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  • Jack Latimore

One Song - the road to (& back from) the 'Folkie'



If you travel 40,075 kilometres in one direction across the land, across the water, across mountain ranges, across deserts, across forests, you will arrive back at your starting point. That’s both science and poetry. I first heard that knowledge in the lyrics of Bob Dylan, but many writers have taken licence to bend that practical note to their work either on the page or in lyrical form. In fact, there’s a line from a song by Tom Waits that goes, ‘If you get far enough away you'll be on your way back home’. Years ago, I borrowed Waits’ line to write something about community and the great Archie Roach.

Years earlier still, I’d been tracing Archie’s life through the inner-city streets, following vestiges of Charcoal Lane both literally and figuratively, consciously and not so consciously. The same streets and the same alley ways Archie once trod. The Fitzroy streets. The Collingwood streets. Anybody could walk them. Everyday all around me all the people walked those streets, pounding and plodding along the cement and bitumen in the cold or in the heat. But it was the songlines contained on that landmark album that I sought. Archie sang them up. Sang a hidden history and broken tooth romance into those places. Sang a past and a present temporal conjunction which then sailed majestically forever forward into future.


One Song, the new song - the last song on this definitive collection - is imbued with similar kinds of majesty and magic. It could be interpreted as Archie sailing full circle. The artist on his way home again to the fire hearth, or to a tranquil river flow.


One Song is sparse, stripped back – Archie’s voice generous and masterful in expression, even youthful in moments, accompanied only by a cloud shade of guitar and double bass that cycles and drifts atmospherically, adding texture to light. It's prayerful and serene, yet doing bold things with simplicity. It’s a Country song, though not the genre you might expect. It’s a connection to place, a singing up of an ancient wisdom from deep time: An exquisite lullaby for humanity.


One Song is also the artist folding like fiddleback grain over and across his earlier compositions, recalling the pantheism of tracks like River Song, Dancing with my Spirit, and of Weeping in the Forest. It is a song as evocative as the sweeping spiritual landscapes on Archie’s 2007 album, Journey – works like Liyarn Ngarn, Spirit of Place, Morning Star and Old People Singing. And think Mulyawongk, with its hymnal Hammond organ and plaintive minor chords. And a reduction of the reverence in the exultant soul and gospel explorations of Song to Sing and Into The Bloodstream.


Mostly, One Song is immediately Archie: A life of weathered terrain imbued with an 80,000-year backstory. An intersection across millennia of cosmological expressions, transcendental reflections and ruminations of memory and fate. An ancient wisdom travelling at once forward and throughout the songlines and blowing along the streets. A message from the Old People to us.


Remember well what we have told you

Oh don’t forget where you come from


Last year I was asked by Archie Roach's management to contribute something to the liner notes of his latest anthology, 'My Songs: 1989-2021', more specifically, to write a short piece around Uncle Archie's latest track, 'One Song'. I wrote it and sent it off to Archie and the next afternoon he sent word: "It's Deadly Jack - you got it......what can I say - it's beautiful. That's the gist of One Song - you got it. The ancient ones telling us to remember well what we have told you - it's as ancient as the country itself."


Unfortunately, it never made it onto the final product that went to sale, but the exercise restored my interest in writing about music and also resulted in a trip out to the Port Fairy Folk Festival in Victoria's south-western district on Uncle Archie's invitation to cover the launch of the 'Folkie's' inaugural Archie Roach Foundation stage and the public release of the anthology.


The 'Folkie' is what the Port Fairy Folk Festival stalwarts refer to the festival as, and although it was a first visit for me, the three and a half day event was returning for its 46th year (45th festival) after a 12 months hiatus due to the covid pandemic.


I'd heard things about it over the last four or five years while scoping out potential musical content as senior editor for NITV digital. Ultimately we'd opted for the Boomerang Festival at the Byron Blues Fest, Womadelaide (held on the same March long weekend), Garma in East Arnhem Land and a couple others containing plenty of First Nations content held in Sydney.


The prospect of the 'Archie's Stage' intrigued me though. Likewise the addition of new program director Justin Rudge. I knew enough about Justin (we're Facebook friends) to understand that he'd be bringing some different aspects or new approaches to the festival.


Feeling somewhat guilty about skiving off down the coast on a Friday before the long weekend, I pitched the idea of a general sort of 'round up' story on the festival to the newspaper and received a commission from the stand in editor of the culture section for 500 words, plus whatever images I could manage to obtain. The invitation from Uncle Archie extended to my family as well, so we all piled into a seriously overpacked car and rolled out for a few days getaway.


We did Friday night, all of Saturday, and Sunday until dark, by which time the kids' sustained sugar high was beginning to wear thin. Top 'Standouts' for us included:

  1. the Flag Circle for the kids, but specifically the Krazy Koala Puppet Show (my 5 years old son watched this three times that I know of and by Sunday afternoon was even on first name basis with the performer, who gifted the boy a cd ~ thanks, we'll be seeing you again)

  2. the Welcome to Country and the events held on the Archie Roach Stage, particularly Archie's 'Kitchen Table Yarns' with guests; the Conversations: Old Mission Road session which featured Uncle Rob Lowe and Archie's niece Tracy Lee Roach sharing their stories about Framlingham Aboriginal Mission; and the pre-screening of the Aunty Ruby Hunter 'cinematic portrait' Wash My Soul in the River's Flow

  3. the Emma Donovan & The Putbacks set played to a full house on the Shebeen stage on Saturday evening

  4. Cedric Burnside's first set on the River Stage on Saturday - burned bright, got us shaking our arses on side stage (near criminal that it wasn't happening at all in front of stage)

  5. Gordon Koang's set on Saturday afternoon - South Sudan's 'King of Music' slaying on the traditional Nuer stringed thom in the Pyipgil Gundidj stage - for me, easily the most interesting set of the weekend (and shamefully under-attended)

  6. Western Arnhem Land's Black Rock Band playing on the Shebeen Stage Saturday evening a set or so before Emma Donovan

  7. the late set return of Weddings, Parties, Anything on Saturday night

  8. Kutcha Edwards lunchtime set on Sunday where he was awarded the Festival's award for artist of the festival, even after asking the grey set to lift themselves out of their sun chairs and vacate the space in front of the stage for people looking to do some dancing

  9. Archie Roach on the River Stage playing to a full house and moving his audience to weeping

  10. the Dili Allstars on the Island stage with some (much-needed) reggae and ska vibes, and finishing their set with 'Una Bay' the first song the band ever recorded


My review of the festival was published on the Monday morning after about an hour's hurried write-up before heading back home to Melbourne. It can be found here.


We returned with a wardrobe full of new band and artist t-shirts, some albums, two exhausted kids, and stopped for lunch outside Geelong, where I saw the story was published, before checking my work emails and discovering the responses to my column. And this is really where this wandering blog post is headed.


The first letter I opened went like this:


Hi Jack,

I’m sorry to say that I am a little disappointed with this review.

I fully agree that the performances and contributions from the Indigenous artists, in particular Kutcha Edwards and Archie Roach, were incredibly moving and I agree that the Archie Roach tent/stage provided a fantastically enriching opportunity to connect with indigenous music, story, culture and people throughout the duration of the festival. I spent time in there enjoying performance, as well as film, interview conversation and basket weaving.

What I am disappointed with is what you have left out about the festival in your review and for me, the female performers absolutely rocked the roof off. You make no mention of Gaby Moreno, Irish Mythin, the Women Out Loud Concert, Catherine Priddy, Leah Senior and many others, but particularly disappointed that you even overlook the wonderful Kee-ann who gave a brilliant concert in the Archie Roach tent.

Sorry to say but it feels like you are wearing blinkers and missing half the show.

Respectfully,

Fiona


I did actually miss Kee'ahn at the Folkie, but was fortunate enough to catch her set at Womadelaide in 2021 and the St Kilda Festival in January. I did catch some of Shellie Morris' tender, emotive set and had a dance or two at The Merindas. I also poked my head in to see Emma Swift performing songs from her album Blonde on the Tracks (an album I bought during the first Covid lockdown in Melbourne in 2020 - and one I love to listen to at the end of the night with half a pint of shiraz or similar). Swift's set was sweet and dreamy, no doubt, but the evening was young and I didn't feel like sleeping yet.


So, I reject the insinuation by my festival friend Fiona that I was blinkered to the female artists on the line-up. What I wasn't particularly interested in investing my time in though, was the usual staid fare of a Folk Festival line up. I wanted something unusual, provocative, bright and preferably something that got arses shaking - you know, folk music: Which in my view can be everything from London Punk to Japanese Kabuki.


But I had another self-imposed caveat (which I actually ended up breaking with Weddings Parties Anything): No fiddle and squeezebox combo. And man-oh-man, the Folkie's crowds certainly do adore the acts involving a fiddle and squeezebox.


Another thing crowds like to do at the Folkie is sit down on the ground in that first section in front of the stage - usually in their personal low sun chair... with a book or a sudoku. Fortunately, I was able to access backstage to put some shimmy and stomp moves on while watching the likes of Cedric Burnside. The alternative - sitting and being still while watching out in the audience - seemed to go against everything folk music is about.


Kutcha Edwards addressed this issue during his first set at the festival, asking the front section to pull up camp and move to the sides or further back to allow for people that wanted to dance. There was a few moments of silent tension where you could see the shock to their privilege expressed on their faces, then a few moments more of incredulity and reluctance to relocate. It finally got done, but with griping. The last remnants of the 'sitters' literally driven from their holdings by capering folk heretics. This sitting issue is one the festival organisers need to permanently uproot if it is going to attract festive-goers away from Womadelaide over the same long-weekend.


One final observation discovered in my notebook - Elephant Sessions (Scottish techno-traditional folk) -- somebody dropped a sherbet bath bomb in my pint of porter.





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