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With Judith Durham’s passing, the carnival is truly over

For a teenager in the early 1960s, the only access to Western pop music was through two weekly programmes on All India Radio and one wondered why “The Carnival Is Over” invariably featured on both of them week after week.

One soon came to realise that this was so because heartbreak was as integral to life as eating and breathing.

Still, one pondered over the lyrics, delivered with much feeling by the dulcet-voiced singer-songwriter-musician Judith Durham (one learned of her Australian identity much later), whose talents extended to the piano and the tambourine, and wondered why this had to be so:

“Say goodbye, my own true lover/As we sing a lovers’ song/How it breaks my heart to leave you/Now the carnival is gone

High above the dawn is waiting/And my tears are falling rain

For the carnival is over/We may never meet again

Like a drum, my heart was beating/And your kiss was sweet as wine

But the joys of love are fleeting/For Pierrot and Columbine

Now the harbour light is calling/This will be our last goodbye/Though the carnival is over/I will love you ’til I die.”

One also wondered why her band, of which she was the lead singer, was called The Seekers. Was it the quest for true love or would this be like the Holy Grail – forever unattainable?

It was much later that one learnt that life doesn’t imitate art nor does art imitate life when it comes to matters of the heart.

Not surprisingly, “The Carnival Is Over” became the anthem of The Seekers.

At its peak, it was selling 93,000 copies a day in the UK with sales of at least 1.41 million in the UK alone and for three weeks was No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart for two months after its release in November 1965. It is one of the top 50 best-selling singles in the UK even today.

It’s a song that tugs at the heart even today as it has close to 60 years after its release and had brought the curtain down on every one of the band’s live shows.

With Judith Durham’s demise in Melbourne on August 5 of bronchiectasis, a long-standing chronic lung disease, aged 79, an era has ended but what will forever linger is the thread of longing that runs through many of her songs, like in “When Will The Good Apples Fall?”

Durham’s was a rare case of a singer excelling both as a member of a band and even greater success as a soloist.

It began, in fact, with The Seekers’ very first UK release with Durham, ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, in February 1965 that reached the No. 1 spot in the UK and Australia. There were further Top 10 hits with ‘A World of Our Own’, ‘Morningtown Ride’ and ‘Someday, One Day’. ‘Georgy Girl’ reached No. 2 in the Billboard chart and No.1 in the Cashbox chart in the US.

Born Judith Mavis Cock on July 3, 1943, in Melbourne, Durham (she took her mother’s maiden name as her professional name) had originally planned to be a pianist and acquired the title of Associate in Music-Australia (AMusA) in classical piano at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium.

She also had some professional engagements playing the piano, acquired classical vocal training and performed blues, gospel and jazz pieces.

Her singing career had begun one night at the age of 18 when she asked Nicholas Ribush, leader of the Melbourne University Jazz Band, at the Memphis Jazz Club in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern, if she could sing with the band.

In 1963, she began performing at the same club with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers and in the same year, also recorded her first EP, “Judy Durham” with the Jazz Preachers for W&G Records.

At that time, the Seekers consisted of Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, a producer with ABC Radio, through whom the group was able to record a demo tape. This was given to W&G Records, which wanted another sample of Durham’s voice before agreeing to record a Jazz Preachers’ album. W&G instead signed the Seekers, along with Durham, for an album titled “Introducing the Seekers”.

The group hit pay-dirt when it sailed for the UK on the SS Fairsky to provide on-board musical entertainment. The group had planned to return after 10 weeks but received a stream of bookings through the Grade Agency, to whom they had sent a copy of their first album – and on Novmeber 4, 1964, recorded ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios.

Four years later, while on a tour of New Zealand, Durham advised the group that she was leaving The Seekers and departed in July 1968.

Durham returned to Australia a month later and her first solo television special, ‘An Evening with Judith Durham’, screened on the Nine Network in September. During her solo career, she released three albums titled ‘For Christmas With Love’, ‘Gift of Song’ and ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’.

In 1970, she made the TV special, ‘Meet Judith Durham’ in London, with her rendition of the parlour song ‘When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day’.

In 1975, Durham starred in an acting-singing role as Sarah Simmonds, a burlesque type performer in ‘The Golden Girl’, an episode of the Australian TV series ‘Cash and Co’. Set in the gold fields of the 1800s, the episode also featured Durham’s husband, Ron Edgeworth, on the piano.

She performed six songs including, ‘Oh Susanna’, ‘When Starlight Fades’, ‘Maggie Mae’, ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ and ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’.

In 2003, Durham was in the UK for ‘The Diamond Tour’ celebrating her 60th birthday. The tour included a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, of which a CD and DVD was issued.

In 2006, Durham started modernising the music and phrases in the Australian National Anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ which she first performed in May 2009. It was also released as a CD single.

On February 13. 2009, Durham performed the closing number at the ‘RocKwiz Salutes the Bowl – Sidney Myer Music Bowl 50th Anniversary’ with ‘The Carnival Is Over’.

In June 2018, to celebrate Durham’s 75th birthday, a collection of 14 previously unreleased songs was released on the album ‘So Much More’.

On November 21, 1969, Durham married her musical director, British pianist Ron Edgeworth, at the Scots’ Church in Melbourne. They lived in the UK and Switzerland until the mid-1980s when they bought property in Queensland.

In 1990, Durham, Edgeworth and their tour manager, Peter Summers, were involved in a car crash on the Calder Freeway, a rural highway. The driver of the other car died at the scene and Durham sustained a fractured wrist and leg.

The response from her fans made Durham consider getting back together with the other members of The Seekers for a Silver Jubilee show. During this reunion, Edgeworth was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He died on December 10, 1994, with Durham by his side.

In 2000, Durham broke her hip and so was unable to sing ‘The Carnival is Over’ at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics but sang it from a wheelchair at the Paralympics soon after.

In May 2013, during the Seekers’ Golden Jubilee tour, Durham suffered a stroke that impaired her ability to read and write – both visual language and musical scores – but her singing ability was not affected – and she built on rebuilding her skills during her convalescence.

Thank you for the music, Judith Durham. You will be sorely missed.

–By Vishnu Makhijani

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