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Bonzer Words!: A Few Miles Of Weaving

"In the nineteen sixties and early seventies, in Australia, British immigrant Colin Dryden had a voice among voices. His interpretation of folksong, both traditional and contemporary, made him a leading activist of the day. Solo, duo, in a group, in a great hall or small folk club, he had the power to charm and capture an audience and keep it working with him from introduction to encore,'' writes Dermott Ryder as he introduces us to one of Colin's songs.

My memories are clear… there I was, sitting at what became my favourite table in the Sydney Folk Song Club, otherwise known as the upstairs lounge of the Hotel Elizabeth, in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, one surprising Saturday evening early in nineteen seventy. Mine host Mike Eves started the entertainment, as usual, and we all joined in with Three Score and Ten, Poverty Knock and Rough Tucker Bill. The 1970 Port Jackson Folk Festival was still resonating in background and there was an air of excitement around all things folk, especially at the Sydney Folk Song Club.

I was there to hear and enjoy everybody but I had a particular interest in Colin Dryden. I had met him at the festival, at an impromptu session after a riveting concert. On stage his songs of choice were: Lord Franklin, Lassie With The Yellow Coatie, High Germanie, and Silver In The Stubble. Maintaining an after-party song list was too hard.

Performing on stage or in the corner of a noisy, smoky, boozy room Colin Dryden was impressive. His appearance at the Sydney Folk Song Club was my first opportunity to hear him in such an intimate venue.

Introduced by Michael Eves, he came to the small stage and sat for a moment in silence. Then, in his characteristically unhurried way, he told a story. He checked the tuning on his guitar as he spoke, quite softly. The audience listened attentively. Everybody laughed in the right places. His first song, Pleasant and Delightful, selected to allow the audience to share the moment, and a chorus, worked well, then he introduced his song Sither.

In this very personal work he remembers, with obvious affection, his paternal grandfather, James Dryden. It tells a simple and engaging story of the old man’s retirement from fulltime work in the mill. It bears, as title, his grandfather’s nickname. Sither, – translated perhaps as “see thee” or “look here” – was the name the family used for James Dryden because it was one of his catch phrases.

Colin Dryden

Forty years are in the mill,
your day’s near done, but it’s going still.
Time to be thinking of making your will,
for you’ve nowhere to go, no intentions.

Weft and weave it was your game,
ten thousand hours upon the frame,
then walking home in the driving rain,
with a brand new watch and a pension.

Time now to bide, to sit and to dream,
on bygone days and the changes you’ve seen,
in coal and in diesel, the power of steam,
black shawls, coal stockings and courting.

Clogs on the frost on a cold winter’s morn,
the smell of the grease and oil on the loom,
and the wife wi’ the kids by the gateway at noon
stand waiting for your wages on Friday.

Six in the morn, it’s time to rise,
sleep on, old man, you’re weary and wise,
to the ways of the mill, aye, and all of the tries
for a part time job in the doffing.

Puffin’ and panting past the mill,
up to the local to get all your fill,
though you’ve only got enough brass for a gill,
there might be a job in the offing.

But the shuttles have flown, it’s time to roam,
back to the armchair and fire at home,
and leave all the mill hands and weavers alone
to their beer and their laughter and joking.

But many’s the time why you’ve stood with the best,
although the looms have near turned you deaf,
they’ve all got a few miles of weaving as yet
before they’ll have bested old Sither.

Sither, from Colin Dryden’s North Country Trilogy, [Sither - Factory Lad - Pit Boy] has a readily definable place in the common song stock of Australia. The songs circulate by oral transmission or by hastily scribbled notes. Some performers aim at an accurate presentation of the writer’s intention, in tune, text and style. Others add their own stamp of individuality. That is the nature of the folk tradition.

© Dermott Ryder


Dermott writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au


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