Our National Folk Festival

In the beginning…

The National Folk Festival started life as the Port Phillip District Folk Music Festival. It was held on the weekend of 11 & 12 February 1967 at the Teachers College, Melbourne University and was relatively modest compared to the current event, two days with an Official Opening on the Friday evening by Alan Marshall. The cost of a weekend ticket was $3.50.

Planning for the festival began in February 1966 and the grand sum of $100 was put forward as starting capital. Martyn Wyndham-Read (who unfortunately had to return to England before the festival took place in ’67) and Glen Tomasetti played key roles. The Committee was chaired by Shirley Andrews. In the Program’s opening remarks Mick Counihan (committee member) wrote “Principally, (in Australia) there is no focal point, no meeting place for the exchange of songs, styles, ideas. Here, a serious Folk Music Festival can play an essential role and this is what the Port Phillip Festival, intended as an annual, national event, must aim to do.” 

In the 1960s when our Festival began folk music in the United States was moving into the mainstream with the highly successful Newport Folk Festival gaining wide publicity for the genre. Founded in 1959 Newport cultivated a broad range of folk music from the start and still continues to stretch the boundaries of folk to this day. The first National Folk Festival grew out of the idea that a similar type of festival in Australia might attract new ‘folk’ audiences here. That first festival was to be held in the town of Kilmore, Victoria.

A story of adaption…

Unfortunately the organising committee didn’t keep up a close contact with the Kilmore Historical Society and others in that town who had agreed to help with accommodation.  A few weeks before the Festival the town lost interest and the promised accommodation fell through. With larger numbers of interstate visitors expected the organising committee realised a new venue had to be found and, at the last minute the festival was shifted back to Melbourne.

In an oral history interview, Shirley Andrews tells how, in hat and gloves (to make a good impression), she went to see the principal of the Melbourne Teachers College to hire rooms. He agreed but, fearing folk enthusiasts would be riotous, stipulated that police must be in attendance. Without a riot to quell, the police simply enjoyed the music. This success spurred the committee to do it again the following year, but this time in the Pharmacy College in Royal Parade, Parkville.

A more extensive version of this start can be found in Shirley’s own words at the Victorian Folk Music Club.

A new tradition – the Festival goes travelling…

In 1969 a new tradition was started when the Festival was relocated to another state. For the next twenty four years the Festival was held in a different state each year, with a new committee managing the organisation of the event. The Festival criss-crossed the country bringing folk music and folk life to many people.

The Hosts…

Year – City Year – City
1967 – Melbourne 1980 – Alice Springs
1968 – Melbourne 1981 – Brisbane
1969 – Brisbane 1982 – Sydney
1970 – Sydney 1983 – Adelaide
1971 – Adelaide 1984 – Canberra
1972 – Canberra 1985 – Perth
1973 – Melbourne 1986 – Melbourne
1974 – Brisbane 1987 – Alice Springs
1975 – Sydney 1988 – Sutherland
1976 – Canberra 1989 – Maleny
1977 – Adelaide 1990 – Kuranda
1978 – Fremantle 1991 – Adelaide
1979 – Melbourne 1992 – Canberra
1993 – 2016 Exhibition Park, Canberra

By the late 1980’s the travelling version of the National Folk Festival was become difficult to manage for each of the respective organising state. Between 1988 and 1992 heavy financial losses were sustained by organising groups and the future of the Festival was in doubt. Something needed to happen to make the event financially stable. The Australian Folk Trust took a courageous step by taking over the running of the event.

In 1992 the AFT decided that the size and scope of the event had grown such that the Festival needed a permanent home and a professional management team. Several cities were considered and, eventually, Canberra was chosen. AFT chairperson Dale Dengate played a significant role in reaching this difficult decision.

In 1993 a not-for-profit, limited liability company, the National Folk Festival Ltd was formed to operate the event. A a full-time Director was employed and an office established in Gorman House, Braddon. The Festival settled into its permanent home at Exhibiton Park In Canberra (EPIC) and has been held there every Easter long weekend since.

Read the Five year report to 1998 for more information.