Launch of Graeme Smith’s Singing Australian. A history of folk and country music
Robyn Holmes, Curator of Music, National Library of Australia.

Sept 2, 2005, at opening of the Folk Alliance of Australia Convention, National Library of Australia, Canberra

I want to begin with a personal anecdote, that I had long ago buried, but that Singing Australian forced me, somewhat shamefacedly, to reencounter. In 1973, as part of the opening celebrations of the Adelaide Festival Centre, I was invited to conduct on stage a traditional Australian singing group. We were to headline a folkloric concert, arranged no doubt in deference to the economic and social value of the multicultural communities in Adelaide or, more pointedly, to underpin Don Dunstan’s political and cultural values. Perhaps it was felt that as a bunch of singing students at the Elder Conservatorium we would be able to transfer the bush music of the pubs and clubs onto the public stage. Traditional? Well ……

Knowing no traditional Australian songs, we had to learn them by rote from the Penguin book of Australian ballads, copies of which we hastily cobbled together from the local choral society. I still remember every word of  “The Drover’s Dream” via that edition! In a mixture of operatic style gone Australian in accent, hair in pigtails, gingham skirts, bobby socks and poised theatrically on hay bales no doubt with reference to Reg Lindsay’s Channel 9 country music show  we were accompanied by a gaily decorated lagerphone and a few guitar chords. We sang lustily the Queensland version of “Waltzing Matilda” and pretended we represented the Australian bush tradition. We were followed, if I remember, by the Pitjantjatjara mob, then the Greeks, the Latvians and the Italians... but what I recall most is my acute sense of embarrassment about what we were doing there at all, a self-consciousness of imitating a musical style, and an uneasy sense that others on stage knew something much more profound about tradition, community, performance, musical and social practice.

Believe me, this book is going to awaken for you all many such experiences and memories. Like me, you will be forced to confront them, reflect on them and make sense of them, what they meant at the time and the perspective and understanding we may bring to them now. because all or us here at this Folk Alliance Conference belong in this book. You will be able to recognise and locate yourself somewhere in this book’s historical account as surely as you will remember the songs and the singers, the pubs and the clubs, the recordings, the Festivals and the collections. This is a powerful representation of the cultural landscape of the last 50 years.

Singing Australian is essentially about the construction of folk, country and multicultural musics as culturally identifiable musical “scenes” and styles sung with a politically Australian voice. The book examines how these are underpinned by an intellectual apparatus. It explores sets of meanings and social values, changing organisational structures, places and spaces, audiences and performance interactions, stylistic shifts. It provides an astonishing sweep of largely untold musical history in Australia since the 1950s. In examining the interlocking histories of folk, country and multicultural Australian music, it makes new sense of each. It loosens the distinction between collected and performed music, and places these in a continuum. The book’s critical examination of the artistic, social and political ideologies of each musical ‘scene’ reminds us that music is never just music -- it is also politics, people, patronage, processes and passions.

 The book fervently thrusts music into the history debates around concepts of the national, nationalism and nationhood. It is a matter that remains as important today as it was when the left-wing oriented collectors and musicians of the 1950s began to create a view of national cultural identity out of the music of the ‘real folk’. For this book not only tells such stories, it asks the hard questions that connect music to politics and to questions of identity. Underlying the domains of folk, country and multicultural musics is the key question of how and why each of these can claim to represent the vernacular voice of the Australian people, to be our ‘national music’. Singing Australian is not just a catchy title -  it cleverly depicts the book’s central polemic and concerns.

The work represents serious and significant historical research and understanding. It is deeply embedded in archival and oral evidence, yet is informed by Graeme’s critical reflection on his own personal engagement with these musics. Much of the documentation of these histories can be found in the archival, printed and recorded collections in the National Library and other institutions and the book will definitely encourage your further investigation and reinterpretation. Yet Graeme’s critical, scholarly and reflective insight, evident page after page, belies the surface pace and ease of the book this is written for everyone and very easy to read. The real folk artist knows how to communicate with his audience!

Folklore and vernacular musics have long suffered exclusion from the ‘gravitas’ halls of academia in this country. Singing Australian may not just signal a kind of national and musical maturity in the telling of these stories. It will thrust folklore, country and multicultural musics out from their communities of interests into the scholarly worlds of history, sociology and music as well as into the public arena. Yet above all the book gives back the stories to the people who have so richly made, played and created these musics, and it validates their performances, both yesteryear and yesterday!

Congratulations Graeme, on great research, provocative story-telling and an outstanding publication.