Collecting Australia's Folk Culture
Ray Edmondson and Roslyn Russell
Folk culture in Australia — and around the world — is most often regarded as part of intangible cultural heritage. It is highly vulnerable to change and destruction, particularly from the impacts of globalisation and mass culture. Documenting folk culture before it was irretrievably lost has been the mission of those who amassed the two documentary heritage collections described here – the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection in Museum Victoria, and the John Meredith Folklore Collection 1953-1994, held in the National Library of Australia.
The first collection is the work of dedicated scholars, Dr June Factor and Dr Gwenda Davey; the second was the long-held passion of writer, performer and photographer John Meredith.
The Australian Children’s Folklore Collection has been developed from the 1970s onwards, and its thirteen collections are classified in two categories: folklore of children and folklore for and about children.
Folklore of children documents children’s playlore, such as riddles, parodies, rhymes, jokes, clapping and ball bouncing games, entries in autograph albums, insults and war cries. It has also captured memories of Indigenous, regional and multicultural childhoods, and adult memories of childhood pastimes and games. A visiting American folklorist, Dr Dorothy Howard, amassed a collection of over 1000 games from around Australia during a ten-month visit in the mid-1950s, and her invaluable research and publications on Australian children’s folklore are also included in the collection.
Folklore for and about children contains folklore told by adults to children in a range of languages, including Arabic, Croatian, English, Greek, Italian, Macedonian, Pintjantjatjara, Serbian, Spanish and Turkish. An Old Wives’ Tales collection has preserved beliefs and folk sayings dealing with the sensitive topics of pregnancy and birth.
There was a time, as late as the 1960s, when speaking with a broad Australian accent was considered improper on radio, television or the movie screen. ‘Aussie English’ was acceptable for actors playing character parts, but for the rest, well-modulated BBC English was the desirable norm. And in post-Second World War Australia, the only local folk songs widely known were ‘Waltzing Matilda’,’ Click Go the Shears’, ‘Botany Bay’ and ‘Nine Miles to Gundagai’. It was John Meredith’s achievement to pioneer the task of recording and opening up the nation’s extensive folk music heritage, and releasing the Australian accent from its colonial shackles. The John Meredith Folklore Collection 1953-1994 documents this heritage.
From 1953 to 1994, Meredith criss-crossed Australia recording rural workers and city dwellers, capturing not only contemporary material, but also music and living memories which stretched back to the shearers’ strike of 1891. He documented an aesthetic for traditional performance which is not that of the elite exponent, and which cannot be documented in transcriptions and other representations. Others, in time, would draw upon his work, perform and popularise it: Gary Shearston would sing ‘The Shearer’s Dream’ and numerous other traditional songs, and the Seekers would make ‘With my Swag on my Shoulder’ into an international hit. Other researchers followed Meredith’s lead and widened the collected record of Australian folk music, but none did it for longer nor created a collection of comparable size. The methodology that Meredith developed and used in his audio recordings remained for decades the approach used by field collectors.
Meredith’s biographer, Keith McKenry, wrote ‘no individual has made a greater contribution to the recording of our musical folk heritage or, arguably, to our knowledge of Australian tradition’.
Both these collections have captured a vanished world, redolent of the richness of Australia’s folk tradition before the advent of the internet and the homogenisation of Australian culture.
Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993.
Kevin Bradley (ed.), Folklore collector, photographer, writer, performer, John Meredith, a tribute, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2006.
Keith McKenry, More Than Life: A Biography of John Meredith, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural, NSW, 2014.
John Meredith and National Library of Australia, Real Folk, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1995.
Play and Folklore discussion forum, Museum Victoria website, museumvictoria.com.au/playandfolklore