This article also appeared in Trad & Now magazine in August 2021.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and almost three hundred hearts were filled with music, song, poetry, and good cheer in June as the Top Half Folk Festival (THFF) returned – after a year on sick leave – to celebrate their milestone 50th annual event.
Covid19 had cancelled the festival in 2020, and conditions were still dicey in the lead-up (meaning some interstate visitors could not make the trek north). But it all kicked off in brilliant conditions and sublime surroundings at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat on the June long weekend.
While I’m not on commission for the venue, I highly recommend you add this little accommodation gem to your itinerary if you’re headed to the top end.
Situated just over 100kms east of Darwin along the Arnhem Highway, the cabins and sprawling campgrounds are tailor-made for a folk festival or a stopover. And the management have been generous and constant supporters of THFF since it moved to that locality in 2000.
Well, half of it moved there. Let’s go back a step.
THFF is easily one of the longest continually running folk festivals in Australia, tracing its origins back to March 1971 with an initial gathering at the old Telegraph Station at Alice Springs. Organised by the Central Australian Folk Society (CAFS), the event was followed the next year by a home festival for the Top End Folk Club in Darwin.
From there, a rota of sorts developed between the Top End, Central Australian, and Mt Isa (Qld) folk clubs/societies. Ergo, top half (not end). Yeah, I finally fully grasped the meaning when I read the program notes.
Cut forward to 2021 and Mt Isa have been out of the THFF scene since late last century, but Darwin and Alice have continued the annual events, alternating between Mary River Wilderness Park in the north, and Glen Helen Lodge in the red centre.
Which makes for something of a weather contrast:
– dry, humid and hot in the north,
– mild days and freezing at night in the desert.
And if you’ve never experienced Darwin and surrounds in the dry season (May to September-ish), I recommend you do so at least once in your life. How many Australian festivals have you been to in June wearing t-shirt, shorts, and thongs throughout?
For many, it was the first festival for at least two years, and the frissons of joy and excitement on Friday afternoon/evening were visible – there was definitely something in the air.
I reckon there’s a sort of muscle memory involved in getting into a festival rhythm. It begins with arrival/check-in procedures and starting to eye off items in the program. And as you readjust your wristband or lanyard, wave hello to familiar faces*, and the sound of music from nearby campsites starts drifting across the lawns, it’s like festivals never stopped.
* “Shirl, that bloke over there with the Fairbridge t-shirt and a face like a dropped pie. Looks a bit like our Neville. Blazes, what’s his name? Is it Tom, Gunther, or Prakash?”
“That’s Freda, love.”
“Right you are.”
Just on the program, THFF has a very friendly, compact size. More often than not, there’s only one venue running. The few overlapping events are helpfully highlighted in the program, but the singular focus at most times really added an extra dimension of a laid-back feel, with no need for punters to do the 200-metre dash between venues.
John McCartie, president of the Top End Folk Club spoke a bit about the duality of the festival venues:
“It [alternating between Darwin and Alice] gives everyone a bit of a break.
There were a couple of offshoots: Townsville hosted one, Katherine did two, Jabiru did one, but over the years it’s settled into the current arrangement of two festivals.”
“This year, we’ve picked up where we left off.
The main thing is the great unknown: what’s going to happen tomorrow? The biggest challenge is not knowing who’s going to turn up [due to border closures]. But we have representation from every state and both mainland territories, and six ex-Christmas Island people.”
“It’s got a reputation amongst southern folk as a very laid-back little festival. Very convivial in terms of weather and people.”
I must mention the festival lanyard. Having worn and discarded scores of paper/plastic wristbands and simple lanyards, the THFF 50 edition is definitely a keeper – a sturdy combination bottle opener and drink coaster. Essential kit for any festival regular.
The Mary River retreat management had closed the venue to just festival patrons, which was no small thing on a long weekend in the peak dry season when the tourist industry is trying to claw back losses from 2020. It did mean that everyone on site was there for a common purpose, and there were none of those petty turf squabbles that can occasionally mar proceedings in mixed accommodation.
“It’s 3am; would you PLEASE put the piano accordion down?”
And such like.
Attendance was heavily NT-based and I’d hazard a guess that most of Alice Springs’s folk community had barrelled up the Stuart Highway and were on hand.
Happily, many were also there from around the country, including some Victorians who had been on the road before the latest lockdown put a stop to travel from the south-east. Even a former brother in song (a fellow tenor) from a decade ago had lobbed in from Sydney. (G’day, Patrick.)
Plus an ever-present fixture on his home territory soil, my former colleague in the written word, Gareth Hugh Evans, creator of arguably Australia’s finest folk blog – Timber and Steel – and one half of the band of the same name.
And is it really an Australian folk festival without Campbell the Swaggie? The travelling poet was a very welcome returnee to the NT after a two-year absence.
Opening events, performing, and ever-present for the weekend were two legends of the Northern Territory: Bill Yidumduma Harney, senior elder of the Wardaman people near Katherinen. And bastion of NT song, culture, and politics, Ted Egan.
It was an absolute privilege to hear the individual and shared experiences of these two old mates that span decades. Bill is a non-stop gushing fountain of stories, anecdotes, and legends. If someone simply trailed him around all day taking dictation, we’d have to build a second NT Library to house the volumes. And man, is he light on his feet for an older… for a man of advanced… for an elder.
Ted Egan had the task of opening the festival officially:
“It’s a thrill to be here. And look at all these beautiful faces in front of me; so many I’ve known for many, many years and so many new friends…”
(Pause as a gust of wind caught the Top End Folk Club banner, bringing it tumbling ever so gently down over Bill Harney’s head.)
“It’s very good to be asked to do the official opening because I think Nerys and I have probably been to 25, 30 of the festivals over the years, and we intend to keep coming while we’re still vertical. It’s been a wonderful 50 years since it first started.”
“I’m particularly enthused this year to see so many young people. Karen Jackson’s brought her lovely Fiddlesticks group up from Alice, and you’re going to be knocked out when you hear them play. Sally Balfour’s over here with her two lads. That’s what we need: the new generation. It’s crucial to keep the spirit alive.”
My personal highlight of the weekend was the simple joy of being in the thick of a bona fide, fair dinkum singing session again. Veterans of the artform know these happenings can only be planned so much – some of the best ones sprout and bloom organically. On the first night, the raised voices of the young, old, in-between, sober, tipsy, and three parts off-piste were things of beauty and joys to behold.
We all have those moments that we cherish on our mental mantlepieces, and mine now include having Ted Egan lead us all in rousing renditions of ‘Ocean Liner’ and ‘Got Some Bloody Good Drinkers in the Northern Territory’. (I’ll add some video to this article on my website.)
From our position in the back corner of the veranda, I first got to hear members of the Alice Springs men’s singing group, The Shavings.
I’ve got a full interview with them to share in the not-too distant future. In short, the group arose as a spin-off from a female singing group of their partners named The Splinters. They had come together and bonded over a love of song, companionship, and cheese, and this was their first festival outside Alice Springs.
Mark Hussey spoke of his experience in a band in South Australia: “I was kicked out because I couldn’t remember the words of the song. I can get away with not remembering the words when I sing with other people!”
Chris O’Loughlin spoke of the importance of the interplay of confidence and performance when singing: “I really found my own ability improved just purely if I was confident. And singing together gives you that confidence, because you’re so supported in lyrics and supported in the notes and the music. I’m familiar with a lot of people who can sing and could sing so much better if they sang confidently and in a supportive environment.”
Which was all in evidence at The Shavings’ singing workshop, after which this scribe had a dual earworm on constant repeat: Leave Her, Johnny and On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at.
The workshop was attended by a good human crowd, plus the resident emu who strutted around between venues, workshops and campsites all weekend, and even joined in the yoga sessions.
Another stalwart of the CAFS I spoke to at some length (and will share the longer interview later) is Barry Skipsey. Barry was born on King Island and got his musical chops growing up as the progeny of two pianist-playing parents. Barry played rock guitar and sang in Melbourne. In 1976 after Cyclone Tracy, Barry threw a couple of guitars and cameras into his HB Torana and headed to the NT.
He came for six weeks and is still here 45 years later.
“This is the 50th Top Half Folk Festival, and I’ve been to close to 40 of them.
And they’re all wonderful people; they are my family. I do get very emotional when I see them all. Because noone’s getting any younger, some of them have passed away, we all have health issues, but if there’s one thing in common, it’s this music.
Lyrics, song-writing, and the power of voice.”
Sadly, one scratching from the interstate attendees was festival favourite Bernard Carney. At a very volatile time for interstate travel (when is it not?), the trip up north from the south-west wasn’t worth the risk if the return journey might involve a 14-day quarantine period. In his stead, Darwin-based singer-songwriter Crystal Robins subbed in at short notice with just one request from Bernard: could she play one of his songs?
An absolute master of the quickly-learned cover version, Crystal performed ‘Suitcase of Stars’ at the Saturday night concert and again on the deck for Sunday lunchtime. Back-announcing her concert bracket, MC Dave Evans said he’d be texting Bernard to let him know what a wonderful job Crystal had done.
Having reached their 50th, talk around the festival occasionally touched on whether there’ll be a 51st. John McCartie was optimistic on the topic:
“It’s a bit of a hard one to answer. We’re certainly an aging population, but there are younger people interested, and I think that’s borne out by the fact that folk music – way back when – the definition of folk music was very narrow. Over the decades that has broadened its appeal to a younger generation. It will morph over time, but I think it will stay.”
Some of us rounded out our Mary River stay on Sunday evening or Monday morning with an hour in the cruise boat on the eponymous river, spotting a few crocodiles plus many more of the bird population, and hearing more about what is believed to be the most densely crocodile-populated river in the world. All of us were keen to follow our captain’s suggestion to keep arms and heads inside the vessel, and to stick to the pool for any swimming activities.
Late Monday morning came and as the muggle campervans and hire cars started lining up at the front entrance, we all bade a fond farewell to Mary River Wilderness Retreat, and a hopeful ‘See you in the MacDonnell Ranges this time next year’.
For more on the festival, see https://www.topendfolkclub.org/top-half-folk-festivals/ and https://www.facebook.com/tophalffolkfestival