While the New England folk music tradition drew from European traditions, its expression was always local, especially in the rural areas which had to provide their own entertainment.
“I only saw the tail end of a long tradition,” John Beswick recalled.
This “centred around the community hall. A combination of dairy farming and timber mills generated a dense rural settlement pattern outside local towns and regional centres and those communities worked hard by definition of their livelihoods but also enjoyed socialising when opportunity or design presented itself...”.
John’s local halls were the Thora Hall at the foot of the Dorrigo Mountain on the Bellinger and the Turners Flat Hall on the Macleay. Different people, but exactly the same format.
“The music for the dancing was provided by locals with that ability, fuelled by BYO grog, an always-hot tea urn and a groaning table filled from the products of numerous busy kitchens.
“Our music was provided by a trio playing piano accordion, drum kit and fiddle. At some point when the dancers need a break, one or two of our number would give a song.”
By the 1970s, the combination of social, cultural and economic change had greatly diminished this local musical tradition.
This was a very self-contained world, one in which those who were musically or lyrically inclined had a performance platform to practise and develop their talents. The result was local musicians such as the Kalang’s Bruce Pottie who wrote their own lyrics and made their own music but were only memorable in their local area.
By the 1970s, the combination of social, cultural and economic change had greatly diminished this local musical tradition. Many of the local musicians had died, those who remained who remembered the songs, dances and music of the past were rapidly ageing.
Just as Russel Ward had played an important role in the folk revival of the early 1950s, now a group of Armidale-based musicians sought to preserve and promote the music and songs of the past.
Chris Sullivan was a key figure in this process. He had been interested in folk music for an extended period, travelling Australia to collect music and songs.
Drawing from this and extending this experience, his Southern Cross University PhD thesis argued the case for an Australian folk music tradition.
In Armidale, Chris was joined by group including Barry McDonald, a former student of Russel Ward, Mark Rummery and Cathy Ovenden. Each collected, recorded and played folk music, documenting the folk tradition.
The popular Horton River Band became a vehicle for them to play together and with some of the now old traditional performers. However, this is not the end of our story.
Jim Belshaw’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au/ (New England life) and http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au/ (New England history)
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