© Warren Fahey
The study of any national music is a ‘work in progress’ and, after more than thirty-five years of being ‘involved’, my interpretation of what constitutes Australian folk music has changed considerably. Firstly, allow me to say that I am not at all comfortable with ‘folk music’ and ‘traditional’ being comfortable descriptions of the music that has fascinated me for most of my life. I reluctantly use them because there are no other commonplace and sensible descriptions. This essay is an exploration of how we use those descriptions. It is food for thought.
‘Folk music’ has become such a debased term, especially in a young country like Australia. It has connotations of dairymaids frolicking in the new-mown hay and bold knights bashing the tripe out of each other. Such songs, of course, to be sung with a reverend bow of the head and a finger in the ear. Worse still, it has never really escaped from the treatment it received in the 1950s international revival of interest and especially after becoming a commercial genre for the music industry. It has become a stereotype representing the confusion.
‘Traditional music’ in essence means music that has been passed down in a community, usually by oral transmission, and is part of that community’s cultural fabric. Of course this did apply to some music in the Australian story, bushranger ballads are a good example, however that chain was broken a long time ago. Some music is still passed on by oral transmission, children’s skipping rhymes, bawdy songs and political parodies being living examples. ‘World Music’ is another popular descriptive however it is a rather meaningless word and one that spread by the need to describe folk-related fusion and differentiate such music from traditional and folk. ‘Traditional music’ has its own use problem since it is primarily used to describe the music of so-called ‘primitive’ societies. The Pygmy people make traditional music, the Enga and Chimbu of Papua new Guinea play traditional instruments, and so on. I am, of course, referring to preconceptions of music and ownership.
In truth it is virtually impossible to come up with a satisfactory answer to this problem because traditional music and its related music have entered into the popular music arena. Maybe it is not a ‘real’ problem since those genuinely involved in the transmission of traditional music are not normally conscious of its boundaries, nor should they.
The dilemma is the way ‘folk’ and ‘traditional’ have been assumed by the ‘folk movement’. This too has been an unconscious and natural assumption that dates back to the early 1950s when British and American performers started to refer to themselves as ‘folk singers’. Some of the other descriptive words (like Songfest, Hootenanny and Hullabaloo) from that period have (thankfully) disappeared and now sound naïve and quaint. There is little doubt that Australian enthusiasts for this type of music were influenced by American and British examples and we had hootenannies along with the best of them! Interestingly, the so-called ‘folk revival’ was predominantly steered by musicians and organisers of a left-wing political stance, many of whom would usually resist looking to American examples as a matter of principle. One then needs to factor in the extraordinary influence of singers like The Weavers, Paul Robeson, Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger and A.L.Lloyd, all of whom passionately combined their politics and music under the flag of ‘folk music’. I had several conversations with MacColl, both Seegers, Lloyd and also Alan Lomax about this assumption of title. Every one of them said it was a conscious decision to take the music into a popular realm, back to its rightful owners – the ‘folk’. They struggled with what to call themselves believing that they were not really, in the strict sense of the word, ‘of the folk tradition’ but certainly ‘of the folk’. All admitted to an uncomfortable acceptance of the use of ‘folksinger’ however both Lloyd and MacColl said they would not usually refer to traditional singers as ‘folk singer’, preferring to call them ‘traditional singer’ or ‘singer of folk songs’. This is an important distinction. Certainly none of the people I have recorded have referred to themselves as ‘folk singer’ or ‘traditional singer’ and the usual reference was to ‘singer of old songs’ and, in a couple of instances, ‘bush songs’.
The folk revival was an international revival of interest in the ‘old music’ be it old British ballads, Irish lullabies, Negro Spirituals or back-mountain music, to name a handful of expressions. Just as rock and roll came out of a boisterous interpretation of hillbilly country music, folk music looked to its more obvious roots. Over the years there have been more discussions on ‘what is folk music?’ than you can poke a stick at – the arguments continue.
Before folk music came into popular use traditional music was referred to as ‘national’ or ‘ethnic’ music. Once again, like ‘world music’, they are unsatisfactory descriptions. In Australia, up until1975 mainstream record stores like Nicholson’s, Palings and Myers, sold traditional music, including American, Celtic and British recordings, under ‘Ethnic Music’ rack headers and, in some stores, there were headers for ‘Folk Music’. Some stores preferred to simply label their recordings as ‘International’, possibly reflecting the then popular traditional-music -meets-cocktail-music recordings of artists like Klaus Wunderlich or The Mitch Miller Singers.
Australia’s folk revival was certainly influenced by singers and organisers who came from the left of politics and the Eureka Youth League and similar socialist groups were active in using folk song as a rallying point. Most of our leading pioneer folklore collectors and observers, like John Meredith, Norm O’Connor, John Manifold, Wendy Lowenstein, Shirley Andrews, and Russell Ward had definite socialist histories. Many singers too, including Gary Shearston, Alex Hood, Chris Kempster, Don Henderson, Declan Affley and Marion Henderson were proudly political. I mention these names with the understanding that many of today’s organisers, observers and performers would also identify with the left, myself included.
I would make the point that all of the above and many of today’s brigade were passionate about Australian music; above all other music streams. In most cases their interest was specifically in Australian ‘bush’ music. Whilst I am tearing name calling apart I will have to say something about the description ‘bush music’. It’s not that satisfactory either, but more about that later.
The pioneers of the folk revival in Australia had little choice but to adopt ‘folk music’ as a popular name since, in the 1950s, radio had begun to introduce the music they were playing as ‘folk music’ with little regard to its cultural roots. Television arrived in the mid fifties and it too promoted folk music as a popular music. Likewise the records of artists like Shirley Abicar (and her autoharp), Burl Ives, The Weavers , The Kingston trio, the Brothers Four etc were introduced by the convenient ‘folk music’ moniker. As the folk revival gained steam ‘folk clubs’ like ‘the Folk Attic’ and ‘Folk City’ (Kings Cross) and ‘The Troubadour’ (Newtown) opened their doors to thousands of duffel-coat wearing ‘folkies’ (Argh! that word!) advertising ‘Folk Singalongs’, ‘Folksters’ and ‘Folk’d Out’. Local singers released albums with folk-inspired titles like ‘Folk Song Today’ and ‘Folk On Campus’.
Along with the revival of interest (revived from what? you might ask) in the music of the ‘folk’ came an interest in writing new songs about the ‘folk’ and their ‘folkie lives’. Some of these songs were truly inspired and some truly awful. There were songs about ‘blue-tailed flies’, rolling rivers and just about anything you could ‘folk a stick at’. Many of the leading performers were looked on as musical heroes as fans hung on every word they sang; such is the fickleness of the popular music industry. Thankfully, some of our performers had talent as songwriters and some classic contemporary songs emerged and were popularised. Some songs served their purpose in time such as Don Henderson’s ‘Put A Light In Every Country Window’ or ‘The Basic Wage Dream’ and have virtually disappeared. More about this type of contemporary ‘folk’ song later.
Many of the songwriters attempted to compose songs about the past, possibly inspired by the success of ‘Tom Dooley’. One has to question the emergence of pastiche – where songs are written about the past. “Hey, wasn’t it swell being a jolly old shearer.” This is especially galling to collectors who would suggest that there are already a lot of songs about shearers, many of them hardly ever sung at all. I know this annoyed John Meredith and Ron Edwards also finds it peculiar.
[ continued . . . ]