Overheard On The Road
Observations, interviews, and stories from the backroads, main roads, and city streets of Terra Australis and the world – This article appeared in Trad & Now magazine in early 2021.
Barry Skipsey – Photographer, Singer-songwriter, Northern Territorian
by Bill Quinn with Madison Collier
You can read all about it in Trad & Now edition 143, September 2021. Mentioned in dispatches is Barry Skipsey, a man of many talents, with a story to tell that’s in many ways a common tale: come to Australia’s Northern Territory for a few weeks; stay for decades.
But in the most important way, it’s unique to Barry Skipsey.
A man who just yesterday (as I type in late 2021) appeared on stage in Alice Springs with no less than Scotty Balfour, Ross Muir, and David Evans in the ‘Living Histories’ show: stories and songs from the legendary band Bloodwood, plus their solo adventures outside the band.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, The Shavings had finished their singing workshop and the afternoon concert was kicking in, we had a chat with Barry, dressed in his territory rig and leaning against his territory rig. (First rig is a clothes reference, the second is a mighty automobile that ploughs the Stuart Highway and beyond).
Bill Quinn: Barry, you’ve been doing folk for about 145 years?
Barry Skipsey: (Laughs) Seems like it. I’m only 64 but yeah, we’ve all got aches and pains. I’ve got a couple of brand new knees in recent years.
BQ: But you’re not originally from the Northern Territory?
BS: No, I was actually born on King Island. I’m a Tasmanian, technically.
I left there when I was about six years old. My father was over there building soldier settler homes. My brother and I were born there, and I left there when I was six. And I often say that we came to Australia. We came to Melbourne.
BQ: Did you grow up in music, or is it something you went out and sought?
BS: Both my parents played the piano, and there was always music in the house. My dad bought an old piano for a couple cartons of beer. It had been sitting in someone’s garage for a long time, half eaten by a cockatoo that was also living in the garage.
Mum had her Readers Digest gospel records. There was always music around. That kick-started me.
I then joined some mates at the technical school and ended up in a rock band at the age of sort of 17. I had hair halfway down my back. I’m follicley challenged these days like a lot of us are.
BQ: The rock band was in Melbourne, was it?
BS: The rock band was in Melbourne and the band was called Zip Ripperty.
BS: We did weddings, parties, anything type thing, and we wrote a lot of songs. I learnt how to sing in that band because whilst I became a reasonably competent rhythm guitarist in the band, singing was like really from the neck out. Not using singing properly.
I’d sing myself hoarse after two songs in the band and I thought: No, this is not right.
So I taught myself to sing and use the diaphragm and to get a deep voice and to last longer.
[BQ: You can do your own jokes at home about diaphragms and lasting longer. Trad & Now is a family publication. 😉 ]
But yeah, that was in the rock and roll rock band days. I then jumped in the car, and I came up [to the NT].
I had a conversation with a brother of mine. He and his wife had been up here for a couple of years from Melbourne, went through Cyclone Tracey, and he heard me having a whinge on the phone about the bitter winters, the traffic and the congestion.
BQ: And he said, “I’ve got a cure for that.”
BS: He said, “Come on up; there’s plenty of room”. So, I did.
I was working for Ted’s Camera Store in Melbourne selling cameras at the top end of Elizabeth Street. I had some issues with my knees, had operations on my knees. So I resigned, and jumped in my little 1969 HB Torana with a couple of guitars and some cameras.
I’m also a professional photographer. Music and photography were two things I was very passionate about, and they were two things my parents thought would tide me over to earn a living until I got a proper job.
BQ: (Laughs) Of course.
BS: I’m 64 and that’s what I do.
BQ: Okay. Still never got a proper job!
BS: Never got a proper job.
BQ: Fantastic. So, what year did you come up? 1975?
BS: Ah 1976. I remember I came up via the shearing industry. I got stuck because I came up at the wrong time of year: January/February through Queensland.
BQ: And you got a Torana up from Melbourne to Darwin?
BS: Yeah, got bogged on the road into Boulia along with a lot of other people. The coppers came out and closed the road for two or three days, so we couldn’t go anywhere. The road had to dry out.
We got pushed and pulled and yeah, my little HB Torana made it all the way from Melbourne to Darwin.
BQ: Wow. Well done.
BS: Yeah, I was pretty amazed. I honestly thought I’d be here for maybe six weeks. Up in Darwin, I’d started to fill out the forms to go to uni to do a fine arts degree.
BQ: 45 years later, here we are.
BS: Well, that’s right. My brother took me down to the Darwin Sailing Club or the Ski Club. One of the clubs down there in Fannie Bay on the beach. And ah! I had a beer in one hand and a big bucket of prawns in the other, and I’m watching the sun go down over Fannie Bay, and I thought, “Shit, this is a bit hard!”
I’d never been any further north than Mildura (Victoria) at that stage. I had just turned 20.
Just going back to getting stuck in Queensland, I got a job on the way up when the Thomson River was up. I started travelling, I met up with a shearer and his wife in Charleville, and he said, “Well you can’t go any further than this, so you may as well get a job as a roustie.”
I said a what? What’s that? “You know, in the shearing shed. Working as a roustabout.”
I said yeah, so I’ve written several songs about working in the shearing industry as a city slicker. I grew up real quick, working on a shearing property in Queensland called Mount Margaret. I think it was three weeks to a month. We shore, we cleared out 28,000 sheep on a six-down shed, and I grew up really quick as a young fella.
BQ: You originally came to Darwin then moved down to Alice, right?
BS: Yeah, I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the humidity. When I got to Darwin, I thought I better get a job. Look, it’s still the Territory, and in some respects, it still is the land of opportunity.
So, I got on the phone and started phoning around to every government department that had a photographic department, and I ended up getting a job as a part-time dark room technician, processing and printing the official government photographers’ work for the Chef Minister’s Department.
I no sooner got that job (about 20 hours a week), and the official photographer went on leave for eight weeks, so I was it. I was Paul Everingham’s photographer; a case of sink or swim.
So yeah, music and photography have always worked out well. But in the end, I lasted three years. I just couldn’t handle the humidity in the end.
BS: I did chase a woman. She went down to Alice Springs and thank God she kept on going.
BS: In my time in Darwin, I met up with all these people here behind me but we were all a lot younger then. This year (2021) is now 45 years in the NT and if this is the 50th Top Half Folk Festival, I’ve been to close to 40 of them.
They’re all wonderful people. They are my family, and I do get very emotional when I see them all because no one is getting any younger. Some of them have passed away, and we’ve all got health issues. But if there is one thing in common it is this music, lyrics, song-writing, the power of voice.
BQ: Tell me about the transition from Rock God down in Melbourne to folk music.
BS: I don’t know if there was any transition. Certainly when I got to the Territory, I wasn’t running around looking for a rock band. You been in Darwin a long time?
BQ: Two years.
BS: In Cavenagh Street, there used to be a café called the Rock Mellow Café, and they advertised for someone to play some acoustic music a couple nights a week. I put my hand up, and I learnt all these songs. I was singing a lot of James Taylor and a lot of American stuff.
Then someone said, “You’re half decent; do you want to come along to the Top End Folk Club?” I said, “Folk? Folk music?” Peter, Paul and Mary. Puff the Magic Dragon. That’s not for me.
It was. I did. I went along to the gun turret which is now the military museum [at East Point near Fannie Bay, NT]. That’s where we performed every Sunday night, and I met the most wonderful bunch of people that are still my friends to this very day.
So there was really no transition as such. I just loved the music. I grew up in a house with my mother playing gospel music. My father loved sea shanties. I’ve got a recording of his that he purchased on King Island of a Welsh choir singing sea shanties, and he bought the record before he even had a record player to play it on.
I am the product of my parents. I’ve got siblings – sadly a couple older ones have passed away now – but I seem to be the only one in the family that really has picked up the music. I don’t really understand why that was. We’re all different.
BQ: And Alice Springs has a fairly vibrant folk community?
BS: Well, it did have. It’s got a vibrant music community now. You’ve got the Way Out Back festival, me and Scotty Balfour and David Evans, and Bob Barford before he left Alice Springs. We were the main coordinators of our version of this weekend [Top Half Folk Festival]. We alternate and have it out at Glen Helen Homestead (Lodge) which has been closed for a while but has recently been purchased by Discovery Parks, thank god.
This is the 50th, and I don’t know if there will be a 51st. But we’ve been trying to get the young ones to pick up the baton, so to speak. Music festivals, roots music, and so on with the Way Out Back Festival at Ross River with the younger generation coming through: it’s a different kind of music but it’s music. It’s a festival.
BQ: If I were stumbling through Alice Springs, where would I go to find this music community that you’re involved with?
BS: Ah look, honestly you wouldn’t.
BQ: Oh really?
BS: No, seriously, you wouldn’t. The Top End Folk Club still meet, as I understand it at the Darwin Railway Club at least once a month whereas we (CAFS) don’t. The folk club is no more, so we don’t meet. We only get together socially, and certainly every two years put on our version of the Top Half Folk Festival. So no, sadly you can’t go into a venue and hear this kind of music in Alice Springs.
BQ: That sort of cruels my signature last question which is what are you going to tell me about what’s going on in five years’ time if I’m standing here talking with you?
BS: Look I’m honest, I can’t see it, I can’t see this festival continuing personally in Central Australia. I believe they’re pretty enthusiastic up here (Top End). They’ve done a wonderful job again on this weekend. They seem to be confident that there are more younger people coming through. I’m not confident that’s going to happen in Alice Springs:
BQ: Oh, that’s a shame.
BS: I don’t know what’s going to happen with this festival: I read something recently on the ABC website that the first official folk festival happened in Nariel Creek in 1971: Well, we got the Top Half Folk Festival going in March 1971 in Alice Springs.
BQ: At the Old Telegraph Station.
BS: At the Old Telegraph Station. And there are two or three people here today, Peter Bate and Scotty Balfour, who were there sitting up on hay bales wearing their colonial outfits of the time up on a flat top. You’re talking 50 years ago.
BQ: Maybe we need to get representers of NT and Corryong or Nariel Creek to meet somewhere in NSW and have a state of origin festival some time.
BS: Quite possibly. I was going to send a text or an email to the ABC saying I think have a look around.
I’m a singer songwriter. I’ll do five of my songs tonight, and they’re all very different.
I worked in the prawning industry. I’ll be singing one of those tonight. Working songs, the old traditional working songs. I’ve got songs about my time in the shearing industry. I am a very proud father of three kids and a couple of grandkids, so I write a lot about family life, love, and kids and just being a dad.
BQ: Fair enough. And your strong memories of this the 50th?
BS: Strong memories? It’s funny; this is supposedly the dry season, isn’t it?
BQ: It is, yeah.
BS: Bloody humid.
BQ: Bloody soft Central Australians!
BS: I know. We’re pretty dry and dried out and crusty and got sand in our veins down there. I remember the three years I was in Darwin and thought, “No, I can’t handle this humidity.” Top of the list for memories is yeah, I am definitely back in the Top End because it’s muggy.
My friends that I have literally known the 45 years I’ve been in the NT – three years in Darwin and majority of the rest of the time in Alice Springs – we all come together, we kiss, we hug, we shake hands, we drink together, and we have late night shanties, harmonies, wall-to-wall harmonies. That’s my feeling.
BQ: That Friday night session was something very special.
BS: Okay, you were there for that?
BS: Okay. My good friends The Shavings helped me out with a recording that I spent three years on with my song ‘Ocean Liner’ about the prawn trawler, my years working on the prawn trawler. They asked me: “Skip, when does the shanty session happen?”
And I said, “Look, it’s not something that’s contrived. It’s organic, it’s really down to who’s in the room or on the balcony at the end of the night.”
Sometimes the musicians take over, but they were on the other side on the other balcony, and that’s great. We had a musician thing last night, but on the Friday night, I no sooner said, “It’s kind of organic; it may not happen tonight. Hopefully it’ll happen tomorrow night. But you can’t contrive it, the elements need to be there.”
I no sooner said that and walked up the ramp and I saw two or three key people were on their third Guinness and they’re shanty people and there was not a musical instrument in sight.
BS: And I got a bit of a warm inner glow, went and got a Guin-I myself, sat down, and within ten minutes it all just took off.
BQ: It all took off. It was brilliant.
BS: So, I did my set party pieces that I am kind of known for. There are songs that people do that are kind of known for at this festival.
BS: To answer your question in a sort of long-winded way, it’s the harmonies. You’re talking like six/seven-part harmonies. I go to key people – not just blokes, but sadly some of the women that have really got wonderful voices aren’t here this weekend. I put myself in a group of about five, and we all suss each other out. And we all like to stand in a line because we bounce off each other and we know where everyone’s harmony line is.
And sometimes we’ll have a bit of a joke or I’ll get on someone else’s line, and they’ll say, “Piss off! Get off my line! Find your own line!”
Five-part harmony, sometimes more. That’s a powerful thing, that’s a wall of voice. Honestly, I’m a pretty emotional person, and sometimes that can bring me to tears.
BQ: Yep, fair enough. I sincerely hope the 51st does happen.
BS: So do I, but none of us are getting any younger, and I am the youngest of the group that coordinates it down south by about 12 years. Thank god Glen Helen has been purchased and will be open. I can imagine the new owners would be wanting to run with what we’ve been doing for the last 15-20 years. It’s a good formula, it’s a wonderful venue.
2022 Update – The 2022 Top Half Folk Festival was cancelled due to unavailability of Glen Helen. TBA for 2023.
BQ: Knock on wood.
BS: I don’t know. We’ll just have to have a few more Guinnesses and talk about it.
For more on Barry Skipsey’s music and photography, see his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/Barry-Skipsey-Singer-Songwriter-Photographer-1721449151451768/