Jeremy Taylor: South Africa mustn’t despair
Jeremy Taylor set South Africa alight in the sixties with his song “Ag Pleez Deddy” (also known as “The Ballad of the Southern Suburbs”) and was then banished from South Africa for ridiculing apartheid. After two years on the West End stage in Wait A Minim, a South African musical revue, he became a leading entertainer on the British folk circuit with songs like “Jobsworth”. A change of government in 1979 led to his re-admittance to South Africa and from 1980 to 1994 he chronicled his life in Broederstroom, a farming area of the Transvaal, in a series of tales which were gradually woven into his one-man stage shows. These included Back In Town, Go For The Gap, Jeremy Taylor Stuff, Jeremy Taylor Entertains, An Evening With Jeremy Taylor and Broederstroom Diaries. For six years he was the television face of South Africa’s highest-selling brand of tea. He published the book Ag Pleez Deddy- Songs and Reflexions in 1992 and in 1994 returned to the UK. Jeremy and his wife are currently settled in the Loire valley of France. Credit: http://jeremytaylormusic.com/bio.php
When my brother and I were little we would plague my dad to put “Ag Pleez Daddy” on the record player – we loved it and the “VOETSEK” at the end was one of the highlights to wait for!
This version is exactly as I remember it on that turntable:
Jeremy Taylor is a legend and it’s my great honour to bring you this interview.
I was interested in the diverse reaction to Ag Pleez Daddy from all sorts of angles and government things like that, and it also outsold every Elvis song, so I guess it was popular among the people but maybe government weren’t so kind. Would you say that was an accurate way to say it.
It’s quite strange in a way, because it came from my early interest in the way people speak. I always had an interest in accents and when I came to South Africa in 1969, I was a teacher at St Martin’s School in Rossettenville and there I came across what I called the southern suburbs accent of the youngsters I was teaching and at that time I hadn’t really written many songs of my own at all. Then I thought it was quite strange that here in SA we had this accent which was completely unrepresented in song. And in fact not only unrepresented but it wasn’t even considered to be existing. It was considered some kind of disease. Nobody wanted to admit that the okies from the southern suburbs spoke like that and this accent was not recognised as even existing. The record company turned it down and it was only a year later when I twas singing it on stage and the audience responded so positively, it was only then that the record came in to record the show. When it finally broke, the record came out and its popularity was like a bush fire. It was the first time that South Africa had ever seen itself in the mirror. The first time that this accent had been used and recognised as existing. Suddenly South Africans could say hey that’s us, there we are. There was no shame in having their own culture. Culture was always considered to be somebody that came from overseas. SA didn’t believe it had any culture.
The political climate it was in was one of separation which was endemic to apartheid which insisted on racial purity and not only that but cultural purity and they didn’t want English and Afrikaans to mix. The fascinating thing about the language of the southern suburbs was the way that Afrikaans was in the English and used as slang and became part of the language, which the government and the authorities at the time didn’t want. They wanted to keep the languages separate and pure. It was very perplexing and also hilarious, from a satirical eye.
That’s probably why people reacted so well, suddenly there was something to validate them. The government I guess tried to pretend none of that ever happened.
Right, absolutely right.
Did I read that you became a criticizer of apartheid after that? How was that at the time?
To be honest I never saw myself as physically involved. I was not, and I still don’t think I was what you could call a political activist. Just a song writer and a satirist, having fun and enjoying being in South Africa. The fact that there was a common enemy in the shape of the government was something which meant I and my friends could have a go against them. I was like a court jester. I found so much to celebrate in South Africa. The government was a passing thing, it might take years and decades to pass, but like all political movements it will pass. There was the beauty of the landscape and the exhilaration of being there and being alive there. Those things and the music were more important to me than the other things.
I hadn’t realised until I read recently that you’d actually been banned from South Africa. How did that come about?
We had put a show on stage in South African and in 1964 and we eventually brought the show to London. And then I dropped anchor in London and stayed there with my family and then in 1970 I had appeared on TV in London and I had done a satirical speech posing really as a representative of the South African government explaining why apartheid was necessary in SA in a satirical way. I think someone then contacted the ministry of the interior and at that time it was Connie Mulder and then when I came to the airport in Johannesburg in 1970 I was kept waiting for six hours and then told to go home and I got on the first plane back to London and I wasn’t allowed back in then for the next 10 years. It was a very upsetting time for me because I was passionately fond of SA and it was harsh. I went along sometimes to the SA embassy in Trafalgar Square to try to question what had happened. It gave me an insight into how people were exiled from SA must have felt.
You did have great success in the UK as well. I’m impressed with you being able to satirize two countries. It’s hard enough to get a grasp on one situation. Were there similarities and differences between the two experiences?
The thing is that you actually satirize – the major difference between the two countries, SA was so isolated it brought that to the fore, because if you weren’t SA you were overseas. The SA society was extremely self conscious in a way the British society was not. It’s an old country, an old culture. But similarities are really human failings – all these things are common to every society and those were the sort of things that would make me sharpen my pencil.
I listened to your song Jobsworth again and I thought I know that’s meant for the British but anyone can fit into that. It was really funny.
And then you did come back to SA in 1980. What was the change?
It was when Vorster resigned because of the Muldergate crisis. The government was caught having finances in the newspaper the Citizen. And it was illegal so Vorster was forced to resign and PW Botha came in with a new group. So the new ones were a bit more enlightened, more progressive and there was a change in the embassy in London and the new ambassador was Dawie de Villiers, an ex Springbok scrumhalf. I went to see him at the embassy to ask why I was banned. I’d never had an explanation and he said man I never knew you were banned even. The ban was lifted, he said as far as they were concerned there is no ban, you can just come back to SA when you like. There was a change in attitude.
I think the 80s was quite a big decade for you in SA.
Yes professionally and in my personal life. I did lots of one man shows and I was very active and very involved. Extending my range on stage quite a lot. It was a good time.
The songs are pretty timeless. Go for the Gap. I listened to that again, I remember that from that time, and it’s still applicable.
How did you experience the 80s in SA as opposed to when you had been here previously?
There had been an enormous change and loosening up in SA. The 70s in SA was a time of intense oppression and a very fierce style of government. The 80s were a period of loosening up. Towards the end of the 80s all the apartheid laws were being repealed one by one and the only law they could not see a way to repeal was the one man one vote situation. They could not bring themselves to give non white people the vote, because for obvious reasons they realised they’d be signing their own death warrant. In all other respects, group areas and job reservations, and the immorality act was scrapped eventually. All those strange draconian laws were got rid of one by one. It was a period of hope.
Is there any performance or event or song that stands out for you during your career?
I don’t think so. There was that much I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed doing most of them. You mentioned Go for the Gap, that was a fun song. I enjoyed that. I even did a song called I am PW I am, a song about PW Botha.
I read that you performed a few years ago here. Is that correct?
Yes, I performed there three years ago and did a concert in Johannesburg. The last show of all there was an electrical power failure and it was done by candlelight. I don’t sing any more. I haven’t performed now for about two years. If you can use the word retirement in terms of – actors and performers, I don’t think you really can.
I think that we’ve got a nice young crop of new people coming up now and they wouldn’t have had the chance if hadn’t been for you guys who built the platform before. They can stand on your shoulders.
I don’t know that much as I haven’t been much in SA but I’ve seen Trevor Noah and I know of his routines. He has more credibility than I had, and a lot more connection to SA perhaps from his early life than I had. He seems so very very funny. I am very much aware of the fact that my time in SA was spent at a particularly poignant period in SA’s history and this period will never come again. A sad period in South Africa’s life and a small chapter really, the years of apartheid. They were really intense and they were intensely moving. The apartheid years are not just bad years by any means. In all sorts of ways it brought out the best in people as well as the worst. That time is gone. We don’t know what’s going to happen in South Africa. If they go on like they are then the country is going to end up bankrupt and in a sorry state but the thing about SA is one must never discount the unpredictable.
I chatted to Yvonne Chaka Chaka and she had a very similar response to that same question of what can we do now and that’s very interesting to me.
There are a lot of good people and good intentions. And I think the great hope for SA has always been the fact that power has never been invested in one particular group. Usually power is for all the wrong reasons. The biggest enemy in SA right now is corruption. What do you do about that, the answer is you can’t do very much, you just have to carry on doing what South Africans have always done is live as good a life as you can and try and uphold standards as much as you can.
Not where I live in France now, but if I meet South Africans, yes. It’s strange how that ad should be in people’s memories and imaginations. I didn’t really understand it so well at the time it was happening to me. But I understand it better now.
Is there anything that you would like to get across in this interview?
I think the main thing that I’d like to get across is that South Africa mustn’t despair. The inclination at the moment must be very strong but you have to just get on with the things that you can do and do them as best you can. The advantage SA’s always had is that power itself has always been a good judiciary. The press has been very free, even through the apartheid years there was free press and it’s very important that justice has to be seen to be done as well. One has to have the channels of communication staying wide open. The great hero in SA’s history was Steve Biko. He didn’t bother with politics, he didn’t pay attention – he set up medical centres and educational centres and set up practical things. He didn’t try and change the whole country by advocating violent turns or anything like that.
I was thinking the other day how different things might have been if he was the president now.
Absolutely. I don’t know if he was cut out to be president, he was more hands on that but he to me was the main man. Many of the others are interested in power and not so interested in doing good. You need somebody at the top who is inspiring and who can lead the right way. That person may come, you see. He may come at any time.