16 December 2011

What is Folk Music & Australian Experiences

 © 2011 Rjn


I bear my name with modest honour.

I am thousands of years old.

I spring from humanity with heartfelt vigour & truth.

I am not religiously, politically, racially or socio-economically based
even though many have tried to subvert me & co-opt me
in the service of these ideals.

I am enjoyed by all, from the simple to the highly educated.

I know no boundaries.

I am often simple in form, yet incredibly complex in my meanings.

I live through open-minded tolerant loving people.

People have died trying to protect me,
& been assassinated to try & suppress me.

I am your history.

I am a record of your dreams & highest aspirations.

If you let me, I will give you a lifetime of pleasure.

I belong to all of you.

I am your heritage.

I am

folk music

Some Thoughts on Folk Music in Australia

Not long ago, traditional and folk music was routinely taught in Australian primary schools. Commercial radio stations and record companies promoted and helped to maintain this vital part of our culture and heritage. Our country’s long history of migration has resulted in the creation of a vibrant multicultural society sourced from over 200 ethnic groups. These groups are the transmitters of folk music traditions going back hundreds of years. The advent of modern recording and storage techniques on vinyl, tape and CD (and now MP3 files) means that we have access to a vast ‘feast’ of wonderful music, music which records the dreams, aspirations and ideals of generations of ordinary working people. Australia is probably the world’s premier location for an archival treasure trove of folk music and song. We are also in a magnificent position to create tomorrow’s ‘heritage’ today by supporting our musicians and poets who come from so many ethnicities and walks of life.


Yet something is deeply amiss in modern Australia. A wise man once said “only a fool discards or allows his heritage to be sold off without first learning its dimensions, composition, function, worth and true value”. It would seem, if one is to look around at the state of Australian radio, that we are surrounded by fools. In 2011 we largely fail to properly share our varied, multicultural musical heritage with our own children, let alone with each other. 2005’s violent events in Cronulla are testimony to what can happen when people of various races colours and creeds do not engage with one another in honest and tolerant ways, instead peddling tired racial clichés and ethnic stereotypes. Traditional folk music can be a way to bridge cultural divides and remind us all that we share this planet and must co-operate in harmony if we wish to survive as a species. All of us in Australia contribute to the creation of a unique, multi-faceted musical culture. How remiss would we be if we allowed that culture to sink into oblivion? How shameful would it be if our children and others conclude that we left a cultural desert in our wake?


Unfortunately, songs and tunes popular for over a hundred years or more simply do not seem today to have the profitability of mass-produced, easily-digested and utterly disposable ‘pop’ songs which race up the charts in a matter of days and disappear into oblivion just as quickly. Today we demand novelty and variety at every turn. We have created an ultimately disposable culture out of what is unessential and unmemorable. This sorry state of affairs is not helped by having the vast majority of commercial radio stations in this country (and this also applies sadly to more than a few community stations which should know better) being devoted to playing commercial pop music which has the life-span of a block of cheese! Many radio stations simply maintain the status quo by playing the same tired songs over and over again, or by over-hyping what is new and hip, or by pandering to fundamentalist Christian and other niche markets. These stations regurgitate American commercialised pap and therefore encourage local artists to abandon their Australian ‘uniqueness’, the better to emulate foreign styles. Such blind idolatry creates nothing but idleness and sterility.


Successive Australian Governments have done nothing to alleviate the situation, selling off radio station licenses to biased, niche-market obsessed interests. Is it any wonder that inclusive tolerant folk music representative of Australia’s multicultural society finds it so hard to develop? These Governments fail to protect our heritage by allowing it to be subsumed by commercialised American rubbish. An uneducated, craven Australia Council exacerbates the situation by maintaining that Australia does not have its own folk music heritage! Schools no longer include heritage music in their curricula. Many of today’s so-called ‘experts’ are hard pressed to name a handful of our Australian song titles. The National Broadcaster the ABC with digital radio broadcasts promotes American Country & Western, Jazz or Classical Music only. The one ABC programme promoting itself as playing folk music on the FM band is run by an American jazz musician and rarely plays Australian folk music. Obviously Louis Armstrong's definition of “all music being folk music because I ain't heard no horse sing” is true in the eyes of the national broadcaster's programmers.

The usual suspects are trotted out to say that Australia enjoys a diverse media catering to the needs of all. Don’t listen to these people! They are nothing more than stooges and party hacks churning out their specified party line. Often that line is nothing more than strident fundamentalist dogma aimed at placating and pacifying the masses through the opiate of religion. Others strive not to create an open tolerant society but one that is made in their image, narrow and dogmatic. They cater to niche markets and ignore everything else that seems alien and threatening. In the Wimmera, this is best seen in the endless recycling of tired old ‘country and western’ music by local radio channels that refuse to listen to anything that does not fall within that narrow ambitus.

Most peak bodies claiming to represent all Australians are no more representative than politicians spouting the party line rather than listening to the will of the people. They lobby for intolerance and tyranny, trying to divide people on the basis of religion and ethnicity. To date those who make cultural policy in this country seem to want to make Australia into nothing more than another American State or occasionally an ersatz Irish musical state having failed to recognise that Irish tradition was sold out a long time ago to such things as Rome, English music hall and American commercialism. They promote American songs and music at the expense of authentic Australian folk music. Their motto is: we support cultural diversity and heterogeneity, as long as it is based on American ideals and not those of “suspect” people from Asia, Russia, South America, Africa or the Middle East. Such people make performing only American-based music the norm, in a form of insidious ‘pyramid marketing’, the better to make money by exploiting the masses. Morris Rosenfeld wrote succinctly over a hundred years ago about real, honest, non-exploitative work in his poem “For Hire”:

                         Work with might and main,
                         Or with hand and heart,
                         Work with soul and brain,
                         Or with holy art,
                         Thread, or genius’ fire-
                         Make a vest, or verse-
                         If ‘tis done for hire,
                         It is done the worse.

The people who make cultural policy in this country when it comes to the dissemination of music work only “for hire”, and have no sense of responsibility to the many cultures that go to make Australia and its music what they are.
Foolish rules are put in place which limit the amount of times a performer can be played on some community radio stations during one programme, but let the same American songs be played every day ad nauseam. For example it could be that the great songs written by the pioneers who built the Snowy River Hydroelectric Dam cannot be played together in a bracket , but “Achy Breaky Heart” can be played every every programme every day day for a century!
In my experience it takes at least 30 minutes for heritage music artists playing live to build up a rapport with audiences and demonstrate their wares – why would we not let musicians and their songs, which often come in the form of suites, have the same courtesy on radio?
Some who know nothing about folk music maintain that “Waltzing Matilda” is a bona fide folk song, but the music for the polka, varsovienne, sword dance, mazurka or waltz is not. This is nothing more than a way to say to the Italian, Chinese, Polish, Greek, Scottish, German, Finn etc. people of this country that we appreciate your industry but don’t want to know about your traditional music! It is elitist and foolish.


This situation must change. We need to let people in power know that folk music must be protected and that it should be played on the radio 24/7. The philistines out there must realise that there are many people who put great value in folk music and Australia’s cultural heritage. Australia cannot, despite the belated comments by ex-Prime Minister Howard, genuinely claim to be a multicultural and integrated society whilst it continues to ignore or disregard its musical heritage. Several government departments have in recent times reported on the vital significance of this musical heritage as it is created and maintained by Australia’s many migrants. Why are the findings of these authorities falling on deaf ears? Recognition and appreciation of our shared musical heritage helps to foster respect, national identity and character, and harmony. This folk music belongs to all, not just a venal few who wish to exploit it for gain. It is simply not true to say that Australian folk music is limited to music created in the Aboriginal and Anglo Celtic modes. True Australian folk music partakes of any number of ethnic traditions and should be embraced as a sign of how urbane and enlightened we all can be, if only we would try.


Both BIFCOA and the Gypsy Jack Boggle Show on local community radio strive to overcome narrow jingoism, sexism, racism and every other means of dividing people and making them intolerant. Even those traditional songs that display racist and misogynistic traits can be contextualised and put into perspective for progressive, sophisticated audiences. Lovers of folk music do not want enmity between peoples. We strive to promote understanding, tolerance and harmony through the appreciation of this fine music.

We now have the situation in Australia where many 1st or 2nd generation Australians no longer have fluency in the languages of their forebears who migrated here from other lands. Many of these citizens wish to re-establish contact with their roots and ancestral culture. The Gypsy Jack Boggle Show provides precisely that exposure to music of the many peoples of this world. These songs and musics from all over the world are now our unique Australian folk heritage. My programme uses Australian English as its lingua franca to enable cross-cultural participation. It isn’t afraid to buck the homogenising trend of only playing safe American music. To date I have broadcast over 2000 hours of music & songs sung in over 70 languages. I am committed to continuing my quest to bring the music of all peoples to anyone who wants to listen. Please support me! I ask any like-minded people to contact me and share your stories with me. If you are in the Horsham, Victoria area, don’t hesitate to listen to my radio show. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how interesting and valid traditional folk music is. Of course “today heritage” folk music is particularly aligned to current thoughts and actions. You’ll also be doing your part to ensure that Australia’s great multi-faceted culture survives long into the future.

Yours in folk music for harmony,

But Gypsy Jack or Richard are also alright!