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Bruce McNicol

by Bruce McNicol last modified Apr 16, 2011 04:10 AM

Bruce McNicol

Bruce McNicol
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Accordion, Fiddle, Guitar, Harmonica, Piano, Washboard

So many memories percolate from the sixties folk scene in hometown Melbourne. A Melbourne graffitist once scrawled “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”.  But  Traynor’s was the pivotal point of the sixties folk boom, and is still remembered fondly by us all, proving the graffiti wrong. 


In 1963, my friends and I from Doncaster started to frequent The Cottage in Doncaster Road, opposite the golf course. This was a folk coffee lounge – one of many to spring up in Melbourne.  I used to perform there with friends Trevor Rees and Sue Shaw.  At The Cottage I met Sandy Calf, who became my closest friend and travelling companion and the other half of a duo, which we called with relentless logic, “Bruce and Sandy”. We were to spend the next three years doing folk venues from Adelaide to Brisbane.  But I digress. Amongst the people who sang at The Cottage were the Caedmon Singers, who included Margaret Smith and David Howells(bass).  They married and  became friends of mine until long after our first marriages had all ended, so it was probably them who told me about Traynor’s.


Ah Traynor’s.  I loved it.  Almost immediately Don Carless let me sing for free in the coffee breaks, and soon I, then Sandy and I, had gigs there.  It certainly was different from The Cottage, because here the audience listened to us, rather than themselves. I remember Paul Marks singing Sinner man (many times), and Martyn Wyndam-Read finger picking his delicate tapestries of counterpoint behind the songs. Leonore Sommerset played that strong 12 stringer. There are so many more memories, including Declan, Brian, Danny and Gordon, and of course Margret RoadKnight.  I say of course because we became friends then, and still are today.  Sandy and I used to drive her home to Reservoir where she also still lived at home. 

[Note: Later, in 1973, she live recorded her first album at Traynor’s, and in later years she and I have done two double handed live cabaret albums: her seventh - An Audience with Margret RoadKnight and Bruce McNicol(1988 added to in 1998), and her ninth - M.R. at the School of Arts Café –“Adjusting the Rearview Mirror” 1997]


Two other things I remember of Martyn Wyndam-Read.  One was his extremely friendly way of greeting everyone. “Hullo___” he’d say, full of enthusiasm.    I used to think, “he can’t possibly know them all”, but it didn’t matter.  He’d probably seen them before.  I personally have a bad memory for names of people I don’t know very well, so I thank Martyn for teaching me that art.  Also, he used to have a dog named god, and if something went wrong in a song he would look over at god and say, “that’s your fault god”.  Yes, god would be sitting there in Traynor’s.  It was so civilized it could have been European! What with the Chianti bottles and candles, and the beer barrels to sit on whilst performing, one of which Margret gave me recently when she moved from Brisbane.


One of the great things I remember from the Traynor’s scene was the parties.  After closing time we would quite often go to someone’s house and party on.  Even at that young and inexperienced age I used to wonder how the neighbours coped, because there would inevitably be 12 to 20 of us standing in a circle singing unaccompanied folk songs, most improvising harmonies, and always at the top of our voices.  And it may have been! Come to think of it, I don’t remember being in the same house twice.  Of course this was great practice at finding what harmony was left, a skill which has stood me in great stead from folk groups (Wilderness) to jug bands to accompanying to cabaret arranging to reggae band choruses and so on. It also helped develop my love of choir music, which is 50% of what I’m doing now.   Thank you Traynor’s and scene for those wonderful times.


From Traynor’s we spread out to lots of other venues, which for me included: Reata in High Street, Glen Iris (which I think became The Green Man), Little Reata in Little Collins Street, and Colonial Inn at Kew Junction, Folk Attic in High Street Kew, Outpost Inn at 52 Collins Street and later its offshoot The Commune, in Brunswick and then Fitzroy. There were several others which I can picture, but can’t remember their names.

But let’s go back to the Folk Attic. Ahh, if only I could!  Started by Bob Elliston (there was also one in Kings Cross, but that’s a different story). This was 1964, and Sandy and I were the resident singers. While it was open, there was only twice we didn’t play there. I met and sang with Lisa Yeates there, with whom I worked in the eighties in Silly Symphony (another lifelong friend, now singing in Tasmania). Trevor Lucas played there several times too, and we used to visit him at his bungalow behind his parent’s house.


Sandy and I used to do both traditional and contemporary songs from all the  English speaking countries.  With two guitars, he led the finger picking, and I tended towards bass lines.  Incidentally, recently in a London house concert, we found our voices still blend exactly.  In addition, he played solo flamenco, learnt from Bill DeSaille, and I played solo blues, learnt from the tape recorder.  It was probably because of this variety that we got so much of our work in the sixties. Dutch Tilders, a blues man from Frankston was perhaps not a very good organizer, because every now and then he would have double booked himself, and would ring me to go and do one of the gigs for him.


Also, Mike Deany started Workshop in Prahran. It was upstairs behind a something which I never noticed.  Dave Howells was not only the bass player in the Caedmon Singers, he was also an engineer, and he built a mezzanine level to increase possible numbers. Just as well, ‘cause there were lots of people there usually. And more great memories, including one night when a group of people from the Pan Pacific concert tour came to our club to listen after their show.  They included The Rooftop Singers, and Judy Collins, who sat in the front just inches away from us, and Sandy was so excited and nervous he could hardly play. What fun Mike and I had when the lease expired and we cleared all the firewood, er old chairs out by breaking them up and throwing them down into a trailer on the street.


Another venue seared onto the memory was the Outpost Inn at 52 Collins Street. Every second Sunday night for years, Margret RoadKnight led a group of us through her repertoire, and others of us would in turn sing songs.  We regularly were John Graham, Steve Dunstan on bass, and I got the piano in the corner, or to sing harmonies or play one of the other instruments, of which I was playing too many, not well enough(see Gutbucket Jug Band).  Of course we all had our own gigs there as well.


Colin Stevens from the Gutbuckets and I also spent two years attending all the meetings at Shirley Andrew’s home to establish the Port Phillip Folk Festival, which became the National.  When she wrote her memoir, she didn’t remember either of us, probably because we weren’t actually in her coterie, which was bush music. Original Bush music club members Merle Lamb and Jim Buchanan and Wendy Lowenstein were on the committee, along with others whom I in turn don’t remember.  There were 12 of us. One of my jobs was to organize the recording of the concerts.  A friend John McDiamid did this.


When Sandy and I returned to Melbourne after a few months away at Folk Attic in Kings Cross, Insomniac in Coolangatta and various other gigs from Brisbane to Adelaide, I shared the dwelling behind Colonial Inne at Kew Junction with Mike Deany.  Lots of our friends could visit there, like Peter Parkhill from Sydney, Shane Duckham harp player extraordinaire, and Tina Chifley(soon to be Amor). I remember singing there late one night and suddenly having the realization that I wasn’t putting any feeling into the songs, just singing them. I wondered why no-one had mentioned it. As long as they were hearing folk songs they were happy.  Hopefully it’s been better since that night!  No-one has mentioned that either.

From there I shared house with John Graham, Graham Burstin, John Boothroyd, and Jim Cantwell, all folk performers. When I left to get married, Graeme Squance moved into my room. In other words, the scene had lots of sharing and visiting and interaction.


The point to make here is that Traynor’s was the hub of this activity.  If I was playing somewhere else, I’d go and drop in at Traynor’s later, to find out where the party was, or just to hang out and listen. Or to drink coffee, which always had salt in it to bring out the flavour, as the belief was then (we did that at the Folk Attics too). If it was Saturday I’d stay and hear some jazz.


Another great memory was a concert at the Myer Music Bowl.  I had to ask Gary Shearston from Sydney if I could use my usual opener, “Bonny Jess”, which I’d learnt from an album of his. He was fine with that. Looking at the incredible sea of faces right round the bowl was a wonderful feeling. I get nervous in lounge rooms, but the bigger the crowd the more comfortable I feel.


But in the seventies the public insatiability for folk music was lessening, and by the time I’d graduated as a music teacher, the gigs were still only paying $30 for a nights work, and I didn’t feel I should compete for the meagre amounts on offer, as I now had a wage. It wasn’t until the late seventies when that marriage disintegrated that I returned to the scene of the Commune and One-C-One, either solo or with Peter Howell on bass, Roger Anderson on guitar and Peta Anderson on percussion. And thence to Nimbin, to run away from pain, although at the time I thought it was because of all the live music there.  Yet another story.

So thank you Frank for giving us a club which was an apprenticeship and a headquarters and professional home for so many of us. We felt like shareholders in the place, where we were never taken advantage of, or used, or ripped off.  Those lessons had to be learnt elsewhere.


Meanwhile I’m having a great life in Lismore , here in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

In the eighties I toured Silly Symphony as a social comment bent cabaret group out of Nimbin.  The nineties saw me as Head of Music at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium, and running a choir called Gregarious Chance.  In that decade KaOZ Klezmer began, which is still an occasional festival group. Nowadays I’m singing in the Southern Cross Uni choir, “Isabella Acapella”, and am also playing French and Italian accordion. My wife Lisa works at the uni.  We have grown up children in Sydney and Brisbane (and I have one in Melbourne – you can call me Grandpa Bruce), and are co-dependant gardeners.  Finally I’m teaching less and performing more.  YAY!

Page Gutbucket Jug Band by Bruce McNicol — last modified May 04, 2011 09:09 AM
Photo Album Gutbucket pics by Bruce McNicol — last modified Apr 15, 2011 11:12 PM
2 shots from the 1966 Nat. Jazz Convention and one listening from a rehearsal. Photographers unknown
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