20 December 2023

'Ugly old fella' with a beer carton returns to perform at Illawarra Folk Festival

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Ted Egan singing while tapping on his beer box.

Ted Egan performing at the Illawarra Folk Festival in 2015. Photos: Graeme Morrison.

Legendary folk singer, author and “national living treasure” Ted Egan will make his comeback at January’s Illawarra Folk Festival – at the ripe old age of 91.

His three performances at the 37th Illawarra Folk Festival, from 19-21 January, will be his first public shows in 18 months.

The full festival program, featuring 90 international, national and local acts, has been finalised and is now available on the revamped festival website.

Ted, who has been based in the Northern Territory for most of his adult life and served a term as NT Administrator, is combining his trip to Bulli with performances at the Tamworth Country Music Festival the following week.

READ ALSO UOW music student named Youth Artist of the Year at Australian Folk Music Awards

He’s never taken a set list on stage in more than 50 years of performing, and he’s not about to start now.

“I prefer to ‘work the eyes’ – making eye contact with the audience and seeing what people are reacting to,” he said.

“If they are not laughing at my jokes, I introduce some of my more serious and provocative songs…

“For 30 years I did a show in Alice Springs seven nights a week, and every night was a first night because I never knew what I’d be playing.

“People are sometimes surprised at the ease with which I remember my own songs, but since I composed them, they’re in my brain, not in a computer.”

Ted accompanies himself by tapping out a rhythm on a beer carton, which often surprises the uninitiated.

“We used to get a lot of overseas tourists in the audience at Alice Springs, and you could see on their faces at the start that they were wondering who was this ugly old fellow with the beer carton, who expected them to listen to his songs,” he laughed.

“At the end you’d know that they couldn’t wait to get back to Pennsylvania or wherever and tell their friends how they’d spent three hours listening to someone tapping on a beer box while he sang to them.”

Russell Hannah and Ted Egan holding drinks.

Illawarra Folk Club President Russell Hannah with Ted Egan.

Ted has a vast body of work to draw from. He began recording in 1969 with Drinkers of the Northern Territory and has released 30 albums.

His songs revolve around outback life, Australian history and Indigenous people, with whom he has a strong affinity. The Drover’s Boy and Gurindji Blues, which he wrote to commemorate the landmark Land Rights fight of the Gurindji people on Wave Hill Station, are two of his best-known songs.

He’s performed at the Illawarra Folk Festival more than 10 times, from its early days at Jamberoo to his most recent appearance in 2015, when he launched his Anzacs book and songbook, commemorating 100 years since the Anzac troops landed at Gallipoli in WWI, and said he’s delighted to be returning in January.

Illawarra Folk Club President Russell Hannah is both a friend and fan of Egan, and says he is one of the two performers (with Eric Bogle) who really put the Illawarra Folk Festival on the map.

“We held our first festival in Jamberoo in 1986, and it was a tiny affair,” Russell said.

READ ALSO Stellar line-up for long-running Illawarra Folk Festival expected to attract a new generation of folk fans

“The next year, we put on two big shows in Wollongong featuring Ted and Eric, and they sold out. So we asked them to perform at the next festival, sold 1000 tickets, and we never looked back.

“It is amazing that Ted is still going strong and performing at 91.”

And while the Illawarra Folk Festival marks Ted’s first public performance in 18 months, he has hardly slowed down, working with his wife Nerys Evans on a project called Foundation Day.

It is a book, song and video aimed at children, about the first circumnavigation of Australia in 1803 by British navigator Matthew Flinders, his Indigenous companion Bungaree and Flinders’ cat Trim.

Ted might not have a set list, but chances are he’ll be performing Foundation Day at least once at the Illawarra Folk Festival – if not in all three shows.

His performances are scheduled for 6 pm on the opening day of the festival, Friday, 19 January, then 10 am on Saturday 20 January and 11 am on Sunday 21 January.

Early bird three-day passes to the Illawarra Folk Festival are $135 – a saving of $40. They are available on the festival website until 23 December.

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