It was sometime in the late 1970s that I first met Phyl Lobl. I remember her best at the 1980 Geelong Folk Festival. She was presenting concerts and workshops including an excellent session with Mike Jackson on 'The Songs of Henry Lawson'. She was also working with Warren Fahey as part of The Larrikins on such projects as 'Man Of The Earth', folksongs about Australia's mining industry and 'On The Steps Of The Dole Office Door', folk songs and poems from the 1930s Depression. As well, Phyl Lobl had teamed up with Graham Seal for his project, also with Warren Fahey, about Ned Kelly, titled "Game As Ned Kelly" and she had just released her second full album of songs 'Broadmeadow Thistle'. All of which made for a busy couple of years.
The first thing that struck me about Phyl Lobl was the message she gave out about her work and her commitment to folk music and its role in social and political comment, if not reform. Indeed, there's a whole swag of songs that Phyl sang in the '80s that aren't recorded anywhere, except by me, which refer to the times of Malcolm Fraser, the Nareen Cocky. But then Phyl was very much involved in the sixties folk scene, which of course, was the heyday of the "Protest Folk Song". At that time Phyl was Phyl Vinnicombe. It was only later that she became Lobl, after her marriage to Geri Lobl.
As Vinnicombe, Phyl made her name as a contemporary singer/songwriter in the Melbourne and Victorian folk scenes of the mid-1960s. She quickly gained a reputation as a singer with something to say and became popular around the clubs and festivals. Her name can be found on at least one compilation album from that time. In 1968, Phyl released her own E.P. (remember them?!) titled "Dark Eyed Daughter". It was a significant political statement by an Australian folk singer as it was dedicated to the political issue of Aboriginal Rights at a time when Australia's Aboriginal people were disenfranchised. Phyl recorded two of her own songs for the EP, the title song "Dark Eyed Daughter" and "Will You Fight, Will You Dare?" As well, Phyl recorded the song "Whose Hand" written by Ian Hills and Kath Walker's poem "No More Boomerang" to which she and her friend, later to be her husband, Geri Lobl had composed a tune and arrangement.
It was some years later, in 1977, after a move to Sydney, before Phyl Lobl was to record an album again. "On My Selection" was just that. A selection of folk songs that Phyl wanted to record for herself, because they were songs that she had been singing during the previous decade. All the songs recorded were by contemporary singer/ songwriters "alive and well and living or have lived in Australia" as Phyl wrote on the sleeve notes. They included a new recording of the Kath Walker poem "No More Boomerang" again put to music and arranged by her and Geri. Whilst some of the songs were distinctively Australian, others owed much to the British folk tradition and it is interesting to note which ones have been chosen for the 'Bronzewing' CD and which have missed out. Sadly, in my opinion, out go both Colin Dryden's "Factory Lad" and Dermott Ryder's "Right Of The Line", two excellent folk songs, which as far as I know are not on record by anybody else. Mind you, I should admit that both were sung by Andy Saunders, so it is understandable that they don't belong in this retrospective. However, it is a pity that Phyl did not include her version of Harry Roberston's 'Norfolk Whalers'. Thankfully, Phyl has kept for the CD, Dorothy Hewitt's "Weevils In The Flour", Gary Shearston's "Sometime Loving", Bernard Bolan's "Not Many Fish In The Harbour Today", Graham Seal's "First Wind", Bob Hudson's "Girls In Our Town" and last but not least Eric Bogle's "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda", which might have been the first recording of the song, preceding June Tabor by a good 12 months.
In the next few years, Phyl was busy on the Sydney and NSW folk scenes as well as nationally. She performed at clubs and festivals, in concert and workshops and earnt the respect and popularity she deserved as one of Australia's leading folksingers and songwriters. She contributed to several recording projects, as mentioned earlier. Phyl also joined Warren in concerts about Sydney and there was one memorable concert with John Dengate and Denis Kevans in 1981, which I recorded and still have in my archives. Throughout, Geri Lobl was always by Phyl's side, constantly critical and always encouraging. In many ways he was the force behind Phyl's talent. He was also her producer and her motivator. In Phyl's own words, in a letter to me, she writes "I want to recognize Geri's contribution to my performances and writing and the LP's. It was integral. The CD is about that. I wonder if the LP's would have happened without him. They certainly would not be as they are. He helped others too".
1980, saw Phyl Lobl record 'Broadmeadow Thistle'. Bar one, all of the songs were written by Phyl and the one that was not was Henry Lawson's 'Past Carin' to which she put the music. It should be noted that Phyl was no stranger to writing music for verse, besides "No More Boomerang", it was her music that turned Jock Graham's poem "Man Of The Earth' into a folk song, some years previously. The album 'Broadmeadow Thistle' was met with critical acclaim and enjoyed some success as much for the story of the title song as to several of the other songs such as 'Jimmy Blacktown' and 'Westgate Widow' which were already known to Phyl's audiences. Of all the many arrangements to Lawson's ballad 'Past Carin', Phyl Lobl's stands out head and shoulders above the rest, so much so that it has passed into the tradition and has since been recorded and performed by any number of other folk singers and groups. That is not to say that anybody else's arrangement is not good, just that Phyl has captured the essence of the ballad and its unique sense of Australia in a very special way.
Similarly, 'Jimmy Blacktown' captures the on-going problem for the young of Australia, finding work. Youth unemployment has been a curse on Australia's social status and Phyl Lobl's song tells the story very well. A personal favourite for me is the song 'Ship Of Fools'. It's an old story given new meaning and again sees Phyl Lobl demonstrate her class as a songwriter. It is one song that really deserves to be given a new life on this retrospective CD, but it is not included. Phyl promises me that she is keeping it for another album. The title of the 1980 album took its name from the song 'Broadmeadow Thistle' written by Phyl Lobl. It tells of a young girl who "gets in the family way", as people used to say. It was the 60's and the local priest was an influential man and very anti-abortion. So the parents arranged for the girl to go to South Australia to have the baby, which was then adopted, so that the family records would not show up in Victoria. Until she went away, the girl was made to stay in bed and act sick so that her siblings (apart from her older sister, who told Phyl the story) would not know she was pregnant.
As with so much that is on the 'Bronzewing' CD, this retrospective not only offers the listener the chance to look back on the songwriting career of one of Australia's leading folk singers and songwriters, but it also allows us to reflect on a generation of Australian folk music and a history of Australian folk. It has been a long and successful career for Phyl Lobl and it's not over yet! She is much admired throughout the folk scene and very popular too, not only with audiences, but with her peers, other singers, songwriters and musicians. As well as being an excellent songwriter, Phyl is a fine folksinger in her own right, with a unique and individual style of singing, which she uses to great effect. As I suggested earlier on, passion is a hallmark of her work both in her writing and her singing and I don't think it is any accident that Phyl tends to choose the ballad as the form for her songs. Similarly, I am sure it's no coincidence that quite a number of her songs are laments. Both suit Phyl's voice very well, but then so do town cries such as the chant "soup, soup" and other more boisterous songs about Sydney Town and being "On The Steps Of The Dole Office Door". Sadly, these are not included in this retrospective, but there's plenty of material of Phyl Lobl in the studio and in concert that would go a long way towards making a second retrospective CD. In the meantime there's an album of new and comparatively new songs just released by Phyl Lobl titled 'Alcyone' and about which I shall write more later on.