Dennis O’Keeffe leaves rich musical legacy

DENNIS O’Keeffe’s status as one of Australia’s most respected music researchers, singers and writers was acknowledged when Port Fairy Folk Festival crowds stood to sing Waltzing Matilda when told of his death on Sunday.

The 57-year-old Warrnambool resident lost a battle with cancer and died in St John of God Hospital surrounded by his wife Anne and sons Joel and Ryan, who have also carved a career in music with their successful rock band Airbourne.

Mr O’Keeffe had conducted extensive research into the origins of the iconic Waltzing Matilda and performed it for years at the Warrnambool May Racing Carnival where the tune was first heard in 1894 by Christina Macpherson, who later passed it on to poet Banjo Paterson, who wrote the lyrics.

In 2012 Mr O’Keeffe launched his book about “the secret story of Australia’s favourite song”. His research was regarded as ground breaking in delving into the real history behind what is often regarded as Australia’s unofficial national anthem.

It was later incorporated into a musical, The Man They Call The Banjo, by Mr O’Keeffe’s brother-in-law Felix Meagher and filmed by the ABC during a performance at Camperdown last year.

“He’s been singing and writing songs for most of his life,” Mr Meagher told The Standard yesterday.

“For years he was a songwriting tutor at the Lake School of Celtic Music in Koroit and was  highly regarded.

“The bond between him and his students will live on.

“He also ran the Australian music section at the national folk festival in Canberra and we’ll have music sessions in his honour at the Lake School.

“Dennis was loved by many people.”

Mr O’Keeffe was raised in the Killarney district in a large family that traced its history in the area back to the 1850s.

Mr O’Keeffe graduated from Monash University in 1999 with a graduate diploma of arts in Australian folklife studies, but gained most of his experience in writing and performing at least 40 songs based on Aussie stories.

Mary of the Cross (honouring the life of  former nun, now Catholic saint, Mary MacKillop) and Billy McLean (about a union shearer shot during the 1894 strike) are some of his pieces.

His performances included a 12-month stint with son Joel as Father and Son after Mr O’Keeffe underwent major surgery for a benign brain tumour. “He was so proud of his son’s achievements with Airbourne,” Mr Meagher said.

“Dennis supported them and loved them.”

He also ran an optometry sales business in Warrnambool, which he expanded into several branches across regional Victoria before selling them. 

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