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.
Accompanied 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 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.
23 March 2017
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.
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.
24 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!