The Top End Folk Club began with an inaugural meeting on 14 April in 1971. Early members included Ted Burns, Dr Lionel Crompton, Alex Green, Glenn Gaskill, Paul and Vinny Lawler, Bazza Martin, Guy Nichols, Sondra Saunders, Margaret Mile, Paul Stewart, Ev Whitaker, Josh Baker and Deirdre and Michael Mills, but there may have been others.
Initially, concerts were run at a number of venues, including the Greek Hall in Cavenagh Street. However, it was not long before regular concerts began at the East Point Gun Turret – the one that is now part of the Darwin Military Museum. The “old” Gun Turret was part of the old museum run by the Artillery Association and undeveloped, so the Association was happy for the Club to use it.
The acoustics in the Turret were perfect for singers and players and the Association employed a caretaker on-site, which enabled some equipment to be stored securely. The “stage” was at the back of the Turret facing the sea, with the audience sitting between the edge of the gun pit and the edge of the front terrace, with a couple of metres drop on both sides. Given the rudimentary fencing, it was miraculous on crowded nights that nobody ended up in an ambulance. The few who did fall over either of the edges appeared largely unaffected and simply grabbed another beer.
The gun pit below the stage was empty and proved a suitable, though pretty rough, dance floor when folk dancing developed on a regular basis.
The Sunday night concerts grew to be very successful as there was little or no entertainment competition on Sunday nights. As the membership expanded and more equipment was acquired, the Club became incorporated. The Club hosted artists touring Australia at special concerts, as well as supporting charity events in and around Darwin. Hundreds of folkies attended the special concerts. At an afternoon concert at the 1983 Top Half Festival there were well over 300 people crowded in.
However, a cloud appeared on the horizon in the early 1980s when it became clear that the Artillery Association wanted to reclaim the Turret so that a replica of the original WWII gun could be installed and the museum significantly expanded.
The Club then targeted the other Turret at East Point and eventually obtained a lease to use it. The Club also obtained grants from the NT Government to provide power and some level of security, since the structure was open to anyone.
The relocation to the “new” Gun Turret was made successfully and the weekly and special concerts continued. During the 80s the Club also ran folk dances at various venues, such as the Railway Club, the Italian Club and the Ski Club, and further afield at Batchelor and Pine Creek, so all in all the Club was very strong and well supported. The dancing repertoire extended from traditional Australian bush dances to English Playford and Apted, Scottish Country Dancing and Morris
The quality of local performers has been well recognised over the years. Groups have included Bludger O’Toole, The Bilge Ratz, the Darwin Ceili Band, Prickly Heat, Firkin’s Merkin, Tropical Ear, Mna, Murphy and Friends, No Strings Attached, Mixed 4 Tunes and The Fettlers. Noted individual performers include Paul Lawler, Christine Charles, Dave Bowers, Smokey, Sean Byrne, Maggie Kent, Jeff Corfield, Tony Suttor, Peter Bate, Chris Pemberton and Sue Ross. Apologies to any group or individual if they have been missed – let us know.
Last but not least, Paul Stewart has been staging his workshop entertainments at the Top Half Festivals since 1976 along with his “Friends”, usually comprising a cricket team of carefully selected singers and players from the Territory and interstate.
Unfortunately this didn’t last. Vandalism at the Gun Turret was such that there was a constant need to repair lights and power fittings. In the absence of any real security the Club had to give up the Turret and transfer regular meetings to hotels and clubs.
Over the years the Club’s venues have included Shenanigans, Kitty O’Sheas, Dolly’s, the Alawa Scout Hall, ‘The Rock’ – a climbing gym at Doctor’s Gully, the Railway Club and in later years at the Virginia Tavern.
As the Darwin live music scene changed there was considerable competition with entertainment being available at numerous venues almost nightly, and the mass folk audiences of the 1980s moved elsewhere.
In 2022 the newly invigorated Club began holding a number of regular events:
- Traditional workshop – monthly on the Saturday prior to the session at Darwin Community Arts in Coconut Grove.
- Tunes session – on the second Sunday of each month at The Last Supper Pizzarella.
- First Folk’n Friday – a monthly concert held during the dry season at Happy Yess in the Brown’s Mart complex.
The largest event for the Club is the Top Half Folk Festival, usually held in the Top End every two years.
This year, the 51st Top Half Folk Festival will be held at Breeze Holiday Parks – Mary River on the long weekend – 9-12 June 2023.
Sunday session at the Virginia Tavern (Photo: TEFC Archive)