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Researcher argues case for greater recognition of Australia’s rich folk music traditions


Sharlene King
18 March 2016
Chris Sullivan, one of Australia’s most prolific and influential folklore collectors and a PhD researcher at Southern Cross University, will perform Australian-style folk music at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.

Chris’ performance at the Festival is part of his 2016 National Folk Fellowship, which was awarded jointly by the National Library of Australia and the National Folk Festival.

“Being named the National Folk Fellow is acknowledgement of my contribution as collector, performer and scholar for many, many years. It’s a wonderful opportunity to perform some of the music I’ve uncovered, and to showcase the techniques that I’ve developed over the past 40 years,” Chris said.

Watch Chris’ video: a photographic musical essay of Australian folk music

Watch Chris’ video: fiddler Charlie Batchelor playing old bush tunes

For his Folk Fellowship project, Chris has been looking at the surviving examples of Australian concertina music. His aim is to develop performance that represents both the unique Australian repertoire and the playing style.

“The concertina was ubiquitous in Australia from its introduction, around 1840, up to the mid-20th century. It was the quintessential dance music instrument, even more popular than the fiddle. The concertina was found in every home, shearers hut, bush camp and Aboriginal community. Stand-out players were feted,” Chris said.

“Despite this widespread popularity, recorded examples are comparatively rare, and unrepresented in the folk revival, with the notable exception of Dooley Chapman.

“My presentation at the National Folk Festival will feature some of the interesting tunes I’ve uncovered, played in a variety of styles. The themed and illustrated presentation is designed to evoke the social and cultural context. I’m aiming to recreate the unique sounds of the concertina music, solo and in historically accurate combinations with other instruments.”

For his PhD thesis at Southern Cross University, ‘The case for an Australian Folk Music Tradition’, Chris is examining the place of the field recorded music within the international context, and argues the rightful place for an 'Australian Folk Music Tradition'. It follows his earlier Master of Arts at ANU which explained the comparative absence of Australian collected music in the folk revival.

“Believe it or not, there isn't a case for, only arguments against an Australian folk music, for example, ‘that it was just popular music, not 'folk'’,” Chris said.

His is the first major academic re-evaluation since Russel Ward’s Australian Legend 1958, and Edgar Waters' comparative study in 1964.

“Where in the past they only looked at song texts, I include the music as a primary reference. My comprehensive knowledge of the extensive field collections made since 1980, 90 per cent of the total, allows me to range quite widely and to identify and select important aspects of repertoire and performance style,” said Chris.

Chris’ serious interest in folk music developed after returning from travel overseas in 1978. A desire to learn 'Australian' concertina style led him into folklore collecting. He began recording for the National Library in 1984.

He developed Australia’s first methodology for documenting Australian folklore. His field trips have taken him across most of Australia, visiting cities and rural and outback communities.

His contribution has been likened to that of the American folklorist Alan Lomax because of the scope and quality of Chris’ fieldwork, innovative performance and scholarship, and also because, like Lomax, he has argued the case with archives and institutions for increased funding and resources.

“In my collection, I have around 1400 field tapes, 850 of which are in the National Library. I also have audio, film and video collections in The National Film and Sound Archive, and The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies,” he said.

Chris is a leading collector and scholar of Western and syncretic forms of Indigenous music, and is a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

“Indigenous musicians have made a singular contribution as players of Western instruments and singers of old ballads. Indigenous compositions are one of the most distinctive elements of Australian music traditions,” said Chris.

Chris Sullivan’s National Folk Festival performance
National Folk Festival, March 24 to 28, Canberra

In a fresh Horton River Band line-up, Chris Sullivan has brought together musicians with a special affinity for this Australian music: Sue Hobson, fiddle; Ian White, banjo; Kevin Bradley, guitar.

The performances will be recorded during and after the Festival and a CD will be available later in the year.

• Concert: Flute & Fiddle venue, Friday, March 24, 2.20pm
• Fellowship Presentation: Trocadero venue, Saturday, March 26, 11.20am
• Australian Made Concert: Budawang venue, Sunday, March 27, 3.00pm

Photo: Chris Sullivan with his concertina, c1890, made in London by Charlie Jeffries.