gear) I have purchased. This got me thinking about whether what I do is a costly and wasteful hobby, or is it creating art that is of value to humanity now and in the future?

David Rovics wrote this great piece on the economic viability of touring as a full time musician. Here is another article written in response to a comment made by fantastic Scottish folk musicians Karine Polwart. The underlying theme, is that you most likely won’t make a good living as a musician with ethics and integrity. If you want to write what you want, and play for an audience that appreciates your work, and maybe even say things that some in power don’t want to hear, then it is going to be a struggle.

The economics aren’t so complicated for me. I’m not trying to feed a family with my musical profession, my main goal is just to break even and get my message out to a few people.

Through a random reddit scroll this weekend I watched this video of a song that Trevor Lucier wrote for his girlfriend. I was struck by the upbeat enthusiasm Trevor had during his intro, something an introvert like me would never try to pull off on-camera. Going through Trevor’s videos, I found this one from just a few months earlier. It is tough to watch, but I suggest that it is worthwhile. It speaks to the economics of America, and many western countries. How we are crushing the spirits of young people through unaffordable housing, unaffordable rent, ridiculous cost of living and unwillingness to pay our artists for the value they give society. Trevor is a talented guy, an accomplished guitar player, a good writer and singer and seems like someone worth having a chat with over a coffee. Maybe instead of having one Ed Sheeran earning a $110 million a year, we could have an Ed Sheeran on every street corner earning $80k a year?

Bringing this closer to home, the local farmers market has been paying musicians $100 to play for around 1.5-2 hours for the last 3-4 years. The spot is circulated between beginner and more professional performers and was a great way to support both the musicians and the atmosphere of the market. This year, under new management, the demand has been that musicians play 3 hours for $50. Writing and performing with an instrument is not flipping burgers. Needless to say, I won’t be playing the market any more.

Last week I had a brief brush with fame when I wrote this song about an issue with the quality of our local water. The song jumped to 4k views on YouTube within a few days and was even played on the local news in Canberra. ABC played the song on the radio and mentioned it several times in their articles. The only cent of revenue I saw was from a local shop owner who wanted to play it in their store and bought the song for $0.99 (I told her to show APRA my text message consenting to play it in public if they come around hassling her).

For any aspiring musicians reading this, my advice, for what it’s worth, is that you have to make each and every sale in person. Your music needs to connect with the person in your audience every time you perform. Not everyone is going to be Mike Rosenberg or Taylor Swift, but just inspiring one person, or touching the heart of one person, makes being a musicians worthwhile. It won’t pay, so get a day job, but don’t stop creating.

Posted in Blog Post, Folk Music, My Own Music | 2 Comments

The Prodigal Guitar

Here is a picture of me back when I was young and naïve. I’m playing the guitar that my now beautiful and long-suffering wife (then girlfriend of 12 months) owned. From the class ring I’m wearing, it was probably the summer of 1997. I had a work experience placement at Channel TEN studios in Brisbane for six weeks and would have been there staying with her.

No doubt I was playing some Pearl Jam or Simon and Garfunkel badly.

When we moved in together a few years later, we ran into money troubles and chose to sell some things to get by. The guitar was one of the things we sold, since we had two and it was the cheaper quality. I’ve always felt guilty for selling the guitar, partially for being so bad at managing money, and partially because it represented one of the many sacrifices my partner would make (and still makes) to keep me in a career and keep food on the table for our kids.

A few years later, in better times, I bought a good classical guitar for my partner, that you will often see me playing in the videos of me singing the kids to sleep (or not to sleep). We had sold the guitar to a local pawn broker for around $60, but I always felt like the guitar had been abandoned, and wondered where it had ended up.

20 years on, an ad came up in the local Facebook marketplace for a guitar that looked very similar.

I picked the guitar up today for $50. The machine heads were damaged and it looks like there has been a repair done to re-attach the fingerboard where it joins the body, but apart from that and a few minor scratches it was in good condition. I put some new machine heads and new strings on and wrote/played this song on it. Feels good to have it, or maybe its cousin, home.

For the guitar history boffins, the guitar was made in Korea by Amena which according to the link was making Gibson copies in the 1970s. The guitar is based on the Gibson Hummingbird, played by one of my favourite singer/songwriters, Mike Rosenberg (talking about guitars here).

Here is a blog post by a repairer, Tym Guitars, working on a similar guitar. Just like the guitar Tym worked on, this isn’t a $4000 Martin, but to me it sounds beautiful and represents a recovery of something lost.

So what is the moral of the story? The song that came out was about loss and serendipity, and accepting the universe’s plans. If something is meant to be yours, it will come back eventually.

I’m looking forward to hearing what other songs this lovely instrument has to share.

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