REVIEWS

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 fact!

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 featherswedge@yahoo.com.au.

 

Yarri of Wiradjuri - A song and verse cycle by John Warner about the great flood in Gundagai in 1852.

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 characters.

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 great result!

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 canoe"

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 aftermath.

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.

 No 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 texture

  • 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 Newell Highway ... 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.    -- Bernard Bolan

Warner's skill is in the way he puts words together - full of imagery, yet economical.          -- 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 others.    -- Richard Mills

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 Barnes

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.      -- Steve Barnes

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.