Fifty years ago The Seekers, featuring lead singer Judith Durham, burst on to the world scene. They had a short global run before retiring (1964 – 1968), but during that time The Seekers pushed both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones off the top of the music charts for seventeen straight weeks. And they’ve sold 50 million records.
Their "Georgy Girl" was the theme song of a movie by the same name, starring Vanessa Redgrave. But it was a high pressure world for these four folk-influenced, pop musicians from Australia. A crowd of more than 200,000 people attended their 1967 concert in Australia’s Myer Music Bowl. The Guinness Book of Records still lists it as the largest concert crowd in the southern hemisphere.
Intriguingly, there were two sets of lyrics to “Georgy Girl”—one for the best-selling hit single, another for the movie starring Lynn Redgrave. The intro.
One of my favorites produced by The Seekers is “Morningtown Ride,” aabout the vintage steam train “Puffing Billy.” The orphans in the video are from the St. Vincent de Paul orphanage. Some were looking happy, others smirking, a few bemused, and more than several wondering what the heck was going on. Pay special attention to the engineer, fireman and sandman.
The Seekers’ final performance together in 1968 was a television special called "Farewell The Seekers"—a concert filmed in the BBC TV studios. Their final song together was "Georgy Girl," which followed "The Carnival Is Over."
After that night, Judith Durham resumed her solo career and recorded a solo Christmas album and two orchestral albums for A&M, before she and her husband Ron, the love of her life, returned to their Jazz roots for a nine-year period. marriage that ended far too soon (discussed in detail below). After this she devoted her life to philanthropic work, her music and occasional get-togethers with the original group.
In June 2014, Queen Elizabeth II awarded each of The Seekers one of the Commonwealth’s highest honors, the Medal of the Order of Australia, for seminal contributions to Australian music and their support for non-profit organizations.
They have recently released "The Seekers 50 Golden Jubilee Album." Fellow group members Bruce Woodley, Athol Guy, and Keith Potger also stand out among top recording artists for the exceptional and honorable lives they’ve led.
Ms. Durham wrote careful and lengthy answers to questions I sent her concerning her music, her charitable work, and finally, her marriage—one much different than most in show business. They reveal the life of a very beautiful lady, one who has given freely and fully of her life and talents for over five decades.
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How did your interest for Gospel music develop? Are there singers or musicians whom you have admired?
I was aware of gospel stories from Sunday school, and from being in the school choir and madrigal groups, but I didn’t realise they were so-called Negro spirituals, until my teenage years, when the trad jazz and blues and black gospel music was all the rage, even in the pop charts sometimes. There were crossover, fashionable songs, which I started singing with jazz bands; songs recorded by Mahlia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sister Lottie Peavey, and harmony groups like The Swan Silvertone Singers and The Spirit of Memphis Quartet. Some of these I learned from reel-to-reel tapes that my friends in the trad jazz world loaned me; standout songs like “Open Up Them Pearly Gates,” “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “When I Move To The Sky,” “Down By The Riverside,” and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” which became part of my repertoire prior to The Seekers.
I have always found, and find more and more as the years go by, that another dimension kicks in for me when I sing songs with the inspiration of the Lord. A standout experience for me happened more than 50 years ago, when I sang “The Lord’s Prayer” solo and almost a cappella at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. Six years later I sang it solo again at the Myer Music Bowl, as part of their annual “Carols By Candlight” telecast.
What are some of your favorite Gospel songs?
I follow a spiritual path that embraces universal spirituality and truth, without focusing on one particular religion, even though many of the songs I sing are inspired by Jesus and the Christian message.
Since I joined The Seekers, many more gospel songs have become part of my recorded repertoire, including “This Little Light Of Mine,” “You Can Tell The World,” “Well, Well, Well,” “Kumbaya,” “We’re Movin’ On,” “This Train,” “When The Stars Begin To Fall,” “Little Moses” and “Children Go Where I Send You.”
I watched a Christmas concert I found on YouTube…how many years did you offer these?
You mean the ‘Carols In The Domain’ broadcast from Domain Gardens in Sydne? It has been an annual event since 1983 and it is in aid of the Salvation Army. I’ve performed there twice, 20 years apart. I first appeared in 1990, performing “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Mary’s Boy Child,” and in 2010, I performed “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Morningtown Ride To Christmas.”
What have the reactions been to the 50th anniversary tour and receiving an honor and letter from the Queen?
Our ‘Golden Jubilee’ has been a truly joyous celebration of The Seekers music, and has given us the chance to share and bond with our fans, many of whom flew from all over the world to see us in concert in Australia or the United Kingdom.
In many cases, it is a real family experience, with fans as young as three and as old as 93 joining in the celebration.
We were thrilled to receive a letter from Her Majesty the Queen, congratulating us on our 50th anniversary and wishing us well with our tours.
Is there a theme in all of your charity work?
The biggest motivation for me to support a charity stemmed from my husband’s terminal illness. He’d received the shocking diagnosis of the deadly creeping paralysis “motor neuron disease” (known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ASL or Lou Gehrig’s disease] in America). I was asked by MND Australia to become National Patron, as the charity’s believed that it could help raise much needed awareness. This opened my eyes to the desperate need of umpteen charities, all of whom would be so grateful for even a mention in the media. Without a doubt, in the case of MND, my position presented opportunities for door collections at many concerts around the world that I gave in my solo capacity as well as with The Seekers.
More and more, I am realising how difficult it is to raise awareness about the suffering endured by people, from so many walks of life, whose plight may remain forever without a voice. I always try to mention these causes whenever I can, and indeed I have written a poem that focuses on giving.
Part of it reads, “As we breathe ten thousand breaths from dawn to dusk each day, In return let’s do our best to give in every way. … When selflessly we show support in any way we can, That’s the way to play important parts in God’s big plan.”*
In the original “Morningtown Ride” train video … are those children from an orphanage?
That clip is from The Seekers’ first big Australian television special, ‘The Seekers at Home,’ in 1966. We sang the song on Victoria’s historic steam train, Puffing Billy, in Belgrave in the Dandenong Ranges. The young children filmed with us were from the St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage.
Do 21st century people value marriage as much as in the past? Would you like to say anything about your own marriage—a devoted one, rare in the world of performance artists?
Love is the key to all relationships, and I was very blessed to have a loving husband who shared those treasured years with me, 24-hours-a-day for 25 years. We had the same interests and goals, the same spiritual beliefs, sense of humour, musical gifts—the list goes on. I understand how rare it is to have a destiny which united me with Ron from a karmic point of view, and I had the benefit of his truth-seeking and health-seeking and spirituality-seeking to bring me through crisis after crisis with joy and gratitude.
Having said that, he gave so much to our relationship that I could not help giving to our relationship whatever I could contribute, and I regret any time that I may have put myself before him.
I’m glad I’ve lived a long time—it’s 20 years since Ron died, in fact—in order to appreciate what he gave me, in ever-deepening ways, and making the most of the legacy our spiritual path and Ron’s love have brought me. My wish is that we could all find that love which I was inspired to write about in one of my songs, which Ron helped me with, and every day I think of the words and constantly aspire to embrace them … “let me find love, pure love in my heart.”
William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.
* From the poem “The Joy Of Giving” by Judith Durham AO OAM. © 2009 Musicoast Pty. Ltd.
** From “Let Me Find Love” (Words & Music by Judith Durham; song arranged by Ron Edgeworth) © 1994 Musicoast Pty. Ltd.