Three great days in Port Fairy

March 27, 1991

By Harry van Moorst

For three days in March, the sleepy old fishing village of Port Fairy comes to life with the ballads, shanties, jigs and reels that characterise Victoria's largest, and Australia's most charming folk festival.

Amidst the bluestone cottages and classified historic buildings dating back to early settlement, 5000 paying folk music fans, and numerous non-paying ones, gather to enjoy some of Australia's best practitioners of traditional and contemporary folk music.

Organisers limit the number of tickets to 5000, and most years are complete sell-outs. Three enormous, specially erected "Hoekkers" (large, tent-like constructions), along with the Port Fairy Sports Pavilion, provide the central festival area. But most other community facilities and even the streets share the action.

After 15 years' experience, the organisers, primarily from the Geelong Folk Music Club, put on a very competent show and cater for a wide range of musical tastes. Purists have been critical of the amount of contemporary and multicultural folk, but there were still more traditional jigs, reels and shanties than you could poke a haggis at.

A rejuvenated Red Gum provided one of the highlights, playing to packed houses. Their second concert was enjoyed by 3000 fans inside the Hoekker and another 1000 outside on the sunny lawns.

International artists were headed by Tom Paxton from the US and Roy Bailey from the UK. The organisers heavily promoted the internationally renowned Paxton and featured him in several major performances.

Paxton lived up to his reputation as a highly entertaining contemporary folk singer, although there was a lack of some of the political incisiveness of which he is capable. A mixed audience of all ages heard him perform his satirical commentaries on social events such as funerals, war and sex. Next to a 45-year-old bearded ex-hippie sat a 14-year old blond girl, both listening intently — on the girl's arm was inscribed "Metallica Rule on 4 Ever!"

The highlight of his Sunday performance occurred when Paxton invited Roy Bailey to perform. Suddenly, what had been an entertaining concert became an inspired one. Bailey, who had been seriously under-exposed by the organisers, gave a magnificent rendition of "The Last of the Great Whales". Paxton's following numbers were more politically meaningful and seemed performed with a new zest.

Bailey's impact continued the next morning, when he enthralled an audience of 2000 with his gentle wit, highly moving songs and magnificent voice. His rendition of "Witches" had the audience mesmerised, and his anti-apartheid song, "Leaves From a Tree", struck a strong chord of sympathy. As testament to his consummate performance, the audience, satiated with excellent performances, and generally rather critical, gave him a standing ovation — the only one of the festival.

Singers like Judy Small, Mike McClellan, Gordon McIntyre, Danny Spooner, and groups like the Celts, Shenanigans, Archie Roach Trio and Musika Manjaro were amongst a top class line-up of more than 65 individuals and groups.

Judy Small again gave some excellent performances and displayed a more up-front political presence than most of the other artists.

Another perennial, Danny Spooner, gave a performance of sea shanties that must go down as one of the most realistic performances of the festival. Only the robust Spooner would brave the Port Fairy elements and sing by the old pier to an audience of nearly 500 windblown folk stalwarts, without amplification. Silhouetted against a 19th century four-storey bluestone wall, Spooner belted out the old shanties as they should be sung — in the wind, with the sea and ships alongside. After two hours, he finished with one of the best renditions of "Fiddlers Green" heard for a long time.

A special feature was the effort that went into entertaining the children. For two of the three days there was almost continuous entertainment for children from 2 years to 65 in what was called the "Children's Folk Circus". Most of the top artists, including Paxton and Bailey, performed as part of the Folk Circus. Groups like Shenanigans and Jugularity performed several times, and Shenanigans held a family dance.

Workshops where children could try their hand at juggling, stilt walking, unicycle riding and other skills (conducted by the impressive Fratellini Bros) were interspersed with many opportunities to join the artists in song.

-1>For townspeople and those who didn't have the $55 to participate fully, there were free concerts in street venues. In fact, the street performances alone would warrant the trip to Port Fairy.0>

A most disturbing rumour circulated and was at least partly confirmed by organisers. Due to financial difficulties (resulting from a loss of money invested in Pyramid before its collapse), consideration is being given to holding the festival in Geelong next year. This would be a big mistake. The charm and magic would disappear and many long-standing supporters would not bother to make the effort. Whatever the financial problems, they are short-term and won't be solved by breaking long-term traditions. n

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