This article also appeared in edition 152 of Trad And Now magazine in November 2022.
Having not ventured from Perth/Fremantle since landing in Western Australia in April 2022, it was great to zip off for two weeks in a rented campervan to see the great south west, mostly to take in the 2022 Albany International Folk ‘N Shanty Festival. Heading off towards a weekend of music, song, and good people is hard to beat.
It was my first time driving in Western Australia and proved quite the revelation. WA for me conjures up images of stark rocky ranges, miles of pindan dust, and a harsh, dry climate. But Freo to Albany and return via Denmark, Nannup, and Margaret River has the look and feel of south east NSW or Victoria. Dairy cow, vineyard, and tall tree country.
Albany is quite stunning. Turning up early and staying late was wise. A boat across Oyster Harbour and up Kalgan River, a morning zip around King George Sound on a whale-spotting boat, a spin out to the wind farm, and wanderings around the tops of Mounts Melville and Clarence (Corndarup) – all recommended diversions. Bring a jumper.
Add in a trip to a local brewery and the giniversity and that was a pretty full first visit. Now add 2.5 days of a shanty festival and stir liberally.
I offered my MC skills and told the festival director I’d buy a ticket, but was informed that wouldn’t be possible. (The ticket purchase, that is.)
It’s a totally free festival.
Not only is there no charge for punters, the performers come from far and wide to provide their services for free.
Festival creator Gary “Grizz” Greenwald explained how it came to be:
“There’s shanty groups all around the coast of the UK; shanty festivals all over Europe and North America. I got to [Western] Australia and assumed there’d be a shanty group and there wasn’t one (in this town). Started a shanty group in 2016.
As soon as we got the group going, The Lost Quays were the only group gigging in WA at that time. The Fo’c’s’le Firkins came out of retirement – they’d never called quits, they just weren’t doing a lot. The She Shants (wives and partners of The Lost Quays) were around and we did a workshop.
Colin Anker came around for tea and a few beers and a bit of a sing with us. We put a post on social media and something went in the newspaper, and they had 25 lads come and started The Anchormen.
Then we suddenly realised we had enough groups for a shanty festival.”
Grizz also enlightened me on why there are no performance or attendance fees:
“The model in the UK is (Falmouth would be your example): you perform for free and raise money for charity. What we’ve been trying to do is get charity buy-in, so you’ve got charities who want to use it as a vehicle to raise money.
We would like to pay the musicians’ expenses, but you’ve got to have the money to do it.”
Like other festivals without a camping element, Albany keeps its administrative overheads a little lower by holding events mostly in four centrally-located, established venues, all within an easy walk of each other. That’s a good thing when there’s rain around and the temperatures are a little brisk. While Perth/Freo was just tentatively dipping a toe into 30+ Celsius territory, Albany and surrounds were noticeably milder.
As one radio presenter observed: “21C in Albany today – that’ll feel like 30C to them!”
The Albany festival is still in its infancy having kicked off in 2019 and taken a year out for the plague. In these still uncertain times, John Henderson (festival director since 2021) had some pre-festival nerves.
“It’s been an education for me because I’ve never done anything like this before. Last week, I went to bed one night and was lying awake worried that noone was going to come. Then the next night I was lying awake worried that too many people were going to come.
But because we don’t sell tickets, we didn’t know how many people were coming. You just sit there going, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”
Crowds ended up being Mother Bear level: just about right. Venues started filling up when sessions started for the day about 10am and ebbed/flowed til stumps, peaking at early to late-evening. Canny planning saw the rowdier, noisier shanty groups on later in the evening, and the Premier and Earl of Spencer Inn were rocking and rolling.
I take a kind of vicarious joy in standing down the back of venues like the Earl of Spencer on Saturday night when the home team, The Albany Shantymen, were in full hue and cry. I could only see the singers’ heads over the top of a sea of bobbing heads.
Watching the band crank out shanty after sea song after shanty with relatively little chat, I was mesmerised by a group of people in front of me that must have been late teens to early 20s at the very oldest. Despite their youth, they were belting out the chorus gustily. Everyone, every word.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, but they didn’t look like your archetypal shanty crowd or even folkies, come to that. (Shocking generalisation, I know, but let’s move on.) It was only after talking with Grizz and John the following Tuesday night after the festival had wrapped that I discovered I’m the last person in the world to find out about the worldwide shanty craze that had erupted on Tiktok, especially ‘Soon May The Wellerman Come’.
Accordingly, there were several opportunities over the weekend to sing of our expectation of the imminent arrival of sugar and tea and rum.
The following day there was an even younger cohort to witness carrying on shanty traditions with a duo called Marmaduke Marauders from Margaret River. Harper (12) and Otis (10) were on the blackboard at The Albany Club belting out shanties in the front room.
Harper: “When I was 11 I heard some shanties on the radio after The Wellerman hit by The Albany Shantymen, and that’s what got me into them.”
Otis: “I didn’t hear it on the radio but Harper played some songs at dinner that night and I heard them and decided that I liked shanties.”
Harper and Otis went to the Albany festival after that to further their interest in the genre. They count The Anchormen, The Albany Shantymen, and The Pogues as their favourites.
Appropriately enough, the WA shanty groups hug the shoreline from Albany on the south coast up to Geraldton, with one group of very welcome interlopers from Sydney. Performing groups included: The Albany Shantymen and The Shantylillies (Albany); The Anchormen (Bunbury); Dunn Bay Wailers (Dunnsborough); 40 Degrees South (Sydney); The Lost Quays, The She Shants, The Original Fo’c’s’le Firkins (Fremantle); Mandurah Mariners; Rum Jungle (Geraldton); and The Salty Sea Dogs (Denmark).
Jon Cope from the Firkins had foreshadowed that despite the number of groups, there’s enough diversity of interests and songs that you don’t get the same ones endlessly repeated (see Trad and Now, edition 151). That proved to be the case, and it was only later on Sunday night that this occasional chorister thought, “Yeah, that’s probably enough ‘Barrett’s Privateers’ for a while now.”
Other performers included a mix of genres and ages offering folk, alt-country, a bit of bluegrass, and old timey. One of the crowd favourites was visiting Canadian duo À La Souche from Newfoundland, although when Keirsten began to speak to introduce herself and Bryan, she did so in a Perth accent. (Kiersten is originally from WA.)
It was great to see some artists I knew of but had not previously seen perform such as Sea Swallow (folk duo Claire Moodie and Bill Laurie), Martin & Coole (Jon Cope and Emma Birkett), and Gav Brown. My new discovery pick would have to be Matt Black (and the Gloss Whites) performing selected songs of John Prine. Matt has one of those voices that belongs on the mantle piece in the good room. Superb.
For audience participation and great fun, Saturday evening’s singing session with Albany’s Playlist Choir was hard to beat. The group took enthusiastic participants through two songs: ‘Gràinne Mhaol’ and ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’, and I’m fairly confident many walked away from the Six Degrees venue that night with two enduring earworms. I was sing/humming for days.
A tip of the hat to Phil Gray who did a great job wrangling reciters and readers to the two poets breakfasts at The Albany Club which drew close to capacity crowds. A highlight was Robyn Minee (Shantylillies) doing an hilarious version of ‘The Man From Ironbark’ with actions, ably assisted by the biggest ham this side of the Darling Downs, Jeff Swain (The Lost Quays).
Come Sunday morning about 10am and there was a boisterous crowd down at the Boat Shed to witness the epic tug of war contest between The Albany Shantymen (dressed as requested by their opposition as barmaids from the 1700s/1800s) and The Anchormen (dressed as used car salesmen, I mean, as news anchormen). Under appropriately leaden skies and a drop or two of rain, the two teams heaved, ho’d, and hauled for about four minutes before the Bunbury team claimed victory, and both groups joined in an enthusiastic rendition of ‘South Australia’.
Sunday evening wrapped things up with a raucous performance called a ‘Shipload Of Shanty’ featuring the local shantymen followed by wave after wave of singalong shanty walk-ups from festival performers.
Watch out for the 2023 festival – everyone is welcome on board.
Full interviews with Gary ‘Grizz’ Greenwald, John Henderson, and the Marmaduke Marauders will be available soon-ish-ish at www.OverheardProductions.com.
My full photo album for the festival is at: www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.546037140856123