JOHN WARNER - Yarri of Wiradjuri
(Feathers and Wedge FWCD. 047)
Review submitted to Folk Roundabout in England
The name of John Warner should be familiar to readers even if it might take
a moment or two to recall exactly why! John's a fine folk historian and
songwriter whose stock-in-trade is poignant and well-researched songs about
Australian social history and heritage; you'll doubtless have heard the
wonderful Anderson's Coast, which came from John's earlier
Pithead In The Fern project (as did Miner's Washing),
while Dave Webber & Anni Fentiman's latest album features John's rousing
union anthem Bring Out The Banners.
John's latest project is a substantial (hour-long) song-and-verse-cycle
about Yarri, a Wiradjuri man who heroically saved the lives of nearly fifty
European settlers during the great flood in Gundagai in 1852; it's performed
here by John himself with Margaret Walters and the rest of the (Australian)
Roaring Forties ensemble imparting additional vocals and instrumentation.
With his keen sense of both history and the wider picture, John's a born
storyteller who has the knack of involving his listeners and keeping them
involved through the use of bold and lively imagery and the direct, honest
and compassionate depiction of universal human emotions and truths; his
characters come alive through the natural roleplay allocated to the various
singers, all of whom have strong and distinctive voices.
Instrumentation is colourful, well chosen and not at all overdone, with
guitars, whistles, mandolin, bouzouki and a modicum of percussion tellingly
augmented by the signature tones of the didjeridoo. The production is
technically superb, both clear and forward, with the various elements in
truthful balance; and it's good that (unlike with Pithead) any ambient sound
effects are used sparingly here and confined mainly to the Great Flood
sections, where they underpin, and really do enhance, the verse.
As for the songs, well there are plenty of very fine and memorable ones here
which (perhaps surprisingly given the fairly specialist nature of the tale)
I'm sure are destined to gain wider currency outside of complete
performances of the cycle. The stylings of the songs have their roots in
traditional forms - lament, ballad, shanty, protest song - and each example
is wholly believable, with John's innate feel for the epic sweep of
traditional verse-drama forming the icing on the cake. Inevitably, several
of the songs deal with the personal elements of the tragedy, the response of
the settlers to the unforgiving climate and the plight of the Indigenous
people in the face of settlement. Additionally, John has creatively embodied
the river itself with a female "personality", and two of the most striking
songs (Mother And Daughter and Black Sally) take
the form of touching duets between Margaret Walters and Jennifer Lees;
Jennifer also pairs up (this time with Robin Connaughton) on another
standout song, Richard And Sarah, which highlights the
conflict within a family unit between the needs for safety from the flood
and income from trade.
On Reward, the status of Yarri as spokesman for his people is
starkly but effectively represented with the help of call-and-response
techniques, while numbers such as John Spencer's Punt and
Rooftop Shanty also benefit from some lusty and vigorous chorus
singing. There are times, especially early on, when the sections of verse
(well narrated by John Derum) seem to predominate (although this impression
proves false if you check out the timings); however, but the cumulative
impact of the writing becomes so great as the piece follows its course
through the drama that the verse narrative and commentary feel wholly
naturally integrated by the time you're even halfway through. It feels like
you're carried along with the ebb and flow of the Murrumbidgee River, in
And the overwhelmingly positive message of the piece, that of healthy and
fruitful interaction between Indigenous and other Australians, comes through
loud and clear. Yarri Of Wiradjuri is more than just a
song-cycle, it's a powerful and haunting historical document: a bit like a
bridge between concept album and radio-ballad perhaps, and convincing on all
fronts. And importantly, it benefits from being played all through in one
continuous sitting, and proves a compelling and rewarding experience, one
that bears repeating. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yarri of Wiradjuri
- A song and verse cycle by John Warner about the great flood in Gundagai
Review by Chloe & Jason Roweth published in Trad&Now, Issue #18,
October/November 2006, p. 50-51
Choosing to relate the story of the disastrous Gundagai flood of winter 1852
in a song and verse cycle must have raised challenges many and mighty. The
resulting CD is ample evidence that the very talented team, led by composer
/ author John Warner, have met the challenges head on and produced a work of
great quality and substance.
The original Gundagai settlement was made on the Murrumbidgee river flats
despite warnings from the local Koori people about severe flooding. When the
inevitable happened and the township was washed away, eighty-nine (known)
people lost their lives - over one third of the European population of the
town! This figure may have risen by half as much again or more if not for
the heroic behaviour of local Wiradjuri man, Yarri, who repeatedly risked
his life in his bark canoe returning to the wild floodwaters to rescue those
stranded, one by one.
Within the nature of the project the CD manages to provide quite a thorough
historical document. There has obviously been a great deal of research and
consultation but, even more impressive to us, is John's rare ability as
author to ask the pertinent questions rather than simply speak for the
This complex three-sided story - European, Wiradjuri and Murrumbidgee - is
told here with compassion and insight. There is an exploration of the
material considerations of the settlers in contrast with the nomadic
flexibility of the local inhabitants. How can you reward a hero who has no
regard for wealth or possessions? There is conflict, but also a common
humanity discovered between the mothers of both tribes in their fears for
the children of the valley. Through the whole story is woven the inexorable
ebb and flow of the Murrumbidgee and her daughter, the creek, as the spirits
of the place, the hands of fate, and characters in their own right.
The combination of narration by John Derum, and performances by fine singers
and musicians sits very happily in the ears. There is a strong sense of
melody throughout. The dominance of chorus songs leaves you singing parts of
the CD after only one listen. We get the feeling that the songs will find
their way off the CD and into peoples repertoires. Of course, this will
ensure that Yarri's story will be told far and wide for years to come: a
The CD is technically excellent. It looks great, has a thorough and helpful
booklet and sounds terrific. At a time when every man and his dog has a CD
to sell it is rare to see a product that stands this far out from the crowd.
Congratulations to John and all the crew.
YARRI OF WIRADJURI
- A song and verse cycle by John Warner
Review by R. Dale Dengate published in The Cornstalk Gazette,
Issue #380, November 2006, p. 14
The launching of the long awaited CD of John Warner's "Yarri of Wiradjuri"
was appropriately held in Gundagai, as the story tells of the heroic deeds
of a local Koori, a Wiradjuri.
John Warner's composition and the performance from many of the best folk
musicians deserves to become an Australian classic and this CD should reach
all Australian audiences. Yarri's rescue of many white settlers when the big
flood of the Murrumbidgee came in 1852, is told in a song cycle of haunting
harmonies and powerful verse.
This moving musical epic starts with a very haunting melody line, then
builds up to the moods of coming flood and disasters: "White man fool to
camp on the low ground/ Big water come down".
The denouement raising questions about "What reward do we give the hero/Who
won back lives from the rivers hand?"
The use of traditional tunes backing the words brings a melancholy mood
which alternates with the songs of positive vigour, such as "Yarri's bark
There are songs of protest about what Yarri and his people have lost with
the coming of settlers who don't understand the rhythm of the land and
touching moments between settlers as they try to come to terms with
unforgiving seasons and to support themselves in the unfamiliar territory.
Margaret Walters and Jennifer Lees have attained a fine balance in their
duets and the complex harmonies and contrapuntal rhythms have developed
splendidly since I first heard them sing about 10 years ago. They achieve an
eerie quality which is very moving especially in the Mother and Daughter
spirit of the river song when they sing of the white settlers: "They do not
feel how the land's life is pulsing".
There is a hymn like quality about a number of the songs, which could be
described as Australia's own unique spirituals.
The combination of John Warner's brilliant use of poetry and strong imagery
with a professional production of excellent performances from all singers
and musicians makes listening to this CD many times a must for all
interested in Australian heritage and music.
Enquiries: Feathers and Wedge, PO Box 615, Glebe NSW 2037 (02) 9698 2206
THE DEBUT OF MILLENNIUM OF THE CHILD AT THE LOADED DOG FOLK CLUB
23 OCTOBER 2004
REVIEW BY CHRIS MALTBY
John Warner started the night with the premiere of his new collection of
songs (plus a couple of poems) Millennium of the Child. Other than "Pack
O' Pirates" and the well-known "Llewelyn Walking", which I reckon is close
to being the perfect folk song, there are 8 new songs on the broad theme of
children and childcare.
Drawing on his experience as a childcare worker, John covers the expected
areas of learning and play, and the joy of small triumphs through to the big
picture issues of market fundamentalism, the pay and conditions of childcare
workers, paedophilia and even the burden that children bear in war and its
John's great songwriting talent shone through on every song. His "Children
of War" is a scarifying account of the effect of war on children with an
impassioned plea for a new and better millennium of the child. He followed
that with a companion piece to Llewelyn called "Emily Jumping" where a
toddler finds the courage to jump for the first time.
The next three songs touched on the workplace, "Leaving" tells of the
reasons so many carers give up with "only their comrades know what is lost"
when they go. "Paedophilia Panic" asks if the pendulum of concern has swung
too far to the detriment of male carers and kids, while "More Blokes" is a
call to arms for more men in the job. By using the universal form of a work
song John linked the childcare burden to the hard and menial work of sailors
and prisoners made easier by a song.
Then he linked the work and play themes with consummate skill with "Dignity
of Play". The chorus line says it all - "play is childrens' working day" -
and yet another great chorus to sing. After a quieter interlude on
separation with the delightful "Mum's Got To Go" he gave a rousing and
tub-thumping John Warner finish with "Sandpit Picket".
If he had led the
way the Dog audience would have been off down Johnston St "waving our bears
and our buckets and our spades until this battle's won"! The volume of the
chorus was a sure sign that John has a deservedly special place in the
hearts of the Dog audience.
JOHN WARNER : WORDSMITHPERSONSHIP*
word, courtesy of Bernard Bolan
One of the events at the 2000 National Folk Festival was a tribute to an
unnamed songwriter. People are still talking about this event at which about
40 people contributed as soloists, duos, trios and choirs - and they were
all singing songs composed by John Warner. Many in the audience were
astounded at the breadth of John's material and the sensitivity and sheer
skill of the songwriter.
And John's songs are spreading - like his midriff - widely. A Sydney choir
of over 500 people have sung his "Bring Out the Banners" in the Sydney Town
Hall; Sandra Kerr's women's choir in Northumberland won a place in a
competition with "Miner's Washin'"; James Fagan and Nancy Kerr's arrangement
of "Anderson's Coast" has helped score them gigs at festivals in South Wales
and the Orkneys; at least 8 performers (4 in the UK, 3 in Oz) have recorded
this particular song; a dancer called Diane Wilder has choreographed a
series of dances under the name "Dear Diary" to songs from "Pithead in the
Fern"; a dance in the "bush style" has been set to "Kitty Kane"; and so on.
John has written many songs and verses over the years, taking as his role
models a number of poets such as Rudyard Kipling, Banjo Paterson and Judith
Wright and songwriters such as Ewan MacColl, Peter Bellamy and Jez Lowe.
With help from his (tor)mentor, Margaret Walters, about a third of John's
output has been recorded.
People often express interest in the way Walters & Warner end up with their singable songs of pioneers, ponies, pitsawyers and prostitutes, and John has
put together a workshop on his songwriting techniques.
particular musical theory is needed, since John does not read music. A love
for the land and its textures, a fascination with old fashioned machines,
grimy buildings, rust, bunyips and buckets is a useful prerequisite.
He will deal with the following areas:
writing in the tradition - elements of tradition
care and feeding of the inspiration germ
research and vocabulary
colour and texture - words as paint
grit and gravel - using words and poetic tools to underline meaning with
the obvious rhyme, its problems and how to avoid it
why rhyme anyway?
dirty tricks, wit, luck and the twenty-foot punt
getting past the block and writing by choice
economy - do you need all those verses?
choruses - why?
building a tune - tunes as coathangers
spit and polish
the critic - the value of an honest friend's independent criticism
At the very least, John promises to extend imaginations, vocabulary
and perceptions of music and poetry, and trusts that participants in his
workshop will emerge with some well-crafted songs.
Quotes on John Warner's Wordsmithpersonship
It struck me therefore, as my first overwhelming impression, what a
considerable poet John Warner has shown himself to be... The haunting
evocative words of
... are soon contrasted with the merry Harley Dinosaur, but
throughout the poetry rings through. In fact I suggest you read the words as
you are listening to the songs.
Warner's skill is in the way he puts words together - full of imagery, yet
-- Graham McDonald
Robert Service is riz from his coffin!
-- Guest,Q on Mudcat Discussion of Kitty Kane
The words are with the disk: read them separately. Not only Lawson writes
fine poetry ... if you like traditional style songs, you will never regret
it. -- Judith Crossley
What a superlative wordsmith John Warner is, his eloquence reaching to stand
beside Gerard Manley Hopkins at some times, our own Australian immortals at
My favourite is John Warner's Piper on the Hilltop. For historical
vision, poetic beauty and geographical aptness, this meditation on hearing
bagpipes near Spence, ACT before a thunderstorm would make William
Wordsworth sit up.
-- Bill Tully
The songs spring out of the British and Australian folk traditions and draw
in elements of those while dealing with specifically Australian themes.
-- Graham McDonald
... my personal favourite being Dear Diary, the musing of a lonely
woman trapped in a rain swamped railway camp waiting for her man to come
back down the line. The imagery is almost cinematic. You can feel the rain
dripping down your collar as the song moves to its candle flickering
conclusion. -- Steve
John's lyrics are tight and dense, each line is crammed with literal and
implied levels of meaning, A singer/songwriter of power and sensitivity. His
deep involvement in the subject matter of his songs is obvious, he lives
every phrase. -- John Dengate
The real strengths of the album [Pithead in the Fern] are Margaret's
singing and the solid craftsmanship of the songs. John Warner is a writer
who clearly believes with great conviction in the power of a good chorus.
These songs cry out to be heard in a packed folk club with forty fifty
moderately soused voices belting out harmonies.
Can't find the quote but if you phone Kim Poole, he will tell you
with his authority as a lecturer in music at the University of Western
Sydney, with a Ph D in progress on folk music, how highly he esteems John's
song-writing ability. This is also evident in the fact that he willingly and
enthusiastically arranged many of the songs on Pithead in the Fern
and Who Was Here.