November 23, 2023

Music

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

By Chris Johnston
Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

Margret RoadKnight. Photo by Paul RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

Margret RoadKnight is a gem. A rough diamond, perhaps. She is plain-speaking and extremely direct, with a flash of wonderful pink in her long, straw-coloured hair. “Eighty years old,” she says, “60 years of performing music this year and 50 years since my first album.”

But the veteran singer of jazz, blues, folk, gospel and traditional music – whose career has been largely unsung in mainstream Australian culture – is now wondering whether it might be time to slow down. She first appeared on Melbourne’s folk scene in 1963. Modern conditions for musicians and performers don’t fill her with joy. Streaming is awful, she says, and it wasn’t too long ago that punters at a show would “shut up, look and listen”.

“I’m pleased to say invitations keep coming in, but I have to find a nice way to say, ‘I appreciate the offer,’” she says. “Covid was several years of not singing, and it’s a muscle that wasn’t used. Do I really want to gear up again at my age? It turns out I don’t. Happily lazy is now my default position.”

She’s marking this year’s anniversaries with a digital and CD compilation of music from the late 1980s onward. Some of the songs she was overdubbing until recently. All of the recordings she owns herself, after extracting herself from major labels.

The compilation, Long Time, spanning recordings made between 1988 and 2023, is released through independent label Chapter Music. The material was “overdue for reappraisal”, says Chapter’s Guy Blackman. “No one else in Australia sang the kinds of songs Margret was singing, songs I loved by Dory Previn, Malvina Reynolds, the McGarrigle sisters, Loudon Wainwright, even Colin Campbell of Tully.”

RoadKnight lives by herself, in an independent living village in inner Melbourne. We’re having a glass of rose and a Portuguese tart on a Monday afternoon. The front room is enclosed by shelves of LPs, CDs and music books. She sold 1000 LPs from her collection before moving in but still has many left – “another thousand or so,” she says. Later in the afternoon she will rise from her chair and summon me to listen without speaking as she presses play, turning the volume up, and up again, on a gospel-styled tune from her new collection, “Till Time Brings Change”, written by Australian songwriter Graham Lowndes and sung by herself and Jeannie Lewis, in “a trio version” from 1993.

“Wonderful,” she says. “Graham and Jeannie are my favourite Australian singers, and them together almost breaks my heart.”

Off the bat, RoadKnight mentions an anecdote involving Bob Dylan. The reason she mentions it, she explains, is not because it’s a cool story – which it absolutely is – but rather because it’s an example of something she didn’t do.

“I’m known in very small circles as the woman who refused to lend Bob Dylan a guitar,” she says. He was in Australia for the first time in 1966, and she got a phone call asking for the lend of an acoustic. “I said ‘No, I have to perform to my audience of two dozen.’ He wouldn’t have wanted mine anyway – it was nylon string.” 

RoadKnight has performed Dylan songs among her vast repertoire of other people’s work, but says that, back in the day, his voice was unpopular: “You could see they were great songs but you couldn’t exactly hear they were.” She’s mesmerised by the human voices she considers the great ones, and says that reaching somewhere previously hidden in song is a form of “magic”.

“There’s voices up here,” she says, pointing up. “And also way down here. You dial it in. We don’t even know what the voice can do.”

RoadKnight was the eldest of three. Her father, Brian, was a flight lieutenant in the Australian Air Force during World War II, but after the war he developed heart problems. Her mother, Margaret (known as “Phil” because of her middle name, Philomena), found office work to pay the rent on a house in East Melbourne. When the landlord took it back to sell, they moved to a housing commission estate in Reservoir, in Melbourne’s north, with no car. Her mother died at age 48, her father at 53.

The family was staunchly Catholic but instead of marrying one, as was expected, RoadKnight married no one. (On marriage she tells me, “If you feel you must, I suppose. Nice if it works out.”) Growing up with a father and mother who could both sing, RoadKnight of course could too, though she rebelled against formal singing lessons. She discovered Melbourne’s lively coffeeshop folk scene in the early 1960s.

“My last year of school was 1960. Here comes the ’60s, boom, boom, boom! The music scene I gravitated towards was underground because it wasn’t The Beatles and all that,” she says. “Folk wasn’t on the radio, but we had protest songs and traditional folk and what we now call world music. We had gospel and Negro chain gang songs, as we used to call them. We had our own traditional music like bush ballads or whatever, but it was all about men in the bush, there wasn’t much there for women. Forget about Aboriginal songs.”

The coffeeshop scene – including places such as The Outpost Inn in the city centre, and emerging jazz and folk venues – was the only place for it. RoadKnight played her first gig in 1963 in South Melbourne, in a former church hall that had been redesigned as a theatre by architect Robin Boyd. There was a regular Sunday afternoon folk session, which on occasion would include Trevor Lucas, later of Fairport Convention. She was also among the early crop of regular singers at the famous Frank Traynor’s Folk and Jazz Club in the city, singing standards such as “Careless Love”, also done by Bessie Smith. She joined the club’s jazz band after Judith Durham left for The Seekers.

RoadKnight moved to Sydney for 21 years, singing in clubs, doing a lot of TV work and making 10 albums with great musicians, traversing folk, blues, soul, vintage gospel and jazz, as well as performing songs by Australian songwriters who she considered underrepresented. She travelled to Africa and performed African music, including playing the African thumb piano (or mbira). While living in Brisbane, she produced an ABC radio program on gospel. She also promoted and toured artists she loved (and whose songs she often covered), such as the American singer-songwriter and slide guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. RoadKnight spent 10 years working for Musica Viva Australia, taking music into schools.

In 1976 came the hit, “Girls In Our Town”, written by Newcastle musician and radio guy Bob Hudson, a raw, country-town story reminiscent of Puberty Blues. “It crept up the charts, and hovered there briefly, and crept out again,” she says. The song is now in the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia collection, a selection of sound recordings chosen for their “cultural, historical and aesthetic significance and relevance, which inform or reflect life in Australia”. She is especially proud of that.

More than anything, Margret RoadKnight is a music lover; she is entranced and energised by it, and understands what a good song is. She’s unfazed about not singing so much these days – her word, “unfazed”. She also calls it a “disinclination”, choosing her words carefully. “This, I think, marks the end of me seeking out gigs, and being out there, as one used to be, pursuing a career,” she says. “It’s a respectable age to wind it down, I think.”

Chris Johnston

Chris Johnston is a Melbourne/Naarm writer.

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