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Chris Kempster 1933 to 2004

Tribute by Mark Gregory (January 2004)

Chris KempsterChris Kempster's role in the Australian folk movement was a pioneering one by any measure. He was a singer, songwriter, composer of exquisite melodies, folk song collector and teacher.

I was still a teenager when I first met Chris at a concert in 1962. He was singing to an audience of boys and girls camped near the coast south of Sydney. To be more exact he was getting these eager young children to sing along with him and I guess that first memory of him represents a big part of what he was about: an encourager of others to make music. He certainly made a huge impression on me.

Before there was an Australian folk movement he played a key role in its genesis: as a 16 year old apprentice electrician he wrote the tune to Henry Lawson's poem "Reedy River". That song became the title song of the New Theatre play of the early 1950s, the musical play that helped to usher in the folk revival, the Bush Music Club, the folklore societies the collecting, the publishing, the recording and above all, the singing of Australian folk songs.

The BushwhackersChris was always in the forefront of the folk song movement. He was an innovator. He was in the first bush band, the Bushwhackers. By 1958 the next band he was part of, the Rambleers, released one of the first LPs of Australian folk song, on the famed Wattle label. Half a century later more than a hundred thousand people in Australia go along to folk festivals each year. In that same stretch of time probably thousands of 45s, EPs, LPs and CDs have been released with songs old and new. Today it's likely that the majority of musicians and singers in Australia are involved in the folk movement.

Chris had an openness rare even amongst the eclectic mob that embraces folk song. His cultural interest and knowledge was broad: orchestral music, choral music, the blues, poetry, theatre, film, story telling of all kinds and jokes and puns. While his main activity was singing he had also been on the stage and had had parts in some of the films that presaged the modern film industry. For example, Cecil Holmes' 1957 classic "Three In One".

If the folk revival started with a particular interest in Australian songs and music, it soon broadened to include other music including Aboriginal music and a stream of new songs that connected with older traditions. Chris delighted in learning and distributing new songs and encouraging anyone who attempted write them. He also continued to write some extraordinarily beautiful tunes. Lovers of Lawson, in particular, cherish Chris' settings to his poems. Indeed, it would not be far fetched to claim that Chris' tunes did as much as anything else to keep Lawson's poetry alive in modern Australia. In 1989 he compiled and published a scholarly book of over 100 Lawson poems that he and so many others had set to music, "The Songs of Henry Lawson".

Chris Kempster put himself through a Sydney University science degree as an adult student in the early 1960s, and he embarked on a new career that led him to become a remarkable teacher of maths. It was at university and Teachers College that I got to know him well. Chris and I were members of the Radiation Quartet along with fellow students Jeannie Lewis and Mike Leyden. We sang at protests and demonstrations against nuclear weapons proliferation and testing, and of course protests against conscription and the war in Vietnam.

We sang at anti-apartheid concerts and at university folk concerts. The term "protest song" came into vogue at that time, often as a pejorative, but many of the songs that were new then are standards in the singing movement today. Really they were do-it-yourself-songs building the confidence to take on those who behaved as though they were born to rule.

songs of our timesIt was as members of the Sydney University Folk Music Society that Chris and I worked together to produce a roneoed hand-made songbook called "songs of our times". This collection of 111 songs (selling at two shillings and sixpence) contained much of Chris' repertoire at that time, bush songs, Lawson songs, union songs, peace songs, anti-apartheid songs, Irish rebel songs. There were the new songs from Don Henderson, Gary Shearston, Dorothy Hewett, Mike Leyden as well as those from Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl, Bob Dylan, Malvina Reynolds, Phyl Ochs, Dominic Behan, Alex Comfort, Peggy Seeger. It was an attempt to make available to Australian folk singers a comprehensive collection of the songs you might hear in the folk clubs and concerts in 1964. Chris' strong trade union connections made it easy for us to farm out the typing of the songs onto stencils to quite a number of union offices around Sydney. In 2002 Chris organised that a copy of that songbook be lodged with the National Library in Canberra: it had now become a historic document.

I came to see Chris as an archetypal do-it-yourselfer. He renovated the houses that he moved into over the years and he could often be found underneath the bonnet of his car. I remember helping him replace the engine of his long and narrow sky-blue Peugeot 203 at Tom O'Flynn's garage in Bondi!

When he retired from teaching he immediately build a house in Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains. When it was finished in time for his 60th birthday he celebrated with friends with a memorable concert around a bonfire. A brand new song was written on the spot that night! A few years later he sold that house and built another with his partner Alison on a block of land overlooking the bush in Lawson. While he was building it, it dawned on him that his new address was to be Henry St, Lawson!!!

Chris was a wonderful supporter of new ways of getting songs to an audience and was excited by the way email and the web helped to spread songs old and new across the globe. Ten years ago I showed him my first attempts at the Australian Folk Songs web collection, and we gathered a group of songwriters in Sydney to discuss the usefulness of the new medium. It was this great support that helped the growing Union Songs web collection, which proved (in the 1998 "Patrick dispute") that the web could help "collect" new songs as well as quickly disseminate them. Last years MUA centenary CD "With These Arms", with Chris as a participant, grew directly out of that collection.

Chris died in Katoomba on 24th January. He certainly left much more than time gone by behind him. He left a singing movement that he'd helped to build, and so many people he'd just helped. Alison was with him and his daughter Meghan who had had come up to the mountains to be near him. He was not afraid of dying, he said, but sad to leave Alison and Meghan and the family and friends he loved.

australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory