How the Nariel Festival Started


PART 1: Over the Gibb



It seems that most people's memories of the past are not very sharp when required to go back some 35 years, so I have had to piece it together from many somewhat vague recollections and a few snippets of written records. The reel-to-reel tapes of the first recordings made of the Nariel musicians were finally obtained by the National Library in Canberra a few years ago, but unfortunately, without the excellent notes made by the late Maryjean Officer. So far, her family has not been able to trace these.

We have to thank Dr Edgar Waters and Kevin Bradley who, by their dogged persistence over a long period, finally persuaded Norm O'Connor to sell the tapes which recorded the Nariel musicians to the National Library. These recordings had been made in the name of the FolkLore Society of Victoria. Norm owned the tape recorder and, I believe, paid for the actual tapes used, but it had always been intended that this material would be placed in one of our major libraries. The Society became much less active in the late 1960s, and this didn't happen for many years.

Starting during the 1950s, a group of members of the FolkLore Society of Victoria spent much of their free time at weekends and holidays collecting music, mainly songs, from traditional singers and musicians. A notice in the newsletter of the Folklore Society in December, 1961 stated that 'The Society has planned a collecting trip to Dargo, Omeo and the upper Murray after Christmas.' It was reported later that they also visited Benambra and there recorded songs from two very good singers, Alf Dyer and his son Max. Alf Dyer had been a bullocky and Max a shearer, so they were also a good source of interesting stories. The Dyers told them that they should 'go up over the Gibb' (by way of a very rough road over the Gibb Range) to the Nariel Valley and the nearby town of Corryong where there was a wonderful group of musicians who played very good music for the local dances.

PART 2: Con and Beat Klippel



They did take this advice and, after braving the rather fearsome road, they called in at the home of Con and Beat Klippel. I was told that on that occasion Con treated them with some suspicion as he found it difficult to understand why any group of city people should be travelling around at that time doing anything as peculiar as asking country people about old songs and music. Victoria was suffering a very severe heat wave that summer, and the group looked somewhat the worst for wear after their trip 'over the Gibb'. Finally it was agreed that they could come again at a later time.

The main core of this group of collectors consisted of Maryjean Officer with Norm and Pat O'Connor. They decided that they might make a better impression on their next trip if they included an accordion player so invited Frank Nickels, who played for dancing at folk club functions, to join them. They also invited Rae Dowdle, another keen dancer, and I do remember that I couldn't go that time due to a previous commitment. There is a tape of this interview in the National Library's collection, tentatively dated April 23rd, 1962. On it, Con and Beat Klippel record some details of their families' background in that district, and Con plays some dance tunes for couples dances and the Lancers, both on piano and accordion.

The information about Mrs Klippel made it clear that her knowledge of dancing was firmly based in the past. She had learnt many of the dances from a book well known in many country districts last century called The Universal Self Instructor. This one, along with a few similar ones, contained a lot of household and other useful advice; most families had one. Mrs Klippel's book had been given to her mother by her father before they were married.

The Nariel Band
The Nariel Band - photo scanned by Dave de Santi


PART 3: The oldest dances>



A second tape that is obviously from this time of first contacts features a whole group of musicians from Nariel, Corryong and nearby districts. A note explains that it was one of the gatherings of musicians and their families that were often held at the Klippel home. I am mortified that I have no recollection of this recording being made although I was certainly there, as proved by my voice on the tape asking questions. One question was about a dance called Circassian Circle which has 2 parts, one in a big circle and the other with couples in sets of 2 couples, facing one another, arranged around the ballroom. An unidentified voice answered me, saying that the first part, in couples, of this dance had been done in the district in earlier times, but had not been done for some years. This was an important piece of information as I had not realised that the section danced in couples was a part of the early ballroom style dancing, as I had only seen it danced in the two-part form at the English folkdance centre in London. Recorders were not so good in those days and, as only one microphone was being used, much of the conversation on the tape cannot be heard. Con was the only musician identified by name but many others played tunes or fragments of tunes, including two very capable woman pianists (since identified as Mrs Madge Everard and Mary Lloyd). Both were known to have a large collection of sheet music. Mary played Kangaroo Barn Dance, Hyde Park Hustlers (barn dance), and Hot Stuff Quadrille (for the First Set). The names of the last two suggest that they were published early this century when ragtime and jazz were coming into fashion.

PART 4: Invitation to the dance



It is interesting to hear in these early tapes that the musicians often found it difficult to recall the tunes for older dances as they were no longer danced at the 50-50 and 60-40 dances popular then (these programs, which started in the 1920s, alternated old-tune dances with the foxtrot and other new dances fashionable then. Later on in many 50-50 programs, a foxtrot bracket, which consisted, of foxtrot-quickstep-foxtrot, followed each old-time dance). I also noticed those hesitations about certain tunes myself during the interviews that followed on from these earliest ones. Also certain band members would be mentioned as being knowledgeable about particular tunes. This can be heard on one tape where, in response to an enquiry about the Varsoviana, Con said that Mrs Everard and Jim Harrison knew those tunes best.

I do remember the collecting trip in the summer holidays following Christmas, 1962 and it was this visit that actually led on to the first Nariel festival. I still have some of the notes I made then, and it was reported by Maryjean Officer in the newsletter published jointly by the Folk Lore Society and the Victorian Bush Music Club, the Gumsuckers Gazette (Gumsuckers was an early colloquial name for Victorians). I probably had more reason to remember it because of the somewhat adventurous time I had getting to the New Year's Eve dance on December 31st, 1962.

Most of us involved in these early collecting trips were members of both these organisations, and I had been invited to go with Maryjean and the O'Connors to find out about the dancing while they recorded the music. They had a previous commitment to be in Yackandandah on New Years Eve so the plan was for me to go straight to Corryong, in time to see the dancers in action at the dance that night.

PART 5: Journey into darkness



In the days before the Snowy Mountains scheme, Corryong was the end point of the only roads in, and I chose the shorter route past Tallangatta. The last section through thick timber and up over the ranges was all rough gravel. There was so little traffic that, when I found myself about to cross a railway line near the very small settlement of Koetong I consulted my map anxiously to make sure I was still on the right road. I was relieved to find that the road to Corryong appeared to be the only one that had such a crossing so I pressed on, and arrived thankfully in Corryong in the late afternoon. The details I had been given as to where the dance would be held had been vague and I had been told to consult a Mr Brown who had a garage in the main street. He seemed confused by my enquiry and suggested I must mean the dance at the Corryong Hall that night.

I was more confused when I arrived there, as instructed, to find it set up as a cabaret ball and the band featuring saxophones rather than accordions. The young man on the door assured me 'You should be at the Nariel Hall', and provided details of how to get there. As it was now dark and a heavy summer fog had settled down, the drive proved somewhat wearing. It started somewhat dramatically when I took the first turn after the usual green roadside notice indicating that the Nariel turnoff was coming up and quickly found my headlights shining into the Nariel Creek! The correct turnoff is, of course, on the other side of the creek. The road was then mostly gravel and my small car chugged slowly along, its headlights making very little penetration through the thick fog. I seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the interior of an uninhabited land! At last I came up with a tractor and was relieved to be told by its driver that the Hall was really there -'just a few miles on'. I seemed to have been travelling for hours when its lights loomed up dimly out of the fog. I had dashed back to the hotel for my map when I learnt that I had to travel out to Nariel and, in the confusion had left my handbag on the bed. However the typical Nariel hospitality soon solved that problem as when I explained this to the door-minder, he welcomed me in.

Even then I nearly disgraced myself due to not being very familiar with country and western music. Max Dyer, a very good singer in this style as well as in the folk style, was singing one so mournful that I wrongly took it as a parody. However, a quick look at the solemn faces around and I smartly wiped the silly grin off my face in time to prevent disaster. I was disappointed at first to found that this particular dance was a standard 50-50 dance with a mixture of the usual couples dances, but no sets. But I cheered up when I saw the medley which was the final dance. This included the Manchester Galop, Varsoviana, a very neat Polka, Highland Schottische and Circular Waltz so I knew that they would know other earlier dances. Having made contact with Con and the band and arranged for our group to meet them next day, I faced the foggy road more cheerfully on the return trip to my Corryong hotel.

PART 6: Collector's delight



Maryjean Officer and the O'Connors arrived the next day and, in company with Max Dyer, we had one recording session that day. Next day, January 2nd, the Melbourne visitors had another session with some of the other band members and with Charlie Fardon, a local MC, on the dances and their music. I had to return to Melbourne to my usual job but the others were able to have other sessions in the next few days when more songs and other music were recorded. Maryjean's account of this successful trip, 'Collecting in Northern Victoria' appeared in Gumsuckers Gazette in the issue of February, 1963. After first describing their collecting of songs in Yackandandah, she wrote as follows :- 'In Corryong we met Shirley Andrews and with her recorded dance tunes from many people in the district. Mr and Mrs Con Klippel of Nariel Creek gave us the steps of a dance new to us, "The Berlin Polka" and its air "Ask Old Brown to Tea". Con and his brother, George played us many of the old dance tunes, on piano, concertina and accordion. One of the tunes they used was our "Albury Ram". Con gave us the complete words to that song "Bourke Street on Saturday Night" which Harry Pearce and others have been trying to recall, and recorded "Poor Henry's on the Wine" (or "Ehren on the Rhine"), also the air to "The Death of Alec Robertson"... (this next section was on songs recorded from others in the district)...'More dance tunes were collected from Mr. Tom Edwards of Khancoban, accordion player, and Mr Charlie Ordish of Corryong, who played the concertina. None of our players as yet can "swing" the concertina as some of the musicians in this district do. On Shirley's last evening Mr. George Cadman arranged for us to hear a group of musicians play through a typical old-time dance programme, while Mr Charlie Fardon from Indi Bridge, who has been an MC for many years, gave us a description of the dances. He demonstrated the Varsoviana and Manchester Galop with Shirley, and Mr Jim Harrison taught her an attractive 'new' dance, Princess Polka'.

The musicians of the Upper Murray have such a lot to teach us that we were delighted when it was suggested that we return for a special session of dances and music, and that we bring with us other interested folk from the two societies. Several of these recordings, together with others made in recent weeks, will be played at the FLSV Collectors' Night.'

PART 7: Genesis of a Festival



My notes (preserved in a very battered old notebook) recorded that the musicians played through the following program: The Quadrille (First Set, Lancers, Schottische, Alberts (with the tune, La Cachuca for the Spanish Waltz), Waltz Cotillion, Varsoviana, Royal Irish, Barn Dance, Caledonians, Polka Mazurka. Charlie Fardon said here that the program would commence again here from the First Set and finally finish up with a medley consisting of the Highland Schottische, Three-Hop Polka, Princess Polka, Berlin Polka and Cinderella (this perhaps would be the final waltz tunes that signal that it is time to go home.) He gave a lot of useful information during the evening, saying that the Princess Polka was also known as the Scotch Polka or the Heel and Toe Polka, that the Royal Irish was the First Set danced to Irish tunes, and that the Veleta Waltz had first been danced in Corryong about 1912.

Charlie Fardon was a wonderful source of information as he could remember as far back as the 1890s, when he had gone to dances as a child. He said that there were usually items at balls such as a solo dancer doing a jig or a hornpipe, and that these were usually men. It was not considered ladylike then for women to lift their skirts up to dance these steps, although he did comment that the conventions were not so rigid in some places. I have always regretted that in those early days when Charlie was still active I didn't have enough background knowledge to ask all the right questions. He had been a dancer right through the period when the new dance style of the 1920s to 1930s came in, and would have been able to tell us much of its slower penetration into the bush and its gradual influence on the old style, especially during his many years as MC. I did have the great pleasure of dancing with him during later visits. I danced a Varsoviana with him at his 84th birthday party and would have no hesitation in saying that at that age he still danced this much better than most younger folkies do today.

After these contacts, described here, a date was soon arranged for the promised dance and music session. It wasn't possible to use the Labour Day weekend that year (1963) because both the Melbourne groups were involved in an Australian concert to be held then in the Myer Music Bowl. However, the Queen visited Victoria in February and a public holiday was granted on Monday, February 25th to celebrate her visit. This provided that extra day needed then when the long sections of rough road up to that part of Victoria required considerably more travelling time than visiting folkies need these days. So the dance was planned for the Saturday night (February 23rd, 1963) with the visitors to perform at a picnic concert on the Sunday.

PART 8: The very first one



News of these plans had been quickly passed around among members of the two Melbourne groups and several carloads travelled up for the weekend. Both the dance and the concert were a great success. Everyone had such a good time that suggestions for it to be an annual event to be held on the Labour Day weekend were received with enthusiasm. It was decided that this first festival was definitely to be followed by a second one on that weekend in 1964. Because this next one was the first to be held at the Labour Day weekend, some people consider it to be the first real festival, but Con, in an interview with someone from the National Library (Canberra) gave 1963 as the starting date.

An impressive program of 21 dances had been arranged for us, in this sequence: - Circular Waltz, Barn Dance, Varsoviana, Polka Mazurka, Progressive Barn Dance, Waltz Cotillion, Manchester Galop, Veleta, Highland Schottische, Circular Waltz, Lancers, Maxina, Pride of Erin, Alberts, Three Hop Polka, Gypsy Tap, Circular Waltz (played on concertinas) Maxina, Berlin Polka and Princess Polka, Circular Waltz. (Note- I have used the most common spelling of dance names so everyone will understand what is meant although Nariel, like many places where they have been danced for many years, have their own names for some).

The band members had put in extra practice for those old tunes which they hadn't played for some time. At that time the musicians in the band with Con Klippel and his brother George Were Charlie Ordish, Jim Harrison, George Cadman, Mrs Madge Everard, Mrs Dolly Caldwell and Mick Smith. Charlie Ordish certainly would not have approved of the crowd of musicians often seen on the stage at dances at the Nariel festivals these days. He always complained bitterly if there was not enough room to 'swing' his concertina in his usual vigorous style.

In discussions we had with Con and Beat and other local people, they were distressed that the older dances were losing their popularity, especially among the younger people. Con said that the last time he had put on a full program of old-time dances was for his Rifle Club in 1958. The dances on that program included most of their special dances such as the Manchester Galop etc as well as the First Set, Lancers and Alberts but none of the more modem dances that were on their usual 50-50 dances at that time. It was suggested to Con that it might help to build up an interest again if they were to start an Old Time Dance Club, as these had been successful elsewhere. This was done (the Upper Murray Old-time Dance Club) and it was well supported locally. It seems that the collectors from the Melbourne folk groups did come at a good time to help prevent the loss of the wonderful traditional dance and music of this district. Some of the younger people were surprised that a group of people, including some in their own age group, would come all the way up from Melbourne for what they judged to be old-fashioned, boring, and only of interest to their parents; some decided they might even take another look at it!

PART 9: The Festival today



In the next few years the festivals became a popular yearly function and the Nariel Band well known in the district for its dance music. Con and Beat led the campaign to re-establish the traditional dance and its music. They set up a junior band, as well as a junior dance group who performed the quadrilles and other dances in their smart black and white outfits. Their activities and the further development of the Nariel festivals need to be properly recorded in much more detail than I have space for here. The members of the senior band changed over the years to include 3 generations of the Simpson family and 2 younger members of the Klippel family. Keith, Con and Beat's son, had been away from Nariel when all these activities started but joined later as did Andrew Klippel. Andrew is the son of Con's cousin, Ron Klippel and his wife Barbara. Conrad Klippel, who was the grandfather of our Con, was followed by four generations of Conrad Klippels, although more recent ones, like Keith and his son, Jason are known by their second name. As soon as I asked questions about the details of these relationships, informants called for pencil and paper to make these clear.

They are still with the band along with two generations of the Simpsons, with Neville Simpson and his wife Maureen now at the forefront of organising the present Nariel festivals which involves a lot of work, all voluntary. For some years there were 2 festivals, one at the Labour Day weekend, and one from Boxing Day on to the first few days of January. The growth of a new festival at Port Fairy led to the decline of the March festival. I never succeeded in convincing Con and Beat, who saw this as disloyalty to the Nariel festival, that their Melbourne supporters were not responsible for this. As they saw it, we should not have allowed this new festival to be held on 'their' weekend. It actually was the Geelong Folk Club which started the folk festival at Port Fairy because they wanted to have a festival in their own western area of Victoria. Their members would have strongly rejected any suggestion that Melbourne had initiated it.

The festivals held during the New Year period continued, and their popularity continues to increase. In 1997 the dances had to be transferred from the old Nariel Hall to the Mechanics Hall at Cudgewa. Some traditionalists regret the loss of the old hall but more people are enthusiastic because of the greater comfort and convenience of the Cudgewa hall. But Cudgewa has always had a place in this story as some musicians living there were also on the early recordings. Some labels state that these tapes were recorded 'at Con Klippel's home near Cudgewa', as the postal address for his farm in the Nariel Valley was 'via Cudgewa'.

Ever since that first festival on February 23rd & 24th, 1963, many other folk enthusiasts from many places have enjoyed these festivals. The members of what was then the Victorian Bush Music Club (now the Victorian Folk Music Club) have the extra pleasure of claiming that they discovered the treasures of the Nariel Valley first, but we don't mind sharing them.


Official site of the Victorian Folk Music Club Incorporated (Reg No A2511Y)

Last Updated: 2016-05-09