Folk music as practiced in Australia embraces a wide variety of musical styles and is best thought of as a genre of music which is given an identity and unity by its key audiences and performers and contexts of performance.
The music is most prominent at large festivals like those of Woodford, Queensland, or Port Fairy, Victoria, or Fairbridge, Western Australia, which draw tens of thousands of enthusiastic and dedicated participants. The great range of musical styles includes singer-songwriters, jazz performers, world music performers, traditional historical vernacular musics, indigenous popular music and folkloric performance.
It is not entirely open, of course, and they bring together music which fits within a cluster of ideals and sounds. These include an emphasis on authenticity of expression , a preference for live performance, word-centred song styles, localism, a tendency to archaic or nostalgic subject matter, a promotion of explicit cultural, national and identity-based expressions, and preference for small-scale genres fostered in direct face to face communication. Added to this are musical markers – singer with guitar, banjos and other emblematic instruments, “celtic” modal sounds, “acoustic” production values and the rest. Within this diversity, none of these ideals and sounds are necessary elements of “folkness”, but all contribute. Most importantly, Folk signifies a participatory ethos, so music made by community groups, or by amateur enthusiasts is easily accommodated in the genre if it is seen as an expression outside a commercial market or official tastes.
A well-established organisational base of the Folk Alliance of Australia emerged in the mid 1990s from the state based folk organisations, which had run folk festivals and clubs since the 1970s and before. It is a peak organisation which sponsors creative development of organisations and performers and brings together and promotes folk as a cultural industry.
A few performers are full time professionals, but most are dedicated amateurs, as is the case with most aspirational popular musicians. The participatory formats of many folk styles foster large circles of committed amateur players for whom the music has a social role.
Occasionally prominent performers may break through to mainstream media and be recognised in the popular music industry. Most public performers will make recordings, usually independently and self-funded, and sometimes supported by videos, and these are an adjunct to live performance which remains the core musical activity.
There are folk programs on many local and community radio stations run by enthusiasts, often blending into world music, roots musics, or other linked subdivisions of this area of popular music. Blogs and websites also provide information and link new performers and audiences.
Small alternative music venues, many in inner city music precincts, offer many performance opportunities for folk performers. While these provide little or no income, they extend the reach of the music and its musical credibility, and help performers build a career.
But the core of holding Folk together is created by festivals. These range from the large festivals such as the National Folk Festival in Canberra, or Woodford, Queensland to small local affairs run by few individuals in regional towns. These all involve high levels of participation, whether in playing sessions, many open-mike opportunities, instrumental workshops, volunteer-run festival organisations or just the music-infused camping holiday.
The long and complex history of the ideas of folk music and the movements which have promoted it have produced a small but vibrant popular music movement. After a period of decline from about 1990, the new century has seen developments in the popular music world which appear on balance to point to a strong future for the genre. The institutional base of festivals is expanding and has become the foundation of a loyal musical scene. The challenge will be to preserve the open participatory nature while allowing for this expansion. As the overseas folk popular successes become more widely recognised, individual performers and organisations such as the Folk Alliance of Australia should be able to extend influence and support.
EDITOR’S RECOMMENDATION. By the same author, How Folk Music Went from Daggy to Cool
DATE PUBLISHED: 22 March 2018