This year the National Folk Festival will be celebrating its 50th festival and I thought it might be a good time to reflect on such an important and often overlooked cultural event.
The National, the NFF, or simply ‘the folkie’ as it is often called has played a very significant role in my life – I’m about to perform at my 22nd one in a row and my 23rd overall, but it was the first one I attended as a teenager that really inspired me and helped to define the kind of life I was going to lead.
It was at the 1979 National Folk Festival held at La Trobe University in Melbourne where I first saw bluegrass being played live for the first time and I can still feel that frisson of excitement that I got from that moment. The concert was a collection of Australian bands – Melbourne had two distinct working bands of its own as well as an assortment of related old timey performers and instrument makers and there was a vibrant vitality of youthful exuberance, skills and discovery going on. While I had already been listening to the great American artists via LP records for a couple of years and was heavily absorbing the style, this showcase event really hit the mark. There really is nothing like a live experience when it comes to music. I went home that day inspired and really keen to learn all I could!
In those days the festival moved from state to state every year. By the time it next came to Melbourne in 1986, I was working heavily in the Dancehall Racketeers having clocked up hundreds of gigs each year since ’83. This time we were on the bill and while I only have vague memories of it, I can mostly remember the jam sessions afterwards.
I later moved to Canberra to live in 1994 and lo and behold, the now permanent festival site was now only a short walk away. It was from here that I really renewed my love for it, and have had many, many great times there. I’ve played or taught at every festival since – in more than 10 different bands and in every venue, including on the streets! In Bluestone Junction in 2009, we found that that playing out on the grounds just prior to our scheduled gig was a great way to draw people in – and it was also great for CD sales!
There are a lot of folk festivals in Australia now and it’s a great thing. Many towns and communities run them as way of galvanising community spirit as well as benefiting from the economic boost they provide and enhancing the artistic side of a town’s personality. Even a large town like Canberra has great spin off effects from the festival which provides a focal point for musicians and audiences to meet once a year and it leaves behind a residual interest in music that doesn’t come from the processing factories.
The National Folk Festival seems to really feature the establishment of a distinct community for the four days of Easter, but what it especially does well (and better than anywhere else) is break down the barriers between the performers and the audience. The National places a healthy emphasis on encouraging people to participate and workshops and even master classes provide a great forum for this. The interactive side of this festival is one to savour and it is always to treat to see people, especially young ones, enjoying not only listening to music but playing it too.
Where else can you see a headline act perform in the main auditorium to a packed house of 2000 plus and then twenty minutes later see that same performer jamming madly with a bunch of just-acquainted musicians in a common area? I’ve had just that experience many times – just one of which was jamming with the wonderful Appalachian fiddler (and fiddle historian) Bobby Taylor in the session bar and I learned a whole lot of Clark Kessinger’s licks and stories just here.
So roll on the 50th! Besides preparing for my gigs with the Black Mountain String Band, I don’t like to plan too much for the festival itself. It really is a mystical exploration but I have no doubt, like the preceding 24 festivals I have attended that it will be very memorable!