Lola’s Aussie folk treasure trove

Lola Wright (second from right) playing the piano accordion in the South Coast Bush Band.

The little town of Morundah has become famous over the years not only for its opera and ballet productions in the Paradise Palladium Theatre, but as home to some living legends.

One of them is Lola Wright, a former Illawarra primary school teacher, feminist, mother, wife, bush band founder and living musical library become one of the National Library’s most recorded oral history subjects.

For more than 10 years she provided interviews and musical recordings to the library’s historians, so that her extensive internal archive of Australian folk and other songs would not die with her.

In October 2014 they made a play about her, Lola’s Keg Night, in recognition of the rollicking sing-alongs she would host on her Oak Flats porch in the 1970s.

According to an article in the Illawarra Mercury that year nothing went to waste in the Queensland bush tent where Lola lived for two years of her transient childhood. Each day, her mother would sprinkle the dirt floor with water then sweep it, until the surface underfoot felt as solid as concrete. The drawers and the kitchen sink were made of split kerosene tins and the legs of the cupboards were cotton reels, stood inside old condensed milk cans filled with kerosene, to deter ants.

Lola slept in a bush bunk made from a chaff bag suspended between two forked tree branches. The tent had only two real pieces of furniture – a double bed for Lola’s parents and a wind-up, gramophone-style record player.

Lola was taught to play the piano by nuns at her school but taught herself the accordion she played in a bush band.

‘‘When [the record player] ran out of needles, you’d use a straw out of the broom,’’ she recalled.

Lola, her mother and little brother Billy had long followed her father from job to job, arriving at the camp in Dotswood Station, where her father cut timber for the railway in 1934. Her parents soon divorced and Lola was sent to boarding school and never knew where she would spend her holidays, or with which relative.

Billy had been unwell for much of his childhood and was in care when Lola went to boarding school. Unbeknown to the family then, the eight-year-old had Hunter Syndrome, a rare and serious genetic disorder that mostly affects boys. The condition is caused by a lack of the enzyme iduronate sulfatase. Without this enzyme, compounds build up in various body tissues, causing damage.

Lola’s father came to collect her one day, telling her: ‘‘we’ve got to go and bury Billy, he died’’.

‘‘I was a little bit sad but he had nothing to live for, poor little fellow,’’ Lola said.

Tragedy arrived again in 1942 when Lola’s father Harvey Cowling became a prisoner of war during the Japanese invasion of Ambon in Indonesia. Cowling went to Ambon as part of the field ambulance and was captured almost immediately. He remained a prisoner for three years before he emerged weighing about 40kgs. Lola was there to greet him when he stepped off a ship onto Australian soil in 1946.

Lola could play a song after a single listen and had an uncanny ability to remember songs, from the very old songs her grandmother passed down, to the traditional Australian folk songs she picked up around the campfires of her family’s transient days in the 1920s and 1930s.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when she campaigned for women’s rights and aligned herself with Communism, she favoured anthems about solidarity and women’s rights. Her incredible internal archive – estimated to include 600 songs – brought her to the attention of the National Library, whose recordings were discovered by Randwick producer and musical director Christina Mimmocchi.

Mimmocchi was struck by the story ‘‘of a very resilient woman’’ and the ‘‘great character’’ that started to emerge alongside the music-focused recordings. The resulting play, Lola’s Keg Night, was a musical memoir adapted by Mimmocchi and Sutherland playwright Pat Cranney, who recognised in Lola a role model and early feminist.

In the 1950s and 1960s she helped popularise a song called The Equal Pay Song, written to support the campaign for female teachers to be paid the same as their male colleagues. Mimmocchi and Cranney drew directly from the library recordings and Lola’s unpublished autobiography to develop a verbatim play that premiered at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on October 9. They named it after the keg nights Lola and her long-term escort Bill would host in their Horsley Road, Oak Flats home in the late 1970s.

Lola’s teaching friends, Bill’s fellow wharfies and various Labor Party mates had a tradition of meeting in an area pub on Fridays. But the gatherings were moved to Lola’s when the group’s relationship with the publican broke down. Bill would procure the kegs and Lola would take her piano accordion out on the front porch and oversee rousing sing-alongs. She was  encouraging, with a schoolteacher’s authority and a knack for getting everyone involved.

‘‘People follow her instructions, so if she said ‘you’re not to touch that keg until you’ve sung ‘Solidarity Forever’, they’d listen,’’ Mimmocchi said.

To the bad singers she gave a set of spoons to play, or a lagerphone. They were instruments she was well familiar with by then.

In 1958, inspired by an appearance by Australia’s first bush band in the musical Reedy River, she formed the South Coast Bush Band with a group of friends and her second husband, Coledale Labor Union icon Jack Wright. Lola was the only one with any musical knowledge, but the band was in demand at local dances and miners’ strikes, school fundraisers and trade union functions.

In 1959 they played in Petersham Town Hall to celebrate Dame Mary Gilmore’s 90th birthday. In her autobiography, Lola described how the others compensated for their lack of musical training.

‘‘The blokes were all extroverts with good voices, good presentation and a sense of rhythm,’’ she wrote. “Our band was formed, not to make money, but to spread Australian folk songs. At the time we were being inundated with Yankie Folk Songs and ours, which are equally as good, were being ignored.’’

Lola Wright in more recent times.

Lola was a champion for Australian culture and carried this into the classroom over a 40-year teaching career that took her to about 10 Illawarra primary schools.

In a submission to a book published in March 2012 to mark the Centenary of Coledale Public school, former student Michelle Harvey recalled her an ‘‘incredible teacher’’ from the 1950s.

“She introduced us to a love of learning. We learnt much of our own country and some of its culture. She became an inspiration to me for the way she radiated warmth and responsiveness to us kids.’’

She liked to get kids singing and playing percussion instruments, and led giant sing-alongs in the schoolyard. She was always looking out for the underdog and ‘‘the child who needed extra love’’, said colleague and friend Lenore Armour.

‘‘She was a risk taker, she would bend the rules a bit. She cared about the learner, not the subject, and she had results.’’

Lola had two daughters (her son Peter died in infancy) and two marriages before she started seeing Bill Everill. Their attraction sparked at a progressive bush dance in Wollongong. The dance separated them, but Bill arranged a later introduction.

Bill was married to a Catholic woman who wouldn’t give him a divorce, so he and Lola weren’t married until 1986, 13 years into  their courtship. They moved together to an acre of land in Morundah and had 14 good years together before Bill’s heath started to fail. Lola nursed him through a suite of illnesses for the last six years of his life, including dementia towards the end.

Bill stayed at home until seven days before he died. At the hospital, a nurse told Lola she had performed the work of five nurses in caring for him. Lola sat quietly at Bill’s bedside and stroked his hand until he died.

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