A Punter’s Perspective #39: Warren “Arch” Bishop: Bush folklore for the kids

Arch Bishop (centre) at 2012 Illawarra Folk Festival with Peter 'Pearl' McLeod, Rick Saur, Rosie McDonald and Billy Arnett
Arch Bishop (centre) at 2012 Illawarra Folk Festival with Peter ‘Pearl’ McLeod, Rick Saur, Rosie McDonald and Billy Arnett. Photo by Bill Quinn.

A Punter’s Perspective

Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

#39 Warren “Arch” Bishop: Bush folklore for the kids

First published in Trad and Now magazine, December 2012

When I was introduced to “Arch Bishop” at Cobargo Folk Festival in 2007, it took a while to confirm there wasn’t some sort of wind-up going on. (After I’d genuflected, crossed myself, mumbled ‘Your Excellency’, and kissed his ring – just in case).

Warren Bishop (universally known as Arch or Archie) is a master of the straight-face. He even got me hook, line and sinker when I rang for this interview, though I can’t repeat the story here until ‘Trad and Now’ magazine develops a sealed section.

“Arch” is a larger than life part of the New South Wales folk festival scene as a poet, story-teller and raconteur. He’s a man who loves to laugh – especially if he’s sharing the joke with others.

And stories. He’s got more stories than….. a very tall building that has lots of floors. Lately he’s been finding new horizons for this mastery of the spoken word, and it was these developments and potential new pursuits I was keen to talk with him about.

Bill Quinn: Arch, I think I’m right in saying that you didn’t get into folk early on but came to it later in life. Is that right?

Arch Bishop: I’d always listened to the music, but the folk scene, yeah, I didn’t discover it until 1996.

BQ: And what hooked you into it?

AB: I went to Tamworth in 1996 for the country music festival and met up with Bob Toohey from Illawarra, and he told me about folk festivals.

I said, “What are they?” and he said, “You’d better come and find out for yourself!”

So I went to Jamberoo in 1996 and haven’t looked back since.

BQ: So what was it that sparked your interest?

AB: Ah, the camaraderie. The ‘oneness’, if you like. Not meaning to sound flaky, but everyone’s there for the same reason: to have a good time.

BQ: So how about the poetry and the folklore? Was that something you had a prior interest in?

AB: I’ve been interested in poetry for a long time. Not at school; school cruelled it for me, because you had to write it. But I came to it later in life. Because although I recite ‘bush’, I’m a free verse poet. Who crochets for relaxation!

I consider myself a performance poet, story-teller and all-round good guy.

He says, rubbing his belly.

[We’re on the phone; I took Arch at his word on the belly-rubbing.]

BQ: You strike me as one of those people who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poems, able to recall lots and lots of them. It’s something you’ve been doing for a long time?

AB: It is a fair while. But when I was a kid in school, I could recite Monty Python and Goon Shows and anything that was off the wall.

Word for word. Verbatim. Voices, etcetera.

And Mum used to say, “Well, how come you can remember that rubbish but you can’t remember to do your homework?”

“It’s only what you’re interested in, Mum,” but you weren’t allowed to tell her that.

But I was blessed with a retentive memory.

BQ: So the reciting came first and then the interest in the bush and folklore later?

AB: Well, Australia has a rich history of bushranging and, although a short history in relation to Europe and elsewhere, it’s a very colourful history. So you can’t help but be interested in it, especially if you’re following the folk scene.

BQ: And you’ve developed some related stuff for schools.

AB: Yep, that’s correct. I found that over 98% of kids would be an honest estimate: if you ask them what’s a jumbuck, a squatter, a billabong or a trooper, they wouldn’t have an idea. Unless they’re in really remote areas where some of those terms are still relevant.

We’re losing our heritage.

BQ: When did you start doing the shows for schools?

AB: I did the first one in late 2011. I did the first show up in Sydney as a trial to see if it would float. And to see if there was enough interest there for the kids, because it’s an interactive show.

And it worked really well, and I really appreciated the opportunity to try it out.

Blacktown Council was very supportive over a number of years, and last year I mentioned the schools shows, and this year they rang and said would you like to come and perform at the schools here?

So they paid me to go and do a tour of the schools in the last week in May which was received well.

One of the best things about it was that even though I only got around to four schools over five days, each school that I was at invited three or four other schools. So the word got around and I was able to educate many more kids than I thought I’d be able to in a week.

And I’ve been doing it down the far South Coast of NSW as well. Word of mouth is spreading and it would be good to get further afield as well.

BQ: When you’re performing for the kids, and they’re getting involved because it’s interactive, do you think it’s a bit of theatre for them or that they’re really making a connection with their heritage?

AB: Well, without being big-headed here or having tickets on myself, I think that once I finish, the connection is more obvious to them. Because we go through the words of, say, ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Now, most of the kids, sad to say, know the words parrot-fashion to sing along with, but if you ask any of them to describe what is a jumbuck, a squatter, a trooper, etc. – it doesn’t mean anything.

So we pull it apart, word by word, line by line. We look at it and discover what all those terms are.

And then we act it out. I have cardboard cut-outs of troopers and squatters, with holes cut for the kids’ faces so they can play the parts. And be the jumbuck, and be the swagmen.

Then it has a meaning of some sort to them, rather than just meaningless words.

BQ: So some lights go on above heads? There are some revelations?

AB: Yeah, yeah, it’s good.

The other thing is the teachers also learn some things.

We talk about, and act out ‘The Man From Ironbark’ and I explain to them that Ironbark is a real place. It’s now called Stuart Town – it’s up near Wellington in New South Wales.

We also talk about this part:

“To them the barber passed the wink, his dexter eyelid shut…”

Well, your ‘dexter eyelid’ is your right eye. The left eye being the ‘sinister eye’. And though it’s not mentioned in the poem, I teach them things like that.

BQ: So, you’ve performed the show a few times and are looking to expand it now, aren’t you?

AB: I am, I am. I’d like to travel around the country with it. Wherever people would like it. I think it needs to be heard, for the sake of our history.

The show is aimed particularly at children in Years 3 to 7. It doesn’t matter whether those children are born here from Australian parents, or born here from parents from overseas, or whether they’ve come here from overseas.

It doesn’t matter. The thing is with Australian kids, a lot of them can tell you about places overseas but can’t tell you much about their own backyard, their own country. They need to know about their own backyard.

BQ: You also do a lot of performing with adults; do you find there’s a shift you need to make when you’re dealing with kids?

AB: I tell you what: kids keep you honest!

They’re not afraid to ask the questions and they’ll ask left-field questions. You’ve got to keep your wits about you.

One kid asked me, “Why do you tell stories?”

And I thought, what a good question.

I said, “Well, my friend, it’s like this. Some people build houses and I can’t. Some people can build and fly airplanes, but I can’t. But once upon a time I started off telling stories and people said I wasn’t real bad.

“So I went away and I practised. And I got better. And I practised more and got better and that’s now what I do.

“Now one day when you grow up, you’re going to discover what you do best and that’s what you’ll do.”

And he looked off into the distance and I could see the cogs turning, and I thought if nothing else, I’ve touched a young mind that day.

And that’s great. That’s a good feeling.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the schools program, contact Warren (or ‘Arch’ – call him anything except ‘Late for breakfast’) at souperman@live.com.au or 0449 863 080

Warren 'Arch' Bishop (right) with Scott 'Feral' Sneddon at the 2013 Illawarra Folk Festival
Warren ‘Arch’ Bishop (right) with Scott ‘Feral’ Sneddon at the 2013 Illawarra Folk Festival. Photo by Bill Quinn.

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