West Australian

Saturday 10 Sept 2005
Page: 8

Singing along in rural Australia

This fascinating volume is probably the first book to pull together succinctly the appropriate parts of the musical spectrum that concentrate on folk and country (particularly in Australia) and deal with the surrounding aspects of contemporary acoustic music that cross the borders between these.

Add a touch of singer-songwriter and you’ve got quite a genre.

The book begins with a look at the evolution of the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, which grew out of the Maleny festival that began in 1987. This year’s festival boasted a huge, eclectic line-up, including the Waifs, Eric Bogle, Vince Jones, Missy Higgins and Zulya. It was described as “an explosion of authentic folk — expressing our community past, present and future”. Shearing and droving were there, of course, but alongside melodies, songs, instruments and choruses from all over the world. It brought together a cohesive community, representing past, present and future. But Woodford, as a festival, had evolved into a festival for our times. This book tells how it happened, how it became such a huge moment. Since the 1970s the debate about culture and politics has contained such key elements as migration and multiculturalism, as well as relations between indigenous and settler Australians. To this has been added ties to the British diaspora and later to a growing globalisation, particularly from Europe. Our music reflects these accumulations of different cultures and experiences.

This thoughtful and fascinating book brings together the music cultures of all the new Australians, and those who were here long ago. The evolving Australian side of it has a huge part in it, of course. The music that has come here with the new chums has been adapted, incorporated — as have the people who have come from overseas, and still come. This book takes us through all of this. In a way this new culture has crept up on Australia, but in the latter half of the 20th century it became a big movement

There are interesting side tracks in the story, as well. For example, the way in which the “Australian rural, working aesthetic” is seen as such a positive thing — the settler “can do” outlook. The Australian “left” discovered it in the 1950s — Ben Hall, The Wild Colonial Boy, Moreton Bay, songs of oppression at the hands of the employers, and the honest battlers who struggled on the land. Collectors found songs that fed this agenda. But there was also the “soft” side of it as well — Burl Ives singing Click Go The Shears, for example and the idealised bush. Theatre pitched in` with Reedy River, starting a movement in the Sydney New Theatre in 1953, one associated with the Communist Party of Australia. There were songs from the 1891 shearers strike and settings of Lawson’s poems. This started of a revival of these songs and their associations. In parallel with this, the collectors were out there gathering work songs and their associations. Others were collecting vernacular songs, mainly of late 19th century origin, based on the memory of older days. A significant part of this phase was the unearthing of the songs of the rural past continuing a memory of melodies and poems rich in political and cultural ideas — music of the past but used to create a uniting vision of the future — in a spectrum from the serious to the popular. Of course there were those with an entrepreneurial bent, but that still had the effect of passing these songs and their ideas to a wider audience.

A more global context came in the latter years of the millennium. World Music found a world stage and the Australian contribution was strong and had broad appeal through bands like the Bushwhackers. In fact this book, with its broad range and rich associations, is dealing with a huge area in Australian music. While it whets the appetite, it will inevitably leave one looking for more. And there is much more to be tapped.

But this is a wise and inclusive start. It has opened up many avenues in  the tangled but uplifting quest to gather and preserve and to create more on the basis of what has been found. An incredibly rich harvest of music, song, history and truth.


Singing Australian A History of Folk and Country Music, by Graeme Smith (Pluto Press, $35).