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Australian folk music

Portrait of Alan Scott playing a penny whistle, 1986.

John Meredith, Portrait of Alan Scott, Balmoral Village, NSW, 1986, photograph: gelatin silver, sepia toned. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Folk music is music which originates in and is handed down by oral tradition amongst common people. In the early days of the Australian colonies, convict ballads and songs became the foundation of Australia's later day folk music and its first original compositions.

Many early Australian singers recycled tunes from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland and adapted these to lyrics and verse about their experience in the colonies. Songs such as Girls of the Shamrock Shore, Bound for South Australia, Botany Bay, Van Diemen's Land, Maggie May and Convict Maid all tell (often sad) tales of long sea journeys to our distant colonies.

Convicts were not systematically segregated, by religion or nationality and learned songs from one another which were then passed on, to survive later, for example, in Irish enclaves. The fiddle, concertina, banjo, mouth organ, penny whistle and tea chest were popular instruments.

Portrait of Fred Holland playing a concertina, 1957.

John Meredith, Portrait of Fred Holland, Mudgee, NSW, 1957, photograph : gelatin silver, sepia toned. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

A. B. 'Banjo' Paterson and Henry Lawson argued in 1892, in verse, that the main influence on the Australian folk song tradition has been Irish - based on the wide spread singing of Willie Reilly, an Irish ballad among bush workers.

Bush songs, ballads and music influenced and defined the folk music of the 1950s. They recorded contemporary events, the lives and loves of bushrangers, bolters, swagmen, drovers and shearers.

Indigenous folk music and folk music about Indigenous peoples have been part of the oral tradition within Australian folk music. The Sydney 2000 Olympics reinforced the popularity of songs such as Neil Murray's My Island Home, made famous by Christine Anu, and widely adopted by younger Australians as an anthem for national reconciliation with Australia's Indigenous peoples.

Convict folk songs

Portrait of a convict by Peter Fraser.

Peter Fraser (1808-1888), Portrait of a convict. Image courtesy of State Library of Tasmania

Many convicts were unable to read or write very well, like a large percentage of the British population at the time. The use of songs was particularly important as it provided a means to record popular feelings as well as events and individual's stories.

Convict songs like Jim Jones, Van Diemen's Land, Moreton Bay and hymns to bushrangers were often sad or critical. Convicts, such as Francis MacNamara, known as 'Frankie the Poet', were flogged for composing original ballads with lines critical of their captors. Despite this, 'the convicts could not be stopped from singing' (Edgar Waters).

The lines from the song Moreton Bay (c. 1820s), attributed to Francis MacNamara, tells of the hardship a convict has experienced at different penal settlements around Australia:

I've been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I've been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

Moreton Bay was known to the bushranger Ned Kelly who seems to quote it in part of his rambling 'Jerilderie letter' (1879).

Railway, war and union songs 1890s - 1950s

Henry Lawson was a Sydney railway worker for a time, and his verse from 1899 records the divisions between first and second class on the railways:

Yes, the second class were waiting in the days of serf and prince
And the second class are waiting - they've been waiting ever since
There are gardens in the background, and the line is bare and drear,
Yet they wait beneath the signboard, sneering 'Second Class wait here'

The experience of wartime, especially World War I, was immortalised in ceremony, story and song, as seen in the 1917 song The Sleeper Cutter's Camp by Dan Sheahan:

My sole address at present is a battlefield in France
If it's ever going to alter there is only just a chance
To dodge the "Jerry" rifles and the shrapnel flying around
I've burrowed like a bunny to a funkhole in the ground
The floor is just a puddle and the roof lets in the damp
I wish I was in Aussie where the Sleeper Cutters' camp.

The folk movement and the union movement have consistently worked together in sharing resources to compile songbooks, as well as unions sponsoring tours and recordings by folk singers. The Union Singers were a group of unionists in the 1960s who specialised in union songs. Today, union singers and choirs continue this tradition. There are now many union choirs, including the Combined Unions Choir, the Sydney Trade Union Choir, the Illawarra Union Singers, Canberra Union Voices and the Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir. The Union is Strength (1996) shows the diverse range of singers and styles which contribute to union songs, including The Fagans, Judy Pinder and The Solidarity Choir.

New Australian folk styles

Photo of Kavisha Mazzella, 2002.

Rusty Stewart, Recording of CD 'Silver Hook Tango' [Kavisha Mazzella], 2002. Photo courtesy of Rusty Stewart

Since the 1970s, Australian folk songs have been influenced by migrants from diverse backgrounds which dominated Australia's working life after World War II. New Australian folk styles, generated by the children of these migrants, are influenced by the ancient folk traditions of Europe, Egypt and Africa.

Western Australia has been the source of significant influence on modern and new Australian folk music styles. ARIA Award winning folk musician, Kavisha Mazzella creates folk music based on her unique multi-cultural heritage, endowed via an Irish-Scottish-Burmese mother and an Italian father, who migrated to Perth in 1960. Kavisha acknowledges her inspiration in drawing upon the Italian folk revival of the late 1970s to form various ensembles: the trio 'I Papaveri' (The Poppies), 1981; the Italian women's choir, 'Le Gioie Delle Donne' (The Joys of Women), 1990; and the Italian women's choir in Melbourne called 'La Voce Della Luna' (The Voice of the Moon), 2006.

The new Australian folk sound is well illustrated when, instead of an organ, Kavisha chooses a harmonium, which is 'a softer, warmer kind of sound, earthier', for the song All God's Beggars. This song is from the album Silver Hook Tango, released through Black Market Music Australia in 2003.

The Waifs, Donna and Vikki, learnt their music from their father, a fisherman from Albany Western Australia, and a classic campfire style guitarist who can play any song with 4 chords. Their first album, as a trio with Josh, whom they met in Broome, in 1996 was released independently and their 4th album in 2002 was recorded in Los Angeles and Melbourne. The Waifs celebrated #3 spot on Triple J's Hottest 100 in 2002, and have played to the crowds of the Tamworth Country Music Festival. After years of non-stop touring both here and overseas they have finally cracked mainstream popularity.

Indigenous folk music

Photo of Kev Carmody in performance.

Jane Maze, Kev Carmody performing at the National Folk Festival, 2005. Photograph courtesy of Jane Maze

In the late 1980s, Kev Carmody was seen as an Aboriginal folk and protest singer, a kind of black Australian Bob Dylan - using a combination of folk and country music and hard-hitting lyrics about land rights, Aboriginal pride and dignity.

One of the themes in Indigenous folk music in the 1990s was the suffering experienced from children lost, in songs such as Archie Roach's, Took the children away, (1990) produced by Paul Kelly (which won 2 ARIA awards) and award winning Leah Purcell's, Run, Daisy Run (1998). In this song, an Aboriginal mother tells her 4 year old daughter 'Run Daisy run ... the white Troopers are coming, go and hide wherever you can hide'.

Folk festivals

A photo of the Klezmer band 'Klezmeritis' in performance.

Klezmeritis in performance. Photo courtesy of the Kingston Arts Centre

The folk festivals circuit trodden by folklorists and performers mirrors the itinerant travels of the bush workers of the last century and continues to preserve the folk traditions of Australia. Today, folk music can be as much a dominant economic influence for regional economies as was the work done by the convict and bush worker balladeers. Tens of thousands of visitors attend individual festivals worth millions of dollars to the Australian economy. For example, WOMADelaide, 2005 attracted over 65,000 visitors and was estimated to be worth over $5.7 million to the local economy.

The new Australian folk music draws upon from folk styles from around the world, including Gaelic, Celtic, Ceilidh, Sevdah, Romany, African, Cajun, Breton, American country, Bluegrass and Klezmer which are heard at a range of Australian folk festivals. For example, the enduring song lines and traditions of Jewish, Eastern European and Greek cultures were presented at the 2004 National Folk Festival.

Collections and recordings of Australian folk songs

Until the 1950s, there were no published collections or recordings of folk music. In the 1950s, John Meredith started recording old-timer singers born in the late 1800s. In addition to the bush songs recorded, a number of early folk tunes were recorded from around Sydney town. A key singer was Ina Popplewell, born c. 1870, Darlington, Sydney; who recorded folk songs such as Take Me Down the Harbour. This song was described as being very popular around Sydney in the 1900s.

Some folklorists believe that the wide spread use of electronic media has almost killed the oral traditions of the folk song tradition. In contrast, other writers believe the 'digital tradition' is contributing to saving the folk traditions. These song recordings and collections of verse are held variously by the National Film and Sound Archive which manages the Australian Folk Music Project, the National Library of Australia which houses the John Meredith bush music recordings collected over 30 years, the State Library of New South Wales and Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies.

Related Culture Portal Stories

Poets and composers
History and folklore

Useful links

Australian folk music
Folk songs
Folk musicians
Folk song recordings collections
Folk festivals

Print references

  • Nancy Keesing's Australian Bush Ballads (1955) and Old Bush Songs (1956) in which she collaborated with Douglas Stewart. They work with other folk enthusiasts including Edgar Waters, who worked at the NSW State Library.
  • John Meredith's, Folk Songs of Australia, and the Men and Women Who Sang Them (1967).
  • Graeme Smith's Singing Australian: A History of Folk & Country Music, Pluto Press (2005).
  • Russel Ward published his doctoral thesis as The Australian Legend (1958) which helped re-establish the legend that the Australian nation defined itself by the values and attitudes of the up-country bushman.
  • The Victorian Bush Music Club and the Folk Lore Society of Victoria publish a magazine renamed Australian Tradition, 37 issues until 1975 and the Sydney Bush Music Club publish Singabout. Through these publications, many scores of fine traditional songs (such as The Streets of Forbes), and songs newly written in the folk idiom, first appear.