Are We Getting Folked Up?

by Phyl Lobl

Should the question be, are Folk festivals getting Folked down? Having read the correspondence between Keith McKenry and Kate Fagan in the magazine Trad & Now1 I had thoughts that asked for expression. I congratulate them both on their thoughtful well expressed observations and civilised regard for each other’s viewpoints. I too, have for some time felt unease about the directions that Folk Festivals have been taking. It's difficult to know just what name now applies. Many performers, even longstanding ones who have used folk festivals as a platform for years, shy off the word 'folk'. For them it's an 'F...' word to be avoided far more than the usual 'F...' word. They would rather use 'roots' or 'world' or 'acoustic', anything except folk. Maybe because its no longer hip or its not hip-hop enough, or maybe because it has distasteful political nuances for some, or perhaps because they don't want to think through the complexities of defining such a seemingly contradictory will-o-the-wisp. Maybe it would be more honest to rename the Folk festivals, Performance Festivals. If so, would that mean that 'folk-arts' would be totally sidelined? If so is that acceptable to audiences? 'Folk' as a term is still okay with me although I do call myself a Cultural Maintenance Worker with more certainty.


Folk has a proud tradition. When I served on the Music Board of the Australia Council for three years my role was to fight for funds for folk music. I was asked to define folk, Australian Folk, as the board members held grave doubts that any such products existed and on top of that they wanted me to explain how it differed from Pop or Country and other genres. In order to make a start on quite a long paper for both the Music Board and the Australia Council itself I asked a classical music person on the Australia Council to define classical music. It seemed only fair to me that if I had to define my genre, so should they. He said classical music was the ‘Celebration of Skill’. Using those terms I defined Pop as the ‘Celebration of Marketing’ and Folk as the ‘Celebration of Life’. I now think I should have used the phrase ‘Celebration of Reality’. Such qualities of course may be present in all genres but it’s the degree in which they are required and I’d like to emphasise required, that is the main point. Alas, at folk festivals it seems both ‘Celebration of Marketing’ and the ‘Celebration of Skill’ have taken hold. Reality and the celebration of it is becoming a lesser component. I provided a paper and much longer presentation to both the Music Board and the Australia Council that filled out the role and presence of ‘folk’ in Australia. I must have been convincing as the level of funding rose considerably, but that is another story. As Keith does, I too question the right of some performers to be included at Folk Festivals. Their purpose, the level of their understanding of the word ‘folk’ and their knowledge of the culture of performance they have inherited are two points to question aside from those of skill and style. I won’t comment here on criteria for those last two aspects although they can be made. Then there is the balance of numbers of local or imported, new or old, and above all balance of content. Being amusing and instrumentally skilled give a higher level of entertainment for sure. For sure entertainment is a component of all performance including folk music. I wouldn’t want to not have those elements present in good measure, however I see as equally important components of Folk Festival fare, ‘perception’, ‘intent’ and ‘potential for re-use’.

All art is a perception translated into a form that uses one or other of these raw materials; sound, silence, shape, colour, movement, words and meaning. It may be a perception related to life or a perception related to the material that is being fashioned. Its form is accomplished using energy, experience, bodily facility and imagination. Each genre places emphasis on different components of the ‘art’ produced. One of the most important components for folk music is that it can be easily passed on, that is transmission.


'Folk' is usually passed on through performance, not to people highly trained in an art form but to ordinary people who hold down jobs, raise families and live full lives that often encompass a community. A community of ordinary people, folk who have need for a medium of self expression for themselves as individuals and as part of a group. From my point of view it doesn't have to be passed on by oral transmission this can be in the flesh or electronically, but it must be capable of such transmission.

A folk song construction must be able to survive with no accompaniment and not necessarily through performance by brilliant singers. This doesn't mean that such a song would not be further enhanced with these additions. It's just not dependent on them. A dance tune must be able energise dancers when tumbled off average instruments played by average fingers. Dance steps must be constructed in ways that don't overtax bodies that have not much time to train and yet they must be interesting to perform and to view. This does not mean folk art products cannot be beautiful and moving and useful, otherwise so many composers would not have used folk songs and dance in operas and classical music, nor would writers utilise folk stories, jokes and 'slanguage' to aid literature. These products created by ordinary people with ordinary skills can be extraordinary because of the depth of their perception, their relevance to

Relationship to Reality

Folk Art has a threefold relationship to reality. It operates to relieve, relate, and help people to recognise reality. For example, work songs, lullabies, love songs, nonsense songs all relieve reality. Narratives and ballads relate reality. Political songs and Protest songs fulfil all three functions. It's not so much imagination that is involved in this art form but more the ability to perceive and translate reality so that it transcends the mundane and allows the participants or observer to experience empathy with the subject. That empathy may result in laughter, reflection, energy and action or knowledge and understanding and above all repeated performance over generations or through many members of a group in one generation.

Community Evolvement

This component may be in the evolvement of the art form or the way in which the developed cultural products aid a community's view of itself. In our case expression of the Australian Experience is an important area. We also belong to the world community and other smaller communities, so occurrences that affect the whole world, or experiences that affect our work community, are valid areas for expression. The fact is that the folk revival itself rose out of political and communal activism. I feel more than a little emotional on this point. Many people worked or performed for no pay to enable this movement to rise and run. I think anyone wishing to perform at such venues would do well to learn the history, know something of the reasons that such a vibrant 'scene' exists. Organisers would do well to make it possible, if not essential, that they do get a chance to know the history.

If there is to be a noticeable difference between Folk and other genres then these are three areas (Transmission, Relationship to Reality, Community Evolvement) where differences can be underscored. If there are no differences and there can be nothing that looks remotely like a restriction for inclusion then why are we discussing this? Just in case I'm not wasting my time I'll continue.

So….possibility of easy transmission (by whatever means), relationship to a group, relationship to reality, all these are important components in the genre of folk. Are our fresh, energetic, skilled performers, and people who run folk clubs and radio programmes aware of the components? Do they care? If they do care will this alter the performer table and repertoire at festivals, radio and clubs or is the 'Celebration of Marketing' to hold sway? To appreciate a greater variety of art forms in our world we need to be able to listen with 'different ears', and see with 'different eyes'. If we are to understand what is important for each genre we must learn to adjust our senses to suit whatever we are experiencing.

I'm often asked the difference between Country Music & Folk Music. There is definitely and unmistakeable overlap. Lately this overlap has widened. I once used an analogy of taking the folk temperature of a piece by looking at various criteria. That is too complex an idea to relay here but it's a useful exercise. There is the awareness of more British influence than American in the folk scene and vice versa for country music. But that is not the only difference still discernible. In Folk there is, or was, more co-operation than competition, more community than commerce. From my point of view, and I think it is unfortunate, this is changing. Another change is from 'Encouragement Awards' to 'Prize Categories'. One co-operative product found at Folk Festivals in what I like to call F.L.A.S.H DOCOS (Folk Lore and Social History Documentaries, I loathe the term Themed Presentations). For these 'docos' people co-operate to compile and present illustrated lectures on topics using a variety of folklore products and a variety of performers. Sadly these are being dropped off the scheme of things in favour of one person CD sales pitches. Many 'professional performers' find these 'Flash dococs' too time consuming to bother with. To me they are a vital component that keep songs and history alive and fan the flame of the 'Esprit de Coeur', common spirit of enthusiasm, of the early festivals.

In this debate the old question 'Is it the singer or the song?' is worth exploring. (if other art form followers are bothered by the use of 'song' substitute art form for 'song' and performer for 'singer' each time they are used in this paragraph.) Although they are both important, to me the 'song' is more important than the 'singer' because they hold our history, our geography, and our 'Esprit de Coeur'. Singers come and go, the songs go on. Sure the singers are important because they mould the songs, the songs are unbottled by them. A good singer can often enliven a bad song. Sometimes a good song can be almost strangled by a bad singer, but never quite, if the song is good. It can live in a head or dare I say it, on a page, or now maybe in cyber space to be revived another day.

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it has to happen the way it is, a chaotic rush of egos, marketing, opportunism and altruism and around it will all go in a cycle rather like El Nino and La Nina and somewhere along the way as we try to do for rivers with re-cycling , buy backs and desalination (for folk that's probably de-saccharisation) will come debates like this which will throw up ideas that bring life-giving respite to a culture laid to impoverishment by commercial, often foreign commercial interests. We may find ways to support the performers and products that serve our reality without losing too many bums off seats. One of Kate's points was that Folk Music is about community and doesn't need special rules . Sure, rules can be restricting, but just as rivers obey the rule of gravity and run downhill so Folk Culture responds to forces that make it run too. The three that I have already mentioned, reality, transmission and community.

In the past I felt that there was room for the two wings that keep this folk craft flying. The one that provides income for some and the one that stays true to the intent and worth of ordinary peoples' contribution to culture. Lately I have begun to doubt that this is happening and I wish for balance. Balance in personal repertoires and balance in festival programming. Dave O'Neil at the National is aware and showed this by holding a forum based on concern for Traditional Music last year. I can't say the room was crowded, but it was a start. Will festivals keep multiplying with shelves of products attractively wrapped and containing unnecessary additives for a healthy folk culture? If we cut out the folk floss will the festivals fail to get customers because the healthy culture diet has become too unappetising for pampered palates? Or can we find a balanced way to educate audiences and performers as we go on to continue the work the 'folk' of the bush and the 'zealots' of the Folk Revival have given us? And give they did, with whole hearts and minds that did not shirk from thought or debate, and neither should we. Thanks Keith, and thanks Kate.


  • Balance. Folk promoters could look for a balance between Australian and O.S performers, new and old, group and solo.
  • Reintroduction of a folk touring circuit to give performers touring experience. This could tie in with the many festivals now available. We pay a price for being a llarge country with a small population.
  • Songwriter showcases where the songs are sung partly unaccompanied to show the structure will allow oral transmission.
  • Feedback from three mentors willing to give constructive assessment as to a product's value to the tradition. These could be written, sealed and made available for artists to 'choose and learn' or 'refuse and burn' (the envelope that is). Constructive criticism is really a positive thing, as Keith has pointed out.
  • Use the idea of F.L.A.S.H Docos as important parts of a festival program. Successful ones could be repeated at regional festivals if feedback was given around. This would spread the idea and double the value of the work done. Presenters of such could be asked to find at least one or two new performers to participate in these and so give a link between older and younger performers.
  • Ask folk clubs and radio presenters or the audiences to submit names of performers who they feel are worthy of greater exposure and use their 'barometer' to measure worth.
  • Performers could be encouraged to look for balance in their repertoires. An acceptable percentage of navel gazing, of traditional material and works that express the Australian Experience could be suggested.
  • It could be suggested to performers to acquire some knowledge of the material's background. This would give a taste of and for scholarship to both performer and audience. Another thing Keith was mentioning.
  • An 'Apprentice Folk Handbook'. It's just a handbook not an exam so don't get alarmed. There is a handbook on how to find gigs why not one on how to create a folk presentation?
  • Writing workshops or projects sponsored by the Festivals where young songwriters and singers could work with mentors or with writers from other culture backgrounds. This last could produce material that reflects the migrant experience. The body of a song for instance, could be in English but the chorus in another language. This gives a chance for the injection of different nuances leading to a more vibrant culture.

  • *This article refers to the Trad and Now issue July/August 2008