The Bushwackers are one of the great live folk-rock bands to emerge in the global folk renaissance of the early ‘70s.
They used fiddles, accordions, guitars, harmonicas, concertinas, lagerphones, tin whistles, 5-string banjos, bodhráns, bones, spoons, electric bass and drums.
They formed at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 1971, with guitarist Dave Isom, tea-chest bass player Jan ‘Yarn’ Wositzky and lagerphonist Bert Kahanoff. They were joined by Mick Slocum on accordion and Davey Kidd on fiddle in 1972.
It became a serious full-time concern when Dobe Newton joined in 1973.
Dobe Newton was playing drums in a soul-blues band in Sydney when he met his future wife Sally at a New Year’s Eve party and followed her to Perth.
While training to be a teacher, he joined an Irish folk group playing tin whistle and lagerphone.
On a trip to the East Coast, the engine in their panel van blew up, so they set up benefit shows to raise money for a new one.
Among the acts playing were The Bushwackers. They hit it off, and offered Dobe a gig.
He insisted on returning to Perth to finish his Uni course before joining them, a few months before the first of their four UK/European tours.
They initially couldn’t get a gig in an Australian folk club. They were run by UK expats who only wanted to recreate music from ye olde country.
“We developed our own gigs,” recalls Dobe.
“We took that music into the pubs, to punters who were very excited about what we were doing but they weren’t necessarily folk fans.”
It’s only apt that this Desk Tape was recorded at the Dan O’Connell in Carlton, Melbourne.
Bushwackers at the Dan O’Connell Hotel
It was one of their spiritual homes, where they played wild shows to a fervent crowd where sweat poured down walls.
“Those nights were simply mega …and inspiring,” Dobe says.
“People had such a wonderful enthusiasm, leaping on the ceiling, on tables, swinging from metal struts, it was chaos but beautiful chaos.
“It was crammed, everybody sweated. It was a joy for everyone.”
Three to five encores a night was the norm.
But the record amount of encores, of eight, was at the Embankment club near Dublin when the publican had to turn the lights off for ten minutes before the crowd stopped braying for even more.
“The crowds went nuts for them at their shows,” agrees long time sound engineer Michael Rutledge. “They were a lot of fun, boisterous and infectious
“They were musically a very good band, the whole being better than the sum, and they clicked so well.
“I hadn’t heard too much of that kind of music, so it was interesting and different and I liked it.”
The Bushwackers early setlist of Australian folk songs, some which drew back 100 years, pricked up the ears of audiences who identified.
They were about anti-authority larrikins like ‘The Ryebuck Shearer’, ‘Flash Jack from Gundagai’ from 1905, Banjo Patterson’s 1892 poem ‘The Man from Ironbark’, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ and ‘Lachlan Tigers’ about sheep shearers from a specific part of NSW.
There were dreams about a new life (‘The Shores of Botany Bay’, ‘Ten Thousand Miles Away’, ‘Bound for South Australia’) and places like ‘Augathella Station’, a town in Queensland where cattle drovers headed, and ‘The Road To Gundagai’, and life on the road (‘Billy The Tea’)
“Many of the songs are about what Australians have always done, which is travel, mostly for work.
“There were so many variations of these songs as people travelled to Far North Queensland or Far West Victoria or the Outback.
“They took the songs with them, and changed the words and sometimes the music, to adapt to the different situations” recalls Dobe.
The Bushwackers’ rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is actually the Queensland version which varies tune-wise, and not the better known original tune Banjo Patterson composed the music to.
After the arrival of Roger Corbett in 1980, he and Newton became a strong songwriting team, with socially conscious songs as ‘Beneath The Southern Cross’ and ‘When Britannia Ruled The Waves’ fitting in between the traditional material.
Newton wrote ‘I Am Australian’ with The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, regarded as the unofficial national anthem and which won The Bushwackers a Golden Guitar country award.
Musically The Bushwackers had always been far more imaginative than their peers, with more complicated multi-tempo instrumental passages.
This was partly for the benefit of their rock audiences, and partly because they themselves were excited by what British folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were doing on the albums they found in Melbourne import record stores.