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A ‘good old fun time’ at the National Folk Festival

As I walked through the gates to the National Folk Festival at midday on Saturday April 16, all of my senses immediately became overwhelmed. To my left, a man on a ladder performing acrobatics, and to my right a circle of people with a single guitar all sang together. In the distance, food venders produced a cacophony of smells that hit me before I even noticed they were there. The stand out smell was the unusually delicious stench of cheese from the fondue vendor! Immediately I was immersed in the smells, sounds and colours that surrounded me.

This is the first National Folk Festival since the beginning of the pandemic, so this year my media pass was attached to my unused 2020 festival lanyard. All around me I sensed the excitement from both attendees and volunteers that the festival is back again. People come from all over the country to attend the five day events, celebrating its 55th year of existence this year. A celebration of all things folk, the festival is an experience unlike any other, combining both music and culture that leaves absolutely nothing out.

My first plan of action after passing through the gate was to take a stroll and investigate my food options. I followed my nose and found myself standing in front of the first vender, which was appropriately named ‘Ryan Gozleme’.

After a collective giggle with all the other people turning the corner, I moved on, and made my way to the gnocchi stand.

Yep. Gnocchi at a music festival. Weird, but extremely delicious. I did not regret my decision one little bit.

I eventually located a table to sit and eat my lunch at, at the exact same time another acrobatics show had begun. My intention at this festival was to make the most of the opportunities to listen to the music, but the first half an hour was solely devoted to acrobatic shows and bougie pasta vendors. But who doesn’t love lunch and a show? The gnocchi was delicious, but was also one of the more stressful eating experiences I have had, as I also watched a lady role around in a metal circle and try not to fall OR squish any children. Nice.

Once my paper bowl was empty, it was time to attend the first show on my list. I walked towards the massive Narragunnawali tent, temporarily held up by huge metal poles, to find a seat in Uncle Archie Roach’s crowd. It appeared that this is what everyone else at the festival was doing too. It was completely packed in there.

The moment Uncle Archie was assisted on the stage in his wheelchair, the crowd cheered, whilst some cried. Oxygen tank in tow, it looked as though he was just as pleased to be there as we all were to see him perform. The crowd were on their feet in a matter of seconds, and applauded for the first five minutes of his allotted performance time. Joined by member of Tiddas, Sally Dastey, Uncle Archie begun his hour and a half performance for a crowd who he held in the palm of his hand.

The festival generally had a large focus on songs and storytelling, and Uncle Archie Roach’s show was the finest example of both. Altogether, he sung eight songs, which were hand in hand with introductory stories for context. The first song was ‘Hungover’, a funny ode to a morning following a night of regrets. The most memorable of the eight for me was a song called ‘Small Child’ which was introduced by an explanation of Uncle Archie’s fascination with their innocence, and a love for his own grandchildren. As he sung this song, the camera’s on the big screens panned through the first few rows of the crowd, catching numerous people in a world of just them and Archie, wiping continuous streams of tears from their faces. Even the guitarist removed his glasses as soon as he could, wiping away tears from a song he had no doubt heard many times before. That is exactly what the experience of listening to Uncle Archie Roach is like, it will never not be impactful, with stories that go right through your chest and straight to your heart. It was an honour to be there.

Archie Roach performing ‘Tell Me Why’ at the National Folk Festival.

At the end of his set, curator of the National Folk Festival Katie Noonan walked out on the stage to present Uncle Archie Roach with a gift of gratitude. She told the crowd it was a statue made from a tree that grew on Ngunnawal Country, which was given to Uncle Archie to thank him for his performance, and acknowledge this show as his final time on Ngunnawal Country. Unbeknownst to me, this made the whole experience of seeing Uncle Archie Roach that more special. Uncle Archie Roach’s legacy goes further than the term of national treasure, but his ability to tell the stories of his life and to hear them first hand, I believe, is more important than the credit it gets. He has made the most of a difficult life, and ensures his stories are heard. Thank you Uncle Archie Roach. For everything you have done.

Standing ovation for Uncle Archie as he received the statue.

I left the Narragunnawali tent with a mixture of sadness, admiration and amazement, but was grounded soon after with the tinkle of Morris Dancer’s bells. Never a dull moment at the National Folk Festival, I’m telling you. Next on my list was a half hour book reading by Play School’s Justine Clarke accompanied by singer and children’s book author, Josh Pyke. I feel it is important to mention that I attended this one in the name of experiencing everything the festival had to offer; this is not something I do often (I swear). Also, I am a big fan of Josh Pyke, so this was a cool opportunity to get up close.

The two were in a considerably smaller tent than the Narragunnawali, with a crowd of just over 100 people. They began by singing a song that was new to my repertoire, ‘A Banana is a Banana’, and then read Josh’s book ‘The Incredible Runaway Snot’. This was one of the more unusual experiences, but Justine Clarke is one of the best children’s book readers I’ve ever come across (the others are only known to me as I was once a child), and Josh Pyke’s writing skills are quite impressive. I will not forget this in a hurry.

After the reading at about 5:00pm, I decided it was time to try out other one of the food venders. With enough time before the dinner rush, I went to one of the most popular lunch venders, serving authentic kransky sausages. Piled with sauerkraut, onion and tomato sauce, this was a treat. Not entirely sure about its connection to folk culture – but at this time I didn’t care. It was absolutely delicious.

I had a bit of time to spare after my early dinner, so I managed to walk amongst the stallholders at the festival. There was an obvious theme amongst them, which only became clearer as I made it to The Greens’ marquee. Each stall was a small business selling homemade jewellery, used clothes, candles and the like. Almost all made from recycled materials. A favourite of mine was the ‘WozWaste’ stall, selling a variety of goods including belts, jewellery and hanging plant pots that were, as their slogan suggested ‘reincarnating rubbish’. Environmental awareness was a huge part of the whole festival, not just in the stall products, but in all the tableware. This was an impressive sight to see.

At 5:40pm, it was time to see my final planned show of the day, and boy was it a good one. Josh Pyke’s songs have been the backing tracks to my life from the age of five to 21. He is an incredible artist, and spent the whole show on stage alone, with a guitar, harmonica and loop pedal. And he needed absolutely nothing else.

Both the audience (myself included) and Josh were extremely excited to be in the presence of one another again. Josh was constantly in awe of the size of the crowd, and made mention to how glad he was to be back on stage multiple times during his hour long set. In response, the crowd clapped, cheered and stood on their feet all throughout, basking in his live music. Halfway through his set, Josh Pyke stopped playing and told us all that this opportunity to play in front of a sizeable crowd again was a ‘good old fun time’, which I couldn’t agree with more.

The song Josh Pyke finished with was titled ‘Don’t Let It Wait’, which was written during the beginning of the pandemic. Josh explained the song came from a realisation he made during isolation of how important all the little things are, and this song perfectly incapsulates this feeling for me. He asked the crowd to join in with the ending of the song, to sing the lines ‘don’t let it wait’. As we all sang together, I realised how incredible it is to experience moments like this, and how true and important it is to look at how special everything can be. Bringing a tear to my eye, listening to a tent packed full of people singing together after over two years of isolation was a better ending to the festival than any I could have imagined.

Josh Pyke’s final song at the National Folk Festival Canberra.

Josh Pyke could not have said it any better. My experience on the Saturday of the 2022 National Folk Festival was a good old fun time indeed. There was constantly something happening in every corner that you looked, and there was no point where I wasn’t entertained in some way. From the incredible songs and stories from Uncle Archie Roach, to the children’s entertainment that was absolutely worth every minute, to the amazing food and the emotional set from Josh Pyke, the festival was everything it could have been and more. It was an honour to attend, and an experience I will remember for a long, long time. Until next time, thanks National Folk Festival!

Here is a Spotify playlist of all the acts mentioned in the above article. Listen to your heart’s content!

Photos by Sara Garrity