A- A A+

A life in song for the working class

Tony Smith |  21 March 2017


In early March Danny Spooner died. Danny had a long and productive career as a folksinger. He was in great demand around Australia and overseas, as a performer of traditional and working class songs from England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia.

Danny SpoonerAccompanied by concertina, Danny sang of farm labourers, poachers, mariners, union martyrs and miners. He did not simply perform the songs — that would be too much like exploiting them. His aim was to help preserve them. When he introduced a song it was clear that he had great respect for the tradition in which he fitted and that he had done extensive research into the song's provenance and historical background.

Others will document Danny's career and influence. I want to say something about his philosophy, or at least small parts of it that he imparted to me. Unlike many musicians for whom music is an interesting diversion, Danny devoted his life to singing and thought long and hard about what his role entailed.

One aspect of Danny's philosophy was that who he was not important. The songs were important because of how they recorded aspects of working class life which mainstream histories might neglect. If you asked Danny how he chose which songs to perform, he would say that the songs chose him. He regarded this as a great privilege. I've acknowledged this aspect of Danny's philosophy in the song 'It Ain't the Singer'.

Danny believed the past is all around us and with us still. When I told him I had a great great great grandfather from Rotherhithe on the Thames, he said 'You could be Cockney'. He had no need to add 'like me' to make me feel proud but it was significant that he included me rather than a distant and barely known ancestor.

Danny believed that people who care about folk music are special. He said most folkies walk lightly on the earth. They live simply that others might live and care for the natural environment.

He found folkies to be egalitarian rather than elitist. They do not judge people by the size of their bank accounts but by what is in their hearts. They are open minded rather than prejudiced. They respect people of diverse cultural backgrounds. They appreciate and celebrate rather than merely tolerating differences.

Danny had a special way of calling you 'Shipmate'. This was more than a simple attribution of mateship. It reminded us that we are all shipmates and that we are all in this together, on space ship earth, on the journey of life.


"Most folkies walk lightly on the earth. They live simply that others might live and care for the natural environment."


Among the many hundreds of songs I remember Danny singing — and this was by no means his entire repertoire — there is one which I think he sang better than anyone. I am sure the Grimsby songwriter John Conolly will excuse me saying Danny's rendition of 'Fiddlers' Green' is simply the best.

Fiddlers' Green is a metaphor for heaven. It is based on the legend that if a fisherman wants to find heaven, he should place an oar over his shoulder and walk inland. He should keep walking until someone stops him and asks what the oar is. Then he will know he is in heaven. In Fiddlers' Green there is non-stop music and dancing and many other delights. The chorus — now more poignant than ever — goes:


Wrap me up in me oilskins and jumper
No more round the docks I'll be seen
Just tell me old shipmates, I'm taking a trip, mates
And I'll see them all one day in Fiddlers' Green.


Danny Spooner is survived by his loving partner Gael who ensured he could keep singing until days before his death. Also by the many friends who supported him when it became necessary. They were only too pleased to give a little back to a man who had given them so much and whose example will continue to give. Sergei Rachmaninov said 'Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music'. Danny breathed life into so many songs and as long as they are sung he will be there.


Tony Smith headshot

Tony Smith is a former political science academic. He has been re-creating himself as a folk musician. His writings can be found at www.thecud.com.au and on the blog at www.johnmenadue.com



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments


Peter Goers 23 March 2017

After reading your words this has brought back to me Danny & his wonderful voice & words to so many songs. He had an amazing memory & ability to bring to life his tunes with that amazing voice of his. He will be missed but remembered.

gavin holmes 23 March 2017

I first saw Danny Spooner perform at the 2nd Port Phillip Folk Festival in early 1968, when I was not yet 20. I was entranced then, as I was still, 48 years later at the 2016 National Folk Festival. Over the years I saw Danny perform in many venues, from small gatherings to large packed concert halls around Australia and even overseas. On a few occasions I had the privilege to share stage with Danny - this inspiring, humble man who did more to foster appreciation of folk music than almost anyone I know. I'm sure Danny would fully agree that "it ain't the singer" but the song, that matters. However, in Danny's case it was also the singer who, for me at least, brought so many of those wonderful songs to life and in doing so, taught me so much more about living tradition from which they sprang. Vale Danny.

Jeff Corfield 23 March 2017

A great tribute to a great folk singer! I particularly liked his seafaring songs and his MC role at the Labour Day concert at Port Fairy in recent years. Vale Danny Spooner and best wishes to his family and friends!

Mark Doyle 24 March 2017

Similar articles

Interracial romance's antidote to cultural appropriation

Tim Kroenert | 08 March 2017

Mildred would later say of Frank that 'he always took care of me'. Yet this telling of the story shows a more mutual exchange of strength and support than such a statement might imply. The Lovings' entanglement with the state of Virginia would ultimately lead to constitutional change in favour of interracial marriage, and Loving portrays Ruth as the main agent of the battle. At a time when cultural appropriation has become much talked about, this film by a white filmmaker shows a different way.

A glimpse of devastated home

Susil Pun and William Okello Kadima | 06 March 2017

Bombed buildings in HomsOnce upon a time it used to be a beautiful city. Suddenly it turned into a yard of sorrow and pity ... No matter which area, nobody ever suffers like people did in Syria.

To feel this world

Allan Padgett | 01 March 2017

ThylacineNotes that humans cannot hear include the sound of thylacines crying in a van diemen forest, a dodo's plaintive shuffle on a nearshore kiwi island, a mammoth's woolly orgasm on an ecstatic arctic tundra, an esperance dog weed's silent transpiration, the rumbles of a gastric brooding frog giving birth by burping - these things are far too late for caring. Things we need to see and taste include the surging milk of human kindness, the euphoric rainbow of random caring - these would make a nice day nicer.

How to survive the crucible of school bullying

Barry Gittins | 24 February 2017

Sad school studentSquarely back into the school year, dinner conversations with our kids have included strategies for dealing with bullies. A 2016 survey of 20,000 Australians students found one in four respondents reported being bullied, and bullying 'was more common for year 5 students and year 8' - the grade levels of our boy and girl respectively. I'd love to be the 'parent nonpareil', with the right words and advice, but it's not that simple. The variables of personality and situation mean there is no easy, perfect answer.

Faith is torture in Scorsese's Silence

Tim Kroenert | 22 February 2017

It is the story of two 17th century Portuguese Jesuits who travel to Japan to locate their former mentor, who is said to have renounced his faith, and to spread Catholicism. They find the local Christian populations have been driven underground, under threat of torture and execution. The lesson they come to learn against this fraught backdrop is that the living out of religious faith and the strengths and limitations of ordinary humanity cannot be considered in isolation from each other.