Biennale of Sydney 2010 – Warren Fahey @ Cockatoo island

Biennale of Sydney 2010 – Warren Fahey @ Cockatoo island

Warren Fahey is a cultural historian, author, performer and musical Jack-of All- trades specialising in Australian folklore and history. He claims to be a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks and the Dingo University.

He was born in Sydney, 1946

He has built a distinguished career as a record producer and broadcaster and has been honoured with many awards including Member of the Order of Australia in 1996, Australian Music Industry Person of the Year in 2000 and the Bush Laureate Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Damned Souls and Turning Wheels (biennale concert series)

The Biennale of Sydney presents a series of daytime concerts that relate to his multi-media installation work, Damned Souls and Turning Wheels, produced in collaboration with Mic Gruchy and located in the Convict Precinct on Cockatoo Island.

Experience Australian folk song married to archival film, photographs and illustrations to create a total immersive journey through the unique history of Cockatoo Island.

Housed in the convict barracks on Cockatoo Island the six projector installation uses field recordings of traditional singers and musicians as a soundtrack to a multi-screen 28 minute experience showing the fascinating historical signposts of the island from convict prison, gaol for three notorious bushrangers, colonial dock, Biloela wayward girl’s prison, Vernon nautical training institution, naval dockyard and engineering works.

Live  2pm. on Sunday 23rd and 30th May ( cancelled due to bad weather ) and 6th June and 1st August.

Why I sing what I sing..

I have always loved story songs, especially those that tell of the Australian story. In many ways I am a storyteller who sings – rather than a real singer. It’s an unusual place to be and I know I am fortunate to be able to share my songs with so many people. Of course, they are not really my songs – I am more of a custodian, a caretaker as the songs travel around. Sure, I often change them or create tunes, but that is the real essence of the folk process.

A typical performance by Warren Fahey & The Larrikins takes audiences through an entertaining and enlightened potted history of Australia – its ups and downs from convict prisons to colonial homesteads; gold-rush camps to riding high on the sheep’s back; boundary riding with drovers; down coal mines; some cadging with ‘road’s scholars’ of the lean Depression times; songs from Australia at war; followed by a salute to Federation and the twentieth century when the bulk of our population became ‘cityslickers’. Concerts are performed with a healthy dash of Australia’s laconic sense of humour through songs, poems, toasts, curious history and yarns.

“As genuine as the smell of gum leaves burning on an outback campfire.” /  Philip Adams, ABC Radio National

Don Banks Music Award

Last month the Minister for Arts, Peter Garrett, presented me with this great honour – the highest recognition for music in Australia. The Music Board of the Australia Council organised a cracker presentation event and, of course, delivered the fantastic cheque that goes with the award!

Australia’s richest individual music prize has been won by Warren Fahey, founder of the folk music label Larrikin and legendary record store Folkways.  It is the first time the Australia Council of Arts has awarded the $60,000 Don Banks Music Award to a folk artist.

Fahey started Larrikin in 1974 and went on to release the music of Eric Bogle, Redgum and The Bushwackers.

He says folk music has been a lifelong passion and he is thrilled the genre is experiencing a comeback in the digital age.

“We’ve moved from a nation of people who used to entertain each other, primarily around the piano, to a nation of people who get entertained,” Fahey said. “The more we get obsessed by sitting and watching screens, the more our bodies will be screaming at us to get up and get involved.”

He added: “Folk music tends to be an umbrella for all those musical expressions that nobody can pigeonhole, so I am happy to be there.”





Denis Greer (Folkways long-term shop manager) on banjo, famed Aboriginal actor and fine didge player, David Gulpilil and Warren Fahey with his English Concertina


I formed The Larrikins was back in 1971 with the expressed intention of having a group of singers and musicians who could perform Australian traditional material that I wanted to introduce back to the community. It was never intended to be a ‘super group’ in the style of The Bushwackers and I was determined it wasn’t going to be a bush band.

My close association with ABC radio and the arts touring organisation, Musica Viva Australia, played important roles in the groups’ development. Without specialist programming or the incentive of national touring, the band would have found it difficult to expand its repertoire. The history of the band is fascinating. I am the remaining constant with Dave de Hugard, Cathie O’Sullivan, Bob McInnes and Jack Kevans being the longest-surviving members.

The first members of the band were three Irishmen who were interested in learning Australian songs.

Usually it is the locals who want to learn Irish songs.

Jack Fallis – played guitar and had a fine tenor voice / Paddy McLaughlin – played banjo and sang /  Ned Alexander -played a beautifully flowing fiddle / Liora Claff  joined the group when a likely arts council tour was promising / Tony Sutton – concertina and accordion player and singer

It was this first group that recorded one of my early ABC series, a three half hour program titled Navvy On The Line, and showcasing Australia’s railway folk heritage. The series was successful and the Larrikin label eventually released the songs as an album of the same name.

From Warren Fahey’s  website 


Surprisingly few people know of the fascinating stories associated with Cockatoo Island and its place in Sydney’s maritime, social and labour history. It is a somewhat dark history, commencing its life as an isolated convict prison and later becoming a place of confinement and training for orphaned and wayward young boys whilst, at the same time, a female ‘industrial school’ and reformatory for female prisoners. Cockatoo was also a place of industry, and in particular, shipbuilding.

Colonial warships, clipper ships and smaller service ships were repaired and maintained on the island’s original Fitzroy dock and, in the early twentieth century, it became the site for major shipbuilding projects for the newly established Australian Navy. It was also a vital engineering hub where thousands of tradesmen and women worked around the clock, especially during the First and Second World Wars. The history of Cockatoo is best seen through the [records/eyes/stories? of] people who were incarcerated or worked on the island over the past 170 years. It is indeed a history of damned souls and turning wheels.

One of the ways early Australian settlers documented their stories was through story and song. In the twenty-first century most of our entertainment is delivered by technology and we have been conditioned to expect slick, often unnecessarily over-produced music devoid of story. In many ways we have become a people who get entertained rather than entertain each other.

Music, of course, plays many roles in our lives and in many ways we have devalued it by having it played in lifts, shopping centres, theatre foyers, cafes and everywhere else imaginable (and unimaginable). Folk songs are unique in being story songs that have stood the test of time. They are emotional capsules of everyday people and their stories, often expressing frustration, remorse, humour and aspiration. They commemorate public events, honour real people, sneer at political leaders and authority, call for social change, mourn unnecessary loss of life, and celebrate the Australian spirit.

Many of the ballads from the convict transportation era, for example, are understandably plaintive as they tell of the dreadful separation from family and lovers, the fear of being sent so far away from their homeland, deprivation and mistreatment by their carers and the system and, finally, heartfelt warnings to others ‘lest they too be transported’.

How hard is my place of confinement,

That keeps me from my heart’s delight,

Cold irons and chains all abound round me,

And a plank for my pillow at night.

(Broadside ‘Here’s Adieu To all Judges and Juries’, Anon, c. 1812)

Songs were also used as vehicles for sarcasm and, in their own simplistic way, captured the essence of the times. One song, simply known as ‘Botany Bay: A New Song’ points to why convicts were transported and reinforces Governor Macquarie’s later remark: ‘Australia was settled by people sentenced here, and those that should have been!’

The hulks and the jails had some thousands in store,

But out of the jails are ten thousand times more,

Who live by fraud, cheating, vile tricks and foul play,

And should all be sent over to Botany Bay.

(Broadside, Mitchell Library Collection undated)

The songs associated with our maritime history, including Cockatoo Island, come from many sources: rare broadside ballads, early songsters, nineteenth-century sheet music, early newspapers, union bulletins, the vaudeville and music hall stage, wartime singalong collections and, most importantly, from songs and poems taken down from people who nurtured them in their repertoire, often passing them down through the years from family to family, friends to friends. In their own way, these songs and poems are signposts to our history and national identity.

Cockatoo Island’s story started in 1839 when it was chosen by the Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, as the site of a new penal establishment. Sixty convicts were relocated from Norfolk Island penitentiary in February that year. At first accommodated in tents and portable lock-ups borrowed from Goat Island, the convicts were soon housed in prisoner’s barracks as construction across the island progressed. Their numbers grew as did their workload – cutting sandstone blocks for Circular Quay and building the island’s underground silos to hold the colony’s grain supply.

Now the soldiers, they stand with their whips in their hands,

They drive us, like horses, to plough up the land.

You should see us poor young fellows, working in the jail yard;

How hard is our fate in Australia.

(Broadside ballad ‘Australia’)

Three of Australia’s most notorious bushrangers were incarcerated on Cockatoo: Thunderbolt (Fred Ward), ‘Jacky-Jackie’ (William Westwood) and ‘The Darkie’ (Frank Gardiner). Ward had the distinction of escaping in 1863 by swimming ashore. By all accounts, Cockatoo was a grim and brutal place – a hell on earth for its inhabitants.

I’ve been hunted like a panther into my mountain lair,

Anxiety and misery my grim companions there,

I’ve planted in the scrub, my boys, and fed on kangaroo,

And wound up my avocations by ten years on Cockatoo.

(‘The Murrumbidgee Shearer’, The Old Bush Songs, A.B. Paterson, A&R, Sydney, 1905 edition.)

In 1869, the Cockatoo Island prison closed and the inmates were moved to Darlinghurst Gaol – only to reopen in 1888 as an ‘overflow’ prison for both male and female criminals.

After the prison closed in 1869, the abandoned prison buildings became a semi-prison for delinquent and orphaned girls and boys. The famous clipper passenger ships Vernon and, from 1891, Sobraon were anchored at the island as training vessels. Up to 500 boys under the age of seven lived on the Vernon. The juvenile goal was renamed ‘Biloela’, reflecting its Aboriginal name, and eventually closed in 1908 when Long Bay Gaol was opened.

(Vernon ‘boys’ farewell their ship in Moreton Bay 1890s. QSL.)

The island, surrounded by deep waterways, was a natural port and from the 1840s serviced visiting and stationed British Navy and allied ships, including clippers and steamships. The island dockyards operated in one form or another for 83 years and repaired and built Australian barges, war ships and ferries. In 1913 it became the Royal Australian Navy Dockyard where our most famous warships and submarines were built – Sydney, Kookaburra, Warrego, Tobruk etc.

Oh, it’s lonesome away, from Australia and all,
In the mess decks at night, where the action bells call,
But there’s nothing as lonesome, morbid or drear,
Than to sit on the deck of a ship with no beer.

(Anonymous parody of ‘The Pub With No Beer’ from the HMAS Yarra [Diggers’ Songs, W. Fahey, AMHP, 1996])

Cockatoo’s massive worksheds also housed major engineering programs including the repair of Charles Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross through to the manufacturing of giant turbo engines for the Snowy Mountain Scheme. The island also claimed a turbulent labour history with mass strikes, walkouts and sit-ins as its labour force and unions dealt with workplace relations, safety and, on several occasions, the threat of closure.

In 1991, working life ceased at Cockatoo Island however the shadows of its past still survive today. The history of the island continues to be told through folk song and stories, saluting the numerous souls who broke the stone, carved the rocks, built the docks and made the giant wheels turn on Cockatoo Island.

It’s wet and bleak, the morning, as you squeeze in through the gate
As you clock on, your bell will ring, eight hours is your fate
Off comes your coat all wet and cold and ‘Right, lads’ is the cry
With an eye on the clock and the other on your lathe,
you’ll wish that time could fly.

Turning steel how do you feel
As in the chuck you spin?
If you felt like me you’d roll right out
And never roll back in.

The gaffer’s walking down the shop and so it`s work you must
The grinding, groaning, spinning metal hotter than the dust
And I’m often dreaming of me girl as we’re walking through the park
Whilst I’m gazing on that blueing steel and a million flying sparks.

(‘Factory Lad’, written by Colin Dryden, c. 1966 )

Background to project.

The project was born over a dinner at Sydney art curator, Amanda Love’s, home in 2009. Amanda, taken by David Elliott’s inspiration for his Biennale, had suggested he should meet me – and arranged the introduction. The project was sealed at a subsequent dinner at my place where it became obvious that David shared my passion (and knowledge) of traditional music. He matched me – song-for-song – when we discussed the works of A. L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Harry Smith and dozens of traditional singers long gone.

(Biennale Artistic Director David Elliott)

I had been to the previous Biennale on Cockatoo Island in 2008 and taken by the island’s industrial and social history. My mind immediately snapped the project into action: a sound and image installation telling the island’s story. Over the next few months I rolled ideas around and embarked on researching what archival images, both film and picture, were available to illustrate the six ‘signposts’ I indentified as the island’s historical markers: convicts/bushrangers, colonial dock, colonial institutions (Biloela/Vernon), WW1 engineering/shipyards, WW2 and post-war industry, closure/parkland.

The next stage was to go door-knocking to see what images I could secure without cost.
Letters were written, telephone calls and emails made and many favours called upon.

By October 2009 I was confident enough to sign an agreement with the Biennale and signal that the project was to proceed.


The Biennale of Sydney is a not-for-profit initiative and artists are not ‘paid’ as such to participate and I am no exception. I did, however, need a budget to pay for ‘actual’ costs and especially projection equipment, rigging, computers and for the image and sound designers. At one stage it was touch and go whether we would proceed because of our budget estimates. Thankfully, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust agreed to become the Biennale’s co-sponsor of my work.


The technical requirements of the exhibition call for 6 short throw projectors.
Operating off two MacIntosh computers.
There are 4 sound speakers.
The images are screened directly on to the sandstone wall offering a long panorama.
The room, rectangle in shape, has been blackened out to allow maximum impact.
Some seating will be available.


The project was developed and researched between May-September 2009.
Footage, sound and images were requested for delivery by November 2009.
Assembly began March 2010 with delivery and installation planned for w/c May 3.
The installation trial period will also be during this period and, if necessary, the sound will be final mixed and projectors located.
The installation is open to the media on 11 May
Official launch opening is 12 May
Installation will run on a loop 7 days a week during exhibition times.

The Soundtrack

The soundtrack to the installation has been designed to provide the viewer with snippets of songs they would not necessarily have heard, before but relate to the image. They have been taken from archival recordings in the National Library and from recordings either produced or released by Warren Fahey featuring a variety of artists.

Jim Jones music intro played by Warren Fahey (concertina), Marcus Holden, Garry Steel and Clare O’Meara.
Land of Pests  spoken by Warren Fahey with sound effects mix by Marcus Holden.
Botany bay Scoundrels – film –  featuring peter O’Shaughnessy
Australia, Australia – sung by Warren Fahey with The Larrikins
Repeat Jim Jones instrumental
Jim Jones – film – featuring Declan Affley from The Restless Years
Bound For Botany Bay – sung by Warren Fahey with The Larrikins
Wild Rover – Tom Newbold/Meredith Archive.
The Dodger – sung by Warren Fahey with The Larrikins
Jack’s The Lad part 1 – fiddle tune played by Simon McDonald/O’Coonor: Officer Archive
Morning of the Fray – sung by Warren Fahey
Jack’s the Lad part 2 – Simon McDonald
Frank Gardiner Is Caught – Sung by Warren Fahey with The Larrikins
Harmonica: Cuckoo Waltz – Sprouse/Fahey:Rouseabout
Woolloomooloo – Susan Colley/Fahey Archive
Mandolin sting – Marcus Holden
Rambling Sailor – Sally Sloane/Fahey Archive
Sailor’s Grave: Simon McDonald: O’Coonor:Officer Archive
Lost Sailor: Simon McDonald: O’Coonor:Officer Archive
Curs’d Isle verse 1 & 2 – sung by Clare O’Meara
Naughty Little Twinkle tune – Sally Sloane/Meredith Archive
Naughty Little Twinkle song – ditto
Curs’d Isle verses 3 – sung by Clare O’Meara
Haul on the Bowline – sung by Ewan MacColl/Riverside
My Boy Tommy – Susan Colley/Fahey Archive
Polka – Susan Colley/Fahey archive
According to the Act – Captain Watson/Shiplover’s Society/O’Connor Archive
Harmonica: Hornpipes – Sprouse/Fahey/Rouseabout
Leave Her Jollies – Captain Watson/O’Connor Archive
Austerity Blues music – Abe Romain/Barbara James/Fahey?Rouseabout
Bugle Call – Fx
Why Can’t We Have a Navy – Warren Fahey from Diggers’ Songs/Rouseabout
Harmonica: waltz –  Spouse/Fahey/Rouseabout
In the Army Now – Warren Fahey/Mic Conway/Rouseabout
Goodbyee – Florrie Forde/Fahey/Rouseabout
Fighting the Kaiser – Warren Fahey/Mic Conway
Colonel Kicks the Major – Warren Fahey
Little Billy Hughes – Warren Fahey & The Larrikins
Film: Cinesound intro into Wanganella
20th Century Blues music – Barbara James/Fahey/Rouseabout
Bugle Call – FX
Film: Spring Cleaning in the Navy – film
I’ll Take the Tripod – Warren Fahey
Goodbye Uncle Adolph –
Take Me Up the Harbour – instrumental The Larrikins
Film: The War is over…. film
Take me Up the Harbour – two – Ina Popplewell/Meredith
Film: depression banjo clip – film
Shut the doors – Bob Dyer/Fahey/Rouseabout
Lou From Cockatoo Verse 1 – Warren Fahey/Dengate
Nails – Warren Fahey & The Larrikins
Factory Lad – Andy Saunders/Lobl
The Voyager – Gary Shearston/Rouseabout
Down Went the Captain – Susan Colley/Fahey Archive
Old Sydney Town  – Phyl Lobl/Bronzewing


A project of this nature and scale would not have been possible without the cooperation and collaboration of many institutions and people.
Mic Gruchy who readily agreed to work on the project as image designer.
Basil Hogios who came on board as sound designer.
National Film & Sound Archive – in particular Darryl McIntrye, David Boden, Simon Drake, Matthew Davis and Catherine Secombe.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation and in particular Beth Shepherd and Cyrus Irani.
Australian Goverment Department of Defence.
Maritime Union of Australia.
The Estate of Charles Chauvel (by arrangement with the licensor Curtis Brown (Aust) Pty Ltd).
Cinesound/Movietone Productions/Thought Equity Motion and Cinesound/Movietone Productions.
National Library of Australia and in particular Margie Burn, Robyn Holmes, Shelly Grant and Kev Bradley. The Folklore & Oral History section generously provided archive recordings from their Collection.
State Library of New South Wales and in particular Richard Neville.
State Library of Victoria; State Library of Queensland.
State Records New South Wales and in particular Alan Ventress and Christine Yeats.
William A. Raymond Film Collection (with permission of Libby Forrest and Renn Wortley).
Gary Shearston and Roustabout Records.
Naomi Hood (on behalf on the late Colin Dryden)
John Dengate who allowed me to take liberties with his song’Bill From Erskinville’.
Phyl Lobl for her song ‘Old Sydney Town’.
Andy Saunders for his version of ‘Factory Lad’ from Phyl Lobl’s album.
Marcus Holden who went beyond the call of duty to record some incidental music for the soundtrack.
Clare O’Meara for singing my song ‘The Curs’d Isle’.

This project was made possible through the support of Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.


Rebel Penfold-Russell, Pat Fiske and Adam Bayliss of Rebel Films are producing a documentary film on my work including a strong focus on the Biennale project. They have been filming various stages of the project’s development..

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