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Using folk music to fight off drought depression

Donal Sheil and Micaela Hambrett, Friday September 7, 2018 - 19:39 EST
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Allan Walsh will have to destock his remaining cattle if rain doesn't soon come. - ABC

A drought-stricken New South Wales farmer is using folk music to fight off the depressing conditions of the worst drought in living memory.

The sights of the big dry have become ubiquitous.

Arid paddocks, gaunt livestock and dejected farmers are now visuals synonymous with the crisis gripping all of NSW and most of Queensland.

The soundtrack of the drought, however, is seldom heard.

Farmer and folk musician Allan Walsh has channelled his experiences battling drought into the strings of his violin with a new composition called Ain't That a Shame.

For the 71-year-old, music has been a source of solace during drought.

"It's very helpful because it takes you away from the sadness. It takes you away from a lot of bad thoughts," Mr Walsh said.

"Music's helped me a lot through my life.

"There's been times when I've given up playing music, but I've always gone back to it."

As mental health , Mr Walsh said music has been invaluable for keeping a healthy mind.

"It just makes you feel good, it's a wonderful feeling," he said.

"It must be good for your health because it's just a good feeling — it's very enjoyable.

"Time goes quick. It's amazing how quick the day goes if you're sitting there playing a little bit of music — hours disappear."

Changing the tune in dry times

Mr Walsh's 600-acre property near the country NSW town of Mudgee has been bone-dry for 18 months.

"The state of our property is shocking," he said.

"It's as bad as it could be because all we have is nut grass."

"Sheep and cattle can't pull it up. They can't eat it. It's everywhere, it's like a green drought."

After destocking all 130 of his sheep and cutting his cattle numbers in half, Mr Walsh is still thankful for what he does have.

"We're very lucky we've got water," he said.

"The name of the property is Spring Flat. They must've called it that for a special reason, because there's dams on the property, and there's still plenty of water."

'I'm just an ordinary person, an abattoir worker'

In Mr Walsh's decades-long career as a folk musician, no memory eclipsed the moment he became the first musician to play on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in April 1973, alongside accordion player and friend Orly Benson.

"I took a sickie from the abattoirs and down we go in a little Mini Cooper S," Mr Walsh said.

"We parked down near the Opera House, which was real easy back those days."

The pair performed a short concert to send off six Gulgong residents as they began a 300 kilometre walk to their country NSW town, raising money for the decaying Gulgong Opera House.

Mr Walsh had the chance to become one of the first musicians to play inside the Sydney Opera House when he and the Gulgong fundraisers were given a guided tour of the incomplete landmark, which finished in September that year.

"I had my fiddle, and one lady from Gulgong said to me 'This is your first and last chance, Allan, play something'."

"I couldn't, I felt it wasn't right. I didn't feel confident in any case, but I just felt it wasn't right."

The group had been informed that Yehudi Menuhin, one of the 20th century's greatest violinists, was also visiting the Opera House later that day.

"I thought if he was coming that day to check out the Opera House, the main auditorium, he was coming to check the acoustics," Mr Walsh said.

"He is the player, I'm just an ordinary person — an abattoir worker — who's trying to play a violin. Let him do it, he deserves it.

"He's the greatest fiddle player in the world."

The next day Menuhin appeared on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald playing his violin to rows of empty Opera House seats.

The article read: "Mr Walsh played on the steps outside. Mr Menuhin inside the concert hall."

'It does something to my soul'

Mr Walsh has remained close to his musical roots in Gulgong where he now has a store selling his collection of old violins and colonial artefacts.

After a lifetime of playing, Mr Walsh's love for the fiddle is still strong.

"I get pleasure — it does something to my soul," he said.

"Getting away from the farm and being in this shop's been a great help because I just forget about the farm until it's time to go back there and feed up."

Curious browsers from Gulgong's main street have found themselves surprise audience members in Mr Walsh's impromptu concerts.

"A lot of people come into the shop, and they see the violins and they ask me to play, and I think that's pretty good," he said.

"I've stopped playing in clubs and travelling around and that. It's lovely if someone asks you to play something, because I only play a little short bit.

"I get a kick out that, I think I'm a show-off in a way."


© ABC 2018

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