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Martyn Wyndham-Read
- by Mel Howley
Issue 25 January/February '98




Martyn Wyndham-Reid with Guitar

Martyn is one of our best known and respected singers, with a laid-back, hypnotic style which never fails to relax and enthrall his audiences; he is also an acknowledged expert on Australian song. Due to his grandfathers' involvement in bloodstock and horse racing Martyn went from a small farm in Sussex to work on a sheep station at Emu Springs in South Australia. "I went there as a jackaroo, a sort of trainee manager, learning all the different aspects of running a sheep station, but working as a station-hand." He went out there by boat in 1960, paying his own fare, not going as a 'ten pound pommie' on assisted passage, "If you went like that you had to stay a minimum of two years - they kept your passport!" Thirty-five days on the boat, landing in Australia with a small bag and a guitar as luggage, and eighteen years old! Tintinara, the nearest town to Emu Springs, was "a pub, a store, and a railway siding, you had to notify the conductor so he could tell the train-driver they needed to stop there!" But it made a big impression on the young Martyn Wyndham Read, "We got there at four in the morning and I got off the train, watched it disappear into the distance. It was a moonlit night and you could see the bush in the moonlight, and there was absolutely nothing else! Beautiful."

The change from Sussex was dramatic, moving from a farm where the 'big field' was some ten acres to a sheep station where a 'paddock' was anywhere between 500 or 1000 acres - "It was mind-boggling! Emu Springs was a new station and only 15000 acres were fenced, and we had to go out into the bush and fence the other 15000 acres." But what appealed, what fuelled his imagination, his love of the country was some thing that many of us would find least appealing! "The land is burnt and arid and you can do a 360 degree turn and it's just flat, nothing, it's great. That's what I really love about the place - you can go for days and not see another person, you can just drive and see nothing for days."

It was at Emu Springs that he first came across Australian songs, at a cricket team celebration, "I played a few songs, and then one of the old station-hands, a grader-driver called Harold Fox started to sing these Australian songs. And my jaw dropped, and I thought they were wonderful and I wanted to learn them." The rest, as they say, is history.

After about a year on the sheep-station Martyn was 'reduced' - an antipodean term for redundancy, - so he went on the road. "I set off to drift my way from Adelaide up to Sydney, hitch-hiking and singing a few songs in a pub somewhere. They'd give you a feed and a drink, and put you up for the night." On reaching Sydney he met up with other singers and in the Royal George they would gather to sing and swap songs, "There was no idea of it being a folk revival or anything, they weren't really known as "Folk Songs" then, just songs that people sang." However, the music scene wasn't based around the pubs as it was in the UK, probably because in Australia they closed at six in the evening! The music was to be found in the coffee lounges, which served coffee and pancakes and stayed open 'til midnight. "I teamed-up with a bloke called Don Lee and we went down to Melbourne and met Tom Lazar, a Hungarian, who ran a coffee lounge called 'The Reata', and another in Portsea called 'The Greasy Spoon'. Portsea was a holiday resort and we worked there for four months working every night of the week, playing from eight 'til twelve. 'Course it was a grog free zone, but we'd have a big aluminium milk-shake container filled with beer!" Eventually Don moved on but Martyn stayed there living above the place. He sang there and at another place, Frank Traynor's. "It had three rooms, so he'd have four people singing - one in each room, one resting, and you'd rotate doing half an hour in each room. I'd sing there from eight to ten then go back to the Reata and sing there 'til three-ish, then go on to a party - and I did that for about two years!"

Martyn spent seven years in Australia before returning to the UK in '67. He met-up with Trevor Lucas (an Australian, out of Fairport and married to Sandy Denny) who he had known back in Australia and Trevor introduced him to Bert Lloyd - the start of a long friendship. In 68/69 Martyn was invited to sing on Bert's record 'Leviathan' which led to him meeting Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, and Alf Edwards who were also on the recording. That was the first time he met Carthy, a man he came to know and to respect highly. "He's the one bloke on the folk scene that people would afford a bit of big-headedness, but he's got none of it.He's the most helpful, encouraging, approachable ... he's an example of how people should be."

It was also around this time that Martyn started doing the folk clubs, helped by Roy Harris who introduced him to 'the circuit' which was how performers went on tour at that time. Martyn was booked at a club where the organiser was very protective of 'the tradition', and was dubious about the validity of Australian songs and where they fitted into his view of folk singing. He asked Martyn what was meant by Australian songs - "I said, "There's 'Waltzing Matilda'," and I saw his face drop, "and quite an obscure one called 'The Wild Colonial Boy'," and it dropped further, "and there's things like 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down' and 'My Boomerang Wont Come Back'!" The club organiser soon discovered, like the rest of us, that there really are some beautiful songs from Australia, and Martyn seems to know them all. However, he has never really been a collector, "I'm just the singer of the songs collected by Bush Music Clubs and the Folklore society - people like John Meredith, Arthur and Kath Lumsden, Norman O'Connor and others."

The first, eponymous, UK album came out in '71 made with Nic Jones, Terry Potter, Dave and Toni Arthur, Packie Byrne, and Dave Bland, and the cover is a classic with the protagonists almost defeating identification due to the length of their hair! It was recorded on Bill Leader's Trailer label. "Bill was actually a very important person in the folk revival, he helped keep the revival going. If you were a muso, and in London, you went round to Bill Leader's, because things were happening there, something was always going on, and you'd meet up with people. He had this flat in Camden Town in the top of a big house, and we recorded in his living room. You'd be in the middle of a song and the phone would ring - and it didn't sound right in the middle of 'Moreton Bay'!" Most of the material on the early albums was Australian traditional music, but Martyn has also promoted contemporary Australian writing, notably Eric Bogle's. He met Eric at a festival in Carcoar, New South Wales in '79, at a barbecue for the artists after the festival ended. "It was a beautiful night, the stars were out, we had loads of wine and a great barbecue and we sat round this fire singing songs. That's when I first really got to know Eric and he's been a good friend ever since." Bogle sings from the heart, and he writes songs that will last for ever, songs you wish you had written yourself - and if you've heard him singing 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda' ...

There are some songs that have now been in Martyn's repertoire for around thirty years and there must be a difficulty in maintaining the enthusiasm for them, keeping them fresh. "You 'rest' songs so that you don't get fed-up with them, then you come back to them later and often you find something else in them or a different way to sing them, and that's the strength of the old songs. As you get older the repertoire gets smaller and smaller. But every single song that I do now I really love, every song is my favourite song. It's that which motivates you to get on the road in the morning, the thought of the songs you'll be singing in the evening." And that love of the song is what comes across in any performance by this man, it's part of what holds his audience spellbound, visualising the sights and sounds of Australia. "I immerse myself in them completely, it's like living the story. They take me back and when I sing them I can experience that smell of the outback, the shearing, everything."

Three years ago on 'Sunlit Plains' Martyn recorded 'Oh For Me Grog', a song he first recorded back in '71, and surprisingly the treatment, very slow and pensive, has hardly changed at all over the intervening twenty-six years. The song was originally collected by Bert Lloyd back in the twenties, and Bert always sang the song differently to Martyn. "He was somewhere in New South Wales in a shanty, a pub, and this bloke had been on a bender for three weeks and the song just flowed out of him. I used to have big arguments - debates - with him about it because he used to sing it very fast, and I reckon that anyone that had been on a three-week bender would have been sad and depressed and wouldn't have a lot of enthusiasm or energy. Bert swore that was how he got it, and that was how the bloke sung it." Another area of 'discussion' between the two of them was 'Jim Jones' - "I always used to sing it very fast and with real attack. It's the only convict song that has any defiance in it, all the others are very defeatist and reflect the despair, but it's there in the last verse, "they'll yet regret the day they sent Jim Jones to Botany Bay'". Bert said "No, no, no, you should sing it nice and reflectively, quietly", and one day I was sitting at home and in a reflective mood and I picked up the guitar and hadn't sung 'Jim Jones' for a while and I sang it slowly, and I thought to myself "Yeah Bert you're right" - but I still sing 'Oh For Me Grog' slow!"

Another of Martyn's favourite songsmiths is Graeme Miles and he has recorded several, one such is 'Shepherd On The Fell'. "It's a really good song, one he wrote in the mid-60s, '65 I think, and, like Eric Bogle, he started off with some of the best ones, his first song was 'Sea Coal', written in 1949!" Martyn also recalls an early tribute to the magic of Graeme's writing skills, "The Wilsons did a whole album of his songs, 'Horumarye'. When it came out I played one side, and then the other, and then realised that it was all unaccompanied."

Roughly every two years Martyn returns to Australia, where the club scene is small but there are some huge festivals, with the National at Canberra putting 25,000 through the gates. "I played there last trip. There was Roy Bailey; Martin, Norma and Eliza; Tom Paxton; and Jay Turner, and there's also a lot of talent in Australia. But to listen to Carthy, Norma, and Eliza in Australia - wonderful! And Roy was fantastic as well, he's very, very popular over there."

More recently Martyn has been including Bush Poems in his repertoire, "They are Australian recitations, the old bush poems - some of them are so funny, and they've got such an atmosphere to them". They sit comfortably with the rest of Martyn's material, and his most recent recording, 'Beneath A Southern Sky', has one, 'The Swaggle Snake and Frog', an excellent and amusing yarn. The album also has Martyn performing with the No Man's Band - which comprises fellow musicians, and friends, Iris Bishop (duet & anglo concertinas, accordian), Mike O'Connor (fiddle), and Gary Holder (bass). This is something of a change for Martyn as he usually performs solo, but the addition of the band gives scope for different treatments of his songs. There are also dance tunes from Australia - courtesy of the Wongawilli Bush Band (I kid you not!), with a waltz, a schottishe, and a polka - material he really could not have done without a band, and all part of building the format, the structure of the new album. It works very well indeed. The CD also has a terrific version of 'Lambs On The Green Hills' with superb fiddle from Mike O'Connor; and O'Connor's own song 'The Best Of Autumn'.

Martyn Wyndham Read is a real craftsman, who sings from the heart. He has appeared on over thirty-two recordings, spread over a period of some thirty-five years, but what makes him keep doing that, what motivates him to keep going out to the clubs and festivals? "It's just that there are great people to meet, and that you stay with, and that you sing with. You find a lot of really good people in the folk world. Every time I sing in a club I enjoy it and there are so many people that I feel privileged to know and play with. My grandfather said that in this life you've got to find out what you like doing, then get someone to pay you to do it! And I'm really very happy doing what I'm doing." What more is there to be said?

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