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© Warren Fahey

originally published in the Companion to Australian Music (Currency Press)

Bush-music or folklore clubs based on Australian traditional music and dance were formed in the 1950s but by 1963-64 folk-revival music included English, Irish, American and Australian folk music performed to predominantly young middle-class Australians in coffee lounges, jazz clubs and other intimate venues. This revival was commercialised in the late 1960s to early 1970s, when folksong was watered down for singalong television programs and, to a lesser extent, political movements.

Folk-music enthusiasts responded by organising or joining folk clubs, which pre- sented folk music in a serious listening environment. British and Irish immigrants mainly organised the clubs and the music was primarily traditional music from their own countries, including ballads, folksongs and sea shanties.

The clubs retreated to licensed premises, mostly the upstairs lounges of old-style hotels, which enforced age restrictions and were controllable. Most clubs were non-profit organi- sations. They charged an entrance fee of $2-50 to $6, and most of the income went to the advertised performers.

A singer engaged for a typical folksong evening would perform two 40-minute brackets, and there would be three or four singers “from the floor”.

Most folk clubs were oper ated by singers and usually the compere also sang a couple of songs during the evening.

It was an unusual atmosphere – well managed, exciting and alive with chorus singing. The ambience depended on the room, but the audience was normally seated and quiet, and bar staff learned to work qui- etly. Most folk clubs closed between 10 and 11p.m., depend- ing on the pub’s licence.

After the public program there was usually a “house party”, in which “sessions” were encouraged and everyone could join in vigorous chorus singing.

Discussion gradually led organisers to realise that folk clubs needed to include more Australian material and, later, more contemporary songs in folk style. Depoliticisation was also debated. Many long-term folksong supporters from the political left claimed that the folk clubs were deliberately promoting conservatism.

In time the movement found its own political ground and contemporary singer-songwriters such as Eric Bogle, John Dengate and Phyl Lobl provided a bridge between traditional and contemporary song.

The need for folk clubs diminished in the 1980s as the festival movement strengthened. Interest in performing Australian music grew alongside interest in bush dancing and its accompanying music. Music from other cultures also entered festival programs and then the remaining folk clubs – there are still more than 100.

Whether they are an anachronism or a necessary training ground for performers is continually discussed. There are now a well-organised network of folk federations and an extensive calendar of fes- tivals, so maybe the clubs have served their purpose. Yet there is wide support for attendance at live performances of music and for the belief that, as entertainment becomes increasingly passive, a few old-fashioned chorus sessions would do anyone a lot of good.