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Obituary by Keith McKenry (First published in The Australian, February 2004)
Born: Bellingen, NSW 24 August 1933
Died: Katoomba, 24 January 2004
In 1949, sixteen year old Chris Kempster sat in a Sydney bus reading a book of Henry Lawson's poems. As he read Reedy River, a tune came into his head and wouldn't go away. Thus began Kempster's lifelong devotion to setting Lawson to music, and to the folk music revival.
The youthful Kempster was a committed socialist and keen member of the Eureka Youth League. He sang Reedy River to a League camp and in 1951 it travelled to the World Youth Forum in Berlin. The following year it was featured at the Youth Carnival for Peace and Fellowship in Sydney. In 1953 it became the title song for the New Theatre's ground-breaking musical play, Reedy River. The play broke all records for an Australian musical and has since been revived many times. The song itself is now an Australian classic.
Kempster appeared in Reedy River as a member of the Bushwhackers, a pioneering musical group led by fellow socialist and folk song collector, John Meredith. The Bushwhackers were the first-ever bush band, complete with tea chest bass, lagerphone (bottle-tops nailed loosely to a broomstick), mouth organ, accordion and, in a rare concession to fashion, guitar. The group appeared in hundreds of performances of Reedy River, and played to mainly left-wing functions around Sydney and its environs. No-one ever got paid, so Kempster worked by day at his trade as an electrician, and played music at night and at weekends.
In 1955 the Bushwhackers' 78rpm recording of The Drover's Dream became Australia's first folk ‘hit'. Two years later the group appeared in Cecil Holmes' Australian feature film Three-In-One, the gangly Kempster playing the role of ‘Longun'. But tension had developed in the group over performance style, Meredith insisting everyone always sing in unison. Kempster wanted a more adventurous approach and when he persisted in singing harmony Meredith disbanded the group.
Kempster and fellow band members Alex Hood and Harry Kay formed a new group, the Rambleers They too sang bush songs but their style was influenced by the American group the Weavers, and by the Englishman A.L. Lloyd. The group made several important recordings on the Wattle label. (These recordings recently were re-released on CD by the National Library of Australia).
Kempster later played in other groups and for many years was resident MC at the Sydney Bush Music Club. In the early 1960s he enrolled at Sydney University, becoming President of its influential Folk Music Society and playing a pivotal role in introducing to Australian audiences performers such as Declan Affley and Jeannie Lewis and introducing them, too, in the era of Vietnam and conscription, to the protest songs of performers like the young Bob Dylan. Leaving university, he became a school-teacher.
But always Kempster's inspiration was Henry Lawson. He set many Lawson poems to music and worked lovingly on a major Lawson songbook. He was flooded with offerings from Australia and overseas. Slim Dusty contributed 18 songs, jazzman Ade Monsborough 10 – one person offered 80! When The Songs of Henry Lawson appeared in 1989, it had been pruned to 132 poems, some – like Andy's Gone With Cattle – having as many as eight different tunes. A number of these songs – such as Priscilla Herdman's setting of The Water Lily and Kempster's own settings of Do You Think That I Do Not Know and, of course, Reedy River, have been recorded many times both in Australia and overseas.
Afflicted throughout his life with severe asthma, Kempster resigned from teaching in 1988, devoting himself to writing and performing. In 2000 he moved to a new Blue Mountains home in Henry St Lawson, a location he insisted was a total coincidence. Reunion festival performances with the surviving Bushwhackers and the Rambleers followed. Sadly however his health was deteriorating, and on 24 January he died in Katoomba Hospital after a lengthy illness.
An easy-going but inspiring character, Chris Kempster had both vision and laconic wisdom. With his passing there can be no more reunions of our pioneering bush bands, and the Australian folk community has lost one of its most beloved sons. He is survived by his partner Alison Jones and daughter Meghan.
Poet and folklorist Keith McKenry was a friend of Chris Kempster. Many thanks to Keith for permission to add this article to the Australian Folk Songs website
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory