Folk Music in Australia - Scene or New Deal?

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Introduction

The idea that folk music is limited to a scene has been declared "dead"!

Music Forum asked for an article on "the situation for folk music in Australia – a summary of the scene". As a councillor-in-waiting for MCA and an activist in the genre since 1977, this is a good time to reflect on the state of play for folk music.

The old image of a "folk scene" could imply a limited ghetto whereas the reality tells another story. New generation folk roots artists such as The Waifs, John Butler Trio, Xavier Rudd, Tiddas, Dirty Lucy have captured a much wider audience. These and others play all sorts of festivals and venues here and overseas. Experienced troubadours such as Eric Bogle, John Williamson and Archie Roach write and sing about our lives with passion, truth, respect, integrity and tradition (hallmarks of folk song) on stages far and wide.

What is driving the change? Certainly festivals of all kinds are booking acts across a much greater range of music genres. "Folk" and "rock" performers regularly appear at country venues. Greg Champion is regarded as a country singer but he says he is a folk singer! Gympie Muster has a blues stage. The Falls Festival and East Coast Blues and Roots both book "folk" acts. Broader festival programming has attracted vast growth in audiences keen to enjoy and explore. The big folk and roots rock festivals regularly attract upwards of over 100,000 people and some are selling out in days.

The concept of music for the community goes a long way to explain the great success of folk and music festivals, choirs and most community based music events. Even rock, pop or classical festivals — eg A Day on the Green, Big Day Out, Opera in the Outback — gain a folk quality of community as the glitz is stripped bare. The mysterious interaction between musicians and listeners as the collective human experience is felt amongst nature and the "played environment". As all music is food for body and soul, folk roots music is nourishment for the community.

The true essence of folk music becomes appreciated with the realisation of the endless connections and inspirations of music across peoples and culture. Fans of music are gathering much knowledge from excellent CD issues such as on Real World or Putumayo and in music magazines such as Uncut, No Depression, Rhythms, Froots (ex Folk Roots), Songlines etc. Films such as Oh Brother and many great television documentaries fire growing interest and add valuable knowledge of tradition, history and context.

So the old folk scene has been replaced by a broader and healthier vision. No surprise there! The fad to package and define boundaries doesn't work well with any art form. Art by nature is on an endless space walk.

As one wit recently told me, "It could be argued that "folk" is the new pornography, for as the judge said of pornography "I can't define it, but I know what it is when I see it!"

Music writers are using the "f" word routinely now in describing the work of a wide variety of artists. "Folk" seems interchangeable with "roots" which has a sense of time, depth, tradition and a path to the origins of a particular cultural tree. Examples are "The Blues" tradition or the "Hillbilly Music" attributed to the Celtic heritage of Appalachia and then Bluegrass. With a wider vision come more open minds and greater possibilities.

Thus the scene is set to explore the situation for folk music in Australia starting with the 6th National Folk Convention at the National Library, in 2005. The opening forum on Saturday September 4th saw a full room and a lively exchange of ideas on the state of folk play in Australia. (For updated news see the [National Folk Festival] website. ED. 17.9.11.)

Observations firstly noted the obvious increase in young performers. Graduates of schools and music courses possess great skills and broad interests. They perform in various formats from solo to crossover ensembles at a myriad of small venues, clubs, bars, events and festivals. Therese Virtue, organiser and broadcaster for The Boite in Melbourne, said she could double the size of her programs given the numbers of fine young artists. Festival programmers confirmed the huge increase in the number of applications from younger acts. Any "open stage" offered at a festival will be swamped with a list of acts keen to play before an audience. Jenny Simpson from the National Folk Festival has found a similar growth in her youth audience and that 35% of their volunteers are under 25 years old.

The flavours and range of music being played is becoming greater each year reflecting the increasing diversity of culture from immigration. The music now distils a potent brew of ideas, rhythms and instruments with endless complexity and creativity. Youthful energy and immediate connections with other countries brings an expression of contemporary issues. Amanda Jackes from Woodford spoke on this trend and felt that there was a creative expression of social concern being heard now. Roger King from The Boite expanded on the powerful experience of The Millennium Chorus at Hamer Hall in July (original web address no longer available. ED). A powerful message of social justice on a world scale was expressed in spoken word, music pieces including Dursun Acar of Turkey, Ajak Kwai of Sudan, Richard Frankland and others as well as a huge choir led by Stephen Taberner. Others highlighted the theme of folk music as a movement, as a social process rather than an industry, and as a collective experience. Dieter Bajzek neatly puts it, "folk music is the soul of the community."

Australia has been slow to set up formal tertiary courses teaching folk music. The first tertiary course in folk music was announced commencing at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2006. The course convener, Ruth Lee Martin, felt that a new excitement & awareness of a burgeoning music scene at the grass roots level has created a new climate of awareness in Canberra which has led to serious interest in such things as a new folk music course. The course will place a high emphasis on playing and participation. Musician Ade Kelly makes the point, "Folk music speaks of our past, our roots and our ancestors, and we are obliged by history to pass it on. The future for folk music is knowledge and skills in the minds and hands of the new generation." Classically trained composer, now folk musician, Felix Meagher runs the Lake School for Irish traditional music at Koroit each year and demand is rapidly growing in a fine example of traditional learning. The Folk Music Bush Camp at Deans Marsh run by the Geelong Folk Music Club since 1983 is sold out each year. A similar camp at Roses Gap in the Grampians is equally popular. Camps for Bluegrass music are held each year at Harrietville. In fact teaching folk music at camps here and overseas is growing at a huge rate.

There are countless choirs and singing groups around the nation. The popularity of community choirs, a cappella singing groups, singing summer camps such as Songfest or The Boite Singers Festival each year in Daylesford supports the notion of a collective cultural experience.

Robyn Holmes, Marie-Louise Ayres, Kevin Bradley and Mark Cranfield of the National Library of Australia spoke about the on-line Australian folklore collections that opened in 2006. This project involved an immense load of ground-breaking work in creating a software system from the ground up after searches world-wide found that the rest of the world's libraries and museums were just waiting for the NLA to show the way. So they did and the result is a dazzling access to folklore based images, print and sound. With an internet connection and a few mouse clicks, music & songs of old time bush musicians (The Baulches of Mystic Park for example) can be heard on your computer. Already there has been a huge amount of access with nearly half coming from overseas points. The collective history of folklore in Australia has been collected thanks to great work by a handful of dedicated collectors and that collection is now very accessible.

Dr Graeme Smith, lecturer in ethnomusicology at Monash University, launched his new book Singing Australian: A history of folk and country music in Canberra at the convention. He asks "Does the history, music and organisational style of folk music give it a unique role in Australian culture?" He shows the ways in which folk has built a dynamic musical social movement which has been a strong voice in our national identity debates during the past thirty years. This fine book is published by Pluto Press.

The great living cultural tradition of singing and dancing of Aboriginal peoples takes the story way back in time. The beauty of this song, dance and story tradition was seen at the new Festival of the Dreaming, directed by Rhoda Roberts and produced by the Queensland Folk Federation at Woodford last June. The Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land in early August is another great festival of indigenous culture. These festivals offer uniquely precious opportunity to experience the meaning and millennial depth of culture. Solid rock indeed!

Festivals all over are booming. This success has resulted in decent media coverage and huge CD sales. The audience, curious about the fascinating variety and range of music, has become more educated and attends more events, frequently with family, friends and neighbours as the word spreads and the appeal crosses generations. Artists will confirm that these factors have been of great importance in growing their careers.

The music festival season is almost a gold rush of great music but unlike gold, the music seems to provide a never ending resource. At the time of writing The Falls Festival in Lorne at New Year has sold out after five days. While this is primarily a rock festival, there is plenty of cross genre music including folk and roots music. The festival becomes a great communal music experience and is a highlight in the cultural life of young people as well as a great holiday. It would be certain that may-be musicians convert to will-be at such festivals. Festivals and music camps build both musicians and audience as well as immediate and on-going transmission of music as recordings.

Consider the success and growth of festivals such as Port Fairy Folk Festival, East Coast Blues, Queenscliffe Music Festival, and many others to be found in each state. Visit the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. That event has long been committed to continue to grow along with the surging growth of the audience which has spread the word of Woodford immensely. The event outgrew its 1986 site of origin at Maleny and moved to an old dairy farm in a beautiful hidden valley out of Woodford. Even though this site covers 200 acres the producers (the Queensland Folk Federation) are now buying and renting additional land to cope with campers who descend just after Christmas for the six day event. As growth continues and turnover has built to $3 million the effort to provide the infrastructure of the event is a major challenge and this means nursing large overdrafts with careful business planning.

Hundreds of volunteers aid the fifteen strong festival staff headed by manager Amanda Jackes and Director, Bill Hauritz, to produce an amazing six day cultural event of extraordinary diversity from folk music in all its dimensions to dance, films, spoken word, comedy, art, street performance, cabaret and amphitheatre rock. The festival culminates with the breathtaking Fire Event. A huge choir and improvised orchestra is assembled and rehearsed at the festival while hundreds of others build spectacular fire sculptures. Under the southern stars 25000 people enjoy a unique fire ritual on a timeless theme. By the measure of Woodford Folk Festival, the "state of folk in Australia", is reaching escape velocity!

The National Folk Festival in Canberra has seen rapid growth in audience in the last few years with a 25% increase this year. This brings challenges, such as managing 1200 volunteers in a professional manner, to finding venues and changing programs. Headed now by arts professional, Jenny Simpson, who spent eight years with Arts West, the festival is now building strong links with the Canberra School of Music, with CIT students in Events Management and the National Library. Like other festivals, "the national" has seen an unusually strong growth in the youth audience which has affectionately branded the event as "the folkie". Jenny has set up forums for the young audience to initiate programming ideas and these will see fruition next Easter. The National Folk Festival is held each Easter in Canberra and has become a major cultural event in the ACT.

The Port Fairy Folk Festival stages its 30th event next March. With an aggregate attendance of 80,000 each year, the festival features four free stages in the village streets and seventeen other stages. The annual cultural project involves schools and almost all community groups in a great collective effort in true folk tradition. The financial and cultural enrichment of the region is palpable and sowing seeds which will bear fruit for generations as has been the experience of the sadly devastated New Orleans, Spoleto in Italy, Edinburgh and its Fringe, Melbourne and its comedy and so on. The Port Fairy program is broad based and includes a huge program for children involving local schools. Over twenty international acts are joined by eighty national acts and the audience attracted ranges from babes to great seniors with a large increase in the youth audience.

By the measures of festivals, the situation for folk roots music is thrivingly healthy. The latest Australian Folk Directory, launched in Canberra, lists 99 folk festivals and 88 folk clubs. There are many more that are not listed such as town and council run events and scores of venues in bars, clubs and pubs which are not listed. These venues in turn are often found in the street press and music magazines, notably Rhythms, edited by Brian Wise. Community radio features scores of folk roots music programs around the country. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the major player here with programs such as Music Deli, Live on Stage, The Planet and Derek Guilles' commitment to featuring live music each week day evening in Melbourne. The role of the ABC in nurturing community music is critical.

What does the crystal ball say? (Apart from it's a long long way from crystal set to iPod!).

The new wave of recording technology, internet access to music and mp3 players has posed great challenges to the corporate core of the music industry. Declining CD sales, and the rise of internet music delivery, both officially sanctioned or through peer-to-peer technologies, challenge the standard business model on which the music industry is based. While pop music sales struggle, sales of independents are on the increase.

Dr Graeme Smith comments, "In many ways the new folk era, far from being a nostalgic relic of a mythical golden age of pre-technology, may be the future of music creation, performance and marketing."

The artist now has more control than ever. There is control of creativity, recording, production and distribution. Independent artists, cottage industry style, use inexpensive digital equipment to record music. CD production costs are relatively low and the internet is used for low cost distribution, promotion and sales. They could be seen as troubadours who document their work at the outset and promote by extensive live touring. The best known of these artists in Australia are folk and roots oriented performers such as the Waifs and John Butler, but there are many artists like these who are building a sustainable musical career with little reference to the mainstream industry.

The festival and touring circuit is the core public interface for many of these performers.

Examples of this can be seen in the material and performers who appear at mainstream venues such as The Basement, The Corner, or Tilleys and appear on radio stations such as 3JJJ and 3RRR programming for the audience which attend such venues. These outlets are no longer locked on particular genres such as Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country or Folk but promote acts as musicians at a music venue.

Other challenges for folk and roots music include greater access to radio and television via increased Australian content.

Resources are needed now to build opportunity in the areas of education, skill training, artist support and to build the peak body, Folk Alliance Australia. The FAA runs on less than a shoe string and has had immense difficulty in fitting into the funding criteria which seem tailor made for many other cultural forms.

There is huge potential to lift the "folk scene" to a much higher level and build this authentic music business in many ways to the standards found overseas. The talent is more than here. The time is ripe for the various music and arts funding bodies and Folk Alliance Australia to work on a program to grow assistance desperately needed.

"Folk scene"? Perhaps the success of the folk scene is that there is no longer a specific scene. The new deal is that folk artists are now part of the wider music industry. Who and what makes the folk performer? As the judge says you will know one when you see one!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to input and ideas from Dr. Graeme Smith, Eric Bogle, Rick Merrigan, David De Santi, Ade Kelly, Jan Dale, John MacAuslan, Jenny Simpson, Barry Swayn.

Author

Jamie McKew. The original article was published in Music Forum, Vol 12 No 1, November 2005-January 2006. (Links checked and some comments added, HHG, 17 September 2011.)

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