Almanac Music: Gary Shearston – Australian Folk Legend

Gary Shearston – Image: Wikipedia


Gary Shearston


I remember the first time I heard his name. It was 1964 in our Form 3 Music class at the now closed Colac High School. The music teacher was a recent teaching graduate, Miss Mathieson. Elizabeth. Although, some lads needing to display their pubescent boldness to a young teacher, often chose to address her as Liz. At one of the classes Miss Mathieson introduced the not always compliant or interested students to the name and music of Gary Shearston. The purposeful manner which she did, revealed her knowledge of his music at a time when the radio airwaves were not overwhelmed by Australian folk singers, more the sounds of those bumptious English bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.


For many years Gary Shearston and his music remained hidden in the cob-webbed recesses of my forgetful mind. Miss Mathieson even longer. Not so long ago, on another internet forum where the discussion topic is far removed from football, music and poetry, his name was referred to along with one of his songs, ‘Sydney Town’. Possibly with a hint of a smile, those dormant recesses stirred.


Gary Shearston was born in Inverell, New South Wales in 1939. His father was a serviceman and while he was away Gary and his mother moved to Tenterfield and lived with his grand-parents. When Gary was eleven and following a lengthy drought which impacted their soldier settler farm, the family moved to Sydney. Gary left school at sixteen, started playing guitar and shortly after found work at United Press and trained to become a journalist.


However, journalism wasn’t for Gary and he joined a travelling puppet show for a year. He returned to Sydney and started working in that new phenomenon, television. He also joined the Hayes Gordon Ensemble Theatre. In the early 1960’s Gary was performing Irish, American and Australian folk songs at Sydney folk and coffee clubs.


In 1963 Gary released a single and an EP with only meagre interest, possibly partly due to the frenetic popularity of those English fellows. His first album, Folk Songs and Ballads of Australia was released in 1964. Two songs ‘Reedy River’ and ‘The Bush Girl’, are Henry Lawson poems set to music. A second album in 1964, Songs of our Time, included versions of the ubiquitous American, Bob Dylan’s, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ and ‘A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’.




Mentoring from Dr. Edgar Waters, an academic and social historian, and a change of record company led to the release of ‘Sydney Town’ from the album, Australian Broadside (1965). The co-writer of the lyrics was novelist Frank Hardy (Power Without Glory). Hardy had shown Gary his own words to a calypso song about Kingston Town, the Jamaican city. Shearston later changed some words, included a reference to Oz magazine and a verse about going to Kings Cross for sex, which was penned by a member of the audience at a concert. I find ‘Sydney Town’ a rollicking number. A perspective of an era, although some things haven’t changed.


The beer’s gone up in the public bar

And I can’t afford a motor car

But I keep six bottles in the fridge,

And pay no toll on the harbour bridge.


The more they try to keep me down

The better I live in Sydney town


The monopolies can all arrange

To rig their shares on the Stock Exchange

Through lottery tickets with my spouse

I’ve got shares in the Opera House.


The more they try to keep me down

The better I live in Sydney town



Gary researched the traditional bush ballad singers and shearers’ songs signifying a return to his Australian folk music themes. Over the next 12 months three more albums were released, The Springtime It Brings on The Shearing, Bolters, Bushrangers and Duffers, and Gary Shearston Sings His Songs. Tracks from these albums included, ‘Flash Jack from Gundagai’, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ and ‘Stringybark Creek’. In May 1965, ‘Sometime Lovin’ was released. American folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary who toured Australia that year and heard him perform this song invited Gary to America. Later they recorded their version. Intending to move to New York his plans were disrupted when US Immigration refused his application for a work permit due to his anti-Vietnam war activities and support for Aboriginal rights. Instead, Gary went to London. The co-founder of Oz magazine and pop-artist, Martin Sharp (Cream’s 1967 Disraeli Gears album cover) was a cobber and they worked together at London’s Living Theatre.





In 1968 he made it to New York. The visa restrictions prevented him from public performances. He recorded an album which was not released. Returning to England in 1972 Gary performed in clubs and concerts throughout the UK and Europe. In 1974 the album ‘Dingo’ was released which included his impassive rendition of Cole Porter’s, ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’, accompanied by a cracking violin solo. Ironically, his least Australian themed recording reached the Top 10 in the UK music charts. He also recorded a jaunty version of Procol Harum’s, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.





Gary spent some years pursuing other vocations. He returned to Australia working as a music journalist and assisting with film scripts. He co-wrote a novel, Balkenna, with Michael Thomas which was published in 1989. The story of a man’s return to Queensland from war. Scarred, yet determined he sets about rebuilding his life. Whether it is a family biography or not I do not know.


An album of new songs Aussie Blue (1989) was released with the song, ‘Shopping 0n A Saturday’, winning a songwriter’s award. The wonderfully promiscuous, ‘Irish Girls (will steal your heart away)’, I don’t tire of. Oh dear, is there some meaningful connection here? Gary seemed aware of the social and emotional elements of song. His lyrics are literate, edifying, often witty and mischievous. The subject material diverse.


I said I would give her anything

 If she promised she wouldn’t stray

Irish girls will steal your heart away


She makes me want to roll her in the hay

And finally conceded

 Irish girls will steal your heart away


She said her name was Eithne

Then she rode away and left me

Irish girls will steal your heart away


In 1992 Gary was ordained an Anglican priest and served in the country towns of Narrandera, Deniliquin and Bangalow. He retired in 2007 and moved to Tenterfield where he acquired the house he lived in as a child and continued his prolific writing. In 2011, another album Renegade was released, his son Luke playing drums. The song ‘Paint Me a Painting, Painter’ was perhaps a eulogy to his friend, Martin Sharp. In acknowledgement of his sage, ‘His Name was Edgar Waters’ is thoughtfully included. Once again, he revealed his creativity with, ‘She’s A Classic’ and sending up his Cole Porter hit, singing ‘She’s a Goer’. Gary, as Barry Humphries did, celebrated Australian irreverence.


Gary Shearston passed away at Armidale (NSW) on the 1st July, 2013 aged 74 years. He recorded 16 albums. I have some listening to do, and a book to read.


Of faults I have many, a few virtues, too.

My virtues I practice, faults try to undo.

I stumble and mumble and tumble along,

Just making my way on the wings of a song.


Wherever you may be Miss Mathieson, I am both thankful and curious to know how, sixty years ago, you found Gary Shearston’s music.


Diogenes, or Dodgy-knees, the inimitable boffin from another forum, (his explanation of matters neuromorphic is beyond this Luddite’s comprehension), who aroused my memory from its slumber, it seems I’m up for another bottle of 389. Cheers.



‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ – Gary Shearston


‘Sydney Town’ – Gary Shearston


‘Irish Girls (Will Steal Your Heart Away)’ – Gary Shearston


Here is a playlist of songs recorded by Gary Shearston




More from Wayne Matthews can be read Here.



Read more stories from Almanac Music  HERE


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  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Fantastic read WRM! I’ve always been aware of Gary Shearston though I have not really known his music very well. Thanks for the clips and the playlist, now I can settle down with them and become more fully acquainted with this Aussie legend.

  2. Dave Nadel says

    Thanks for posting this Wayne. I am glad someone remembers Gary Shearston .I was in form 6 at Heidelberg High School (also now defunct) in 1964 and going to folk clubs and first heard Gary at a concert possibly at the Myer Music Bowl.

    His protest songs are good but they are not as hard edged as Dylan in his protest period or Dylan’s contemporary Phil Ochs. Hard edged protest came to Australia in the late 70s and early 80s with Redgum, Midnight Oil and others.

    However his interpretation of Australian folk songs was excellent. So were some of his gentle non-political songs. Wayne has mentioned Sometime Lovin’ but my favourite is Don’t Wave to Me Too Long which is a beautiful little song.

  3. Karl Dubravs says

    Gary’s cover of ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ put him on the commercial music map in Australia and into the ears of those of us/me over the age of 60.
    Apart from that, I was drawn to him more recently while doing research on Dylan cover songs and came across his 1964 ‘Songs Of Our Time’ album.- Gary does a nice job on ‘Don’t Think Twice’ but I wasn’t taken by his interpretation of ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ or ‘Its A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’.
    On a website that allows members to list their top 100 greatest albums of all time, I was most surprised to find that Gary’s 2009 compilation album ‘ The Best Of All Trades’ was rated by a Norwegian member as the 47th best album of all time (which is certainly high praise: at least from that one individual) – so Gary’s musical legacy has traveled beyond our shores.

  4. Karl Dubravs says

    A correction please re my comment above – Gary’s 2009 album ‘The Best Of All Trades’ is NOT a compilation but rather a fully-fledged studio album. It seems that after a break from music for 20 years to undertake Anglican priesthood duties, Gary returned to the studio – aged 70 & with a new batch of songs. Now that is a story worth telling.

  5. Wayne Matthews says

    Appreciate your comments Karl you’re obviously familiar with his life and works. The compilation album you referred to was possibly, ‘Here & There Now & Then’ An Anthology of Gary Shearston 1964-2001 (Released 2007). I have condensed some aspects of his story. wm.

  6. Tony Forbes says

    Like many other boomers ‘I get a kick out of you’ was my entree to Gary’s music and we even did a cover of the song in the band I was playing in at the time. I also have a pristine vinyl copy of ‘Dingo’ in my collection. Thoroughly enjoyed your story about Gary’s career, Wayne.
    Tony Forbes

  7. Ian Wilson says

    Up until your piece Wayne the only memories of Gary came from Explosive Hits 74! Thanks for the insight. A fascinating character. Cheers

  8. Thanks Wayne, excellent story. I had no idea of Gary Shearston before reading your piece (or he has completely vanished from my memory’s filing system (and that is very likely!) but I played him via Spotify on my way home from work. Loved it. I listened to the album, Songs of our time and was knocked down loaded by his song (to the words of poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal), “We Want Freedom (Aboriginal Charter of Rights)”. A number of songs on that album from 1964 are incisive, such as Basic Wage Dream and Who Can Say, which is his own composition. His palate, at least on this album is broad and shows a keen ear and a progressive mind. He even does Dirty Old Town about 20 years before The Pogues made it their own! So, thank you Wayne.


  9. Peter Fuller says

    I rarely contribute to Almanac Music posts, having little (nothing?) to contribute, although unkind persons may wonder that this doesn’t dissuade from putting my oar in on other matters!
    However, Gary Shearston is a favourite among my off-beat and eclectic musical tastes, so I was grateful for Wayne’s initiative and for the comments which have dredged up some fine memories. I’m also pleased to see a reference to my old home town. Sadly, as I left Colac in 1962, and in any case didn’t go to Colac HS, I missed the opportunity to benefit from Miss Mathieson’s enthusiasm for this relatively obscure singer.
    Along with others, I really liked Sometime Lovin.
    One song of Gary’s which hasn’t been mentioned is the Roar of the Crowd, which has a couple of sporting verses – “the roar at a football match….” & “the roar on a racecourse…” (both Sydney references), followed by two “political” verses, which are more powerful for the contrast:

    I’ve heard the roar of soldiers when they first marched off to the front,
    When war was only a sporting match, and they begged to go on a stunt.
    And they shouted, come on Australia, Wagga, Henty and Hay.
    That was the roar of the slaughterhouse, there’s nothing more to say.

    I’ve heard the roar in the old Town Hall, when a delegate rose to speak.
    A roar to shake the merciless, a roar to raise the weak.
    A roar to raise the weak and wondering, to give eyes to the blind.
    That was a roar of a tidal wave that was making up its mind.

    I’m also appreciative of the Shearston biography being fleshed out from my very sketchy understanding. I do recall an ABC program (Compass?) which related some of his improbable late life career change in the Church. I say improbable because my understanding is that he was on the fringes of the very irreverent community of the “Push” in the early 1960s.

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