‘Quiet for the singer!’ – Valé Len Neary (1947-2013)
In the afternoon of October 2, the Glengarry Pub in Redfern rang to the strains of sea shanties and folk songs – as it hadn’t done for a decade – when friends gathered to remember Len Neary. Len was known for his inspirational singing, his keen gentle spirit and cool dry wit. He presided over many nights of songs at folk clubs, parties and sessions, introducing hundreds of people to live folk music, for which they are eternally grateful, and through him, many found their own singing voice.
Len, 66, had been a resident of Redfern and other suburbs of the inner-west for 50 years but perhaps made his biggest impact when living in Lawson Street in the ’80s and ’90s. He established a weekly Friday-night singing session at the “Glen” and folk singers from near and far would gather to swap songs and yarns over a beer. Len created a genial atmosphere of welcome and encouragement; he was unfailingly polite and gentlemanly and no one dominated a session when Len was present. “Quiet for the singer!” he would call, and that directive always evokes Len.
Dozens of individuals influenced by Len went on to form groups – for example, Taliesin, Triantan, FolkLore, Miguel ’anSome Strangers – or become members of choirs, such as Solidarity, the Sydney Trade Union Choir, Ecopella. Len had a lovely distinctive singing voice himself, but was very modest and unpretentious about it. There are dozens of songs that will evoke Len’s memory for decades to come: “Hey Rain”, “Lowlands”, “Joe Hill”, “I Wish I was Back in Liverpool”, “The Ballad of 1891”, “Haul Away for Rosie Oh”, “Shoals of Herring” and many more.
Len was very knowledgeable about Australian, British and American folk music and generously shared his knowledge. Margaret Fagan writes: “Len is the person who introduced Bob and me to the work of Leon Rosselson [which] has had a huge influence on our lives. He made a couple of tapes for us because he thought we would like to learn some of the material, which we certainly did!”
And he was renowned for his hospitality. His place was a stopover for international and interstate musicians and a refuge for many folk in need of a home, often several at a time. One friend commented that Len should have been given funding by the Department of Housing for providing supported accommodation, mainly to men who would otherwise be homeless and a burden on the state. And Cilla said: “I remember well the parties in his house when we lived in Sydney in the late ’70s when we used to raise the roof while downing copious beers until all hours.”
Len was very involved in organisational aspects of folk music over many years – on the committee of the Folk Federation of NSW, presenting folk music programs on 2SER FM, running folk clubs at the Edinburgh Castle, the Man o’ War, and others; folk festivals at Hill End and Carcoar – and he was a benign, supportive presence at many events.
Unaccompanied singing was Len’s preference and he was a founding member of the shanty group The Roaring Forties and its precursor for many years. A band called Kerfuffle (with instrumentalists Alan Gough and Malcolm Menzies) gave him an outlet for a different range of songs. He also enjoyed singing Australian folk songs and settings of poems by Henry Lawson with Chris Kempster. The Lawson presentations with Chris were frequent occurrences at festivals and concerts throughout the 1990s.
There are some recordings on which Len has a track or two, notably The People Have Songs, a double CD album featuring many of the singers who would turn up at the Glen for a song. The first verse echoes strongly Len’s approach to song:
Here voices are tuned to each other in gladness
Here joy and laughter meet keening and sadness
Here tyranny’s cursed for the people have songs
Let us set the room ringing with the sound of our singing
When we come to the end let us hold the chord long
Hear the harmonies rise and all close our eyes
Til the last cadence dies the people have songs
Leonard Frederick Neary (26/3/1947-24/9/2013) grew up in Kingsgrove in the ’50s and ’60s. Len’s sister Christine gives some background to his early life. “Len made his life around Sydney’s inner west, after leaving home aged 15. He started out as a copy boy at one of the major newspapers, and we always thought he would go into journalism. He was bright, articulate, politically savvy and good with words. However, that did not eventuate, and I believe time has proved that he would rather participate in life, than just be an observer and commentator of it. For a time he worked in retail and some time later at the GPO, but he moved on to employment in the various programs of St Vincent de Paul with the mentally ill and the homeless – a good fit for Len’s personal qualities.” A colleague writes: “He showed endless compassion and good humour to the homeless and drug-affected at Charles O’Neill and Matthew Talbot hostels, even when his own life wasn’t going well.”
Over the last decade, Len became increasingly reclusive and when the Lawson Street house he lived in was sold, he eventually moved to live upstairs at the Glengarry Hotel. He could be seen frequenting the local cafes, but resisted invitations to folk clubs and concerts. Meanwhile, however, he found some congenial company at the pub. Sam, a post-grad student who frequents the Glengarry, writes: “Locals at the pub knew him as a polite and private character, but with a little encouragement he would open up and ruminate with others on the state of the world and politics, his working day, and his strong feelings about what was right and proper; putting his view of people and the world in a gentle, moral and persuasive way. In this company Len was happy to share what he had, but he was hesitant and had to be gently encouraged to accept anything others offered in return – though he would display delight when he finally acquiesced. He was a welcomed man in this environment, and he enjoyed company when he chose to. It’s a good balance of people we have at the Glen, so I’m happy Len chose this one to live above.”
Len’s health had been deteriorating in recent months and he was admitted to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney on September 1 with severe pneumonia. He failed to respond to treatment and he died peacefully three weeks later with his aunt and sister at his side. He was a bachelor and is survived by his sisters, Christine and Maureen, his cousin, aunt, and nieces and nephews.
Several tributes were received following Len’s death – here’s a selection:
From Christine: “Folk music was Len’s great joy. Its community was the herd he ran with. Not only was it an outlet for his wonderful singing voice, it allowed him to give expression to his view of the world, which was in fact, unworldly. He was not materialistic. With Len it was all about people.”
From Robin: “He was more than just the perfect gentleman: he was one of the true believers, and one who gave to others much more than he took.”
From Penny and Roger: “He was there at our very first gig at the Three Weeds in 1984 and was always kind, supportive, ready, with a laugh, to help anyone out. We saw him again at Bulli last year – and the laugh and the warmth were still so much in evidence. We’ll all miss Len – such a huge part of our folk family.”
“An ongoing benign and gentle influence on countless singers.”
“A great hearted man.”
“His warm, approachable, unpretentious manner.”
“A great bloke, a great singer, a great folkie and a gentleman to boot.”
Obituary compiled by Margaret Walters from emails, facebook comments, and the eulogy of Len’s sister, Christine Carter.