Tribute to Brian Dunnett

I first met Brian in the 1960s when I called into 40 Market Street Sydney which was a large terrace house that was the headquarters of the Eureka Youth League and the Communist Party of Australia and had a bookshop on the ground floor. Brian was at the time Secretary of the EYL.

I caught up with Brian again in the 1980s when I was working as a technician at Macquarie University and he was convener of a shop floor committee at the railway workshops in Chullora. He and his committee were involved with the ‘Art in Working Life Project' the funding of which came through the Australia Council.

Among other things railway workers became involved in a number of projects, one of which employed a resident poet to encourage workers compose their own verse. The poet was Harry Robertson, a Rolls Royce trained Glaswegian ships engineer whose songs I knew well.

Other initiatives of the Combined Railway Unions Cultural Committee included an exhibition of thirty large illustrated panels reflecting Australian railway history through the eyes of railway workers themselves. These panels were exhibited in a railway carriage that travelled to railway stations across the country. In 1982 a meeting at took place at Chullora with Don Mamouney, Dallas Lewis and Pat Cranney from Sidetrack Theatre and shop stewards from the Loco area.

The idea of a theatre company residence is proposed and agreed to in principle and Sidetrack successfully applied for the funding. In 1987 there was also a lunchtime concert launch at Chullora for the release of a 45rpm recording of two songs composed and performed by railway workers Ray King and Ron Russell.

Brian soon roped me into his project of recording and publishing the railway song and poetry he’d been researching and collecting, the result of which was two cassette tapes – ‘Railway Voices’ and ‘Trains of Treasure’. These were released in 1984 and later reissued as CDs. This project was launched in Sydney by Roger Woodward and Donald Horne. As well as railway workers and their unions these projects involved more than a hundred artists, poets, singers, voices, researchers and radio producers.

Over the next thirty or so years we worked together to gather many more railway songs and poems and making them accessible on internet archives like ‘Australian Railway Songs’ at the research blog – railwaysongs.blogspot.com – where there are now close to 500 lyrical items as well as over 130 articles from over 100 different Australian newspapers. This online blog also contains 18 chapters written by Brian under the title ‘The Australian Railway Story’ and awaiting editorial hands for future publication, a big part of his dream.

Just as Brian roped me into his projects I was pleased to rope his whole workshop into one of mine. At Macquarie University I was working as technical support with Barbara Dodd on a speech therapy research project titled the ‘Eye-hear’ project which required among other things testing the hearing of workers subjected to working in noisy environments. A railway workshop was a good example and the Chullora workers committee agreed that a large number of free hearing tests would be offered to the workers.

Another project Brian helped me with was to provide the Sydney May Day March with a multicultural broadcast of workers songs from around the world. It was a project that a Sydney waterside worker had suggested to 2SER’s Razors Edge – the wharfie envisaged everyone on the march carrying a portable radios playing the songs as they marched. Instead of that the May Day Committee organised four loud speaker vans that were tuned in to the hour long radio broadcast starting with the old French workers’ anthem ‘The International’.

I reckon it was the first radio-controlled May Day in the world ! A visiting delegate to the May Day march listened in amazement to the broadcast in the taxi to catch his plane home when he heard a Tagalog version of a song that was recorded in Manila on one of the huge anti Marcos demonstrations. The song was ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ espousing an attitude Brian embraced to the full.

Brian certainly never stopped working on and thinking about his chosen task of preserving the cultural achievements of Australian railway workers.

In 2005 Brian and UNE academic Andrew Piper prepared ‘Train Whistle Blowing’, a booklet of songs and poems as a souvenir for the National Railway Heritage Conference held as part of events associated with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of steam railways in NSW.

In 2009 the Bush Music Club published a collection of thirty songs from Brian’s collection, complete with music notation, under the title ‘Australian Train Songs’.

In 2013 Brian and the Illawarra Folk Festival proposed and helped organise more that 400 people took advantage of the Green Music Train as a great musical initiative which is supported by one of the festival's sponsors City Rail.

Brian commented on the significance of his Green Music Train concept:

One of the strengths of our project has been the involvement of Australian Culture bodies like the Australia Council and the National Folk Movement. This has meant that the traditional Railway songs, poems and stories of Australian Railway continue to be performed at folk music and steam festivals.  

Brian Charles Dunnett 1935–2016 

By Mark Gregory  June 2016

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