Saturday, May 03, 2014

Do you hear the people sing?

I spent a lovely weekend at the National Folk Festival over Easter this year. It's become a bit of a habit for me. I catch up with friends who perform, those who sit with me and enjoy the music, and those who are kind enough to have me to stay. I also get to see some of my favourite performers live. This year a highlight was seeing Archie Roach in concert.

Archie Roach in concert
One folk festival veteran, who is also a life long activist, was complaining to me that the new generation of folk singers (as in my own generation) don't touch on political issues in the same way that their parents did. They have veered away from the radical themes that their parents would bravely sing about in the '60s and '70s like the Vietnam war or Apartheid, she says, and only sing about mundane, safe things like going for a walk or odd socks.

I started to wonder about the official definition of folk music. After a perusal of wikipaedia, it seems the exact meaning is not altogether clear. Some say folk music is anything sung in the oral tradition, like folk tales. Some said it was the music of the uncultured class, which is probably still accurate if you think of the high number of folk festival goers in animal onesies, pyjamas or blunstone boots teamed with tie dyed rainbow skirts! But one widely accepted definition appealed to me: "folk music is what the people sing".
"Charlotte Raven" creating beautiful personalised poems
I guess this final definition comes closest to explaining what folk music is for me. Some of my favourite performers use music (or poetry or art) to express their passionate feelings about subjects that affect us as people; love, loss, war, injustice, and racism. Many of these themes are the songs of angry women and men; of activists. After all, wasn't jazz born of the struggle of African American people for their civil rights? Didn't the Irish sing about oppression by the English and doesn't Archie Roach sing about the racist policies inflicted on his people by us newcomer Australians?

While Archie Roach could never be accused of not being political, he is of an older generation. Thankfully, there is evidence that our generation is not completely apolitical. The Riff Raff Radical Marching Band is pretty politically radical and made up of at least three people that I know, and who are around my age. Many of my friends who perform sing of their anger about local, national and international issues; the wastefulness of a 50 metre pool in a town of 350 people, the destruction of the Jabiluka Uranium mine, shame at living in a racist colony, and reconciling feminism with the bible. But they also sing of love, friendship, loss and laughter.
Riff Raff Radical Marching Band
So, while I agree that some of the folk music of today might seem trivial and less radical than that of earlier generations, I think our radical, political themes are there if you look. We should encourage those folk singers of our generation not to be afraid to explore the political and social themes that make us angry these days. But I hope they don't stop singing those delightful ditties about everyday matters like wondering about the things one's guitar has seen, choosing to wear yesterday's clothes again or drinking too much gin. They are as much about the people that we are today as is our anger about modern manifestations of slavery, injustice and war.

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