Graeme Smith
Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music

(North Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia, 2005)

Review by Bruce Johnson

Graeme Smith’s purpose is not to investigate what the ‘real’ folk or country music is, but how these genres came to be so central in debates about ‘various versions of the relationship between individual experience, the community and the nation’ (x). He traces the path that led to the Australian folk movement making ‘the strongest, boldest claims to represent Australian national experience’ (xi)

His interest is in context-as-text, and context in the largest sense of the world, as he explores to the outer edges the web within the music is spun, and its supporting frameworks. The enfolding performance spaces themselves are among the determining factors in the music. Where one is able to play and listen affects the meaning of the music. He goes further, to the now more distant political underpinnings of the tradition. In my own research, and interviewing veterans of the early Left in Australia like Audrey and the late Jack Blake, I have been struck by how vividly they remember the New Theatre’s 1953 production of Reedy River as a pivotal episode. Smith amplifies the resonances of these recollections, arguing that it brought into being a folk movement in conjunction with the Australian Left, a movement which promoted and defined Australian folk music, constructing the canon and creating performance styles which still provide the core of contemporary understandings of Australian folk music (3).

Context also includes class, which is particularly conspicuous in the way the country scene defines itself. Smith inspects the foundations of class differences that correspond to various music tastes, but in a way that takes into account larger considerations of place. Figures relating to attendances, for example, often fail to take into account the specific characteristics of performance spaces, including the question of physical accessibility of venues for different styles (83). In terms of class as defined by education, country music is

… the most socially marked musical genre. In a 1992 Saulwick poll it was popular with 6% of the tertiary-educated, compared with 22% of those who had completed “some secondary education”. This was a far greater education-based difference than registered by any other music genre (84).

His enquiry into what makes Australian country Australian (111-118) is as finely nuanced and surgically precise a discussion of the way national identity is inscribed in an international genre, as I have read.

How this nationalist message might be musically articulated is explored through four case studies: Lee Kernaghan, John Williamson, Troy Cassar-Daley and Kasey Chambers. Each of these exemplifies a different set of strategies by which Australian-ness is articulated through country music. Smith’s examination is closely engaged, rigorous as well as intuitively musical, rather than distanced by an abstract and mystifying theoretical grid, an exemplary demonstration of the descriptive analysis of musical experience, but anchored in a cultural thesis. You don’t have to be an Australian reader to get the point, because it is a model of extrapolation from the local case to an international debate in music studies.

In Chapter Eight he carries us across a divide generally so taken for granted as to be invisible, at least in the sense that the mention of one side – folk and country – does not immediately conjure up the other, exemplified in what Smith calls polyethnic bands. I really didn’t expect to find a discussion of bands like Sirocco or Mara, or names like Sandy Evans, in a book called a history of folk and country music. But one of its pleasures is the way this kind of surprise is argued into assent. And more generally, it is a welcome reminder of the increasing fragility of genre itself in contemporary popular music, and the need for more generous horizons in speaking of the subject. Smith talks about a capella, and moves inevitably to the World Music phenomenon, as omnivorous as the Postmodernism with which it is so closely linked. Both movements swallow everything (ironically, new ‘master narratives’), and thus present a new kind of challenge to someone studying two fields, folk and country, with such irritable sensitivities about what they ingest or are ingested by.

I have enjoyed Graeme Smith’s work since I first heard him give a conference paper in the early 1990s. I know he will always start in an unexpected place and take me to an unexpected place, and make the journey feel that it was absolutely necessary. Let me exemplify. The emergence of the folk movement in the late 1950s generated new performance venues which tended to be the relatively intimate coffee lounges that proliferated at the same time.

These small, intimate venues required a new type of performance and address to the audience, quite different from the first generation of folk-song enthusiasts’ theatrical enactments of the folk song milieu, with their false beards and coloured neckerchiefs evoking late nineteenth-century bush workers. (27)

Smith discusses the way in which these physical settings contributed to the reconfiguration of performance styles and the meaning of the music. The intimacy of these venues made possible a finger style guitar playing that for its followers could distinguish the milieu from the chord thrashing of ‘mindless mass culture’ (31)

This is an instructive invitation to the reader to further reflection, in that not only was this style a distinguishing marker of a community, it also became a musical trope of the identity that that community sought to construct and project: small and tight-knit, the fine discrimination of its sensibilities projected in the delicate intricacy of its finger-style, the freedom from artifice in the minimal technological mediation (acoustic music in a non-amplified setting), and in the ‘performed’ naturalness of the singing style. He describes the attempt to develop an alternative performance style to coffee lounge and concert by Gary Shearston. Modelled partly upon ‘genuine’ Australian field recordings of local vernacular rural singers, it was largely rejected by collectors and audiences. Shearston’s objectives, on the face of it, should have commended him to the members of the folk boom community: national identity with an ‘authentic’ rural working class base. As Smith puts it:

In contrast to Shearston’s and the first revival’s adherence to folk as the bearer of nationalist cultural meanings, the performers and audiences of the folk boom predominantly looked to folk as the bearer of a cosmopolitan humanism centred on the individuality of the singer. (32)

For me this prompted a comparison with the nineteenth century bush ballad poets like Paterson and Lawson. The robust and durable rural mythos they constructed was largely the creation of urban writers, paradoxically as a reaction against the material realities of modern urbanization. The coffee house version of folk was an urban construction, also with an element of reaction against what was regarded as dehumanizing urban mass culture. Its statements were less about ‘authentic’ folk, than about themselves. It is noteworthy that later Smith talks of the way Slim Dusty explicitly invoked the term ‘Bush Ballad’ to describe the music he most enjoyed playing (112).

This line of thought takes us to the vexed question of ‘authenticity’. ‘The folk clubs encouraged an increase in performer specialization, and the valorisation of stylistic authenticity, particularly in the development of instrumental performance and distinctive, if manneristic, vocal styles’ (36)

Exaggerated mannerisms became, ironically, a marker of authentic folk reference. One of the effects of this and similar movements in other musics (such as jazz and gospel over the same period), is the emergence of authenticity itself as an artistic criterion, and often grotesque mannerisms as its marker. The situation underscores the tensions that play across the idea of ‘authenticity’, a virtue which, as far as I am aware, never even occurred to the ‘originals’. Authenticity, the supposed valorization of the ‘aura’ of the original, is arguably always something draped over, and conceptually obscuring the features of the original retrospectively. Paradoxically, authenticity (truth to the original) is not part of the original cultural capital. It is conferred, a value-added tax.

Once the quest for authenticity in a performance becomes self-conscious, something understood by ‘authenticity’ is destroyed, rather in the way that reality TV subjects disappear behind their desire to perform themselves. In aggressively Australian country music, the point often emerges in accent. The transition from talking to singing is much more than pitched vocalization, as Smith points out (117). And in the transition, the Australian-ness of the accent frequently takes on a character that is almost never heard in speech. It is not an Australian accent, it is an Australian singing mannerism.

In many ways, this is a response to globalization. Smith speaks of what Aaron Fox called global country musics – the appearance in widely dispersed places of a form of country music. It exhibits local variations, but carries certain core meanings:

For example, although the idea that the land (or the country) is the basis of national experience and identity is widespread, this land or country is differently imagined in different national histories. With increasing urbanization the country may become an idealized place, a nostalgic mythologised reconstruction onto which we deflect the traumas of rural-urban migrations; or the celebration of rurality may inform an urban-based class conflict in which the “groundedness” of the countryside becomes a defence for those who feel threatened by increasingly abstract structures of social power; or rural narratives may obscure both past and present power relations within an idealized rural order, seeking to marginalize it, or in extreme cases ethnically cleanse, particular social groups. Global country musics are never far from such political and social issues. 106

Paradoxically, the nostalgia for the traditional rural values that seem to embody Australia, as a reaction against the impact of globalization, is itself part of a global phenomenon. That phenomeon is the rearticulation of local traditions as a form of resistance to globalization. The resistance to globalization in the early 21st century is a global phenomenon, and ‘global country’ is perhaps its primary music.

The position of Australian country purists is that the music should cling to its local references and US-dominated internationals are a contaminating force against which we should quarantine ourselves. Like strident traditionalists in other genres, this is both historically uniformed – where did the ‘traditional’ form come from in the first place? – and disempoweringly simplistic. His account of New Country suggests that, as other Australian musics have also demonstrated, it is by a creatively opportunistic negotiation with imported material that Australian country maintains leverage and suppleness (109).

I should present the reviewer’s mandatory nit-picking. In such a carefully articulated argument, there is something disconcerting about the lack of subject/verb agreement in the sentence ‘The earlier bands of the bush music clubs has played rural dance music alongside the bush songs’ (51). The word ‘principle’ on p. 100 should be ‘principal’. And the name of the member of The Go-Betweens is Forster, not Foster. OK, that’s out of the way. Now: the writing is elegant and accessible. The intricate pattern formed by the various threads of the folk movement is untangled with a combination of delicacy and firmness. The work is a vindication of the combination of painstaking detail, rigorous critical analysis and the sweeping panorama, and proclaims the gulf between the best academic research and top-of-the head pop music journalism. The example from Bruce Elder (82), makes the point: supercilious, uninformed and to a depressing degree quite out of sympathy with the fundamental truths of music experience. The lucid accessibility of Smith’s style carries great weight without making ostentatious its comprehensive luggage. Sometimes scholarly writing is like a soap opera. You can doze off while turning the pages and know that when you regain attentiveness, you are still pretty much in the same place. This book is always leading you to new disclosures, a commanding and multi-faceted argument that establishes a powerful case for a more appropriate recognition of the role of folk and country in our cultural history.

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