Charlie Batchelor and his music (1897-1984)
‘An 86-year-old, traditional fiddle player from Bingara, Charlie Batchelor and nine friends, filled the house.” (Canberra Times.)
The year was 1984.
The event was the 18th National Folk Festival in Canberra.
This was an exceptional experience for a man who was only “discovered” in 1981. And, he was so good at it, one commentator suggested:
‘There is no separation between Charlie and his music’
This extraordinary news would have astounded many people, even those who knew Charlie well. He was a farmer from northern NSW, in his eighties and just doing what he loved.
He was then plucked from obscurity to present his music on the big stage.
Until then, this son of a pioneering family had only played in the local bands.
The late Ivy Smith wrote of Charlie’s great-grandfather in Bingara Federation Families.
‘George Batchelor and his six sons, Thomas, George Jnr., Charles, William, Joseph and Edward arrived in 1887. They had left the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria and settled in the Elcombe area.
George purchased the farming property “Royal Oak” and with his son Thomas, he made it their home.
The other sons purchased in the Gineroi area. George died in 1922 at the age of 89.’
Specifically to the importance of music, Ivy said:
‘Dances and cricket matches were the main social events, being held at Elcombe, Gravesend and Gineroi. People arrived at the dances before dark and left before sunrise, travelling by sulky or horseback.’
Therefore, it is no surprise that Charlie was a musician.
No surprise Charlie was a musician
Henry ‘Harry’ Reeves was Charlie’s mentor.
Reeves was the centrepiece of a local group of musicians who played for country dances in the years leading up to the First World War.
Reeves’ band was made up of three fiddlers (Reeves, Walter, and Jimmy Morris) and two-button accordions (Walter Morris and Joe Hall).
Charlie heard this band play for dances at homesteads up and down the Horton River valley, between Elcombe and Upper Horton.
Charlie Bachelor: Horton River band
Thanks to an online posting, the discovery of Charlie and his music is recorded. It said:
‘In 1981, Chris Sullivan had unearthed the incomparable Charlie Batchelor.
Throughout 1981/2 recording trips were made to Charlie and increasingly from late 1981, it was with budding fiddler, Mark Rummery.’
Mark came close can be to approximating Charlie’s style.
In 1983, guitarist Kevin Minchin was added to the mix. With Mark, Jacko Kevan, Barry McDonald, and others, they were quickly brought up to speed on Charlie’s repertoire.
What followed was a whirlwind series of performances with Charlie. They became his Horton River Band, the locality where Charlie had learnt much of his music.
The lead up to Canberra was:
Newcastle Folk Festival, the Glen Innes Bush Music Festival, the Sydney Bush Music Club and Dance at the Armidale Town Hall, all in 1983.
One can only imagine how delighted Charlie would have been with the attention he was given. Interestingly, the driving force behind his discovery was the youth.
Meeting Charlie: Chris Sullivan
Chris had recalled his meeting with Charlie.
‘Born in 1897 near Bingara, NSW, Charlie Batchelor died in mid -1984.
Over the last few years of his long life, Charlie was the subject of increasing attention from young musicians. They were in search of locally sourced Australian traditional or folk music.
During 1983/4, he made visits to NSW festivals, performing in concert, for dances, as well as informally.
The appearance of Charlie and his music caused a bit of a stir in the Australian folk revival. It spawned several new field collectors and a renewed focus on Australian vernacular music.
The captivating sound of Charlie’s playing caused this impact, a unique blend of the familiar and the exotic.
An awareness developed that Australian sourced music could be attractive to play and dance.’
An article by Chris Sullivan and Mark Rummery explored the context of Charlie and his music.
Charlie and his music
Chris and Mark discussed where they placed Charlie and his music.
‘This article will attempt to locate Charlie and his music within the context of his life and the historical community. And, belatedly, on the contemporary stage of the Australian folk revival.
We first met Charlie at his small property, ‘Emu Vale’ in the mid-1981.
It was in the middle of a long drought that had left barely a blade of grass standing.
The parched environment and a dilapidated cottage framed the weather-beaten figure of Charlie. After retrieving his fiddle from around the back he made sure that we understood his situation,
‘I tell you what, you come around at a bad time, I been off it!’
There was, in fact, no longer any local audience for Charlie’s music.
Charlie was very much a private musician who took the opportunity provided by this late outside interest to find his audience.
The first tune Charlie played onto tape was his most difficult piece (it later came to be called The Nine Buckets Schottische).
His limited but solid repertoire comprised a narrow band of tunes to accompany the 19th– century local dances. And an overlay of later popular song tunes learnt from recordings and radio.
Charlie was quite singular.
He took up the fiddle seriously in his late twenties, During the 1920s, he set about learning the pre WWI repertoire. This had first inspired his interest.’
Fairly tale ending.
Without knowing a great deal about Charlie’s life, it is easy to argue the last few years were the highlight.
Plucked from his farm, the admiration of youthful musicians and a full house in Canberra, would have taken some beating.
Charlie and his music were inseparable, and the joy is that he was able to share it with audiences beyond Bingara.
What a wonderful fairy tale ending.