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National Folk Festival 2016: Margret RoadKnight recalls first festival on 50th anniversary

They say if you remember the '60s you weren't there.

But in 1967 Margret RoadKnight was at the first National Folk Festival in Melbourne and she remembers it well.

Margret RoadKnight performed at the first National Folk Festival in 1967 in Melbourne and has performed at many since.
Margret RoadKnight performed at the first National Folk Festival in 1967 in Melbourne and has performed at many since. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

What the 72-year-old doesn't recall is the supposed police presence at the event, but she thinks it must be true knowing her political inclinations and those of the festival's founders in the era of anti-Vietnam War protests, fights for Aboriginal rights, and feminism.

"I'm sure there were no arrests, I'm not even sure there was liquor available, or illicitly there, I can't remember," she laughs.

"They were really into peace as opposed to violence, so I suppose if the police were there, they were there under a misapprehension."

RoadKnight will be among a small group of performers from the first festival on hand to celebrate its 50th in Canberra over Easter.

A founder's concert on Saturday and Swinging Sixties Day on Easter Sunday are among the special events planned to mark the milestone.

Since its beginnings in 1967 as the Port Phillip District Folk Music Festival in Melbourne with a start-up fund of $100, two years later it became an annual touring festival shared among the states and territories.

Poster from the first National Folk Festival, way back in 1967 when it was the Port Phillip District Folk Music Festival.
Poster from the first National Folk Festival, way back in 1967 when it was the Port Phillip District Folk Music Festival. 

Finally in 1992 the organisers decided to abandon the touring model and in 1993 the national festival came to the national capital permanently, after its first tour to Canberra in the mid-1970s, when it set up its base at Exhibition Park – a move RoadKnight said made a great deal of sense.

Rather than retelling stories of wild times with the first folkies, RoadKnight recalls the performers and organisers all being "very serious" and focused on their music with the workshops, talks, and seminars just as important as the performances.

It was the trad jazz and bluesy types who were a little wilder, she says.

"Because we'd come from a period before there was much exposure to [folk] music, it was like underground music ... it was almost like a secret cult," she laughs.

"Hearing about somebody ... and trying to get songs that nobody else was doing ... it was a more difficult but more rewarding way to come up with your own repertoire."

With her 53-year career as a singer and guitarist spanning gospel, blues, African, cabaret and protest songs, RoadKnight is reluctant to brand herself a folk singer.

While she admits the early organisers rarely thought ahead beyond the next year's festival, and few would have imagined it would live on 50 years later, she said there were always plans to make it national and even the first festival attracted performers from as far as away as Brisbane.

Since the early days when performers like herself would couch-surf, play and teach workshops for free, RoadKnight has watched the festival and the wider scene become more professional with at times "ridiculous" bureaucracy.

"You'd just have a great time and not make a cent," she laughs.

"In the early days no one would have had an album, vinyl or cassette, to sell and nowadays every aspect of music ... is based on what you've got available be it for sale or on YouTube or whatever, it's fantastic."

She says the way people find out about music has also changed dramatically, but she bemoans the "pretty sounds" and "navel gazing" that passes as folk music these days.

"[Politics were] quite pivotal to the idea of 'this is important music ... this is music that can change attitudes and make society better," she said.

"That was definitely a feeling under the first festival which I suspect has dissipated as the years go by."

While the word folk, and the national festival, now covers a much broader spectrum of music including world music, RoadKnight admits the genre has now become more niche after crossing over into the realm of pop music in the 1960s.

But she said the performers at the first festival, with its decidedly Anglo focus, didn't intentionally seek popularity or commercial success.

"There was hardly any mention of Aboriginal music ... things tended to be in English although I made a point of learning lots of songs in different languages and I suspect I sang most of them pretty badly," she laughs.

"But I did like the flavour of songs from other cultures. Now ... you wouldn't think of doing an African song because there's probably a genuine African musician down the road who can do it, but back then I was known for doing African songs and playing the thumb piano."

The 50th National Folk Festival is on at Exhibition Park, Canberra, over the Easter weekend, March 24 to 28. For more information or tickets visit: folkfestival.org.au.