Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

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Stephen Whiteside
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Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Jan 21, 2012 11:55 am

I've been asked to address the AGM of the Henry Lawson Society in Melbourne in a couple of weeks' time, and I thought I'd put some of my thoughts down here. It will help me to sort them, and I'd appreciate any feedback. I don't think many HLS members are ABPA members, so I'm not really afraid of stealing my own thunder.

Actually, I was asked to address the HLS last year also, and spoke on the relationship (friendship?) between C. J. Dennis and Henry Lawson. I put a question mark in there because, firstly, I don't think they knew each other very well at all and, secondly, I think Dennis rather exploited their relationship for his own ends - not that I judge him too harshly for that.

However, that was the only trick I had in my pocket, so this year I had to come up with something ORIGINAL. Perish the thought. My first idea was to talk about Lawson's Melbourne publisher - Lothian. But that seemed a bit dry and academic. Then I thought about talking about Lawson's attempts to establish himself on the international stage with his doomed venture to England. Fascinating as that subject is, it would send me back to the books, and I'd like to try to avoid that if possible.

Then last night in the bath, I had an inspiration. The truth is that awareness of Henry Lawson amongst the cultural mainstream of Australia these days is very low. People tend to confuse him with Banjo Paterson, for a start. Many people have vague memories of reading 'The Loaded Dog' at school, but nobody seems to recall it with any great sense of fondness. I think he's seen as extremely old fashioned and rather irrelevant.

There is a very important exception to all of this, though, and that's the folk movement. Several years ago the NSW Folk Federation published a very sumptious songbook of poems by Henry Lawson that have been put to music. There is a very long list of artists in the book that have gone down this track, and I know the list is not complete.

So why are so many people doing this? What's wrong with leaving them as poems? And what about the short stories? And what is the 'folk movement' anyway? I don't expect to be able to answer all of these questions, but I'll try, and I'll begin at the end, and work backwards.

The so-called 'folk revival' probably began in the late 1950s. The first National Folk Festival was held in Melbourne in 1967, and others quickly followed.

We talk of the 'folk revival'. I'm not exactly sure when the original 'folk movement' was. Presumably the early 20th or late 19th centuries some time.

So what exactly is 'folk'? As I see it, there are several components, all related. Ultimately, it is the music of the 'folk', as opposed, perhaps, to the music of the elite. In its purest form, I guess, it is the music of the poor and the uneducated, the self-taught, or those taught by their fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles who in turn have been taught themselves in the same way.

As such, it tends to be 'low-tech'. Acoustic music is the order of the day. Once it's amplified significantly, it tends to be called rock. Of course, much folk music is amplified these days, and we now have the 'folk rock' genre.

Folk music also tends to be about changing the world for the better. It's about poor people yearning to be richer, to be better educated, to have more spare time, to have more rights. It's about income distribution, I guess. It's the music of the 'left', as it is defined these days.

Part of the 'anti-elitism' of folk involves a blurring of the traditional line between 'performer' and 'audience'. So, while the top-line performers at many folk festivals might not exactly be household names, neither are the audience members complete unknowns. It is common to find performers in the audiences of other performers. There is a genuine effort at most festivals to create opportunities for performers and audience members to mix socially. 'Jam' sessions between the famous and the not-so-famous are a feature of many folk festivals, especially the National.

Stories of the common man? Improved conditions for the underclass? Distribution of income? Sound like Henry Lawson? Sure does to me.

OK, so why songs? Why not poems? And what happened to the stories?

Much has changed since Henry's day, of course. Radio and TV. Cars and aeroplanes. Computers and the internet. All these are important, of course, but one thing is more important than any of them, as far as this discussion is concerned - the guitar.

The rise of the popularity of the guitar as an instrument of Western culture since the 1950s has been truly astonishing. A person strumming a guitar can silence a crowd as effectively as firing a gun. The guitar is a weapon for peace - if that makes sense.


With the emergence of the guitar, songs have replaced poems at centre stage. So why have Henry's poems survived as songs? Apart from the above-mentioned qualities, the other feature of many of Henry's poems is that they read like song lyrics. They have a verse and chorus structure, unlike, say, the poems of Paterson or Dennis. (A few of Paterson's poems have been recorded as songs, but with nothing like the success of Lawson's.)

The poems still do survive, mostly at poets' breakfasts, but these appear to be slowly dying - both the poems and the breakfasts. They are very much a minority interest at best, and as the older poets sicken and die (sadly) they appear not to be being replaced by younger poets. This is certainly true of folk festivals. It may not be true for country music festivals, like Tamworth. I would like to talk about the differences between country music festivals and folk festivals, but it is not really relevant to today's topic. Another discussion for another day.

What, then, about the short stories? Many would argue that Lawson's stories were his best work, and his most natural form of expression, that he only wrote poems because everybody else was and he wanted to join the bandwagon. Well, they are dying too. There just isn't the interest in short stories that there used to be. There is often talk of a revival, but I don't see much evidence of it, to be quite honest. Even in Lawson's day, the short story was giving way to the novel. Lawson's publisher asked him to write a novel and he had a crack at it, but couldn't quite pull it off. The connected 'Joe Wilson' stories are the closest he got.

So, if you want to hear some Lawson, go to a folk festival. Of course, this is easier said than done. The folk scene is something of a subculture - almost a cult, in a way. It operates like a parallel universe. People who do find their way in one way or another often describe it as a life-changing experience. A good folk festival creates an atmosphere unlike anything else. Suddenly you find yourself in a relaxed and expansive frame of mind, surrounded by like-minded people. You feel safe. You feel that your children are safe (assuming they are at the festival with you) even if you don't know exactly where they are.

This feeling will often stay with you for some hours even after you leave the festival. You will hop into a car (they are usually held in country towns, so there is very limited public transport available most of the time) with a bunch of friends and/or family members, and you will share festival experiences. Like as not, one of you will put on a CD that has been purchased at the festival. The 'spell' can continue for several hours.

What stops it? In my experience, it's usually the first petrol stop. I hop out of the car, whack the nozzle in the place where the petrol goes (what do you call that thing?) and look up and around...and remember for the first time that I am no longer at a folk festival. The people around me look blank or flat compared to the faces I have been looking at over the past few days. Most of them probably wouldn't recognise the name of the band whose CD is currently playing in the car. I am back in the 'real world' - although I remind myself that folk festivals are just as real as anything else.

It is in this 'other world', the folk scene, that Henry Lawson survives today. It's a parallel universe, a bit like Harry Potter, but no less real or entertaining for that - perhaps more so.

I probably should stop at this point, but there are a few other things about folk festivals that I want to say.

The first is that they are not well advertised. Advertising cost money, and most festivals don't have it. Secondly, I think the folk scene rather enjoys its 'invisible, mysterious' status. Perhaps that's part of its appeal. People don't generally stumble into folk festivals. They have to make a conscious effort to get there.

OK, so once you have arrived, where do you stay? What do you eat? As a general rule, most people camp. So if you don't like camping, you may have a problem. Some of the larger festivals have motels and B & Bs nearby, and these may be an option, though they usually book out early. Food is generally served at most festivals, though it tends to be a bit on the expensive side. On the other hand, there is usually a wide variety on offer - food from Africa, Spain, Germany, Holland, Asia and many other places as well as good old traditional Aussie tucker. I had some baked fish from an African stall at the National last year that was absolutely fabulous.

What if it rains? Many of the venues are under cover, though a lot of tents are used, so it can get a bit cold, wet and windy - and muddy underfoot. On the other hand, a hot cup of tea or coffee is usually never far away. What about seating? All sorts of venues are used, but for the larger venues it is often wise to take your own chair - unless you don't mind sitting on the ground. 'Folkie chairs' are very popular - those fold-up light-weight numbers that sit very low to the ground so you don't block the view of the person behind you. Churches are often used - especially for choirs or spoken word events - so you will be sitting in pews on these occasions. Pubs and cafes will have their own seating, of course, as will some of the tents.

It can be very cold, though, so bring lots of warm and waterproof clothing - and don't be shy about having a beanie/balaclava and gloves/mittens in your pockets. Scarves are good, too.

I've ended up talking more about folk festivals than I really meant to, but I have been surprised over the years how many poets have only attended poetry events and not folk festivals. Besides, it's a subject close to my heart, and I enjoy talking about it.

Where are the festivals? What are their names?

The first to mention is the National Folk Festival held in Canberra every Easter. It used to move around the various capital cities, but has been based in Canberra alone for some years now. It might not be the biggest, but I reckon it's the best.

Port Fairy in Victoria, held over the Labour Day long weekend in March, is huge. Absolutely huge. Many would argue (and I would probably agree) that it is no longer really a folk festival at all. It is just too big. It attracts many big name international stars, and the opportunities for casual interactions between performers and audience are extremely limited. It is, if you like 'elitist'. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, it's hugely popular. But it's not really what folk festivals are all about.

In fact, Port Fairy these days is almost two festivals in one. There is the big festival that takes place in the 'compound', then there is a second, much smaller festival that takes place in venues in the town itself, which functions much more like a traditional folk festival. (That's where you'll find most of the spoken word programme, too.)

The other big festival is Woodford (formerly Maleny). I've never been there, so I can't really comment.

One of my favourite festivals is Maldon, held around the time of the Melbourne Cup long weekend. It's what I'd call a middle-sized festival - not large, but not small. It has a great spoken word programme - by which I mean poetry and yarn spinning.

A terrific small festival is held at Newstead, also in central Victoria, not far from Maldon. It takes place around Australia Day. Again, it is a festival with a strong commitment to the spoken word.

In recent times, an excellent spoken word programme has been incorporated into the Newport Folk Festival, which takes place in a suburb in Melbourne's inner west.

Most of these folk festivals have their own web-sites.

Enough of folk festivals, then. More than enough. But if you want to find a setting where Henry Lawson is alive and well, go to a folk festival. I'm not saying you'll find his name being screamed from the rafters, but hang around long enough, and it is sure to pop up.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer

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Re: Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

Post by r.magnay » Sat Jan 21, 2012 1:19 pm

...should do the trick Doc!

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Jan 21, 2012 1:31 pm

Thanks, Ross.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer

Neville Briggs
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Re: Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

Post by Neville Briggs » Sat Jan 21, 2012 3:40 pm

What you have I think is quite good, but I thought that the folk festival took over, it sounded a bit like Henry Lawson was only a reference introduction that led to the main topic, folk festivals. Just my slant, I could be wrong. Maybe that emphasis will appeal to the Lawson Society, I can't tell.

One snippet that I thought of with Lawson, is something that you briefly alluded to, his political philosophy. Henry Lawson was the brother-in-law of Jack Lang. Lang was the radical Labour Premier of NSW who was pipped at the post when opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and after Lang defaulted on Govt. loan repayments he made history by being sacked by the Governor Sir Philip Game. What Henry Lawson's part in all this might have been, I don't know. Just a passing thought. Lang looked after Lawson quite a lot, as far as I know.

Just my thoughts. Take them or leave them, no worries :)
Singleton Bush Poets.

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Annual Address for Henry Lawson Society (Melbourne)

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Jan 21, 2012 4:22 pm

Thanks, Neville. Yes, I think you're right. I got into my stride about folk festivals, and just kept going, leaving poor old Henry in the dust. I probably won't do that on the day, though. I'll talk a little about folk festivals, and then stop.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer

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