Is Folk Music a Legitimate Genre in Australia?

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The Case

There is some debate on whether folk music is a genuine genre, and not something fitting into either a branch of world music, blues or country music, or alternatively having become politically compromised, somehow.

There is a related question of merging genres. People get together to play music, not necessarily a "genre". Rock, blues, country, Indigenous influences, "world music" and what they play at folk festivals all get together. The strength of the Australian "folk" scene may be that there is no longer a particular scene, as McKew suggests at the conclusion of Folk Music in Australia - Scene or New Deal?.

Our position as expressed in this note is not sacrosanct, and we welcome comments. But we generally see a place for a genre, or at least a musical orientation, called "folk".

In the mid-1980s, Dick Letts directed the Music Board of the Australia Council. During that period, he put together the Board's Medium Term Plan for Music which became a formative document for the understanding of the Australian music sector.

He wrote in 2007:

It was at that time that we started to put forward the idea that there were many folk musics in Australia in addition to the bush music and folk revival music then favoured, and that these should find a place in the big folk festivals. But I was also on about a definition of folk music as arising from the folk and not another consumable.
Letts was introduced at the time to Graeme Smith as an authority who said he thought folk music was mainly another 'taste group'. Graeme Smith's role and influence is further discussed in Jamie McKew's article.

Letts continues:

If it is more than a taste group, I guess that might be shown by a lot of spontaneous music-making by a lot of people preferably expressing everyday life and concerns through a recognisable genre with some sort of clear historical antecedents. As I understand it, at the big folk festivals, there is indeed a lot of amateur music-making. And while folk musics of other countries are now abundantly in evidence, there is still the Anglo-Celtic-based Australian bush music being played.

Dick Letts notes that the Music Council's current incoming mail includes a considerable amount of Australian folk material.

So in sum, there are still people practising what they would identify as the "Australian" folk music from before the time of mass immigration in the 1940s, but by now it is a sort of remnant of that earlier time and for most people has lost the role of folklore as defined below by the Australian Folk Alliance.

Some Web Links

The vision of Folk Alliance Australia (FAA) is to

represent the interests of cultural events which encourage the understanding of folklore as the cultural bond that holds individuals, groups and communities together and provides their cultural identity by promoting the artistic expression of ordinary people through diverse art forms.

FAA is associated with the National Folk Festival, which sponsors its website. It maintains the Australian Folk Directory, which currently lists 91 festivals and a large number of other entries.

FOLKaustralia has developed a list of links covering folk performers, festivals, clubs and venues, instrument makers and repairers, Australian folk dance, Australian magazines online with folk content, and more.

The monthly international Trad&Now music magazine is published in Australia. Featured as Australia's National Folk Magazine, each edition contains news on the Australian folk scene, past and present, as well as news on Australian bluegrass, poetry, dance, traditional music, festivals past and present, reviews of festivals and music, tabs, what's on and a classified section.

The Commonwealth Government culture and recreation portal records the history of folk music from convict origins and mainly Irish influences in the 19th century, to new Australian folk styles from the late 20th century influenced by the ancient folk styles of Europe and Africa through the children of Australia's vastly diversifying migrant intake from the 1950s onwards.

The same source also presents a history of bush music - songs and music that have come from people's experiences of living and surviving in the Australian bush. The foundation of bush music was the convict songs, of which the most famous is perhaps Bound for Botany Bay by an anonymous convict. The bush music tradition continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. The source notes that the continuing tradition of bush music was influential in shaping the development of Australian folk music and the folk revival of the 1970s.

Author

Hans Hoegh-Guldberg]. Original version dated 31 August 2007 (Latest update, HHG, 17 September 2011).

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