Australian Folk Songs
songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home
The Gary Shearston Story
Written and researched by Zbig Nowara
Gary was born in the northern New South Wales town of Inverell in 1939, but the outbreak of World War II saw Gary's father away on active service, with Gary and his mother moving to his grandparents' farm at Tenterfield. During this time in the early '40s, Gary's grandfather did not have a car, so the family rode to town and church in a four-wheeled buggy pulled by a single horse. From the age of 5, Gary rode two miles to school, leaving the pony at the blacksmith's in town during school hours.
Gary's introduction to music was his mother playing the piano and the family singing around it. When his father returned from the war he took up a 50 acre farm as a returned soldier settlement at Tenterfield. However, a prolonged drought saw the farm abandoned and the Shearstons moved to Sydney when Gary was 11. He left school at 16 because 'he didn't seem to be learning anything useful'. After a couple of short term jobs immediately after leaving school Gary joined United Press International where he trained as a staff correspondent and then worked running the night news desk.
Gary got a guitar at 16, and was playing it and learning songs whilst at UPI. Gary had actually wanted to be a drummer but hadn't been able to afford a kit as youngster -- just the occasional jazz record featuring drummers such as Krupa. He got his start in show business by joining the Tintookies, the famous Australian travelling puppet show for a year. On his return to Sydney he continued with several jobs working puppets on kids' TV show "Name That Tune" on the TCN-9 network. He also joined the Hayes Gordon Ensemble Theatre, first as an actor then off stage as a stage manager. Gary had learned a repertoire of English, American and Australian folk songs and from the age of 19 had become a professional singer. He worked the hotels and clubs before the 'folk boom' brought the coffee houses and folk club circuit. Gary sang at the Folksinger probably the first folk club in Sydney and then the famous Troubadour.
The Troubadour was actually opened by Shearston and American gospel and blues singer Brother John Sellers. Shearston and Heather Pitt, a jazz singer, had already put in some time backing Sellers who had quite a profile in Sydney in local nightclubs. As his own profile grew, Gary appeared on the Bandstand and Teen Time music shows on TV. He enrolled at the Sydney Conservatorium for music students and stayed for just under a year. The Australian folk songs grew to be the major part of his repertoire. Gary's main mentor of those days days was Dr. Edgar Waters of the Australian National University who made available field recordings made by people such as John Meredith, Alan Scott, Dr Russell Ward and Dr Waters himself. Meredith and Scott were also members of the Sydney Bush Music Club where Gary met Duke Tritton from whom he learned many songs.
In late 1962, Gary signed with Leedon (Festival) Records. A single and an EP were issued in 1963. Whilst these recordings helped raise his profile they were not big sellers. Following extensive negotiations, Festival released Gary from his contract and he signed with CBS in late 1963. CBS under the guidance of A&R manager/chief producer Sven Libaek, were developing a strong roster of Australian talent, particularly in the jazz and folk fields. The first two CBS singles were not hits but sold enough to warrant the issue of Sydney Town. This single was top 10 in Sydney and sold well throughout the rest of Australia. The next single Sometime Lovin' also charted. The first album, Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia followed the success of these two singles and was a big seller. Five more LPs for CBS followed in the next two years. Shearston had become a major artist in Australia and the biggest record seller of the folk music boom of the mid '60s.
For many of the Australian folk songs on these albums, it was the first time they had become known to the public at large even though some had been recorded earlier. (eg on the Wattle label in the late '50s). Many such as Put a Light in Every Country Window (written by Don Henderson) and The Springtime It Brings on the Shearing have become staples of bush bands and country music performers all over Australia, even to this day.
Gary had become popular enough to return to television with his own national folk music program Just Folk on the seven network. He was now also writing his own songs. In 1965 Peter Paul and Mary were on tour in Australia and heard him perform his own song Sometime Lovin' which they subsequently recorded on their Album LP and invited him to go to America.
In 1967 he returned to Festival Records for the Abreaction LP. On this album he moved away from his folk roots to incorporate elements of jazz and rock into his music. Unfortunately Abreaction was considered to be too avant garde and did not sell anywhere near as many copies as the earlier LPs. Shearston decided it was time to move on, expand his horizons and head off to the USA. However, US immigration officials were not impressed by this Aussie folksinger who had acquired an ASIO file because of his opposition to the Vietnam war and his involvement with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and instead he waited in London for a year. In 1968 he made it to the US and spent four years on the East Coast. The visa problems meant he was unable to work (in terms of public performance) and a full album he recorded for Warner Brothers remained unreleased. (Note several of these songs were subsequently re-recorded in London for the Dingo album.) Gary returned to England in 1972 and performed widely both within the UK and on the continent. He tasted success again with a deadpan interpretation of the old Cole Porter song I Get a Kick Out of You (in late '74) and two albums on the Charisma label. Over the following years he became involved in various research projects with the film industry (eg Burke & Wills) and wrote articles for music magazines as well as continuing to perform live and write his own songs. He then spent 18 months writing a lengthy novel titled Balkenna which was published on his return to Australia in 1989. Somewhat to his surprise he found that despite an absence of 22 years, people still remembered him from the halcyon days of mid 1960s folk and offers to play various folk festivals came in.
CBS and Larrikin re-issued some of his old material and an album of new material titled Aussie Blue was released to critical acclaim. A song from this album, Shopping on a Saturday, won the Bush Ballad of the Year award at the 1990 Tamworth Awards. He also wrote a song, The Newcastle Earthquake which was used nationally to promote the Lord Mayor's appeal for the victims of the Newcastle earthquake. Soon after this the Gary Shearston story took an interesting turn - he made a decision to undertake studies to enter the Anglican priesthood.
Gary had been baptised and confirmed in the Church of England which subsequently became the Anglican Church of Australia. During the '60s Gary flirted with other faiths such as Tibetan Buddhism but became re-involved with Christianity on his return to England in the early '70s. Gary was ordained in July 1992 and now tends to his congregation in Hay in New South Wales. Although parish life keeps him very busy, he performs occasional concerts and still writes songs. Some 30 new songs have been written and recorded in Sydney and plans are afoot for their release on CD. A re-issue of the '60s LPs and early songs on CD is also being pursued.
FORMAT TITLE LABEL DATE TRACKS 2 tr 45 The Ballad of Thunderbolt Leedon LK 356 63/05 The Crayfish Song 3 tr EP The Man From Snowy River Leedon LX 10685 63/ Bonnie Jess : The Drover's Dream 2 trž 45 Who Can Say CBS BA 221092 64/03 Put a Light in Every Country Window 12 tr LP Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia CBS BP 233094 64/04 4 trž EP Australian Folk Songs CBS BG 225051 64/04 2 tr 45 We Want Freedom CBS BA 221124 64/06 It's On 12 tr LP Songs of our Time CBS BP 233133 64/07 4 trž EP Songs of Out Time CBS BG 225 64/07 2 tr 45 Sydney Town CBS BA 221165 65/02 The Roar of the Crowd 12 tr LP Australian Broadside CBS BP 233186 65/03 4 trž EP Australian Broadside CBS BG 225075 65/03 2 trž45 Sometime Lovin' CBS BA 221178 65/05 Big Boat Up the River 16 tr LP The Springtime it Brings on the Shearing CBS BP 233226 65/06 16 tr LP Bolters, Bushrangers and Duffers CBS BP 233288 65/11 11 tr LP Gary Shearston Sings His Songs CBS BP 233320 66/05 2 trž 45 Rainbow Girl Festival FK 1707 66/11 Give Me Some Money 10 tr LP Abreaction(on a Bitumen Road with Soft Edges) Festival FL 32216 67/02 10 tr LP Dingo Charisma 6369958 74/11 2 trž 45 I Get a Kick Out of You Charisma 6073356 74/11 Witnessing 2 trž 45 Without a Song Charisma 6073361 75/06 Aborigine 10 tr LP Greatest Stone On Earth & other Two Bob Wonders Charisma 6369968 76/02 10 tr LP Gary Shearston Revisited CBS SBP234617 76/06 LP The Springtime It Brings On the Shearing Larrikin LRF022 77 2 tr 45 A Whiter Shade of Pale Transatlantic BIG 559 77/03 Across the seven Seas 2 tr 45 Wild Mountain Thyme Magnet MAG 129 78 Billabong 2 tr 45 Aussie Blue Larrikin LRS 997 89/09 A Voice from the City 10 tr LP Aussie Blue Larrikin LRF 236 89/09 2 trž 45 The Newcastle Earthquake CBS 655720 7 90/ Working on a Building LP Aussie Blue J&B JB 428 90/10
a)Australian releases only listed.
b)The 3 CBS eps each consisted of 4 tracks from the corresponding LP.
c)To appreciate the significance of Shearston's recordings compare his 6 LPs for CBS in 2 years at a time when top 40 teen idols Billy Thorpe and Ray Brown managed 2 each only!
australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory