Memories of Danny Spooner (Circa 1960-66)

I first saw Danny when he walked onto the stage of a social club in East London. The band he was about to sing with had already assembled with their instruments, looking a bit uncomfortable in their brand new red jackets, courtesy of one of their proud dads. Danny had apparently refused to wear one, being scornful of formality and uniforms.

The band, ultimately known as The Tremeloes, needed professional photos to send to the BBC in hope of an audition. As assistant to the owner of a local studio, my job was to hand him the flash bulbs from our box of equipment.

Through the locked doors I could see a crowd gathering. I wondered why, until I heard the boys perform. They had good style, melodious harmonising, and a terrific soloist – Danny. He had instantly-recognisable charisma, and when the girls were allowed in, they ran to t the stage and obviously loved him. The Tremeloes went on to have a No.1 hit “Silence is Golden” but by that time Danny had left the group. I could see his and their potential and tried to persuade him to stay, but he didn’t want to spend time in rehearsals after a hard day’s work on the Thames barges, nor to go touring.

Danny came to the studio personally to pick up the proofs later that week and to my surprise asked if he could wait till I’d finished work and walk me to the bus-stop. He thought I was a bit la-di-da on the social scale compared with his (proudly) Cockney upbringing, so I played up to that a bit just to tease him. I’d travelled all over Europe and been out with lots of boys but Danny seemed more manly and genuine than any of them. And ultra-protective. Too protective as it turned out. He was proud of his boxing prowess and did well as a lightweight during his 2-year National Service army training. However, he had a keen eye for anyone looking in my direction, or even asking me to dance at functions, and would invite them to ‘step outside’!!

After National Servic e in the army he returned to his former work as a lighterman – a highly-skilled trade towing strings of barges full of goods loaded from ships and delivered along the River Thames to various depots between the Port of London and Isleworth. This meant navigating the complex tides, currents and bridges along the way.

The day we got engaged we queued to see “Psycho”. Neither of us had experienced a shower (in those days most houses only had baths) and after watching the famous knifing scene, Danny declared he never would have one! It became a family joke.

When we were married we moved into a council house with his two brothers (his mother remarried). Suddenly I had sons! They were nice boys and the three of them used to play air guitars to The Kingston Trio, Cliff Richard and The Shadows – amongst many more. The house was always filled with music. Girls wore feminine dresses with gathered skirts, straight tubes or shifts and high heels. No jeans at that time. Nor sneakers. Lace-up ‘Plimsols’ (no Velcro) as they were called were strictly for sports.

When the river trade diminished we emigrated to Australia in 1962 and joined my parents in Sydney. A kind aunt of mine bought Danny his first good guitar as a parting gift. He (and I) learnt a range of chords easily and on board ship (the s.s. Canberra) he sometimes became part of the entertainment for passengers. I was far too shy to get up and sing with him.

We were housed in a migrant hostel at Burwood – a suburb of Sydney – until we could find work and a flat. We were (and still are) known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’.

It was hard for Danny to find work in Sydney, as the water-workers’ unions were closed shops. I found a job with a photographer and also taught myself shorthand-typing to broaden my options. I tried encouraging Danny to study a subject of his choice at night-school but this didn’t interest him, and eventually the difference in our attitudes to personal advancement wrecked our relationship. Counselling hadn’t helped except to make me realise we should never have married. I consider it was mostly my fault, but divorce set me free to follow my own ambitions.

We met occasionally without acrimony and I followed his new career path with great interest. I heard he was being guided into further education by a caring woman, which pleased me greatly. At last he was going to use his obviously good brain.

By that time the folk-scene was in full swing and Danny found other singer-guitarists to play with – amongst them I believe Gary Shearston who attained a large following.

I returned to England in 1966 and 13 years later was offered a job transfer to Melbourne by an American company. Ironically, the first man I met socially – a well-known larrikin academic - happened to know Danny extremely well and filled me in on their joint antics. I was delighted to learn that he had met people who each took him on as a worthy cause, and in turn ‘did them proud’. I went along to hear him play a couple of times in Melbourne, and when our mutual friend Dinny O’Hearn died, met Danny’s new wife Gael at the wake.

I can now turn my part of Danny’s story over to her – I know it will be in very good hands.

Joanna White (nee Joan Spooner / White)



Another Danny Spooner

Danny Spooner had a true clear voice, a twinkle in his eyes - and apprehension tightened him before he sang. He'd smile a little nervously, drop his head, close his eyes and sing about the lives of working men, women and children. Feeling how the audience received it, he'd relax and smile broadly under his 'coronet of curls' (Jamie McKew). The material carried him. How he loved to tell the tales of love and woe, of struggles and triumphs, of mayhem and trickery, of decency and simplicity. In all the accents of the British Isles, he could re-create their world. He had read their literature and their social history until it became his intimately-known background: the details of labouring lives in worlds pre-Christian, medieval, agrarian, industrial, military or maritime. He would remind us that this was also the background to the British settlement of Australia.

Danny was born in 1936, the eldest of three boys, growing up listening to the wireless, to his dad playing the piano, and learning to join in the singing at family gatherings. WW2 interrupted that, as the London Docklands was a frequent target and the family was bombed out 3 times, eventually moving in with a Scotswoman who had a huge repertoire of songs. So did those around the piano in the bomb shelter...

School was abandoned as the 13-y-o talked his way into a job on a sailing barge carrying cargo on the Thames and along the south coast. Bob Roberts, the skipper and a renowned traditional singer, had a hoard of songs. Knowing they would often be fog-bound, he joined Danny up to 3 libraries, asking him after he'd read each book 'to tell me the tale boy' – and somehow always had a song to match the story. Not one to read fiction, Danny read history and began to build his own bank of songs. Singing them into the wind from the prow developed his voice.

He worked on through an apprenticeship as a waterman and lighterman, a tug skipper pulling barges on the Thames, knowing its rushing tides and just how to push the vessel through the churning water at a bridge. But as planes took over cargo, the 'work on the water' dried up. He seized the opportunity to work his way to Australia on the passenger liner 'Canberra', entering Sydney Harbour at dawn. Within an hour of stepping ashore he'd been offered accommodation, and settled in a ground-floor Mosman flat with the Taronga Park lions to send him to sleep, and a view of the harbour through what he saw at first as scruffy gum trees. He got a job in a boatyard in Mosman. When a new friend took him to Jim Carter’s Troubador Folk Club in Rushcutters Bay he discovered folk clubs where people sat in silence and listened to someone being paid to sings songs like his... He also found there was an Australian tradition of songs and tunes.

In Melbourne he loved the community of Frank Traynor's Jazz/Folk Club. He learned new songs each night and developed a gift for 'making a good story' building 'his feeling for the song' (Cris Larner). Employment in the History and English Departments at the University of Melbourne enabled him to read everything within reach, honing his knowledge of the lives and music of working people of both Britain and Australia. 'When he sang you were absorbed into the world of the song, understanding better how people lived' (Ian Roberts). Danny taught at tertiary and secondary levels, and sang and talked across Australia and New Zealand, the British Isles, Denmark and France.

When he retired Danny confessed he had always dreamed he might sing in America, and (thanks to Ewan Barker introducing him to Jerry Epstein) he did: in 2003, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. In 2010 he was flown to Washington DC for a weekend singing at the Australian Embassy where he drew a parallel between the e to w European occupation and development of both the USA and Australia. He loved Mystic Seaport, shanty sings, house concerts and festivals. He was valued as a solo traditional singer and made many wonderful new friends.

In 2003 Danny was immensely honoured to find himself invited to talk with Richard Tognetti, which led to work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It was an opportunity to bring to classical audiences traditional songs and some beautifully crafted contemporary folk songs - a national tour in 2007 with the ACO and Mike Kerin, and in 2009 the Festival of Maribor with the Slovenian Philharmonic and members of the ACO.

He lived in Carlton, North Fitzroy, Newmarket, Geelong and spent 27 years in Daylesford. The thoroughly urban man loved his hilltop home under the walnut trees. It was his oasis: a rambling house, food from the garden, the cats and hens and his beloved Ford station wagon. He was a great man for a breakfast egg. He mowed the lawns, hand-made pasta and gnocchi, cooked up wonderful meals, whistled at his work and poured out the wine.

Diagnosed with rampaging lung cancer, Danny sang right through the summer of 2016-7: in NZ, Tasmania, locally at Newstead, with the Brass Band as part of a 5-hour tribute concert mounted by fellow musicians in the beautiful Daylesford Town Hall. He spent a week near the mouth of the Snowy, watching the river and listening to the sea, before his final sing at Cobargo Folk Festival in s.NSW. Danny died on 3 March 2017 and was buried in the bush cemetery at Vaughan, 10 minutes from the Guildford Folk Club.

Gael Shannon