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Peter Combe is still doing it for the kids

Peter Combe
Peter Combe and his online ‘Spangle Road Couch Choir’

Three decades after he taught Australian children about the newspaper, mama, singer songwriter Peter Combe is increasingly troubled by what he’s reading – and what it will mean for future generations.

“I think it’s really important, as someone who has dedicated his life to children, to actually stand up for them,” Combe tells The Adelaide Review. “I mean, I’ll be dead and buried in 20 to 25 years’ time, but I’ve got a four-year-old grandchild and I don’t want her to be living on a planet that’s three degrees warmer – because that will be a disaster.

“Ecosystems are breaking down and it’s been particularly worrying here, because we’ve had governments that just don’t want to know about it,” he says. “I think it’s really scary when powerful people in the world just won’t accept the science.”

Last year Combe could be seen lending his voice to Get Up! and School Strike 4 Climate rallies here in Adelaide, and while such an activist streak might not be readily observable on hits like Toffee Apple, Newspaper Mama and Mr Clicketty Cane, it’s always been there. Combe himself came of age in the 1960s, when the protest songs of folkies like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary provided the politically-charged soundtrack for an era of change.

Combe’s eldest daughter, Joni – named after Joni Mitchell, naturally – says her dad has always been a serious about politics offstage. For years, she says, he has been calling into talkback radio and writing letters to the editor.

“He’s tried to ring prime ministers before,” she laughs. “He is not affected at all by the fact that a lot of people know who he is. I think he forgets himself. My mum gets a bit worried sometimes and will say ‘Peter you shouldn’t do that—people know who you are and not everyone is going to agree with your views,’ and he just doesn’t care!”

Alongside climate change, Combe says one of his greatest passions in life is to raise children’s music to the same status as its literature. In January he added an Order of Australia Medal to his long list of accolades for services to the performing arts.

Peter Combe with daughter Joni and grandchildren Amelie and Hugo

Lately however, his attention has turned to the state of the music industry in the face of COVID-19. Like thousands of other performers, Combe has found himself abruptly out of work since March, when the pandemic suddenly ruled out interstate travel and mass gatherings.

With a well-received Adelaide Fringe season in the bag, Combe was about to hit the road with a national ‘Greatest Hits’ tour slated to kick off in Brisbane in May. The cancellations not only affected Combe himself, but the dozen other musicians and technical support workers he would have contracted for the tour. The very nature of their work, which relies on seasonal and short-term contracts, meant this broader team joined countless others in the creative sector who fall through the cracks for the JobKeeper payment.

“I get the feeling that artists aren’t particularly valued by the federal government, because they’re never talked about,” Combe says. “But of course, when you’re one yourself, you’re very well aware of this sudden drop of income. It’s very difficult to see when that will sort of start up again. It’s very tough on artists and as one myself, I really sympathise.”

In the face of gig cancellations, Combe’s online output has picked up the slack with storytime videos, singalongs and the occasional COVID meme

While the future remains uncertain, Combe says he has no plans to end his nearly 40-year career; although he admits he has no current plans for another album. “I think I’m sort of in a holding pattern at the moment,” he says. “I don’t have a great desire to write anything. But I think that will change … I suspect that sometime in the next six to twelve months I will want to start writing again.”

In the interim, Peter has been using social media to connect with his followers through his nightly StoryTime and Lullaby video series. In April he put the call out to his fans to sing along with him in a ‘Spangle Road Couch Choir’ video initiative—with many of his seven grandchildren making an appearance.

It is a simple gesture, but one that means a lot to the next Combe generation. To them, this Australian music icon is known simply as ‘Pa’. Pa, who cooks them tuna mornay every Tuesday night, helps out with the school drop-offs, and knows his way around a guitar.

To him, however, they are the future, and he makes no apologies advocating for them.

Jasmin Teurlings

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