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Australian folk music



© Warren Fahey

Australia has a fascinating ancient history and, as the world’s largest island continent, situated on the lower half of the globe, it continues to be thought of as remote and unique. Its indigenous people, the Aboriginal tribal clans people, have lived here for thousands of years and can make claim to one of the earth’s longest bloodlines. The English invaded and settled the continent in the late eighteenth century adding the colonial penal settlement of Botany Bay to their British Empire.

The following sites offer good perspectives of Australian settlement and history:



The Aboriginal people possess an intricate traditional mythology based on Creation. The Rainbow Spirit is acknowledged as the ‘mother’ spirit and there are traditions, customs and beliefs associated with the life/death cycle and both deeply connected with the land, sea and air.

Being clan people, and primarily itinerant food gatherers, they created and circulated myths and stories related to particular parts of Australia. They are coastal, desert, mountain people and island people. European settlement forced the indigenous people away from their traditional food gathering areas for, in our ignorance; the first European settlements were always situated on the most important food gathering areas. In some Australian States, like Victoria, the indigenous tribes simply relocated to other territories. The history of other regions, like Tasmania, is far more Scotty Martinbrutal having ‘forced relocation’ and ‘almost’ extermination programs. While not necessarily a war-mongering society the Aboriginal people were seen by the early colonial administrators, and the settlers, as a danger and this inevitably led to a flow of problems. One of the worst problems came with influenza and other European diseases that had a shocking effect on the tribal communities. Such history is not unique to Australia and is, sadly, common to all colonising programs throughout the world.

Scotty MartinAboriginal traditional music and song dance is a highly regarded aspect of the culture and is still upheld despite the enormous odds of contemporary society. That said traditional language speakers and especially singers are disappearing at an alarming rate. For example, in 1994 I released a Larrikin CD of Aboriginal Sung Poetry from the North Queensland Rain Forest Region. At that stage there were three language speakers remaining. By 2000 there were none. It is officially a dead language. By the way, hardly anyone bought the CD!

In 2003 I arranged the release of a CD of one of the finest traditional songmen, Scotty Martin, who lives in a tribal community near Elizabeth, out of Broome. Scotty has over 400 songs in his ‘Dreaming’.

I recommend his CD to anyone interested in Aboriginal Songs. There are extensive notes by Dr Linda Barwick of Sydney University.

For information refer to:
www.undercovermusic.com.au and then Rouseabout Records.

Alongside the traditional Aboriginal music heritage is a contemporary stream that emerged somewhere around the mid-fifties. This became known as ‘Koori Music‘ – a term NSW urban Aborigines gave to themselves. In Queensland they use ‘Murri’ as the descriptive. For the purpose of this information I will use Koori.

Koori music has a direct relationship with what was originally referred to as Country & Western Music and, in particular, the Hank Snow style of singing and guitar playing. There were, of course, other influences, especially the later recordings (from 1960) of Australian country singers like Slim Dusty, Brian Young, Buddy Williams, Tex Morton and Gordon Parsons. The earliest documented appearance of koori Music was the field recordings made of Dougie Young who lived in Wilcannia, near Broken Hill, NSW. Young was a very talented songwriter and his songs are still sung today, particularly Cutting a Rug and The Land Where The Crow Flies Backwards (and The Pelican Builds His Nest).

The white man took this country from me;
He’s been fighting for it ever since.
These governments and protestors they’re arguing,
And every day they’re starting a brawl;
And if there’s going to be a nuclear war,
What’s going to happen to us all?
– Dougie Young

In listening to these early recordings, and they are now reissued on CD, the simplistic (yet effective) guitar style is evident of a continuing style. There is a relationship with American rural blues, especially in the songwriting and in particular the extraordinary version of Frankie & Johnny centred on a chicken thief! Of course one must take into account that in the 1950s Aboriginal music was virtually unheard of – Aboriginal people didn’t even have the vote (that came much later!) and were considered second-class citizens and a quaint nuisance at best. One area where Aborigines were welcome was the travelling country and western shows featuring the above-mentioned artists and that is why this music had such an impact. The reality was that indigenous Australians were writing songs and singing them to their own communities. The majority of these urban songs told of discrimination and the joys and pains of alcohol abuse.

Dougie Young’s CD is available from www.aiatsis.gov.au
This site also has a series of CDs and booklets on traditional Aboriginal and Islander music and craft.

Other recordings of indigenous country and folk-related artists would include: Kev Carmody (an excellent songwriter), Christine Anu (more pop flavoured), Seaman Dan (island maritime material, especially pearl fishing songs) and Archie and Ruby Roach (folk pop). The most successful country artists would include Troy Casser-Daly and the legendary Jimmy Little. Try www.folktrax.com for these artists or www.mulgamusic.com.au which is a specialist country music mail distributor.