30 March 1930 —
Australia seems to have problems coming to terms with people whose talents span a number of areas, particularly if much of their reputation is made overseas. Ask the average Australian on the street about Clive James and they are likely to know him only as a TV presenter and be unaware of his achievements in poetry and other fields of writing. Similarly many Australians are likely to tell you that Rolf Harris is an old-school family entertainer from a previous era who is now embarrassingly out of fashion. Few would be familiar with his other achievements including important art programs for BBC television.
Rolf, the son of a Welsh immigrant couple, spent his childhood in Perth where he was to win an Australian swimming title. He trained as a teacher but was delayed from entering the profession through ill health. During his recuperation he decided to follow one of his other passions – painting. He sailed to England where painting earned him some income, but few – particularly people in their 20s – can make a living from painting alone. Rolf supplemented his income as a night club pianist and performing bit-parts on television.
His first major popular recognition was to come with the song Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport which he sang to the accompaniment of a ‘wobbleboard’. It was probably the success of this piece of ‘ocker’ Australian humour of the time that was to create an image of Rolf that Australians later found difficult to expand to a second or third dimension. Later the music-hall appeal of his Jake the Peg (with his extra leg) item helped type cast him in many minds as a ‘family entertainer’.
Over time, Rolf was to have a number of successful television programs in both Australia and the UK. Perhaps the song that best typifies Rolf is Two Little Boys. Rolf’s recording of this Edwardian parlour song reached number 1 in the early 70s. Just as the best of Victorian and Edwardian parlour music can leave you wondering whether it is very good or very bad and whether you should be ashamed of the tear at the corner of your eye, so Rolf Harris can leave you feeling that maybe he is hopelessly daggy but you’re a little ashamed to admit that he has awakened the inner child whose emotions are neither sufficiently fashionable or politically correct to acknowledge in ‘sophisticated’ company. It is common to regard the sort of artist that will perform such items in public as completely out-of-touch and thick skinned and to maybe even laughingly help generate a cult following for that performer. Not many consider that the artist may in fact have quite a thin skin but is prepared to perform against fashion. At the Glastonbury Rock Festivals of the 1990s it took little or no courage or originality for a group to wear outlandish costumes, use lewd language and break guitars. It took real courage for a Rolf Harris to walk out and sing a simple Edwardian parlour song to that audience. The courage was rewarded with a number of repeat bookings at that festival.
In recent times Rolf has returned to his passion for art. His program Rolf on Art has been one of the most popular and influential art programs ever produced by the BBC. Rolf never followed the profession of a teacher but now seems happiest as an educator who can communicate with the masses.
Rolf Harris is the sort of person capable of giving edutainment a good name. In the words of the poem written for his seventieth birthday by Clive James "The world has learned from him, and I likewise.
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|Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport By Rolf Harris. Arranged by Roger Emerson. (2 part). Youth Sing Out (Choral). Size 6.7x10.5 inches. 12 pages. Published by Hal Leonard. (8564098)|
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