Author: Morris, Geof

Australian Pioneer Remembered

Last Sunday, in Melbourne, capital city of the state of Victoria, I attended at a superb bluegrass concert. Musicians, many of whom had been playing bluegrass for decades, came from all over Australia to share good music and reminisce about the life, music and character of the late Chris Duffy.

Chris was one of our earliest bluegrass banjo players. The only way to become familiar with bluegrass music in those days was to play, over and over again, records imported from a friend or some other source from America. Chris learned the banjo from precious Columbia recordings of Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys. In those days you were virtually a lone banjo player. After all, where else to find a kindred spirit keen to jam, even in a city the size of Sydney or Melbourne, yet he persevered and by the early 1960s had formed a dedicated bluegrass band.

In Australia there was no family or bluegrass tradition or heritage to draw from. It was just the music, which fired the imagination. In those days, if you weren’t brought up listening to or playing rock-‘n’-roll you were probably exposed to country or, as it was then termed, hillbilly music which was in fact immensely popular especially away from urban areas. Fifty years ago country music stemmed to a large extent from Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers recordings together with some of the great early pioneers of more distinctly Australian country music, drawing on Australian bush ballad themes.

It was the advent of folk music and the folk festival which gave bluegrass pickers the chance to be heard and to play to a wider audience. A folk music festival in those days tended to be built around music of the British Isles, America and Canada and the deep-rooted Celtic influence within Australia.

I learned classical piano at school since it was the unquestioned, given rule that all blind children were (of course!) gifted musicians or at least had to be taught the essentials of classical music. I struggled with this for many years, being compelled to practice piano twice a day, until eventually I began to realize that I could play enjoyable, interesting music.

Though I dropped piano playing soon after leaving school the grounding it gave me in matters of pitch and timing stood me in very good stead later on. I then took up folk singing and attending music nights at dimly lit coffee lounges and pubs where we all sang through our noses in the British folk style, and loved it!

One day, attending a folk music festival I think in the mid 1960s, in came Chris Duffy with his bluegrass band, playing music the like of which I had never heard before: electrifyingly thrilling, virtuoso playing in a simple, down to earth yet truly brilliant style. In that moment, I felt as if I had come home and discovered my true musical soul, a profound enlightenment which has remained with me ever since.

I never saw nor heard Chris Duffy play again, yet his influence on my life and musical development was such that I had to come down to the concert staged in his honour.

Chris was great fun to tour with. Stories abounded of how he and band would find themselves in a little outback town perhaps a thousand miles from anywhere, yet Chris knew of this little café or restaurant no-one had ever heard of where you could have a beautiful Italian or Indian meal. He was always joking and made a trip with him hugely memorable. The legacy he passed down to countless banjo pickers throughout Australia has become part of Aussie bluegrass history. The memorial concert in his honour was a treasure; very likely the confluence of the personnel on stage that day may never be replicated; glad I was there.


Geoff Morris’s bluegrass show may be found:
5-8 p.m. Pacific each Monday;
3-6 p.m. Pacific each Friday.

Posted:  10/2/2012

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