I was taking a short cut through the tent pegs when I came upon one of the most charming musical scenes I had ever accidentally encountered. Amid the canvas a couple of elderly blokes were on guitar and fiddle, and a little girl singing with them.

This way to the ukuleles…

They were playing a rollicking American traditional song with skill and gusto, and she was matching them note for note and dancing her own personal jig. . The beaming old blokes were thrilled to have the youngster joining a spontaneous eruption of the joy of music. It probably made their day. It did mine.

On another occasion I found a pair of country boys, barely highschool age and neatly dressed with a mother’s care in elastic-sided boots and hats with big brims, squatting together to intently play guitar and fiddle. They looked so serious, but it was clear they were having fun.

These are examples of the unexpected delights that could be found outside the formal program of the National Folk Festival, Canberra’s wonderful Easter present to Australia and the world.

The Folk Festival has become bigger and more tightly structured since those splendid musical moments about eight years ago.

When it moved to the Canberra showgrounds in 1993 some 15,000 came along. This year the 46th National Folk Festival will draw about 50,000 people and performances will be live-streamed to the globe on a web site. But it still has the capacity to surprise and excite. This is no ordinary music festival.

It doesn’t worry about being cool; it is one of the safest musical venues in the nation; and it features artists you might never come across elsewhere.

Among the headliners this year will be Daniel Ho from Los Angeles, who has won six Grammy awards and is a giant of the ukulele.

Laugh if you must you six-string snobs, but the Folk Festival organisers point out ukuleles have outsold guitars recently, “suggesting that the uke is now the most popular musical instrument in Australia”.

However, Ho might also be playing some slack-key guitar. The bloke can play just about anything.

The Folk Festival definition of “folk” is very broad. In past years it has included The Shiny Bums, a public service choral group, and, at its lowest ebb, the Press Gallery singing group the House Howlers.

Last year featured Cold Chisel’s Don Walker. This year the five-day program will include Peter ``Wash your Face in Orange Juice’’ Combe perform for an adult audience. There will be flamenco dancers and there will some groups that sound a lot like jazz or rock.

But the core of the program is folk in all its guises, from blues to country to Australian outback.

:Folk’s demographic is changing,” said managing director of the National Folk Festival Sebastion Flynn two weeks ago.

“Young listeners are being drawn to a sound that comes from the common people, which has flowed through the ages into Australian folk culture. Folk music is the voice of the people—raw, honest and authentic.”

And people do come to spend five nights sleeping in tents to make sure they don’t miss a minute of the festival.

Most commented


Show oldest | newest first

    • gobsmack says:

      06:52am | 29/03/12

      Bob Dylan single handedly wrecked the whole Folk Festival concept by bringing those screechy electric “instruments” on stage at Newport in 1965.
      It took me years of meditation and crystal therapy to get over that sacrilege.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      08:17am | 29/03/12

      ha ha, ‘JUDAS! BURN HIM!”

    • Rick of the Dustbowl says:

      09:14am | 29/03/12

      Who says you ever recovered? Music is like sex, Blues is how black guys make love, slow and sensual, folk is how white guys make love, as fast as you can go.

    • John says:

      09:37am | 29/03/12


      That sounds more like bluegrass end of folk…...it just gets louder and faster….

    • Scotchfinger says:

      09:43am | 29/03/12

      Rick, I am guessing you are lily-white? Possibly albino??

    • Rick of the Dustbowl says:

      10:30am | 29/03/12

      Scotchfingerer I’m guessing thats how you go through life…...guessing and not getting it right at all, keep on playing that banjo white boy, BTW whats the diffence between an onion and a banjo?..........Nobody cries when you cut up a banjo.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      10:57am | 29/03/12

      Harsh, Rick; I’m sure none of your women have had cause to complain re your ‘performance’.

      Ha ha, peace, brother, just a little lighthearted banter! Just so long as we don’t bring Islam into it, I’m sure we can be friends…

    • stephen says:

      07:54am | 29/03/12

      Folk, not Blues, is the basis for all popular music, and you’re right, it’s not cool.
      Not even sunnies or a black turtle-neck will make it so.

      Really, I get pissed off when I hear Mick Jagger rag on about BB. King and other 12 bar specialists and how he’d like to spend more time getting influenced, but he has as much to do with them, musically, as he has with Tiny Tim.

      Now, there’s a thought.

    • John says:

      10:58am | 29/03/12

      Those damn ukuleles again…..

    • Mr. Jordon says:

      08:58am | 29/03/12

      Blues is folk music.

    • gobsmack says:

      09:35am | 29/03/12

      A fair comment.
      Artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis made appearances at Newport.

    • Therese says:

      02:20pm | 29/03/12

      not at Easter….

    • jg says:

      09:01am | 29/03/12

      I love it and attend every year.

      However, over the past few years I have noticed that it is being very corporatised and very unfolkie.

    • John says:

      09:59am | 29/03/12

      And features the same half dozen international ‘favourites’ year after year after year after year.

    • John says:

      09:26am | 29/03/12

      It doesnt have to worry about being cool - because it is.  It is the coolest place to hang out over Easter - I’ve been going now since 1995, volunteering since then and have met my closest and strongest friends through that event.  I am not alone.  Sir Ronald Wilson, who once opened the event remarked:  “it is a celebration of humanity in all its diversity” - which is High Court Judge speak for sheer and unadulterated fun.  And it is safe.  The most common remark that folkies of all ages is that “it’s safe”.  I once asked a bunch of teenagers who didnt really play any music but clearly loved the atmosphere why they like it:  “it’s safe”.  And you can listen and watch, or sing, or dance, or play along - it is is the most eclectic mix of showcase and participation (and therefore education) you can hope to find.  My kids are camping with me for the first time this year - and they are as excited as anything.  In terms of corporatising, I dunno - it has grown over the years, but it has had to, I think. Because more people discovered it and found they liked it.  And I dont think it has become less folkie (whatever that means) - I have certainly seen no major shift in ethos or culture - particularly of the attendees.  I have noted that in some circles there has been a resentment at growth and the newchums are not folkies because they have not done the ‘hard yards’.  I reject that also because having a hierarchy of fokies, so there are elites and so forth is completely anathema to the folk ethos as I know it.  But why do more and more people want to come (and why is this a bad thing?).  Well it is not a bad thing and I think that people go to folk events like the National because in an increasingly complex age people do turn to their roots and their cultural heritage and speak to their past- perhaps to seek solace in a simpler time.  Maybe to help make sense of where we are now.  And these things, with all the emphasis these days on compliance and duties of care and risk management are fiendishly expensive to stage - even the National - because even though it is a safe and incredibly family friendly event and you could count the “incidents” requiring police attendance on the fingers of one hand since it came to Canberra in 1993 or so - I think the local regulations require vast amounts of infrastructure and uniformed personnel to make it look safer, when it actually already is safe.  Go figure.  Anyhow:  Great article Malcolm - in a few words you’ve encapsulated what the event means to so many people.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      09:59am | 29/03/12

      Exactly the same could be said of Summernats: it’s safe. Particularly so for single young women. Perhaps the ghost of the ‘Nats carries over to the Folk Festival? Similarly Pagan and celebrating Misrule.

    • Rick not Erick says:

      04:12pm | 29/03/12

      no John, Malcom knows uncool when he see’s it because he see’s it in the mirror every day

    • James1 says:

      09:32am | 29/03/12

      If anyone disagrees with Mr Farr over this article, we will have to fight.

      The Nash is awesome.  For exactly the reasons he describes.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      11:10am | 29/03/12

      I think it’s an overpriced, corporate frenzy that has morphed from its charming, open, genuine beginnings to an elitist fiddle-fest. How can hippies and arts students pay the exorbitant fees they charge? It’s an outrage. No wonder the bogans haven’t taken over, they couldn’t afford it on their Centrelink salaries.

      PS I hope you don’t mean an actual ‘fight’ in the sense of carpark brawl?!

    • Ange says:

      11:14am | 29/03/12

      Well James - there’s a challenge if ever I heard one.smile  I am a folk musician and love music in all guises but my one and only trip to The Nash last year left me bemused. The crowds were soooo big I had to queue for around an hour and a half just to see one band (Mr Fibby - awesome) so missed several others in the process. The place was difficult to navigate and we found ourselves lost on several occassions and all in all I felt it was just a bit overwhelming.

      The reason we don’t normally attend the Nationals is because we play at a tiny festival over Easter called Regrowth which has around 1000 people, two stages - one for 24 hour doof doof and the other for the true folkies. It’s a fantastic little festival where you can run into the same people many times over and feel like you’re right in the thick of it. Festivals in general seem to be getting too big, too expensive and full of too many commercial headline artists.

      So - I won’t poop on the party too much. Any gathering of grass roots musicians is something to be heralded and I hope The Nash goes on forever. Viva La Music!

    • James1 says:

      11:43am | 29/03/12

      You have identified the other thing that makes it awesome, Scotch.  All the hippies and arts students have to volunteer to get tickets, and thus are too busy working to ruin my fun.

      Ange, I attend every year, and have only once missed a show due to the venue being full.  However, usually I only attend one or two of these sorts - the best part are the musicians that set up along the paths and in the Sessions Bar.  I like real Irish folk the best, and the best Irish folk I have heard outside Ireland has been in the Sessions Bar at the Nash.  So I agree in a sense - it is growing increasinly commercial, but it has retained the folksy charm that Mr Farr discusses due to the commitment and love of music of the folkies that attend.

    • John (the other one) says:

      11:50am | 29/03/12

      Scotchfinger - a lot of the “hippies” and “arts students” do make use of the opportunity to volunteer.  The event is not for profit, which means any surplus is turned back into the event.  For its size it has a very small paid staff and an army of really capable and enthusiastic volunteers.  I’m one of them and proud to be.  In terms of pricing, well, if you attend on a Season Pass look at what you get over 4 days and compare that to what you might pay for an evening elsewhere.  For mine it is the most fun and best value on the map.  Having said that, I also like the smaller events around the place too.  I guess I just like going to folk festivals - but this one is my fave.  BTW - I am not the same John as the one who posted about international acts - but what this John might need to think about there is that the internationals are touring on the circuit.  They are popular at other events and venues too and like to play over here.  New ones crop up all the time and have always done so.

    • Peter says:

      09:43am | 29/03/12

      Louis Armstrong said “all music is folk music; I’ve never seen a horse sing a song”.  Good to see Press Gallery Gurus have a life outside of the political grind.  This is the best value, best fun festival in Australia and it one the National Tourism Award for best festival last year. It’s also not one of those festivals where you tramp through mud and sit watching performers, though you can do if you like. At the NFF you can dance, sing, learn to play, learn about history, craft and you can mix and talk to world-class musicians from Australia and around the world. Talk about value for money.  Hope to see you there Malcolm.

    • Rick of the Dustbowl says:

      10:34am | 29/03/12

      What about Mr Ed?

    • Scotchfinger says:

      10:41am | 29/03/12

      What did Louie mean: ‘...I’ve never seen a horse sing a song’? Have you stitched two of his quotes together, one about the history of popular music, another about one of his infamous binges? Poor and in bad taste.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:19pm | 29/03/12

      OK John, will take your word for it; still a bit mystified I’m afraid. Unless by ‘folk music’ he meant music for the common folk? In which case Peter using the quote was taking it slightly out of context??? Please explain Peter??????

    • John (the other one) says:

      01:56pm | 29/03/12


      I reckon you might be reading a bit too much into it.  I really think the quote being used in the context that all music is music of the folk - and there is thusly no need for a separate category - and all people have it because horses don’t sing.  In terms of taking it out of context, however, as a matter of logic tho’ you cannot take something out of context unless you know the prezact context in which something was said.  I am only guessing of course, and we cannot ask Louis.  But I reckon Pete was probably seeing it from a brroad and generous perspective - certainly not in bad or poor taste.  Anyhow - I now remember something I’ve seen in the bluegrass genre:  “Shut up and pick” - which means, “enough of this extemporizing chaps, grab your banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass or fiddle and let’s have a tune!”  Which is what all folk festivals (and I go to a few) mean to me - but the Gnash means the most because it is where I picked up that vibe and it has never left me. 

      Happy Tunes!

    • Jeremy says:

      09:54am | 29/03/12

      My favourite part of the Folk Festival was the blackboards, and late at night sitting around having jams in the Sessions Bar.

    • Stockinbingal roo says:

      09:59am | 29/03/12

      Another lefty piece from Farr (I’m only kinding, it’s great to see this festival doing so well, yes I’m left handed).

    • Dwight says:

      11:39am | 29/03/12

      jazz is the new blue forget about the rest

    • John says:

      11:52am | 29/03/12

      Yeah, it aint dead, it just smells funny (aologies to Frank Zappa)

    • Ben says:

      03:44pm | 29/03/12

      Yes, a wonderful event is the NFF, particularly if your idea of a good time is sitting around with a bunch of luvvies, or denouncing Tony Abbott, or talking about how bogans lack your sophistication. Then there are some particularly bad poetry readings which would make even a Vogon squirm. I think I’ll be giving it a miss.

    • John (the other one) says:

      05:32pm | 29/03/12

      Sorry Ben, we’ll be having too much of a good time playing music, singing, listening, yarning with our mates, talking about the show we just saw, watching our kids play, cooking a meal, enjoying it with friends or complete strangers, helping a beginner learn a tune, learning a new tune in an impromptu session, watching a street performance, laughing at a good joke, remembering old friends no longer with us, making new friends, doing our bit as a volunteer, looking after a lost child, enjoying a pint and the craic in one of the bars where there is never any alcohol fuelled violence….Darn it we’ll be too busy to even think of Tony Abbott.  And as for the denouncing bogans - erm, the NFF is the most egalitarian place you will ever set foot.  Politics, egos and prejudices are left at the gate.  It is a vast melting pot of differences of opinion, political and religious belief, colour, creed, culture and all the rest of that frightening stuff.  I dunno which NFFs you’ve been to, but I’ve not been to the ones you were at and I’ve been going for nearly 20 years.  Weird. 

      Procedural ruling:  Did I just feed a troll?

    • Zet says:

      08:45pm | 29/03/12

      I have never been to the national, but the regional ones that I have been to are great. As previously mentioned they are fun and safe, none of the agro as seen around pubs and sporting events. A bonus is seeing some amazingly talented people right up close, either on stage or just playing music with friends or strangers. Most folkie festivals do not advertise as they do not want the afore mentioned “wrong types to come and stuff it all up.  I just wish I had found out about folkie festivals years before I did.

    • Belladonna says:

      08:58pm | 29/03/12

      Okay as a a former punk girl I am definetly not a hippie, what makes the folkie fab is that all sorts of people are there for one thing, they love music, so put your stereotypes away and come and enjoy, you may even have fun

    • Rick of the Dustbowl says:

      08:32am | 30/03/12

      Come on Bell don’t you know how the song goes? “I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair” I know, I know…... it should be razor blades or safety pins.

    • Jenski says:

      08:03am | 30/03/12

      love it that they say it is the folky is ‘for the common people’ - when most the common people can’t afford the ticket prices and its most the annoyingly snobby, rude, arrogant and risch that make the majority of visitors. Only amongst the volunteers and the performers will you find the lovely commoners.

    • John (the other one) says:

      08:49am | 30/03/12

      Sorry Jenski - I think we’re going to the wrong festival.  I come into contact at a bunch of folkie events, including the Nash, with people from an incredible range of backgrounds.  and I have not experienced as a stereotype what you have experienced - maybe if that is what you go looking for, that is what you will find.  At any event you are going to find at least one person that pings you off.  As someone who has worked and continues to work in a range of volunteer roles that could be anyone - but they are not in the majority - nothing like it.  Something happens at folk events to really dilute such negative waves.  Hope that works for you in the future. But I tell you what, cost pressure on all such events has one main wellspring - the omnipresent WHS and risk assessment and regulatory stuff that has been forced upon these community based events by rapacious insurance companies and local councils and State and Territory administrations with their pea and thimble tricks.  Get rid of the largely unnecessary compliance overlay and make the events affordable for organisers and you can bet the savings would be passed on.  This means overthrowing the Nanny State.

    • colroe says:

      12:57pm | 30/03/12

      Thanks Malcolm, I did not know you had a column of this calibre within you!!!!  Certainly beats your political views.  Well done, (sincerely).


Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more



Read all about it

Sign up to the free News.com.au newsletter