John Dengate was the closest heir to the legacy of Henry Lawson that this country has known. He was a free thinker, poet, artist, teacher, songwriter, singer and street busker, ever ready to recite or sing, and always ready to take the mickey out of politicians, misguided business leaders and any visiting sports team.
In his later years he had become a familiar Sydney city sight, playing his tin whistle and singing at the corner of George and Market streets or at Central Station. Although he played guitar, his whistle playing worked better in Sydney’s noisy streets. His beautiful old Irish and bush tunes wafted over Henry Lawson’s “faces in the street”.
Like Lawson, Dengate enjoyed a drink or three but a few years ago, when he was ordered off the grog, he quit immediately. However, surgery for cancer, a weakened heart and the humiliation of the Aussie cricket team’s defeat by the Poms dealt him a final wicket.
If nothing else, Dengate was pragmatic about his growing catalogue of ailments and used his wry humour to cope. After being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation he wrote a song ending with: “I suppose that there’s worse things in life than giving up the booze, and I know it sounds vindictive … but I hope the All Blacks lose!”
John Robert Dengate was born on October 1, 1938, and grew up Carlingford. Three of his best-known songs reflect on his early life: When I Was A Lad in Carlingford, Bare-Legged Kate, about his mother, and The Song of the Sheet-Metal Worker dedicated to his father, Norman.
At 15, infatuated with the boxer Jimmy Carruthers, Dengate became obsessed with the fight game and the old Sydney Stadium boxers. He loved all sports although he claimed to be a rotten sport. His song Sporting Suicide ends with “Jump off the Gap or turn on the gas tap, if we’re beaten by the Poms.”
Dengate was lean, like a greyhound at Harold Park, and he had the stamina of one, too. He ran marathons and estimated he had raced around the Centennial Park circuit more than 1200 times, but his real marathon was in continuing the spirit of Henry Lawson for well over 50 years.
As a young man, Dengate, a talented sketcher, was torn between art and music, not real options for a working-class boy, so, being a realist, he became a teacher. His first posting in the 1950s was the outback town of Menindee, where he met folk singer Brian Mooney, who “taught me everything I needed to know about the power of folk song”.
In 1961, Dengate went to Burnside Central School, where he met and soon married Roseann Dale, who introduced him to the Bush Music Club.
There, he met traditional singers who impressed him with their well-articulated singing, so important to story songs. He also met pioneer folk song collectors John Meredith and Alan Scott, who furthered his interest in Australian traditional song and story.
There is no doubt that Dengate’s songs will live on. Many have already passed into that hazy territory where the song is known and the songwriter anonymous. He would agree to such musical freedom, especially as most of his songs were set to traditional tunes. Witty satirical verse was his stock in trade and he was brilliant in pressing the point while pressing the funny bone.
Dengate was a republican and loved Australia and its stories but he was never an angry man and preferred to make his point with humour. His last songs included Please Save Me from the Mad Monk and an attack on Rupert Murdoch’s phone-tapping spree.
He never left home without a pen and paper, scorning computers with their spellchecks and rhyme lists. He wrote thousands of songs, satires and poems and also had a repertoire of hundreds of traditional songs and knew the great Australian poems. His life has been documented in oral history interviews at the Australian National Library, and in three songbooks and various recordings.
John Dengate is survived by Roseann, sons Lachlan and Sean, daughter-in-law Mandy, grandchildren Roisin and Cal, mother Kathleen and, of course, his songs.