The National Folk Festival 

HOW OUR NATIONAL FOLK FESTIVAL STARTED

The first National Folk Festival was held in Melbourne on the weekend of February 11th and 12th, 1967 at the Teachers College, Melbourne University.
There had been various local festivals before this. The earliest one, featuring traditional Australian material, was put on by the Bush Music Club and the Folk Society in Sydney in September, 1955. The Victorian Bush Music Club (now the Victorian Folk Music Club) held a successful one in Melbourne in 1963. Collectors from the Folk Lore Society of Victoria and the VFMC had also contacted the Nariel musicians and dancers early that year and had been invited to bring their members up to Nariel for one of their balls. This excursion of a mob from Melbourne to this ball led to a festival being held there during the Labour Day weekend in March, 1964 a festival which was to grow steadily and still continues in its present New Year time slot.

In that period folk music in the USA had moved into the main popular scene. A very successful folk festival held in Newport had gained wide publicity everywhere. A Sydney entrepreneur cashed in on this by organising a jazz festival at Sydney's suburb of Newport in 1965. There had talk for some time in folk circles of the need for a festival that could attract some of this new audience for folk music. These informal chats led eventually to a couple of members of the VFMC committee being delegated to approach the singers Martin Wyndham Read and Glen Tomasetti with the suggestion that an organising committee should be set up and to offer the Club's full support and assistance. They were enthusiastic and a meeting for this purpose was held early in February 1966 at Martin's house.

This meeting elected twelve committee members which included Martin Wyndham Read and Glen Tomasetti, plus representatives of the Monash Traditional Music Society and the Burwood Teachers Folk Club. Later representatives of the Melbourne University's Mufolk and the Folk Lore Society of Victoria were added to the committee. The singers were also able to represent Frank Traynor's, a popular folk venue in the city. One committee member, Wendy Lowenstein, was not able to join the committee until November, but she did promise support and publicity through the folk magazine, Australian Tradition, which she edited. She also undertook to publish the festival program in a magazine format with suitable articles.

The VFMC advanced an amount of $100 (equivalent to approximately $750 in today's money) as working capital. The name chosen, the Port Phillip district Folk Music Festival emphasised the historical aspects of folk, while Glen Tomasetti also proposed that this first festival should be held at Kilmore, a small town some 60 km from Melbourne. It was the first inland town in Victoria and a coaching stop on the Hume Highway with an interesting old Mechanics' Institute and other halls.

Perhaps people may not have been so keen to join this committee if they had known it would involve so much hard work. The committee held some 25 meetings in the next 12 months, some of which lasted until midnight. I do remember that we were remarkably business-like for folkies with the secretary compiling a list of jobs arising out of each meeting. This list was earnestly checked at the beginning of the next meeting.

Unfortunately Martin Wyndham Read had to return to England and Glen Tomasetti had to retire due to pressure of other work, but she had already done a lot of work as Convener of the Program committee. But being inexperienced we did make some mistakes, the most serious being that we didn't keep up a close contact with the Kilmore Historical Society and others in that town who had agree to help with accommodation, and the use of a large woolshed, ideal for a dance.

As a result of this, considerable panic ensued when we realised a few weeks before the festival that they had lost interest and the promised accommodation would not be available. The town had only two small hotels and a rather bare camping ground with very poor facilities. Just at the same time we heard from Brisbane that a large group of enthusiasts were braving the long bus journey down to Victoria for the festival. Obviously something drastic had to be done in a hurry to ensure a more comfortable festival for them. It would also have made the organisers' and helpers' jobs almost impossible if everybody had had to be transported up to Kilmore every day. At an urgently called meeting the Teachers College at Melbourne University was suggested as a possible alternative venue.

The word "folk" was likely to be a bit suspect in the eyes of authority then, so the two of us deputed to interview the Principal of the College set out looking as respectable as possible wearing skirts and hats. My companion, Merle Lamb, the leader of the VFMC's Bush Band, a senior teacher in her working life, was wise to the ways of principals, so we succeeded in presenting a sufficient aura of respectability.

We were able to book some of the larger rooms in the College for the weekend. A last minute threat to this happy solution was caused by an over-enthusiastic supporter, a young journalist who had a regular weekly column in the Sun News Pictorial. He wrote a glowing preview of the festival's activities presenting it as a really swinging and exciting affair. Apparently this created such a picture of riotous youth in the Principal's mind that he immediately telephoned me at work with the ultimatum that we could only use the College if we had a resident policeman to control these dangerous proceedings.

After some frenzied phone calls to those committee members contactable during working hows, I secured their agreement, and made the necessary booking with the police. (My laboratory phone was fortunately one of the few that didn't have to go through the hospital switchboard.) Of course, these guardians of the peace proved to be an unnecessary expense. The young blokes who scored the job had a wonderful time chatting to the younger female members of our audiences.

There were then no facilities for drinking at the University apart from those in the graduate dining room. We had already reassured visitors that there were several congenial pubs within walking distance where they would be welcome. This was something of a mixed blessing as various people need for workshops lingered on there and had to be dragged back to the festival venue to perform.

Having learnt a lot from our first festival we were fairly optimistic that we could make a second one bigger and better, and we chose the three day Australia Day weekend for our 1968 festival. It was obvious that, if interstate people were to be fully involved, we had to allow some time for travelling.

Some nine members of the first committee fronted up again and with five new members, we did succeed in organising a better festival with a broader and more balance program. This established a good basic program which future festivals were able to expand and develop much further. We found a suitable venue at the Pharmacy College, with a large theatre. A special performance for children was included in the program and multiculturalism was recognised with a concert of Greek music. At that time dancing was still regarded with suspicion by many. There were more people in the dance demonstration group than in the audience at my workshop on Australian Traditional Dance. The article, in the magazine style program for the 1968 festival were written by local folk enthusiasts. This was another indication that we had progress to a festival that attempted to present the best of what was available in our folk scene.

The publicity for this second festival got off to a very good start with a folk song concert which the previous committee had been asked to organise for the Moomba festival in March, this was "The Songs We Used to Sing in Old Melbourne Town", scripted and arranged by Glen Tomasetti. It featured many of the singers from the concerts at the first festival as well as the Bush Band and a Traditional Dance Group.

The concert was put on at the Melbourne Town Hall and attracted an audience of 1500 people. After the success of the second festival, Brisbane, and then Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra hosted national festivals before it was Melbourne's turn again in 1973. The AFT was set up in those early years to look after the festival profits set aside to assist the next one. After a slow start in the first few years, interest and participation in dancing increased until it became an important part of all National festivals.


Shirley Andrews ...

Official site of the Victorian Folk Music Club Incorporated (Reg No A2511Y)

Last Updated: 2011-04-14