2019 National Folk Festival Review

Published in Music News  
2019 National Folk Festival was staged in Canberra 18-22 April. 2019 National Folk Festival was staged in Canberra 18-22 April. Image © Claire Antagonym

The National Folk Festival is a self-proclaimed wonderland where one spends “five days in a perfect world”. Here are five perfect words that capture that journey.


Peregrinate (v.): A wandering or roaming journey

Browsing bookstores and meandering in the sunshine. Drum workshops, Bohemia Bar and Scrumpy Garden. Morris dancers, gypsy caravans and wanton accordionists. To the 2019 National Festival celebrating “this idiom we call folk”.

NFF.4Image © Claire Antagonym

Festival Director Pam Merrigan muses on this eclectic institution. “So, what is folk? The focus of this year’s Festival is very much to showcase the diversity of folk and its relevance in contemporary societies.

“I believe folk is best when it is current and reflects the traditions, cultures and communities that have spawned it. Folk is a broad pallet encompassing many genres and styles.

“Like an artist dipping into a paint pot, sometimes folk traditions are experienced in their purest forms, and sometimes they are mixed and absorb characteristics from elsewhere. And, like the artist putting paint on canvas, folk is close to its source, it connects and engages in unique and interesting ways.”

It is a festival with a long-time commitment to environmental and socio-political activism. This was the fourth year that the National Folk Festival has partnered with Greening Australia to offset the festivals carbon footprint, by donating $1 from every programme sold to aid Greening Australia’s projects developing landscapes wherein people and nature can harmoniously thrive.

NFF.5Image © Claire Antagonym

Each year the money raised purchases native trees and shrubs that are planted in targeted areas in the ACT to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for threatened species such as the pleasantly named superb parrot. Festival goers were invited to join the Greening Australia team to learn about bush tucker and how to grow native plants and presented a special workshop just for kids.

In 2017, The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Founded in Australia in 2007, ICAN received the award for its work creating awareness around the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and for its efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.

In 2019, the National Folk Festival celebrated this achievement with a concert featuring Irish Mythen and Eric Bogle, with special guests Robert Tickner, Australia’s longest serving Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and Dr Sue Wareham, a longtime anti-war activist and founding Board member of ICAN.

NFF.6Image © Claire Antagonym

Irish Mythen went on to play a haunting, potent and resounding set with Hannah Morrell, renowned Tasmanian multi-instrumentalist and fiddle player for The Dead Maggies and The Stragglers. Mythen recently donated a $500 artist grant to grassroots DIY Tasmanian folk-punk festival HOBOFOPO, to support an emerging female folk-punk musician with gear and touring costs.

Oneirataxia (n.): The inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality

Uptown Brown! enticed festival goers circling down the arena for the opening night, playing his ethereal 1920s jazz blues on the strange and steampunk-esque instrument-machine strapped to his back, mimicking the effect of a 78 record.

Under the big, forever skies of the ACT the neo-Gypsy sounds of Greshka inspired a collective loosening of belts and garters as the full moon rose languidly swollen and yellow in the navy sky.

NFF.3Image © Claire Antagonym

The iconic festival installation the Stock Camp returned this year, bringing all the sensations of nature and the rugged unkept wild Australian outback to the National. Billy-tea, damper and ambrosial lamb stew warmed on a roaring fire.

It's 'the food that fed the bush' served daily amid a dreamy atmosphere of the soul-nourishing bush-tucker of impromptu music, poetry and other surprises like the Yarn Spinners’ competition.

The space was the prelude for the lairy session sessions (‘Waltz Into A Pub’) where musicians and enthusiasts played into the early hours of the morning.

Vagary (v.): An unexpected and inexplicable change in a situation or in someone's behaviour.

The effervescent and intangible wonder of Lily and King had the festival magicked from the get-go, transporting the crowd again and again to another world, a dirty, dizzying landscape that was somehow strangely familiar. Soul-twitching anthems of gypsy wanderings, confusing sex, nihilist hangovers, chasing freedom and epiphanies in the bath.

NFF.2Image © Claire Antagonym

Their songs ricocheted between evangelist honky-tonk swamp rhythms, swirling gypsy melodies, lilting siren songs played out on a fiddle and deeply sensual vintage jazz tones. The childlike spontaneity in the tinkly sound of the toy keyboard that underplays many of the tracks is just as pleasurable as being a little bit drunk at the circus.

Brett Whiteley’s 'Woman', which I won’t give away too much re-iterating the lyrics (it’s actually kind of exactly what it sounds), but is worth buying their album 'Bless This Life' just to hear the frenetic retelling of that particular story. The music of Lily and King, this dizzying, life-affirming ferris wheel and cabaret.

Brontide (n.) The low rumble of distant thunder

The clouds parted and what the ominous thunder had foretold, rain! And much of it.

Punters who braved the puddles were rewarded by the musical discovery of the festival, playing at the Blackboard Container Stage, the haunting and ethereal songs of Teresa Dixon, playing offerings from her debut solo album 'Bass Strait', inspired by when her car broke down touring Tasmania and she ended up accidentally calling it home.

Click here for more photos from 2019 National Folk Festival.

The audience was treated to an array of bewitching tracks including 'Solitary Man', 'Newstead Moon', 'Bass Strait', 'One Day I’ll Stop Thinking Of You', 'The Hole Part II', and '42 Degrees Below' played on banjo. Her influences: Gillian Welch, Jolie Holland and Bill Callahan, and “Inspiration normally comes from the need for therapy and healing through writing and song”.

Balter (n.): To tumble or dance clumsily.

The last band on the last stage on the last night was The Dead Maggies.

Tasmanian convict, anarcho-bush-punk. A beautiful chaos of folk music driven to its ragged and twisted edge, sometimes almost approaching metal, sometimes something simpler; characterised by powerful voices and powerful words; stories of oppression and resistance, heroism and struggle.

NFFImage © Claire Antagonym

Lead instrumentalists Hannah Morrell and Theresa Dixon exploded complexity into the energetically driven rhythm, drums and bass. The Dead Maggies are story singers drawing tales from Tasmanian history to the present day.

They played a few more contemporary songs on that last night; to be recorded later this year is 'Port Arthur'. Frontman GT described how since The Dead Maggies' inception they had been asked about doing a song on the Tasmanian massacre, which was a monumental event in Australia's history, one which had significant impact on creating new legislation for gun control in Australia.

But contemporary history that involves the living is a sensitive subject. “In the end the song happened unintentionally, a line got stuck in my head, and then there was a song. And I guess it became a protest song, happening in a climate where gun lobby money is suddenly mounting in Australian politics.”

The show moves from place to place, drawing the crowd (the last night was the night the volunteers get to party) to silence, to shouting moshpit and to interpretive dance or 'balter' along to the history of Australia.



Balter: to joyously express oneself through interpretive dance, without any actual ability to dance. The essence of this idiom we call folk.

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