Tony Hillier

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A good many people owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ron Edwards, a veritable renaissance man who, as artist, musician, craftsman, publisher and storyteller, assiduously chronicled and captured almost every creative aspect of rural Aussie life.

Having benefited greatly from Ron’s endeavours and vast knowledge in my twin trades as a musician and journalist, it is gratifying to know that the local legend, who lived in Kuranda for many years prior to his passing in 2008, will be honoured in a retrospective exhibition, The Passionate Observer, at the Tanks Arts Centre this month and next.


Not to belittle his output in myriad other artistic spheres, Ron Edwards was perhaps most pertinently a primary player in the revival of Australian folk song. In 1976 he published a definitive collection of Australian songs, numbering over 300, in a beautiful self-illustrated tome. The Big Book of Australian Folk Song became my bible as a fledgling singer and guitarist back in the early ‘80s. It also prompted the Bushwackers, the country’s best-known bush band, to put out Australian songbooks of their own a couple of years after that also proved an invaluable aid for musicians and those interested in domestic folklore.

It’s entirely apposite then that the Bushwackers — at least the current line-up of Dobe Newton (lagerphone, vocals), Roger Corbett (guitars, vocals), Clare O'Meara (accordion, fiddle, vocals) and Michael Vidale (double bass) — will be performing at the launch of Ron Edwards’ exhibition in Tank 4 on Saturday May 25th (from 6pm). There’s no cover charge for the evening and a bar will be operating. The exhibition can be viewed at the Tanks until June 20, between 9.00am and 4:30pm weekdays and 10:00am and 2:30pm at weekends.

The Passionate Observer honours all aspects of Ron’s life. Since his death five years ago, Lee Edwards has undertaken the task of putting her father’s work in order. Exhibition curator Mark Thomson puts the magnitude of Lee’s achievement into perspective: “Ron Edwards led an astonishingly productive life in both quantity and diversity. Stockman’s leather gear, indigenous songs, local boat-building methods, the bushman’s ballad, bush cooking techniques, the sailor’s knot work — it was all fascinating to him. He meticulously recorded all these details and methods with a distinctive drawing style that was functional and precise yet relaxed and evocative.” For his work detailing Australia’s social history, Ron Edwards was awarded a very well merited Order of Australia in 1992.

“Despite an immense output of work, very few of Ron’s paintings watercolours or prints have ended up in major collections,” says Mr Thomson. “For the Tanks show, we’ve pulled in some notable works of his.” The Passionate Observer comprises largely items on loan from the family, the National Library and other private collections. The exhibition relates to current issues, not only of heritage retention, but also of the values that underpin traditional craft and story telling practices — aspects the curator will talk about in his address on the opening night.

Ron Edwards

In all, Ron Edwards published over 300 books, covering the entire spectrum of Australian folk craft and art. His Rams Skull Press has published for over 50 years. You can visit it online at:

Ron was also an assiduous collector of songs from the Torres Strait, as the dual ARIA award winner Seaman Dan acknowledges in a video interview than can be accessed at:

Some of Ron’s paintings can be viewed at:

Fellow folklorist Warren Fahey, who knew Ron for over 35 years, commented: “His legacy will live on and we should all celebrate his astounding contribution to preserving our bush culture.”

The Bushwackers say they are honoured to be performing at the opening to Ron Edwards’ exhibition on May 25th, especially since 2013 celebrates the release of their 22nd studio album Australian Songbook 3. It’s the final chapter in the Songbook series and it arrives as a package with Songbooks 1 and 2.

The Bushwackers remain at the top of their game 40 years down the track. I had the pleasure of interviewing their esteemed leader and longest serving member, the irrepressible, incorrigible, indomitable, incomparable Dobe Newton last year for Rhythms magazine —

Newton joined the band just a couple of years after it was formed at Melbourne’s La Trobe University by guitarist Dave Isom, tea-chest bass player Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky and lagerphonist Bert Kahanoff. Over the years, the band has been a veritable revolving door for the upper echelon of Australian musicianship. In excess of 70 players have passed through in four decades, including Pete Farndon, who went to play bass for The Pretenders, Skyhooks’ drummer Freddie Strauks, Little River Band’s Steve Housden, Tim Gaze of Ariel and Rose Tattoo fame and guitar guns Tommy and Phil Emmanuel.

Those notable refugees from mainstream music were captivated by the band’s energy and the power of Aussie folk. “The fact that it was uniquely Australian meant a lot to them,” Newton told me. “Also, as Tommy Emmanuel says to this day, it was the most fun he ever had playing in a band.” Dobe nominates Emmanuel as the standout Bushies’ muso over the years, but says if he had to choose one player, it would be the late multi-instrumentalist Louis McManus. “Pound-for-pound, he’s the greatest musician I’ve ever seen, let alone had the privilege to play with.”

All the players, he insists, have brought something unique and taken away wonderful memories and inspirations. “I know how proud all of them have been to take absolutely Australian music to so many people here and around the world.”

Bushwackers - Early Days

They wouldn’t have known it at the time, of course, but when a group of Melbourne university students formed The Bushwackers & Bullockies Bush Band back in 1971, to celebrate their love of traditional Australian folk, they were starting a musical and dancing institution. In their heyday, in the mid-‘80s, The Bushwackers induced thousands of people up and down the country to waltz ‘The Pride of Erin’, do the ‘Queensland Backstep’ and to ‘Strip The Willow’. Newton recalls dances at Sydney and Paddington town halls and the Melbourne Showground’s Centenary Hall regularly attracting crowds in excess of 1500. “The sight from the stage of hundreds of couples galloping across the dance floor was truly memorable,” he says.

The Bushwackers colourful, rock-infused folk songs and dances even penetrated the hallowed portals of London’s Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. On their first visit to the capital, these colonial upstarts posed cheekily for a photo outside of 10 Downing Street.

Their maiden trip to Ireland yielded a spot supporting The Dubliners at one of the most famous venues in the Irish capital. “We were beside ourselves, playing with these legends,” Newton recalls. He wasn’t prepared for the reaction he got when showing his prowess on lagerphone, the bottle tops-festooned percussion instrument that’s synonymous with bush music. “They’d never seen one before. There were a number of tables of young women at the front of the room and every time I came in on lagerphone they screamed … it was the most amazing and unexpected audience reaction.”

In all, the Wackers spent about five of the years between ‘74 and ‘83 in Europe on different tours lasting between four and 14 months. “We were one of the first Aussie bands to venture to the UK to be part of the folk revival that was sweeping the world at the time,” says Dobe. “We just wanted to be part of the action. It was simply amazing to be there for the birth and early years of punk. Living around the corner from the famous Half Moon pub in Putney in southwest London meant we saw and shared the stage with legends of the UK music scene, including our heroes, Fairport Convention, but my endearing memory is of seeing the Sex Pistols in an early pub gig generating a power, passion and frenzy that I’ve never seen the equal of.”

The folk fraternity didn’t always receive the Bushwackers with warmth. The band even experienced a Dylan moment! As Newton explains: “In 1979, at the National Folk Festival, we were actually booed off the stage at Melbourne Town Hall for daring to introduce electric instruments and a drum kit.”

Bush music owes a huge debt to The Bushwackers, not only for helping to ignite the fire in the first place, but for keeping the flame flickering far and wide over the years, even during the times when folk was decidedly unfashionable. “I’ve lost count of the hundreds of people who’ve told us that they’ve been inspired to delve into the folklore on the basis of listening to our music.”

As an inveterate student of history, Newton shares the late Ron Edwards’ belief that it’s vital that the nation doesn’t lose track of its colonial past. “If we ever lost that tradition, we’d lose a wonderful part of our cultural heritage. The vast majority of people living in this country today are still affected by the institutions, patterns of settlement, ethos etc inherited from colonial times that produced this localised version of a European music heritage. It’s part of who we are as a nation.”

• The Bushwackers will be featured during Tony Hillier’s World of Music segment on ABC Radio Far North on Friday, May 24 (4:45-5pm). The weekly segment is also available as a podcast at:

Tony Hillier