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Collecting Folklore and Music

[published in the Companion to Australian Music (Currency Press)]


Australians have been negligent in collecting their folk traditions and most of the work has been done by well-meaning, self-trained enthusiasts. Unknowing collectors who gathered songs to publish in collections of song or poetry preceded the first serious collector, “Banjo” Paterson. By publishing The old bush songs in 1905 he preserved the words of many songs that eventually would have been lost.


Aus- tralian folk music was commonly believed to be simply music transplanted from Great Britain and Ireland. Then collectors sought evidence that Australians had created a genuine, unique folk music culture worthy of collection, study and promotion. John Meredith began the first major survey in the early 1950s.


There have been attempts to organise national bodies but collectors of folklore tend to work as individuals. This is probably because folkloric studies have low status as an academic subject. Some universities are now taking more interest but some established folklore collectors perhaps see this as interference.


The major work of collecting has been in song and dance music. Urban folklore has not been a priority, although attention has been paid to children’s folklore, including playground songs, rhymes and chants.


Collecting folklore is like assembling a puzzle. One piece leads to another and this endeavour can often form a complete picture. In collecting songs the folklorist leads the informant back into the past and suggests events or time- lines that might prompt a memory and then a song, poem or tune. Sometimes the informant remembers complete songs but more often fragments and the collector must skilfully prompt the memory further, often over a period. Some successful collecting has taken several visits.


The standard method of collecting has been with the tape recorder, but collecting is also being done on video tape and film through the National Library of Australia. The library indexes tapes and makes them available according to terms outlined by the collectors. The general opinion is that these tapes are in the public domain but the rights of some informants are also taken into account.


Meredith maintained an impressive photographic collection to complement his vast tape library. Other collectors, such as Ron Edwards, collect songs on cassette tapes and transcribe them in musical notation and print them as soon as possible, with little regard for the original recording. Edwards has assembled a huge body of material. He maintains a complex indexing system and a “mail association” for collectors and he publishes a journal for the Australian Folklore Society.


The historian Russel Ward collected words of songs by mail and included some in his 1958 book The Australian legend.


The popular author Bill Wannan similarly gathered important material through his magazine columns.


The present writer has collected extensively in the field and continues to collect by mail, soliciting new contacts through ABC radio interviews.


Wendy Lowenstein has merged interests in folklore and oral history and her years as editor of Australian Tradition magazine were valuable in bringing much material before the public.


The Australian Folklore Association publishes a magazine edited by John Ryan at the University of New England, Armidale (NSW).


Others who were pioneer collectors include Hugh Anderson, Joy Durst, Norm O’Connor and Mary-Jean Officer of Melbourne; Stan Arthur, John Manifold, Bob Michell and Bill Scott of Brisbane; and David De Santi, Alan Scott, Chris Sullivan and Brad Tate of NSW. Peter Parkhill is a pioneer collector of the traditional music of immigrants, especially in Greek and Middle Eastern tradi- tions. The late Shirley Andrews of Melbourne was the principal collector of dance traditions.


© Warren Fahey