By Paul Joseph, as told to Graham Askey
Back in the sixties these fatherly words of advice were echoed in nearly all of the working class homes in the dirty old town of Newcastle. So a young Paul Neilson found himself in the Hunter District Water Board’s workshop boring holes in a never ending stack of pipe flanges. It was boring all right. Singing folk songs was much more interesting. By the middle of 1967, fed up with being factory fodder, he decided to drop his apprenticeship, tune up his guitar, and turn on to the road out of town. As journeyman, now in his own chosen trade, Paul Joseph, the troubadour, was travelling on. Falling back? No way.
After three years on the road, I joined a scene which was Mullumbimby bound. I became part of ‘Kohinur’, one of Mullum’s original communes. Living among so many likeminded, peace loving and happy hippies and eating, milk and honey, paw paws and bananas (which the locals generously shared), it was like ‘Shangri-la’ to me.
I did go back to the city, to perform in the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, but after nine months Main Arm called me back. On my return, in August 1972, I had an inspiration to hold a fair in Mullumbimby to display the new lifestyle that we’d forged in the hills. I had in mind an event, where, by getting to know us better, the town would have no need to be nervous.
So I called the first public meeting of the hippies in Main Arm to garner support for my idea. A good crowd of about 60 turned up but I was dumbstruck when the reaction to my proposal pretty much was: ‘Jesus, man, cool it, let’s keep this place to ourselves. Who needs to be swamped?’
Not understanding why nobody shared my enthusiasm and feeling brought down and disillusioned I left the commune and went into retreat, to lick my wounds, in an old banana shed up the top of Palmwoods.
Only two weeks later I got a late night visit. It was Graeme Dunstan, Vye Tourle and Johnny Allen, Australian Union of Students (AUS) organisers. They’d come knocking to see if I could help with their plan of a country Uni Arts Festival. When they said they had a hundred grand to spend I brightened up and said, ‘I’ve got a plan. We could buy some land, have the festival on it, and then create a community of equals.’ They dug it. Gee, I’d been invited ‘back on the bus.’
The next day we drove up to Brisbane – to a students’ meeting at a house in St Lucia. Graeme laid a very passionate rave on them, about learning how to save the world at a bush festival, without a program, with no stars, where everyone will be their own artist. Many of the students were just as passionate and fired back, that it was naïve, unrealistic and unachievable. The meeting became disrupted and quite heated. Oh no, not this again.
‘So hoping to relax and centre things I started to strum the chords from an Incredible String Band song, which included the words of an old Irish blessing. Then I started singing the words and it wasn’t long before everybody joined in.
It was like the ‘spirit’ had taken over and all of the arguments turned into applause. That was how the chant of ‘May the long time sun shine upon you…’ became the ‘Anthem of Aquarius.’ When we formed the White Kompany, a group of twelve multiskilled performers, and took it on tour around the nation to promote the festival, the ‘spirit’ came with us too. We finished every show with the song.
In November 1972, the AUS decreed that no land would be bought, either to hold the festival, or to start any community on afterwards. Following a tip from Colin James, the plan now was to recycle the actual ghost township of Nimbin. Again I was crestfallen, because we had been eyeing off a 1,040 acre property at Tuntable Falls. I got another plan; this time it might work. Just put the idea out there. Maybe we could start a big community there, after the festival.
In March 1973, we heard that, for the traditional owners, the Bundjalung people, the Nimbin area was taboo for women. We didn’t understand quite what that meant, but since we hadn’t exactly planned the festival to be something like a university army cadet camp, we decided that we’d better seek out the Bundjalung elders for their advice. We talked to Uncle Lyle Roberts in Lismore and Dicky Donnelly, a ‘Songman’ from Woodenbong. They welcomed our festival to country and, concerning the taboo, we got the wink.
During the festival we had a tribal ritual in the Magic Circle where I’d play ‘May the long-time sunshine’ every morning to set the mood for the day. The kids loved it. One day we decided to take it across the road. We started out with half a dozen people and, as we went, people jumped out of their tents to join us.
Snaking through the site we soon had hundreds, maybe thousands, of happy campers falling in behind us. It was the most amazing musical experience of my lifetime to feel so connected, to so many people. The song went on and on for what seemed like hours until it got to the point where I thought ‘we need to change this song, but how do you stop a thousand voices?’ but then we got to an incredible, tiny second of silence where we were able start up another song and then we did ‘Come on you people, smile on your brother…’ and that was a precious moment, an amazing little space between us, where we were all listening. It was the absolute essence of the beauty of music. That is my special memory of the festival.
Many echoes, from the bell that rang out at Aquarius, can still be heard today. For example: respect for the first settlers, both black and white, now all the colours of the rainbow have been added to the palette of the north coast, the pioneering of some new versions of land sharing; but for me the most important is our commitment to the protection of the environment where I believe we have been leading the world for more than 30 years.
Paul did become an original shareholder in the Tuntable Co-op, the biggest ‘commune’ on the north coast, but found it necessary to leave after about five years. He now lives in a suburb of Lismore. It might seem that he hasn’t managed to live out his desire of community living. But just look around you, the dream is alive and well. Come to the ‘Aquarius in Lovemore’ (renamed after Paul charmed Mayor Jenny Dowell with a bunch of dahlias) event, to be held in the Star Court Theatre, May 9–12, and join in another rousing round of ‘and the pure light within you guide your way home’.
• This article one of an ongoing series of articles run in the Byron Echo and Echonetdaily in the leadup to the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival. For the festival program see http://sassevents.scu.edu.au/aquarius.
• The full series of articles are collected here on one page for easy reference.