John Spencer

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John Spencer, (1952 – 2015)

Played: Tenor banjo, mandolin, fiddle, whistle, guitar, bass, Bodhran and almost anything else, vocals (and excellent at harmony).

John Spencer was born in Newcastle NSW and lived there until his teens when the family moved to Melbourne. He spent a few of his formative years in the Dandenong. John's grandfather had been a musician, playing for dances in country halls. His father carried the tradition to some extent, learning squeeze boxes and mouth organ, and was prone to singing show tunes at family gatherings. John was musically talented and was pressed into piano and trumpet lessons as a child.

As a young adult in the late 60s he taught himself mandolin to accompany Australian bush songs, a tradition that was being revived at the time. He joined a band of musicians called The Original Bushwhackers and Bullockies Woolshed Band, but left after a short time because they wanted to branch out and include Irish tunes in their repertoire instead of all colonial music. The band later shortened their name to The Bushwhackers and got a few gigs…

John set off hitchhiking around Australia and he met Brenda, his wife in a folk club in Port Hedland. They travelled back to Melbourne and had a family of three during time spent first in Melbourne, then in Brenda's hometown of Halifax, West Yorkshire. After a few years back in Melbourne they moved to Newcastle. By this time John had taken a liking to Irish and other Celtic music. In Newcastle he played in a band called Chief* O'Neill's Favourites taking the name from an excellent compendium of traditional Irish tunes. John's main instrument by now was the tenor banjo, he won a banjo solo competition in about 1984-5 for a spectacular rendition of ‘The Mason's Apron’, though he could also play a passable fiddle and still enjoyed the mandolin as well.

In 1986 the family moved to Kangaroo Creek near Grafton in northern NSW. In Grafton, John's musical endeavours branched out.


  • • Joined a jazz band called The Graftonians, on banjo, and learnt an enormous amount from that experience.
  • • Taught at the conservatorium in Grafton,
  • • Led the Grafton branch of the Sing Australia choir,
  • • Choir leader of Gaudete,
  • • Played for the Grafton Morris side Fiddlestix,
  • • With Chris Sullivan helped organise the Grafton “Source To Mouth folk festival” C1998.
  • • Completed a BA in music at Lismore in 2003

John possessed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of tunes and used his skills to encourage others.

John’s links into the local community led to a folk dance and music get-together that quickly became a four-times-yearly tradition that has endured for over 20 years. In this context John was inspired to write and introduce quite a number of original tunes to the community. His well-loved tune Waltz to Woody Head celebrates the site of the dance and music gatherings he loved so much. It is one of about 60 tunes composed by John, which were printed some 10 years ago in his book ‘TUNES O’ MINE’.

Paul Spencer Son April 2018

  • Chief O’Neill was Francis O’Neill (1848-1936); born in county Cork he worked as a cabin boy in the 1860s, eventually immigrating to the United States. He moved to Chicago and joined the Police force at the age of 25. He became chief of the Chicago police from 1901-1905. He and his friend James O’Neill (no relation) were avid collectors of Irish music and sometimes of Irish musicians, often finding work for them in the Chicago police force. Chief O’Neill published a number of compendia of Irish tunes.

You can search for tunes referring to John Spencer.