Introduction

 

THE 2004/05 Woodford Folk Festival was the biggest ever, so big that organisers

were wondering if it had already outgrown its new, purpose-built site. The lineup

was huge and eclectic – the Waifs, Eric Bogle, Vince Jones, Missy Higgins, Zulya

and many, many more − all participating in what the organisers described as

‘an explosion of authentic folk . . . expressing our community, past, present and

future’. But the bands in bush hats with their songs about shearing and droving

were hard to find. As one commentator put it, ‘from its roots in Australian folk

music, Woodford has evolved into a festival for our times’. This book tells the

story of how this happened, as it tells the story of how Australian country music

has moved from a rather marginal music to the position where one of its canonic

performers, Slim Dusty, is given a nationally televised state funeral.

Since the 1970s Australians have been debating the basis of our political

community. Immigration and multiculturalism, relations between Indigenous

and settler Australians, the meaning of our historic ties to Britain, economic,

political and cultural globalisation − all these issues have focused attention on

questions about the contemporary cultural and political basis of the Australian

nation state. These debates do not just take place in parliament and newspapers,

in the speeches and writings of politicians, journalists and academics. They also

occur in the multi-layered meanings of popular commemorative events such as

the 1988 Bicentennial and Federation celebrations, in advertising imagery, in

media discussions and talkback radio, in local historical societies; and they are

acted out in everyday life in the cultural choices people make − about what to

wear, what to eat, what fi lms to see. Music has been an active participant in these

debates. Through words, sounds and performance style it has created images of

past and present Australian experience and projected various versions of the

relationship between individual experience, the community and the nation.

Australian folk music and some of its popular crossovers, Australian country

music, multicultural and world music, see themselves as distinctively and

representatively ‘Australian’. Folk, country and multicultural music are not mass

popular musics, but nor are they small subcultural taste groups. To judge these

musics solely in terms of the music industry’s benchmarks of record sales and air

time would be to underestimate their cultural signifi cance. Surveys fi nd that about

17% of Australians give country as their favourite music, despite its relatively

low record sales.1 The high-rating, nationally networked ABC Sunday morning

program Australia All Over, which espouses a homey rural nationalism, draws its

music almost entirely from the folk and country repertoire and claims to be the

most popular radio program in Australia ever, with 1.6 million listeners.2 Items

of multicultural music are regularly presented at offi cial government functions as

emblematic of contemporary Australia’s rich cultural diversity, as well as being

played regularly on the ABC. Most importantly though for the theme of this

book, each of these musics projects itself into the space of the nation as a whole.

Each claims to have been created from Australia’s history, and so to carry in its

sounds and performance styles unique aspects of Australian experience. These

musics claim to represent more than a taste group, like classical music lovers, or

even a youth subcultural group, like heavy metal fans. Their address is general,

to the nation as a whole, about aspects of shared national experience and about

ideals of national community.

S

 

A 01c.indd

Representing the nation?

 

The Australian folk movement has made the strongest, boldest claim to represent

Australian national experience. It was the creation of the Australian left in the

1950s who wanted to believe that the Australian people were both radical and

nationalist. They put the itinerant bushworkers of the late nineteenth century

at the centre of Australian historical experience and drew on well-developed

European ideas of cultural nationalism in which a nation’s distinctive experiences

are carried in the ethos of its ordinary people, or folk, and also on the radical

reformulation of these ideas in the People’s Song Movement of the US and the

British folk revival. In its beginnings the Australian folk movement was earnest,

polemical and didactic, of more interest to intellectuals than music lovers, but it

created the canon of Australian folk song and the cultural space in which the folk

movement has continued to explore its claims to national distinctiveness. Folk

clubs, bush bands and festivals are all different moments in this story, providing

different ways of connecting with a broad popular audience and different ways

of representing the nation in music as new generations of cultural activists

pushed folk’s claims to national significance. What links these, as well as a shared

historical lineage, is a seriousness of engagement with the political and social

meanings of music-making, a reflexive intellectualisation which has made the

folk movement a continuing source of ideas for performers in other scenes and

genres which want to address questions of individual identity and the nation.

Australian country music shares folk’s claims to be a music created from

Australian rural social experience, and shares some of the same musical material,

but it incorporates them in quite different music, performed for different

audiences, within separate institutions. It imagines a quite different Australia

and a different nineteenth century. In place of folk music’s radical nationalist

landscape of the social relations of the nineteenth-century itinerant bush workers

and their employers, country music evokes the world of the small farmer and the

pioneering struggles of country people to tame the environment and make it

productive.3 Australian country music now regards itself as the true continuation

of the Australian folk heritage and an authentic representation of Australian

experience and national identity.

SA 01c.indd ix

 

Country music, which began as the voice of the farmers and small country

towns, now appeals to many people whose experience is circumscribed by locality

and a fatalistic stoicism. It addresses ‘ordinary Australians’ or ‘people in all walks

of life’, and although its claims to national representativeness are less theorised

than those of the folk movement its democratic populism is easily recognisable.

Critics often see country as defensive and backward-looking, the music of an

embattled Anglo-Australia, but country has responded to the increasing diversity

of Australian social experience. Musicians with urban reference points are

entering the scene, and some committed singer-songwriters from the urban rock

scene cross over into country. Country has also long been the favoured music of

many Aboriginal performers for its localism and family-centred themes. If country

still speaks of an attachment to place and land, the urban conservationist and

the traditional owner have joined the small farmer and rural worker. Even so,

the country music movement is far less abstract in its self-understandings than

folk, and its models of organisation have remained closer to the everyday life of

its participants, in the small business, the family and the individual.

From the 1980s a succession of musical movements has created what can

be called a ‘public multicultural music’ to symbolise the cultural diversity of

contemporary Australia in sound. Drawing on some traditional music forms,

this was driven by alliances of performers and cultural and political activists,

and was part of the attempt to locate Australia’s national distinctiveness in its

cultural diversity. Public multicultural music was most confi dent in pushing

its claims to national representativeness during the 13 years of federal Labor

government from 19831996. In contrast to the other musics discussed in this

book, it did not draw its cohesion from already existing musical groupings and

institutions, but developed in alliance with official sponsorship. Since John

Howard’s election in 1996, public multicultural music has no longer enjoyed the

same official sponsorship, and performers and groups once associated with it have

been repositioning themselves in terms of ‘world music’, their hybrid origins in

the musics of Australia’s immigrant communities taking on new cosmopolitan

meanings in this quite different musical genre.

As part of their self-conscious engagement with the task of representing

Australian in music, the musics discussed in this book all share a preoccupation

with ‘authenticity’ in representing social experience in music. In contrast to the

mass music industry, each claims an authentic relationship to its audience and so

embeds its music in imagined social relations which the mass music industry is

regarded as unable to provide. However, the concern with authenticity embraces

far more than the musical sound; it relates to proper relations between music,

the individual and society, and incorporates styles and contexts of performance

and audience-performer interaction, as well as modes of creation and production.

Simon Frith has argued that when rock music began to differentiate itself from

pop in the second half of the 1960s, it invoked the ideals of the folk boom. The

new authenticity of rock emerged most visibly in late 1960s, when the influential

Rolling Stone magazine began to define a rock/pop dichotomy. The insubstantiality,

artifice and insincerity of pop was contrasted with the truth-to-self expressed

by the artists of rock, and with the ways in which they made their audience a

community. Folk has continued to provide the framework within which other

popular musical forms justify and explain their relationship to society.

Reading social attitudes in popular music forms is a commonplace of popular

culture studies. It often focuses on song lyrics, the interpretation of which is easily

amenable to the techniques used on other language texts, and on the economic

and social conditions of musical production.4 Such approaches can be valuable,

but to understand the ways folk, country and multicultural/world music have been

able to develop and put forward their claims to national representativeness we

need a much broader conceptual framework. We need to consider the specifically

musical elements of the musics, the performative contexts and modes of audience performer

interaction and the characteristic organisational styles. This latter is

particularly important for exploring the ways music represents the nation, for it

is in the ideas and practices which shape notions of a musical community that

we fi nd idealised notions of the imagined national community.

The term ‘scene’ is sometimes used to describe the whole fi eld of a music. It

is broader than ‘genre’, which generally refers only to the musical style, instead

encompassing the whole range of social relations through which the music

produces its meanings.5 It includes performers, audiences, agents, specialist

retailers, fans, critics and commentators, as well as formal institutions and

organisations and informal networks. Together these defi ne a musical scene,

create its meanings, set its limits and direct its progress. Yet they do not do

so in isolation, either from each other or from the broader social context.

Technological developments, changes in leisure habits, international musical

models, new audience expectations, changing demographics and a host of other

factors impinge on musical scenes. To describe and interpret a musical scene, then,

is a big task. It can call for musical analysis, consideration of the national and

the international context, attention to debates and confl icts amongst activists,

organisational and institutional histories, analysis of audience demographics,

and much more.

 

 

The research

 

My research for this book involved trawling through documents, newsletters

and recordings, and interviewing key participants, but it also drew on my own

personal musical experience and was an attempt to make sense of what I had seen

and heard over the past 30 years. In this sense it had its origins in the late 1960s

when I became involved in the Australian folk movement as a young university

student. As a performer I was drawn both to the traditional Australian folk

repertoire and to the instrumental Irish music of immigrant players. In Britain

in the early 1970s I played with the London folk band Flowers and Frolics, and

valued particularly the pub performance sessions which seemed to break down

barriers between performer and audience.

Returning to Australia in the mid-1970s, I became interested, along with

other members of the Anglo-Australian left, in the music of Australia’s migrant

communities. I became active in the Boite, which was formed in Melbourne in

the late 1970s to promote this music more widely. At the same time, my studies

in ethnomusicology were teaching me the complex and varied ways in which

musical forms are given social meaning. As a member of the enthusiastic local

branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM),

I learned to place the purist idealism of the folk movement in a more critical

perspective. And I started to become interested in Australian country music,

attracted to it as a popular genre which combined passionate commitment from

its fans with the disdain of the elites. In relation to country, my role has been

that of an outside observer, the doggedly professional nature of country music

allowing little room for the intellectual dilettante.

 

As my research ranged through the formation of the folk movement to Irish

dance music in Australia to the evolution of Australian country music to the

development of multicultural fusion bands, linked questions arose. These musics

each had ways of putting forward claims to their Australianness, and drew on

histories and self-justifications to reshape questions into forms that they could

answer. My aim in writing the book has been to balance my involvement and

commitment to these musical forms with my academic training, to combine the

enthusiasm of the participant with the detachment of the sceptical observer.

Throughout the research I have been supported and encouraged by many

people active in popular music studies, as well as performers and activists in

the music scenes I have investigated. Some people fi t into both categories, and

have been doubly helpful. I am particularly grateful to those whom I formally

interviewed: Doreen Bridges, Richard Brown and Alex Butler, Adrian Coleridge,

Gary Kinnane, Glen Tomasetti, Dave Isom, Miles Maxwell, Brian Moran, Don

Munro, Ales Opekar, Richard Micallef, Vicki Rousseau, Phil Wilson, Edgar

Waters and Mick Thomas. I am also grateful to others who provided insights and

information less formally but just as usefully, including Therese Virtue, Roger

King, John Macauslan, Gary King, Stathis Gauntlett, Shirley Andrews, Hugh

Anderson, Keith McKenry and Suzette Watkins. I am particularly grateful to

Dobe Newton for his generous provision of material and his insights from the

country and bush band scenes.

The formal research for the book began when I was a postdoctoral research

fellow at La Trobe University in the School of Social Sciences in 1996 and

1997, but much of it was done while I held the position of ‘independent scholar’.

Writing and researching outside of academic institutions one needs other forms

of collegial support. This has been provided by a community of popular music

scholars in Australia. Among these, John Whiteoak, Aline Scott Maxwell, Phil

Hayward and Helen O’Shea have been unfailingly confi dent in my work, and

invaluable sources of insight. Karl Neuenfeldt opened up new fi elds of music to

me, and has been a model of effective research. The Australian branch of IASPM

has been more valuable than most academic institutions. I would particularly

like to acknowledge Marcus Breen, Tony Mitchell, Shane Homan and Bruce

Johnson. Phil Tagg and Finton Vallely provided inspiration when I was living in

Ireland. The School of Music at Monash University, which I joined in 2003, has

provided a congenial place to finish the book. From the mid-1970s to the present,

my friend Peter Parkhill has taught me so much about music and its many social

and cultural contexts. Since I have been at Monash the support and interaction

with colleagues in the School of Music has helped bring this book to completion.

Above all these colleagues, supporters and friends, I owe this book to Judy Brett.

Her keen critical intelligence sits behind every argument, and during the long

writing she has provided unstinting editorial assistance. A writer can be a tedious

spouse, and she has backed tolerance with help when I needed it.

SA 01c.indd 4/6/05 3:53:10