FOR the past five years, a man with a guitar has travelled up and down Australia, singing the Gospel story. He has delighted people of all ages in all kinds of places, from Sydney's celebrated Opera House to parish halls in small country towns.
Peter Kearney is his name. His Gospel in Song concerts have made him one of Australia's best-known song writers/singers not bad going for a self-taught musician.
He is planning to give a series of concerts in England and Ireland for three weeks from October 1 to 21. He works to no set itinerary. Most of his concerts are organised by parishes, schools and peace and justice organisations. He supplies all necessary publicity, posters and the like. He does not usually ask for a guaranteed fee for appearances, but takes his chance on door takings and sales of books and tapes.
"My concerts", says Peter Kearney, "are a mixture of scriptural songs and social commentaries, serious reflective songs and fun songs, with plenty of audience participation".
Kearney knows England. He went there from Sydney in 1968 and remained for 14 years. He worked spasmodically, as he puts it, as a teacher in comprehensive schools and a special school for maladjusted children,
"Musically, 1 wasn't outgoing", he says, "but I spent a lot of time teaching myself to read and write music, writing songs and experimenting with recording techniques on home equipment".
Kearney met his wife Madge, an Irish girl, in England. They have two children. In 1982, Kearney returned to Australia, with Madge and the children. Back home in Sydney, he decided to take the plunge and devote himself full-time to his song-writing and singing. Things have turned out well.
Peter Kearney was born in Sydney in 1947 and was educated in Catholic schools. He started playing guitar and writing songs when he was about 17. While studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Sydney University, he met the Catholic chaplain, Fr Ted Kennedy. It was a lucky meeting.
It was just two years after the second Vatican Council. A new spirit was spurring the Church to make changes that would enable her to bear deeper witness to Gospel values. Among other things, many old hymns were out of step with the Church in the modern world. There was an urgent need for contemporary religious songs, Fr Kennedy told Kearney and encouraged him to "have a go" at producing some.
This was Kearney territory!
Within six weeks he wrote 14 songs. There was great enthusiasm among students as they waited for the Gospel-based songs the prolific Kearney produced each week, Fr Kennedy recalls. Late in 1966, the Sydney music publishers, J Albert and Son, brought out the songs under the title Songs of Brotherhood.
Without the benefit of recorded versions, or other publicity, these songs spread quickly in Australia, then overseas. Two of them, Fill My House and The Beatitudes, caught on promptly and are still widely sung in Australia, America, England and Ireland. "I have even heard of them being sung in Polish and French", Kearney says, "and my parents heard a marvellous version of Fill My House in an Anglican church on Thursday Island".
On his return to Sydney, Kearney met up again with his old friend, Fr Ted Kennedy, now parish priest in Redfern, a Sydney industrial suburb. It is much-frequented by dispossessed Aborigines. In Fr Kennedy, they have one of their most active champions in their struggle for justice and against racial discrimination. They trust him and, in Redfern, he is available to them at all times.
Kearney, too, is one of their favourites. Naturally, his "penetrating understanding of the Gospel message" goes down well with the Aborigines. They have, in fact, adopted several of his songs as their own.
Not long ago, Peter Kearney estimated that, of the more than 500 songs he had written, probably 400 would be non-religious. "There are", he says, "love songs, kid songs, mad songs and sad songs, protest songs, songs on all sorts of topics.
"I believe in entertainment, in people laughing and singing together and hearing their own lives reflected in song".