Talks mostly about Unsung Heroes
(But he’s about to do a week or so of solo stuff so make sure you read to the end!)
Tracking back even further through my backlog of recorded material, back a fair few weeks ago now, Bruce Watson was on the road with three of his Victorian compadres (I could have said Mexican, but didn’t) for the Unsung Heroes shows in a few venues. Sadly, this article didn’t get to see the light of day in time for those shows, but as you’ll read, the project has quite the life that will see it around for some time to come. Here Bruce talks about how the concept came about and what the future plans are for the project.
And then, you can start scribbling dates in your diary as Bruce prepares to have a mini-assault on ACT and the southern highlands/Illawarra hinterland/central coast and Hunter region over the next ten days.
Bill Quinn: Tell me about the Unsung Heroes project.
Bruce Watson: It’s a collection of four singer-songwriters – which is sort of unusual for singer-songwriters to all get together. But we all met at a thing called the Darebin Songwriters Guild which is based in our local area in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
And we got together to do that, and the actual idea for the project came from Moira Tyers, and she was just basically talking to people about it. She formed a band with Wendy [Ealey] and Neil [Robertson]. And I heard about the project and said, ‘This is really good. I’ve got some songs that would fit into that idea, and I’d love to be involved in some way’.
So I was invited into the project.
We actually started with about ten people. And gave the initial concert with a whole lot of local songwriters that did songs on the theme of ‘Unsung Heroes’.
Then we gradually filed it down to a manageable number of people, and to more of a thematic approach, with the organising principle being: time. It’s chronological, going from settlement (and a little bit of a flash-back to pre-settlement Australia) and it goes right through to a few contemporary people – a few people who are still alive and doing amazing things.
So that’s how the show started, and it’s turned into a show that’s got a narrative and a set of songs and the visuals are really important. It’s got a slide show component that’s quite important.
BQ: So you started off putting the material together and now there’s an album, I believe?
BW: Yes, there is. We’d been doing the show for about a year before we did the album, and the album’s a bit over a year old.
And the show’s moved on a little bit from the album – we’ve got a couple of new songs that aren’t on the album that we do in the show now. It’s a constantly evolving thing.
BQ: Festivals seem to be really interested in themed concerts. Have you found that doing this has opened doors at festivals?
BW: Yes and no. We’ve got a bit of a disadvantage with the slideshow – it doesn’t always work in outdoor venues and in the daytime. But certainly a lot of festivals are interested. When there was the publicity around the Canberra and Sydney gigs, we had a festival approach us and asked us to put in an application. Which doesn’t happen that often!
But it does have to be the right setting. The thing about festivals…. I love festivals and I go to lots. But there is something that I heard someone describe as the contract between the performers and the audience. And that contract in festivals is a very loose contract. People wander in and out.
But this is a show that demands quite full attention. It’s quite better suited to folk clubs and dedicated venues where people come and their attention is full.
However, when we do festivals, we don’t get many people walking out. And that’s really good. So it’s OK for festivals, but we prefer the standalone events, actually.
BQ: The other thing about festivals is that I guess if you get stuck next to the “doof doof” tent…
BW: Oh yes! We’ve had that happen. And this is a show that’s quite a gentle show, musically. Most of the songs are ballad-y. Not all of them, but overall it’s gentle and thoughtful.
We had one particular festival in Melbourne which was terrible from that aspect, but that’s how things go.
BQ: I want to ask you about one particular song. I was driving to work this morning listening to one of our very fine community radio stations (2XX-FM), and the presenter was talking up your show, talking up the album and he played one song. I didn’t catch the title, but it was just the most moving song. You introduced it by calling it a punitive trip to kill Aboriginals.
BW: Ah yeah, yeah. That’s a song of mine called ‘The War Without a Name’. It’s a song about Aboriginal massacres. It’s unusual in that in the show, there’s not an individual that we focus on. In the song, it doesn’t focus on an individual but it contrasts the war heroes and the memorials that we have throughout Australia and it contrasts them with the heroes who were fighting for their own land and have no recognition with memorials around Australia.
There are ANZAC memorials in every little town, but I only know of one memorial to people who died in an Aboriginal massacre, which is Myall Creek in New South Wales.
And that’s what that song is about. It does include an extract from a newspaper article where a guy brazenly and blatantly wrote about what he and his mates did, which is went out on a reprisal massacre.
And it’s chilling. I got that out of a book by Henry Reynolds but I’ve since traced the actual article from 1903. And when you read the whole article, it’s worse than the extract in the book.
It’s a dumb-founding bit of text and the song frames that in a way that, while I’m happy with artistically, it’s quite chilling.
BQ: What’s in the future for the Unsung Heroes?
BW: The big thing we’ve got at the moment that’s been going on all this year is that we’re developing educational resources around the show. It was part of the initial idea but it got a little bit lost for a year or so. And then after we did the album, we started working on that again.
And we’re working in partnership with an organisation called Australian Teachers of Media. I’d never heard of them but people in the educational sector respect them very highly. And they’re very keen on the project. They do a lot of stuff with film and educational resources around films.
What they’re doing is putting together a set of questions and exercises and experiments around each of the songs in the program. And they’re doing both a primary school one and a secondary school one. I’ve seen drafts of them and they’re looking really, really fantastic.
That’s quite exciting. We did a Pozible crowd-source funding campaign for that. And that was really, really successful. Way more successful than we expected. We thought we were only going to be able to raise money for the primary project but we raised enough for the primary and secondary.
The next important step for that is that two of us are going over to Western Australia in October for the Australian History Teachers’ Conference, presenting from the show and talking about the educational resources.
We have the perennial problem that lots of musicians have in that none of us do this full time, so it’s really hard to get some of this stuff going. But bit by bit, we’re doing it. This year, the focus is on the educational resources.
We have a few war-related songs so we did a few songs on Anzac Day eve in Melbourne and on the bill they had Michael Leunig the cartoonist, and Peter Cundle, the gardener and environmentalist, and it was just luck that we got the connections for that gig. It was just a fantastic set-up. It wasn’t a folkie audience; I don’t think anyone in the audience knew any of us, and the impact was fantastic.
It was just a very powerful evening. I wrote a song coming out of that evening!
So we’re very hopeful for this project. We haven’t taken it to schools yet, and we need to develop a strategy around that as well. We need to come up with a package that’s got different involvements, and we need to come up with a pricing structure as well.
Look out for more on the Unsung Heroes project as those educational resources, but more immediately Bruce Watson will be performing solo here:
Friday 12 October – The Merry Muse, Canberra
Sunday 14 October – Folk in the Foothills, Jamberoo
Wednesday 17 October – Umina Beach house concert
Thursday 18 October – Newcastle house concert
Friday 19 to Sunday 21 October – Kangaroo Valley Folk Festival
Boxing Day to New Year’s Day – Woodford Folk Festival
All details at: http://www.brucewatsonmusic.com/gigs.html