Union Songs

Laying Siege to Empire

Mark Gregory (May 2003)

This year 10,000 people spent their Easter in Canberra at the National Folk Festival, over the four days were treated to a wonderful variety of music from around the world. What most intrigued me was the political space being carved out by the performers and eagerly tapped into by the audience. There was a peace concert, a union concert, and a folklore of terrorism workshop. There was a tribute to US songwriter Phil Ochs, another to the Sydney Realist Writers.

The festival seemed a welcome oasis of sanity in a world gone mad, where the modern files of the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and the modern glittering baubles in presidential palaces were safeguarded while the ancient documents in the libraries were burned and the ancient treasures of museums were systematically looted.

The cultural treats of the festival reminded me of the relevance of the statement Arundati Roy made back in January, a short time before the New World Order bombed its way into Iraq:
"Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness - and our ability to tell our own stories."

The Fagans' workshop/concert dealt with the poetry and song of the Realist Writers, particularly Denis Kevans, Merv Lilly and the late Dorothy Hewett. From these writers came songs that have been published in many collections, often mistaken for folk songs. Songs like Weavils in the Flour, Norman Brown and Cane Killed Abel.

These writers gave us songs that dealt with the industrial landscape, songs of "work ...joy ... pain ... struggle ... achievement". Hearing more than a dozen of them at one sitting was a riveting and revealing experience. Here were examples of the home grown songs and poems that helped shape the folk song revival in Australia, the proof of "our ability to tell our own stories." As Bob Fagan pointed out half the songs on Gary Shearston's ground breaking LP Australian Broadside (1965) were written by members of Realist Writers.

The festival also introduced me to many songs I’d not heard before. Hard to pick just one but here goes. At two different concerts I heard Roy Bailey sing (along with an eager audience) Holly Near's amazing song "I Ain't Afraid".

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