The Australian Folklore Unit is the umbrella moniker covering my work as a folklorist and author.
I always say I graduated in folklore studies at the School of Hard Knocks and then obtained a Master’s Degree at the Dingo University of the Outback. In truth I did most of my study in ‘the field’ and especially in the seventies when I did a lot of travelling, including a full-year collecting up and down the east coast of Australia. Of course there was no course in folklore in Australia.
When collecting I followed a fairly standard system: I would arrive in town, set up my Australian Folklore Unit VW Kombi and then visit the local newspaper and ABC radio station. I did interviews with both describing what I was after and where to contact me (usually the local caravan park). Fortunately, because of my regular ABC folk broadcasts I was not completely unknown.
I developed my own style of recording, however, compared to today, it was fairly basic. I would make contact and ask if I could visit and then, after explaining my mission, I would ask if I could make some recordings. I had a Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder on loan from the Music Dept of the ABC in Sydney. It was heavy but good quality.
The major problem, especially since many of my informants were elderly, was that they would automatically grab the microphone. This was the natural thing to do – it was large and cumbersome and, unfortunately, an easy target to grab. This resulted in the occasional clunking noise that would compete with the living room cuckoo clock, bell chimes and barking dog and, worst of all, passing trucks. All in a day’s work for the oral historian and folklorist. Nowadays the microphones are extremely small and the recording machines compact. My early tapes are housed in the Music Dept of the National Library of Australia and some in the Macquarie University Library. There were also several tapes in the Larrikin master tape file held at Festival records and, now in the Screensound archive, Canberra. Like all folklore collectors one regrets not paying more attention to this area. Most of the tapes were recorded reel to reel which is now almost antiquated and certainly restricts their use. Hopefully the various institutions are now transferring these to digital. A large number of my early tapes are at 7.5rpm and some atv3.5rpm (I think that’s the speeds) I have never stopped collecting or writing about folklore. I am now collecting by video taping on my Apple iPad – brilliant! Maybe I am obsessed but it is my life and my work. One particularly interesting project was a two-year program (2004-2006) to collect the folklore associated with my home city of Sydney – and one of the most exciting challenge I have ever faced.
The City of Sydney Council, Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, Latent Image in association with the State Library of New South Wales and the Oral History and Folklore Division of the National Library of Australia all assisted me in various ways to complete the Folklore of Sydney project. The ‘fruits’ are scattered throughout this site. Other projects have followed including a major video installation for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney and, in 2014, a series of films on the history of Rookwood Cemetery. Life is never dull.