Sunday Age,August 14, 2005, p18

How a nationís discourse came to be reflected in tune

Warwick McFadyen


By Graeme Smith

Pluto Press, $35.95

The identity of people, what they stand for and their place in a nation is under the microscope. While the bombs may have been going off in London, the ensuing debate has sent ripples across the world to Australia. It has intensified debates about ethnicity, assimilation, integration and multiculturalism.

On the surface this may seem to have little to do with music. But, as Graeme Smith has shown in this well-researched book, music has more to do with a nationís character than is widely acknowledged. Singing Austrahan: A History of Folk and Country Music digs into the subterranean bedrock and unearths a rich seam of the nationís identity.

If itís true that history is written by winners, then itís equally true that its sung by folk artists. And, in most cases, itís sung by those who have no other avenue in which to voice their lives. This is the hidden country in the nationís political and social life. Smith has documented the origins and course of folk and country in Australia in enunciating the peopleís voice. He believes music has contributed to the debate in this country, not just in this time, but from the Ď70s, of what it means to be Australian.

ďThese musics (folk and country) claim to represent more than a taste group, like classical music lovers, or even a youth subcultural group, like heavy metal fans,Ē he writes. ďTheir address is general, to the nation as a whole, about aspects of shared national experience and about ideals of national community.Ē

Smith details the birth of the folk scene, which was exclusively the domain of the left, the coffee-house era, bush bands, the mixing of folk and bush and the rise of festivals such as Woodford in Queensland. Similarly with country, he charts its growth from the copying of the American stars, the impact of acts such as Slim Dusty and the growing awareness that itís OK to sing about your own nation, to the latest round of country stars and those who fall in between the labels, such as Paul Kelly and Aboriginal performers. Smith also delves into crossover genres, such as Ďworld musicĒ.

There are two slight discordant passing notes. One is in the language: earnest and knowledgeable is fine, as long as itís tempered with a fluid approach to the telling. Too many times, however, the phraseology borders on the style of an academic dissertation. Of course, it depends on the audience, music scholars may think nothing of it. The other is in giving too much weight to a perception of a deliberate nature where none may occur. Itís all very well to pull all strands of a music together and call it a movement, but to make of it one unity, as if it is a sentient being, is a big call. This is an important book in understanding the currents of a stream in Australiaís psyche, but of necessity, it canít tell the whole story. There are too many unknowns, people with a song in their hearts, who came into view and slipped away. Smith, however, should be commended for throwing light on the subject