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Australia's Dylan or a Dylan tribute act?

Gary Shearston

Sydney Town

Released: April 21st, 1965

Tracks Gary Shearston

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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In April 1965, Gary Shearston released the would-be Australian anthem, "Sydney Town". Throughout 1964-65 Shearston was a pioneer of the Australian folk scene, emulating what Dylan was doing in America, Donavon in England, and Bert Jansch in Scotland. His 1964 album Songs Of Our Time (recorded in Sydney, Australia) consisted of mostly covers by Dylan, Pete Seeger and Ewan Maccoll.

The follow up album was titled Australian Broadside. Released in early 1965, Broadside again followed American folk traditions, only this time around Shearston largely wrote his own songs for the record.

Australia's Dylan or a Dylan tribute act?
Throughout 1964-65 Shearston was a pioneer of the Australian folk scene.

Hidden at the very end of side two is the song "Sydney Town". Although credited to Shearston, both the lyrics and melody of "Sydney Town" borrow heavily from Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free", which was released two years earlier on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. There are hints throughout the song including Shearston's altering of Dylan's reference to President Kennedy to the then Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies.

When a song goes uncredited it's difficult to say if the artist is being deceptive or simply feels like it's too obvious to mention

Dylan sang "My telephone rang it would not stop it's President Kennedy calling me up, he says my friend Bob what do we need to make the country grow? I said my friend John...";

while Shearston sang, "My telephone rang it would not stop it's Mr Menzies calling me up, he says my friend Gary what do we need to make the country grow? I said my friend Bob..."

Although the reference is an obvious one, it's not until the final verse that Shearston uses Dylan's song verbatim, singing, "Now you ask me why I'm drunk all the time it makes me better and eases my mind, I just sit and I play and sing I see better days and I do better things."

When a song goes uncredited it's difficult to say if the artist is being deceptive or simply feels like it's too obvious to mention. Dylan had often done the same thing as Shearston did with "Sydney Town"; and in March 1965, Donovan did the same with his debut single "Catch The Wind", which borrows from Dylan's "Chimes Of Freedom".

It's highly likely, however, that the Australian public en masse would never have heard Dylan's "I Shall Be Free", as throughout the 1960s there was a ban on all non-Australian music broadcast on public radio. That being the case, CBS Records should have probably been a little less vague in acknowledging the source of "Sydney Town" in the liner notes to its release: "some [verses] were adapted from verses in other people's songs".

In 2015 a google search for "Sydney Town" and "I Shall Be Free" shows no trace of the inextricable connection between the two songs. It's possible Columbia Records or even Dylan himself has never heard Shearston's song.

Sadly it's likely that a song like "Sydney Town" may be forgotten. Even Sydney's newspapers may well fail to mention its 50th anniversary, which is unfortunate because the sentiment of the track is still relatable and resonant for a Sydneysider: "The beers going up in the public bar and I can't afford a motor car but I keep six bottles in the fridge and I pay no toll on the Harbour Bridge".

The song was described in Australian Broadside's liner notes as follows: "Sydney Town is full of local and topical Sydney references, too numerous to explain to those who are not Sydneysiders; people who live in other cities can amuse themselves by making up new verses to replace the ones they cannot understand."

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