National folk

Tony Smith

The annual National Folk Festival held in Canberra over the Easter weekend has quietly become one of Australia’s cultural landmarks. In the folk tradition, the boundaries between performers and audience are deliberately crossed. After all, folk is music for and of the common people, and this year’s festival brought together people from across Australian society. Although the folk tradition is now the preserve of the intellectual left, it is one place that the have-nots of city and country alike can come together, oddly defying the cultural divide of multicultural Australian cities from rural Australia. The folk festival reminds us that, no matter how much it is denied, culture resonates both politically and socially. Visual and performing arts continue to shape our national sensibilities, and tell what remains distinct about the Australian story. And this energy continues even when the national debate about Australian identity has stagnated.

Folk and the annual festival

Culture is commonly divided into ‘high’ and ‘popular’ varieties. People think of high culture as classical painting, opera, theatre, ballet and music, and Australians excel at performing in such arts, which are primarily of European origin. Being expensive to attend and difficult to perform, high culture has an elitist reputation. By contrast, popular culture is mass-produced, light, cheap and transitory. Folk music and dance transcend these divisions. The folk idiom values durability and longevity, and is genuinely international, but it is far from elitist. It has resisted becoming commercial, and is thus generally ignored by mass media.

The National Folk Festival has quietly become an Australian cultural landmark.

More so than other most cultural forms, folk music gives people the chance to cultivate values that have endured throughout the nation’s history that are not strongly expressed. Such memories are as important to nationhood as to a family or corporate identity. Folk music retains those aspects of national ethos that are strong and good—a political analogy might be that folk music represents the democratic, fostering egalitarianism and participation at the grass roots.

The National Folk Festival also enables people from across Australia to network and absorb new influences on offer. While there are intellectual aspects to the festival, it appeals to the heart as much as to the head. Most importantly, perhaps, it allows performers and audiences with highly specialised interests to broaden their horizons. So, someone from South Australia who attends workshops in playing the fiddle for dancing might find themselves listening to the works of bush poets from the Snowy Mountains or tin-whistle players from Newfoundland. Open exchange defines the festival.

Each year, the festival builds around a regional identity, a major idea and an overseas place. This time, special status was given to Tasmania, Folk Collections and the Silk Road (National Folk Festival 2005). Of course, however, the festival has many other strands. The aim is enjoyment and fun. Many children avoid the major venues to jam with friends or busk in the streets. There are numerous impromptu workshops and a vibrant festival fringe around the many stalls selling food, locally made instruments and handicrafts.

It is difficult to convey the size of the festival. The program shows some sixteen venues operating all day, and many late into the night. With about fifty thousand people attending, the smaller venues were bursting at the seams, especially for performances by popular groups such as the Spooky Men’s Chorale. Their rendition of Dancing Queen for the ‘Inspired ABBA’ competition was greeted with such shrieks of delighted laughter that it would not be surprising if the reaction was heard on the other side of the city at Parliament House.

Folk music, past and future

Folk celebrates three important aspects of Australian life—multiculturalism, anti-authoritarianism, and the bush legend. There is no need to debate the meaning of multiculturalism here. We are clearly polygeneric—originating in many lands. Among the performers were Xenos. This group plays the music of northern Greece and adjacent areas such as Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, but they speak without any noticeable accent. In a workshop, they explained the origins of their instruments, particularly the pipes used traditionally by shepherds, and demonstrated the ways these fitted with the electric guitars they have added to the ensemble. They highlighted the inextricable links between music and dance and gave workshops on the etiquette of providing wedding entertainment in various cultures.

The Folk Festival brings together the have-nots from the city and the country together again.

Before the opponents of multiculturalism complain about the development of migrant ghettoes, it should be pointed out that such apparently ‘minority’ interests play vital roles. First, they act as living museums in which minority traditions are preserved. Sadly, many of the ethnic groups represented here have fled persecution in other lands, where obliteration of their cultures was one tactic employed by intolerant majorities. Secondly, they support first generation migrants in their attempts to settle here. Thirdly, their music is evolving, through both necessity and creative fusion. On the Piazza dance stage, for example, the Anahata Performance Collective provided a blend of belly dance, flamenco and Tahitian styles and the program notes for singer-songwriter Kavisha Mazzella stressed that she did not perform ‘world music’ but Australian material, drawing on her Southern European and Celtic ancestries.

The anti-authoritarian strand was represented by established performers such as Alistair Hulett and Kev Carmody. Hulett sang about the forced ‘clearance’ of small farmers from the Scottish Highlands, the story of Chilean singer Victor Jara who was tortured and killed by the American and British backed junta, and a lament for the internees in our immigration ‘concentration camps’. Significantly, the national news over the weekend was dominated by footage of protestors trying to reach the home of our Immigration Minister and attempting to make contact with the inmates of Baxter camp.

Hulett’s criticism drew applause from most of the audience, but one or two people left. It is not clear what they expect from folk music but you are hardly likely to hear advertising jingles for conservative governments or business elites. Hulett explained that he saw folk music as a means of telling the stories of those who cannot hire public relations firms, who do not own media, who are not necessarily educated and articulate and who do not have the luxury of writing history. Folk music expresses the views of those who might otherwise be forgotten. Other songs he performed included the story of the ‘Red Clydeside’ opponents of the 1914–1918 war and the Glasgow opposition to rent hikes in 1915. One leader of the anti-war resistance noted that a ‘bayonet is a weapon with a working man at either end’ and exhorted people to ‘betray your country instead o’ ya class’.

Nor could there be any doubt about where Kev Carmody’s sympathies lay. Both his songs and his comments showed that he stands firmly within the Koori tradition of resistance to dispossession. As might be expected, this has led him to recognise the alienation experienced by other victims of changes wrought in the name of globalisation —the cutting of educational resources, the creation of a consumer culture among children and the rise of inequality. Carmody noted that the rich and powerful are no great respecters of other people’s borders, but they are very prickly about protecting their own. He is currently involved in projects to assist the young alienated to express their frustrations and their desires in song.

The National Folk Festival is a rallying point for all who have an interest in renewing Australian traditions.

The bush legend was, as always, very well represented. There were themed presentations such as Warren Fahey’s session on songs to mark the 150th anniversary of Australian rail. Fahey acted as MC and introduced numerous solo performers and groups. Another important presentation was a retrospective of the collecting and publishing work of Ron Edwards of Rams Skull Press, again with contributions from veteran performers such as Dave De Hugard and Danny Spooner. MC Keith McKenry noted that while Edwards himself did not join the Communist Party, most notable collectors of the 1950s were members. This seems to have been yet another area, along with Aboriginal land rights and the environment, where the much maligned leftists of the period had great foresight and determination.

Collectors such as John Manifold, John Meredith, Nancy Keesing and Douglas Stewart interviewed thousands of ordinary Australians. By listening to people who were too shy to perform in large venues, or who assumed that no one was interested in their repertoire, these collectors transcribed and recorded songs and tunes that form a unique national asset. While compiling this irreplaceable material, they were subjected to harassment by political police. Kev Carmody jokes that when he was asked for a photograph for a job, he suggested that Queensland special branch would have many. (If the folk collections are a national treasure, then surely the files of Australia’s state and federal political police must be a national embarrassment.) As socialists have been attracted to grass roots music, it should not surprise if the tradition continues in attacks on conservatives and government in general.

Perhaps some philosophical tensions exist around differing expectations of folk music. It should be remembered however, that all vibrant art forms are dynamic, and most approaches to the genre are tolerated. Where fusions survive, then they generally become accepted permanently. Artists and works that belong more strictly to neighbouring musical traditions, genres such as country and western, blues and world music, soon decide whether they can adapt their appeal to the folk audience.

Today, many vital projects are devoted to the collection of folk material on a national and local level. However, the National Folk Festival serves as a rallying point for all who have an interest in renewing Australian traditions. Given the historical place of this music, the good humour of its performers and its growing accessibility, every Australian should be grateful to those who ensure that it survives and prospers.


National Folk Festival 2005 [Online], Available: [2005, Mar 30].

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

View other articles by Tony Smith: