A Punter’s Perspective 07 — The folk that’s flipped sunny side up

Image from the Asia-Pacific  Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage
Image from the Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage

A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

#7 The Folk That’s Flipped Sunny-Side Up
First published in Trad and Now magazine, February 2008

By Bill Quinn

Firstly, my sincere thanks to everyone who’s granted me interviews for a series of articles I was planning on kids in folk. Apparently another writer for this fine publication has started doing something similar, so let’s not be crossing quills and spilling ink.

I’ll start using that material elsewhere in the near future.

At short notice, I came across some stuff written at length about nine-ten months ago when the pages of Trad and Now were awash with the great folk debate. While choosing to not throw my tuppence in at the time, I started a rambling, direct reply to the protagonist that took on a life of its own (nine pages), written during the month leading up to the National while tripping around the country-side for work.

It evolved in a series of hotel rooms, empty training rooms, planes, waiting lounges, and the occasional airport bar. (The protagonist of the piece latched on to this last point and said I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Hmm. Have you seen what they charge for a Guinness or Carlton Crown at any airport bar? A single Dad and volunteer can only get so ‘influenced’ at those prices.)

Without wanting to re-open old wounds, I do notice via some unsolicited junk mail that there’s a new festival starting over Easter at Grafton, so with that by background, here are some very edited, meandering bits from that 2007 missive.

Strap yourself in; this stuff bounces around more than a Dash 8 in heavy turbulence.

My perspective comes from being first and foremost a punter; secondly an MC who interacts with all manner of acts in all manner of venues; and finally as a participant on the fringes of folk, as a chorister, session singalonger and occasional kids’ poetry work-shopper.

What boiled my spuds during the debate last year were the claims that the ultra-push for the traditional before all else was “not against plural content, inclusiveness or even outside influence, per se”. Look out; you’re stepping in it.

I despair when fences go up around what is allowed in, effectively telling others they can’t come in. Sounds pretty exclusive to me. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather have more inclusion and just re-badge your venues a bit. ‘Read the label’ and ‘caveat emptor’, as it were. Doubtless not too many of the grey beard set would have trudged up the hill at the Amphitheatre at Woodford to see Melbourne-based TZU hip-hopping the hiz-house (is that how you write it?) and were it not for an MC obligation, I wouldn’t have. I’m bloody glad I did, though.

Welcome people in, especially younger people who want to learn about their culture, heritage and roots, and foster the maintenance of traditional music. (Er, I’ve moved on from hip-hop now.) Otherwise – and some folk clubs are already finding this – you’ll end up playing to an ever-increasing sea of grey and blue-haired die-hards.

John Thompson from Cloudstreet gave me a wonderful quote on this subject of exclusiveness. “I think if you do that [erect boundaries] what you’ll have is a very high quality, extraordinarily small folk festival. You’ll have a meeting that could be held in a phone box that will be the envy of traditionalists everywhere.”

‘Preach to the unconverted’ is the term I always use. Get people who wouldn’t ordinarily cross the road for the idea of folk to understand and appreciate it and what it can mean.

Until recently, I lived most of my 41 years in Canberra, and there are still people who live within three golf swings of the National site and wouldn’t know folk if it leapt up and slapped them in the face with a penny whistle.

It doesn’t take much to get the muggles to understand that folk can be hard, driving dance music. That it can be good fun music, spoken word and dancing from all over the world.

There’s a risk in all that – asking for punters to come rushing headlong into what can be complex and layered art-form(s) – and you could infer a duplicity on my behalf from reading an earlier “A Punter’s Perspective” (December/January 2006/2007). That is, that it’s easy for folk art forms to be commodified, for people to rush in and expose themselves to an art form and then sign themselves up for it (or simply attend to it or purchase it) because they think it’s neat or swell or it’s the next rad thing for the next 15 minutes of their gnat-like attention-span.

So, the West African throat-music CD will be a real talking-point next time Cynthia and Nigel bring the fellows from the club back to have cocktails on the patio. And after that, it might just become a novelty coaster or used in a modern art CD mobile display.

OK, I’ve wandered way off topic here, but maybe you can extrapolate my comments to apply this message to traditional music: to not propagate your art is to kill it off.

On topic again from John Thompson: “There’s a great quote of Martin Carthy’s that I came across recently which is that the only way to damage a traditional song is to not sing it.”

The same goes for music; if you can’t get subsequent generations to practise the language of traditional music, you’d better get some hermetically-sealed containers for those folios, sheet music, books, records and (even) CDs, because that may be all that lives on.

Do we really want to throw up a fence, discourage people from coming in, and deny them the chance to make connections with their roots? Do we want to deny others the opportunity to discover this world of folk, to say nothing of the connections and contributions and liaisons and friends there are to make through accessing folk?

I believe there is a place for ‘pop-folk’ or ‘folk-kitsch’; you just might not put it on the same stage or the same night as Warren Fahey and Dave De Hugard.

Part of the critique was levelled at ‘populist’ form and content, and I believe it is good to critically assess populism. I find it hard to be within a few hundred metres of any radio tuned to a station featuring large black 4WD promotional vehicles. I actually get a violent physical reaction and it’s at least a contortion of the upper torso, and at worst stops just short of my putting a brick through the radio or stereo in question. (I’m running through the 27th edit of this in an airport lounge in Melbourne where one of these stations is on in the bar and it’s driving me NUTS!)

But I firmly believe that people get confused between the concepts of ‘popular’ and ‘populism’. Just because something’s popular, that doesn’t make it bad; Beatles fans would probably have a view on that one.

Someone (George Bernard Shaw?) once said that once your art is liked by more than 10% of the population then it’s no good. What a crock. (Insert your own argument against that one.)

There was also some hand-wringing over ‘the absence of an educated palate’. Does one’s consumption of folk necessarily have to be an earnest, weighty, academic analysis, poured over with fastidious criticality at all times? I would hope that along with the drive to have quality, well-honed, technically-excellent acts that the door could be open for less proven, ambitious, accessible performers that are a big hit with the punters.

“A man’s (sic) reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a walk-up for?”

I did distil some wisdom from the folk debate pages last year, and I bowed low and scraped with due deference to the years, and the miles, and the experience, and the qualifications and the musical talents that others brought in.

I just firmly believe there’s room at the table (to borrow a line from a killer song by Liz Frencham) for a broader family and friends than just the narrow audience the ultra-traditionalists anoint. (I’m taking all those mixed metaphors out to untangle, much as a very used fishing line, but you might get the picture.)

I hope, dear reader, you can digest my rambling words in the spirit in which they are offered.

Peace, love and cold beer in the session bar.

Bill Quinn


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