Folk music as practiced in Australia embraces a wide variety of musical styles and is best thought of as a genre of music which is given an identity and unity by its key audiences and performers and contexts of performance.
The music is most prominent at large festivals like those of Woodford, Queensland, or Port Fairy, Victoria, or Fairbridge, Western Australia, which draw tens of thousands of enthusiastic and dedicated participants. The great range of musical styles includes singer-songwriters, jazz performers, world music performers, traditional historical vernacular musics, indigenous popular music and folkloric performance.
It is not entirely open, of course, and they bring together music which fits within a cluster of ideals and sounds. These include an emphasis on authenticity of expression , a preference for live performance, word-centred song styles, localism, a tendency to archaic or nostalgic subject matter, a promotion of explicit cultural, national and identity-based expressions, and preference for small-scale genres fostered in direct face to face communication. Added to this are musical markers – singer with guitar, banjos and other emblematic instruments, “celtic” modal sounds, “acoustic” production values and the rest. Within this diversity, none of these ideals and sounds are necessary elements of “folkness”, but all contribute.
Most importantly, Folk signifies a participatory ethos, so music made by community groups, or by amateur enthusiasts is easily accommodated in the genre if it is seen as an expression outside a commercial market or official tastes.
A well-established organisational base of the Folk Alliance of Australia emerged in the mid 1990s from the state based folk organisations, which had run folk festivals and clubs since the 1970s and before. It is a peak organisation which sponsors creative development of organisations and performers and brings together and promotes folk as a cultural industry.
A few performers are full time professionals, but most are dedicated amateurs, as is the case with most aspirational popular musicians. The participatory formats of many folk styles foster large circles of committed amateur players for whom the music has a social role.
Occasionally prominent performers may break through to mainstream media and be recognised in the popular music industry. Most public performers will make recordings, usually independently and self-funded, and sometimes supported by videos, and these are an adjunct to live performance which remains the core musical activity.
There are folk programs on many local and community radio stations run by enthusiasts, often blending into world music, roots musics, or other linked subdivisions of this area of popular music. Blogs and websites also provide information and link new performers and audiences.
Small alternative music venues, many in inner city music precincts, offer many performance opportunities for folk performers. While these provide little or no income, they extend the reach of the music and its musical credibility, and help performers build a career.
But the core of holding Folk together is created by festivals. These range from the large festivals such as the National Folk Festival in Canberra, or Woodford, Queensland to small local affairs run by few individuals in regional towns. These all involve high levels of participation, whether in playing sessions, many open-mike opportunities, instrumental workshops, volunteer-run festival organisations or just the music-infused camping holiday.
- The music has a strong sense of itself as an ethically worthwhile activity, which fosters committed and dedicated supporters.
- Folk has a large base of potential performers. Many younger performers have come from family and social backgrounds with long associations with the folk movement.
- Many folk music styles allow “entry level” participation while extending to the most excellent virtuosic performance. Such amateur-inclusive participatory forms create highly informed consumers which enhance standards of performance.
- Audiences, performers and organisers have had high cultural capital which has created a strong institutional foundation in festivals and the Folk Alliance of Australia.
- Folk aligns itself with cultural policies of community participation, cultural diversity and social inclusion. It can also be called on to express an idea of a core Australian culture, and to link it to multicultural ideals.
- The musical diversity appeals to an audience of cultural omnivores, who are firmly socially situated and able to lend social status to the music.
- The music tends not to be confrontational or socially abrasive, while serious and idealistically committed in content.
- The folk festivals’ inclusions of volunteers expand the base of the movement and enhance the sense of the ethos of the music.
- Most music now is recorded, passively consumed, and incidental to other activity. The level of commitment and participation which folk music asks for goes against most musical activity in our society.
- Folk music has little access to the mainstream music industry of recording, broadcasting and digital media. As such it will remain a small marginal presence.
- The relatively elite audience of folk music is middle-class and middle-aged. Its composition itself is a barrier to expanding into other social and age cohorts.
- Folk music styles tend to be simple and aesthetically conservative and so are not easily promoted in cultural policies which demand innovation, experimentation and virtuosic excellence. Thus, the genre has difficulty in accessing support.
- Folk music has little support from educational institutions. While in Britain and other countries there are folk music courses, no comparable courses exist in Australia, and there are few scholars who have interest in enhancing or studying folk music.
- The current disruption of the music industry with independent recording, streaming and on-line promotion and marketing are levelling the playing field for smaller, more marginal genres and their musicians. Folk performers are amongst these.
- Folk is experiencing a renaissance in popularity in Britain and the USA, with new younger performers achieving mainstream success and popularity, and folk explicitly contributing to many independent popular genres over the past decade or two. In Australia “roots-based” and Americana genres are popular with both young and middle-aged audiences, and these can be drawn into seeing their preferred genres as folk.
- The social class of knowledge, cultural and administrative workers is historically growing in influence. The progressive, cosmopolitan and eclectic ethos of folk has an affinity to this group.
- A generation of expansion of higher level music education has produced many highly skilled musicians, some of whom are turning to folk music and other forms beyond classical and jazz which have been the main education-supported styles. This can be encouraged.
- The ubiquitous and instant availability of music through internet distribution threatens to displace live performance which is the core of folk.
- The popular music world thrives on the spectacular and oppositional. Folk music has long had an unfashionable and aesthetically conservative presence.
- Electronic and technologically mediated styles of production and creation which are expanding have historically had low priority and status in folk.
- The genre fragmentation of popular music means that listeners are less committed to the unifying ethos of folk, and tend to take individual styles on their own terms.
The long and complex history of the ideas of folk music and the movements which have promoted it have produced a small but vibrant popular music movement. After a period of decline from about 1990, the new century has seen developments in the popular music world which appear on balance to point to a strong future for the genre. The institutional base of festivals is expanding and has become the foundation of a loyal musical scene. The challenge will be to preserve the open participatory nature while allowing for this expansion. As the overseas folk popular successes become more widely recognised, individual performers and organisations such as the Folk Alliance of Australia should be able to extend influence and support.
EDITOR’S RECOMMENDATION. By the same author, How Folk Music Went from Daggy to Cool
DATE PUBLISHED: 22 March 2018
Graeme Smith is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash University. His interests lie in popular music studies and ethnomusicology, especially music and national and group identity, folk revival musics, Irish traditional music, Australian country music, multicultural and world music, construction of social meaning, voice and body. He has written extensively on the Australian folk and country movements, as well as the way the Australian world/multicultural music has interacted with official and popular politics of difference and identity. Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music was published by Pluto Press in July 2005.