Old Charmers

Gannawarra Times April 5, 2019

THE LAKE Charm hall hadn’t seen such a turnout in a very long time. 

Packing the seats and crowding the entrances, they had come from near and far to celebrate the 60th anniversary of legend entertainers the Gay Charmers, who up until about 15 years ago used to play regularly in the community hall.

Music had taken the surviving members – Stuart Simms, Ron McFarlane and Maurie Gierisch – to most states of Australia over the band’s 60-year career, and friends and fans from all over made their way to the event on Saturday to jam, dance, sing and generally enjoy themselves.

Around 30 musicians joined the Charmers on stage, bringing with them guitars, flute, recorder, banjos, fiddle, double bass, squeeze boxes, brass instruments and a saw.

“Actually I’m quite overwhelmed with the number of people who’ve come,” said pianist Stuart Simms. “I thought there’d be about 60.” 

The number was closer to 200 but solid organising by the local community meant everyone was accommodated and well fed and those who wanted to dance found space on the floor.

Despite the relaxed and humorous atmosphere there was an undercurrent of sadness to the occasion, with former members Mary Curtis and Garnet Robinson remembered, and a sense that the event might be the last of its kind.

“It’s something that’s going to die out. It may well be the last time you’ll see a group of musicians like this in this hall,” said Mr Simms, who is having trouble reaching the octaves on the keyboard these days and needs surgery on his hands.

When the no fuss bush band started out in the 1950s, live music and dancing was the main form of entertainment, and they tapped into a musical culture that already existed in the area.

“Ron McFarlane’s mother was a great musician and used to take us around to church harvest festivals, where we’d play ukulele. That’s where the music started,” Mr Simms said.

“Then we started playing in the hall. We’d get 20 young people in here and we’d play and dance.” 

An opening for a dance band at Koroop gave the young players the opportunity to hone their craft and would turn into a 40-year residency.

“We played our music to the dancers,” Mr Simms said. “We watched them for timing. And there’s some tunes you can’t help but get up and dance to. We tried to pick those.”

Gannawarra shire mayor Lorraine Learmonth, who was present on Saturday, remembered the band playing at her debutante ball.

She congratulated them for over the years “put[ing] Lake Charm on the map” and “connect[ing] and “entertain[ing] communities across the state.” 

Rob Willis from the National Library of Australia described the Gay Charmers as “respected musicians” with “impeccable dance timing and a great sense of fun and humour.”

Mr Willis, a folklorist, explained how he started following and recording the group in the early 1990s when the library realised that old time dance bands were dying out.

“Going back in time every district had an old time dance band because dancing was the hub of the community,” he said. 

There was no written music because most of the players, like the Gay Charmers, were farmers who were self-taught and kept the music in their heads.

“We realised if we didn’t start preserving the memories, it would be too late,” Mr Willis said. 

Dozens of bands were recorded around that time, including Gay Charmers’ key influence the Baulch Brothers, from Mystic Park, who had been performing their harmonised ditties since the 1920s.

In 1993 the library team organised for both acts to play at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, and the Gay Charmers have appeared there in some form every year since.

“Music has opened a lot of doors for us,” Mr Simms said. We’ve been to a lot of places you wouldn’t get into otherwise.”

These include Government House in Canberra, the Birdsville pub and the Bourke and Wills Dig Tree in remote South Australia, which these days is fenced off and usually locked up.

“You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to sit down and play a piano or a banjo,” said Mr Simms, who encouraged anyone with “a bit of music in them” to give it a go. “We haven’t had any lessons but we’ve had a lot of advice!”

The music had “bought a few groceries” over the years, banjo player Ron McFarlane told the crowd. “But with the time on the road the hourly rate wasn’t too good.” 

It had been “a wonderful time” though, Mr McFarlane said. “I hope we have a few more dances.”

And on Saturday night they did.

After the anniversary cake had been cut, a barbecue dinner eaten and the wooden floor brushed with kerosene, the last continuing old time dance band in Australia took up their instruments and most of the visiting musicians crowded onto the stage.

With young and old stepping, swinging, sliding and spinning together in the old hall that had witnessed so many such dances, the elderly Charmers and their friends played on until one in the morning and the next day started up again after breakfast and played until lunch time.

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