(August 2013) John Dengate- A Rich Life

Tony Smith


Individual human existence has limits. While we all have a birth and a death, most of us celebrate the fact of our beginnings but resist and regret our ends as though they were not inevitable. Religions have developed ways of trying to take the sting out of death, but paradoxically, as western societies become more secular and rational, it is common to experience death ceremonies that are positive celebrations of the preceding life.

Such was the funeral of John Dengate. Publicly, John was known as a teacher, sportsman, folksinger, busker, songwriter, raconteur, humorist and political activist. Privately, as slides displayed during his recorded rendition of ‘Song of Childhood’ demonstrated, he was a son, a brother, husband, father, grandfather and friend. As John’s son Sean said in his eulogy, his father had a good life, a rich and full life. The secret to having such a life, Sean suggested, was to keep things simple and to place your energies into the things you love. For John this meant rejecting the rat race and careerism and eschewing products such as cars and fancy clothing pushed by advertising. It meant giving priority to family and friends and standing firm by the values of working class Australians.

This adherence to things simple required great determination, which John’s marathon running showed he had in abundance. In John’s case a great sense of humour helped keep his priorities in order. Growing up as he did in the years immediately following the Second World War, he was infected with that dry, sometimes bitter sense of humour often associated with the Anzac spirit. While John always managed a wry smile at the world’s general unhappiness, he did not spare himself during personal misfortunes as shown by the self-deprecating humour in songs such as ‘Skin Cancer Blues’ and ‘Rectal Bleeding Calypso’.

John spent his childhood around Carlingford near Parramatta in western Sydney. In the 1950s, this was a semi-rural district with orchards and other small farms. He went to teachers’ training college in Armidale then taught in the ‘Far West’ town of Menindee. He then moved back to the city and taught at the school in the Burnside Homes at North Parramatta. He did casual teaching round the inner city and retired early to concentrate on his interests. Fans and friends are grateful for that decision because it enabled John to hone his song writing skills and put more energy into activism.

Speaking on ABC Radio, folklorist Warren Fahey said that he thought of Dengate as the successor of Henry Lawson. Both Lawson and Dengate had the ability to look at the plight of ordinary Australians and tell their stories back to them. There are distinct parallels in the words of the two poets and Lawson would certainly have enjoyed songs such as ‘Bill from Erskineville’, ‘Poker Machine Song’, ‘Tab Punter’s Song’ and ‘The Randwick Races’. It is likely that the Northern Suburbs Crematorium has seen a coffin covered in wattle flowers before. It seems less likely that it has heard the singing of Lawson’s ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ and Banjo Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

Those attending the funeral were greeted by the strains of the concertina. It is usual to call people attending a funeral ‘mourners’ and there is no doubt that the packed assembly regretted John Dengate’s passing. However, following the example of Dale, John’s wife of almost fifty years and his sons Sean and Lachlan, his friends expressed their love of the man with laughter and occasional applause rather than tears. While a death is always tragic and reason to grieve, John’s legacy has been humour and inspiration. He will be sorely missed, but his words will not be forgotten. Already, folkies are planning tribute concerts that will feature performances of his works and works about him by his many admirers. Another criterion for attributing a good life to someone is that they left the world a better place than they found it. John Dengate certainly did that.


See also:

-Lawson heir left mark on folklore.

-John Dengate singing ‘Bare Legged Kate’ at the Loaded Dog Folk Club.

-JAM, NSW Folk Federation: John Dengate passes away.

-Obit: John Dengate 1 August 2013.

-Assorted photos.

-Shoestring Records: John Dengate Homepage.


Tony Smith is author of ‘Master of Dissent: the Music of John Dengate’, Australian Quarterly, 76(2), March-April 2004. A former academic, he has written extensively on a wide range of subjects as diverse as folk music and foreign policy issues in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, the Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, Overland, the Australian Quarterly, Eureka Street, Online Opinion and Unleashed.