SCU student Chris Sullivan performs traditional Australian folks songs on a concertina. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star
SCU student Chris Sullivan performs traditional Australian folks songs on a concertina. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star Cathy Adams

The pioneering folk fan who resurrected a lost Australian legacy

IT was the instrument proudly played by farmers, shearers, factory workers, and politicians across Australia - but the full legacy of the humble concertina is almost forgotten in the annals of Australian history.

"It's really the guitar of the 19th century and the period up to the 1950s, but especially before the First World War," Australian folk music research pioneer Chris Sullivan explained.

"From the very early 1840s to about the 1920s, the concertina was king."

"It was played by squatters, itinerant bush workers... selectors, across all of the ethnic groups - the Irish, the English, the Scottish, the German, and also indigenous players - the concertina was a very big instrument with them.

"Politicians, explorers, sailors... and it was the instrument of the larrikins in the major cities too."

Mr Sullivan was a pioneer in the preservation of Australian folk music, which was almost completely extinct when he started documenting it using proper ethnographic techniques in the 1970s.

The Southern Cross University PhD researcher travelled to towns and regions far and wide from Darwin to Perth to Brisbane, and the Victorian Coast to Cooktown, recording ageing Australian folk players on multiple occasions, some who were older than 100.

That was the dawn of the resurrection of Australian folk - an art form our cultural cringe had deemed unworthy of preservation until Mr Sullivan started to argue the case for its recognition in the archives and libraries of the nation.

"Basically the Australian music was different from anywhere else in the world," he explained.

"Australia developed a very strong solo dance tradition, this was before there were lights... they didn't like to travel in the night so dances would go all night."

"Solo musicians... had to be able to play by themselves all night, so they developed styles where they could express the rhythm in the melody. They had to work out styles that were rhythmical and balanced, that didn't take a lot of effort.

"There were a whole lot of techniques that were developed that allowed them to do that.

"It's a real feature... you don't find anything like that anywhere else in the world."

Mr Sullivan will showcase some of his collected folk music in a major performance at the National Folk Festival in Canberra during Easter next weekend.

His PhD thesis, "The Case for an Australian Folk Music Tradition" is essentially a distillation of his 40-year journey collecting and documenting the almost forgotten folk songs of the city and the bush.

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