Skip to content




The Collection, Preservation and Dissemination of Australian Folklore

Public Lecture at the National Library of Australia in celebration of the Library’s fifty years in its present building

March 29, 2018


Graham Seal

The following are, more or less, the notes I used for this talk, minus a short section on ‘what is folklore’ and the Powerpoint slide cues. The script is provided here for anyone to add information and/or amend any errors. Input received so far has come from:

Diane Bell

Robyn Holmes

Keith McKenry

Brian Samuels

My thanks for their assistance and that of any future contributors to this brief overview of folklore studies in Australia. At a future date, the intention is to write this up into a more polished article for publication.


  • The main theme of this talk is the Development of Australian folklore collection, preservation and dissemination over last 50 years
  • Will have a few minutes for Q & A at the end, so will give thanks first in case we run out of time Thanks to: NLA staff, Rob Willis, Maureen Seal.
  • This talk is not intended as the last word on the topic, but more of a first attempt to sum up the history of folklore studies in Australia. I’ll only be skimming the surface but on order to make the exercise more useful and long-lasting I will put the talk up on a blog so that others can contribute ideas, information, corrections, etc. This is a big field and one individual’s perception of it can only be a limited one.



1968 was a momentous year in international politics and culture. There were serious popular rising and invasions in Europe, political assassinations in USA and the appointment of a new Australian Prime Minister shortly after Harold Holt disappeared at sea –  a mystery that has itself generated its own folklore.

This building opened in that year, by which time there was already a good deal of activity in the area of Australian folklore, much of it revolving around bush song, music, dance, verse and yarns.

The previous year, 1967, had seen publication of FSA 1 by John Meredith and Hugh Anderson. This was a great moment for folksong collecting and study because it included not only transcriptions of the songs, poems and dance tunes that had been collected but a truly revolutionary sub-title – ‘and the men and women who sang them’.

This was a decisive advance on previous collections such as those of A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s Old Bush Songs and other earlier workers in this field. Valuable as they are, those collections were generally short on details of the lives and work of those who carried the collected traditions.

John Meredith’s work was not done in isolation, of course. He was a member of the Sydney BMC which since 1952 had been collecting, publishing, performing and recording bush music and song. Similar work was going on elsewhere.

John Manifold was active in Queensland and elsewhere, as a collector, performer and researcher. He published a number of important works, including Who Wrote the Ballads? in 1964, one of the first attempts to define and delineate the study of bush ballads, as well as several important collections of folksong.

Those associated with organisations like the Folk Lore Society of Victoria, the Victorian Folk Music Club, The Folk Song and Dance Society of Victoria and the Folklore Council of Australia were also very active in the same period – I’ll say more about their important work in a moment.

The late 1960s was the peak of the first period of John Meredith’s collecting work and of the initial interest and activity in folk song, music and dance, as well as other folklore, that had been going on strongly since the 1950s.

John Meredith would go on to collect more, often in company with others who became his apprentices and carried on the collecting into the next generation. And he would publish much of his work. As would Hugh Anderson who made his own extensive contributions in folk song, story and related fields, including goldfields ballads, folksong history and the biography of traditional singer, musician and storyteller, the remarkable Simon McDonald.

Over the same period and from the same interest, Ron Edwards began what can only be described as a marathon collecting and publishing career, covering not only song and music but also stories, handcrafts and related lore. A man of many talents, he established the Australian Folklore Society in 1979 and edited its journal for many years, as well as several other periodicals. In later years he developed a strong interest in Torres Strait Island traditions, on which he also published, along with his legendary Folksong Index and many other works. Many of Ron’s books were published by his own Rams Skull Press, which also published many of the valuable Folklore Occasional Papers series.

In the field of folk dance, Shirley Andrews put traditional social dancing on the map with her teaching, research and book Take Your Partners (1974) and in 1988, Two Hundred Dancing Years with Peter Ellis. Lucy Stockdale and groups like the Australian Colonial Dancers (Vic, 1974) carried on her inspiring work.  Like many other people I’ll mention, Shirley Andrews’ papers are in NLA.

Others have worked in the field of folk dance, including Margaret Walker on multicultural dancing traditions with which Australia is richly blessed.

In 1969, Patsy Adam-Smith published her Folklore of the Australian Railwaymen, a compilation of stories, poems and other railway lore based on her family traditions and her own collecting. Patsy went on to become the manuscripts field officer at the State Library of Victoria and to be a well-known author of popular works, often with folkloric dimensions, including on shearers, Anzacs and women at war.



The NLA has the largest – though not the only – collection of folklore in Australia, with a particular strength in traditional song and music. The Library’s collection came about as a result of its early activity in oral history, especially the work of Hazel de Bergh and building on the interest and energy of Sir Harold White, from 1960 National Librarian.

From the 1950s, the possibilities opened up by portable sound recording technology for documenting and preservation of people’s memories and experiences allowed oral history to develop. This also fitted well with the work of folklore collection that had been going on since the nineteenth century, and even earlier, in Europe.

The NLA’s collections of OH and F/L have developed side by side and constitute a unique and irreplaceable record of this country’s folk history and oral traditions.

The person most closely associated with the folklore and oral history collection, of course, was the late Edgar Waters. His research into the history of folksong and related matters was outstanding and gave us important insights into the importance of those traditions. As well as contributing to the preservation and study of folksong, Edgar was also involved in dissemination through Peter Hamilton’s Wattle Records and films initiatives and corresponded with A L Lloyd about bush songs, giving him access to collected Australian material that formed the basis of much of his recorded and published work on the subject.

Edgar is much missed but still much quoted by those looking for insights into the historical aspects of Australian folksong.

Another hero of the Library’s support for folklore-related activities is Mark Cranfield. In his time as head of Oral History, Mark added the term ‘Folklore’ to the title of the department, signaling a clear recognition of the significance of this field for the national culture.

The NLA contributes in other ways, including through the annual Folk Fellowship scheme, a joint project with the NFF, and through folklore related outreach activities.



Collecting lore from folk is the basic method of folklore study.

Pioneering individuals in the collection of folklore include: Joseph Jacobs (briefly); A B Paterson and his Old Bush Songs, Bill Wannan, Bill Beatty, Frank Clune, Alexander Vennard (‘Bill Bowyang’); Rev Percy Jones, among others such as Clive Carey (English – in SA 1920s, collected mainly shanties, in EFDSS – ref Warren’s website).

Others, including Nancy Keesing, and Douglas Stewart published important collections of bush verse and song. Nany Keesing also collected and published some pioneering work on women’s traditions, superstitions and weather lore.

Roland Robinson collected and published Indigenous stories in the 1960s and 70s.

The remarkable Ngarrindjerie writer, inventor and activist, David Unaipon collected Aboriginal stories extensively in the 1920s and 30s and published some of this work under his own name, though much more of it was appropriated by a white collector of Indigenous traditions, artefacts and bones.

Most of these people operated in an era before the general availability of sound recording, though many have their papers in the NLA and in other repositories.

These cultural institutions – libraries, museums and archives –  have also been able to build on the fieldwork of a band of pioneer collectors whose work began seriously in the 1950s and 60s, including Allan Scott, Bill Scott, Chris Woodland, Alex Hood, Norm and Pat O’Connor, Stan Arthur, Bob Michell, Maryjean Officer, Joy Durst.

Wendy Lowenstein was an important member of that group who collected all kinds of folklore right around Australia and founded and edited the important magazine, Australian Tradition (1963-1975) and also published important work in children’s folklore and the oral history and traditions of the Great Depression.

All of this work is available to be mined by researchers, performers and others with an interest in Australian folk traditions.

Many of these people worked through community folklore organisations such as BMC, VFMDS, Victorian Folk Music Club, Folklore Council of Australia (1964).

Others, like Lloyd Robson and Russel Ward worked mainly through universities and, together with Edgar Waters; Bob Reece; Alice Moyle, Jill Stubington, as academic historians and anthropologists. Stephen Murray-Smith’s activities as a collector and writer also relate to this group.

This early work was followed by a new generation of fieldworkers including Brad Tate, Mark Rummery, Tom Rummery, Bob Rummery (WA), Dave De Hugard, Barry McDonald, Peter Ellis, Peter Parkhill, Chris Sullivan, Mark Schuster, Colin McJannett, Graham Seal, Wongawilli group around Dave De Santi, Rob and Olya Willis, Kevin Bradley, Alan Musgrove, Jeff Corfield, Karl Neuenfeldt, Dennis O’Keeffe, among many others who have made valued contributions.

Some of these collectors have their work in the NLA, notably Chris Sullivan’s extensive work, particularly in rural Australia and indigenous traditions. Chris’s work is also represented in the collections of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Most of these collectors also disseminated their work in books, articles, recordings and also frequently performed it. Warren Fahey’s extensive Australian Folklore Unit collections are in the NLA, in many publications and recordings and also on his website. Warren is also the founder of Larrikin Records, which released many field recordings as well as revival folk artists, helping to give Australian traditions a higher public profile.

While the original impetus to collect bush traditions was broadly nationalistic – as in the case of folklore collection in many countries – succeeding generations of collectors have evolved strong interests in Indigenous and multicultural traditions, adding a further dimension to our knowledge of the amazing ethnic diversity of Australian society and culture.

Interested individuals from, or closely connected with multicultural communities have also collected traditions. Barry York, for instance, collected through the Maltese Australian Folklife and Social History project through the 1980s and 90s.

Stathis Gauntlett and others worked on Greek traditions in Victoria from the 1970s.

The Perth Chinese communities were collected by folklorists from China back in the 1980s and Ukranian, Greek, Swiss and Indigenous traditions of all kinds have also been collected there through the WA Folklife Project since 2004.

More recently, Jessie Lloyd has collected and performed songs sung out of church on Aboriginal missions. Jessie was last year’s Folk Fellow.

The 2018 National Folk Fellow is Salvatore Rossano who is working on the Italian traditions within the NLA folklore collections.


International links

As well as home-grown collectors, we have had some international interest:

  • A L Lloyd 1920s NSW
  • Frances Freeman Fulbright 1953 – ANU
  • Dorothy Howard – Fulbright 1954-5
  • Dr Kenneth Porter at Melbourne University, 1954-5
  • John Greenway in Australia on a Fulbright 1956-7
  • Kenny Goldstein 1982-3 – collected recitations, folk music, folk songs, jokes and yarns, assisted by John Marshal and Kel Watkins (WA)
  • John Marshall – also collected and published rural Australian folklore in NSW and Victoria, as Kel in WA
  • Martyn Wyndham Read is an English folk musician who worked as a jackaroo in the 1960s and gathered up a lot of that culture and has gone on to present it around the world. Martyn also represents the many folk revival performers who do serious research on their material, such as the late Danny Spooner, Steve Gadd, Peter McFie and others already mentioned.



So, that is a very brief account of the collecting aspect of Australian folklore. The next stage is preserving the collected materials. What do you do with all that information?

The outstanding example of collection, preservation and dissemination of our folklore has been going on since the early 1970s. Most closely associated with June Factor and Gwenda Beed Davey’s work on children’s folk traditions, it has also involved the late Professor Ian Turner, Wendy Lowenstein, Judy McKinty, Kate Darian-Smith and many others, particularly through publication of the long-running Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter (from 1981), later Play and Folklore now, sadly, discontinued.

The work of US Fulbright scholar Dorothy Howard was a basis for this work, which under June and Gwenda’s leadership, went on to encompass multicultural childlore and to signpost an important future direction for Australian folklore studies.

One of the many outcomes of this work was the Multicultural Cassette Series of the folklore of children in many community languages, including Italian, Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Arabic.

June and Gwenda combined their considerable fieldwork collections, and those of Dorothy Howard, into what, from 1979, they called the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection, now housed at Museum Victoria and recognized internationally through its listing on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

This work is one of the few aspects of Australian folklore studies that has received funding from the ARC, an indication of its academic quality as well as its community value.

As far as other collections and archives go, there is a state-based archive in the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University that includes student fieldwork projects as well as the results of the long-running WA Folklife Project partnership between Curtin and the NLA (since 2004).

The National Film and Sound Archive has extensive audio and visual folklore related holdings.

The National Museum and National Gallery also hold bodies of mainly material folk culture in their collections, as do similar state and territory institutions.

Melbourne’s La Trobe Library has extensive multicultural collections by Peter Parkhill, also Wendy Lowenstein’s material as well as self-collected material by ethnic groups such as the Hmong community.

University libraries, museums and galleries are also often holders of folkloric materials and there are also many valuable private collections held by the community folk organisations I’ve mentioned.



This period also characterized by people doing research into historical, social, cultural aspects of folklore, often but not only, in universities and museums. As well as those already mentioned, they include: Mark Gregory, Graeme Smith, Therese Radic, Keith McKenry, Jenny Gall, Brian Samuels, Robert Smith, Dave Johnson, and others.

A substantial number of popular and specialised collections of Australian folklore have been published, including The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore (1993), academic works, journal articles, a number of PhDs on folklore related topics.

Also, people not directly associated with the folk movement, including:

Jeremy Beckett, anthropologist and collector of indigenous songs

Robert Holden and others who have worked in children’s traditions, fairy tales, etc.

Philip Hayward has worked on island musical cultures and maritime folklore

Barry Andrews, Clement Semmler and some Australian literature academics, including Elizabeth Webby and Phillip Butterss, have also done work on bush ballads as popular verse.

More recently, David Waldron at Federation U and his podcasts on aspects of folklore.

Ian Evans and his work on the custom of leaving children’s shoes in chimneys and other domestic spaces, along with hex signs, a form of folk magic.

While these people may not all describe their research as ‘folklore’, they are nevertheless contributing to our knowledge and understanding of the field.

The late Stephan Williams and his Poppinjay Publications series of Australian history and folklore primary sources – an unsung hero of the cause – who also published on bushranging lore and legend.

The Australian Folklore journal for publication of folklore research was established by Graham Seal and Dave Hults in 1987. It has been edited since 1992 by Prof John Ryan, latterly assisted by Robert Smith and a dedicated team, including Jenny Gall and Mark Gregory.  It provides both specialized and general studies that add to our knowledge of our traditions and communicates to folklore scholars in other countries. Another form of dissemination.

In this category I must mention that fantastic resource, Trove. Although it covers the full range of cultural outputs in all fields, this digital search engine wonder is a great boon for folklorists. We’re only beginning to understand its potential, but already Mark Gregory is showing the way, adding ‘Troved’ material to his pioneering and ever-growing online resource, Australian Folksong.

The work of those researching Australian country music also intersects with the study of Australian folksong and music, though there is little interchange between these groups of scholars.



  • Various Australian folklore conferences, including National Folklife Conferences, National Folklore conferences (6 in total?) mainly through the 1980s, some of which published proceedings
  • International Society for Folk Narrative Research conference Melbourne 2001
  • This conference for 13 years



June Factor and Gwenda Beed Davey are the pioneers here, teaching folklore from the 1970s and through that, initiating their collections.

Curtin University –  a unit in folklore was taught there by Graham Seal as part of major programs in Australian Studies, History and Heritage, 1985- c 2000

UNE – distance unit run by John Ryan

Monash –A Graduate Diploma in Australian Folklife Studies was established by Gwenda Beed Davey in 1997. It was succeeded by the Grad Dip Australian Folklife Studies through Open Universities Australia (OUA) and Curtin until c 2012.  A number of folklorists were involved in teaching this qualification, which to date is the most sustained tertiary level program yet mounted in Australia.

One graduate of that course – Jeanette Mollenhauer –  has just received her PhD from Sydney University for a thesis on traditional dance, while several others have also taken on further related study in Australia and abroad.

Several performers in the folk revival have also taken the Grad Dip in either its original Monash form or through OUA/Curtin, including Ruth Hazleton, John Thompson and Graham Dodsworth.



While all these various activities were going on, a promising development was the Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia, 1986-7. Chaired by Hugh Anderson, with Gwenda Beed Davey and Keith McKenry, the Inquiry produced a report that stands as the single most important Australian folklore studies document of the last fifty years:

  • Its coverage was national
  • it identified important aspects and genres of folklife
  • demonstrated their existence and significance in the many cultures and communities of modern Australia
  • and made a series of recommendations to government about the collection, preservation and dissemination of our folk heritage and living traditions.

The emphasis on living traditions was underlined by using the term ‘folklife’ rather than ‘folklore’, with its connotations of antiquarianism and nationalism.

The Inquiry’s recommendations – which included ways to safeguard our Folklife Heritage, Education and a focus on the Living Folk Arts – would have placed Australian folklore study and activity on a properly resourced basis, comparable with government supported centres in USA, Ireland, Scandinavia and some other European countries.

Unfortunately, it became mired in the politics of the moment and was not implemented. But its enduring legacy is a work that demonstrates the overall range and significance of this country’s folklore up until that time. What has happened – or not happened –  since has only served to validate the Inquiry’s findings.



Many – though not all –  of those involved in the work I’ve mentioned so far, have also been involved with the Australian folk revival. This is a complex story of a social-cultural movement that will have to await another day for a full account, but as far as folklore studies are concerned, the folk clubs, state and territory folk federations and other organizations, as well as the booming festival scene, have provided opportunities for performance and presentation of collected material and also some occasional resourcing for collecting and research.

Through the 1970s and into the 1990s, the Australian Folk Trust allied the state revival organizations – and, in its earlier nomadic form, the NFF –  and sought to represent these as ‘folk arts’ to governments, funding bodies and the general public, mainly through the auspices of the Australia Council, through which it was partly funded.

As well as advocacy and lobbying, for some years the AFT provided a national scholarship that allowed many collectors, performers and researchers to carry out useful work.

It also supported the first survey of Australian Folk Resources, an attempt to identify, locate and catalogue the various public and private collections of folklore around the country.

An outcome of this was the National Register of Folklore Collections.  First carried out in the 1980s, it was followed up again when the AFN was formed, revealing an alarming disappearance of collections over less than 20 years. (URL)



So, by the start of this century, the field of Australian folklore was even more diverse than in 1968. It included people collecting in the field; folk organisations in the community; work in universities around research, teaching and publishing; activity in libraries and museums; conferences organized on and off.

At the same time, the folk revival, mainly in the form of festivals, continued to develop and prosper. Some of these activities were connected, but most were not. However, many of the same people worked within and across many of these areas in accordance with their interests and their access to resources.

But there was no centre or coordinating body to focus it and promote it. Recognising the broad but scattered nature of these activities it was thought that an informal, flexibly structured network to connect the various groups might be useful.

The AFN was established by Graham Seal in 2002/3 to connect these different interests and activities. The first couple of years were wobbly but eventually, in partnership with the NLA and NFF, we were able to start this series of conferences to highlight the various efforts and activities. Also published books, supported fieldwork projects and published a newsletter. All through volunteers, the AFN is free to join, as is this conference to attend.

It’s not perfect, but it does serve a need and also appears to be a local means of achieving at least a level of activity in and promotion of Australian folklore.

Can’t untangle folklore collection, preservation and dissemination etc. from the folk revival, because:

  • So many collectors have been/are involved in the revival
  • It is one of the few large-scale outlets for dissemination of folklore and largest constituency of interest for the work we’ve been talking about
  • Preservation institutions, especially the NLA, are connected with festivals etc.

While the situation in UK, USA and elsewhere might be different, for Australia it makes sense to connect the diversity through a community network rather than an official funded ‘centre’ – and, of course, a network is doable, while a centre is not.


So, to finish up, what has been achieved in the last 50 years?

  • Although in a rudimentary form, there is now awareness of, and activity in, folklore in libraries, academia and a body of new publications, recordings and online items that did not exist in 1968.
  • Around several hundred people have received a footing in folklore studies, through the OUA Grad Dip and its predecessor at Monash and the teaching of some academics with an interest in the field
  • There is some interest and activity through folk and other festivals, mainly in music, poetry and dance, but also sometimes including broader elements of folklore, including material culture, food, crafts, customs and story.
  • Collection has continued as one of the strengths
  • NLA has had a role in many of these developments, sometimes as instigator, sometime as a partner, always as a repository for folklore collections and related areas such as oral history
  • Other public collections include ACFC, WAFLA, BMC, VFMC etc. which we have identified through the survey, available online.

All things considered, we’re in reasonable shape, with a diversity of activities and approaches to the collection, preservation and dissemination of our folk traditions.


  • In the digital era, these activities have a relatively low internet presence (a reflection of the age group most involved?)
  • Despite some successes, still a lack of folklore awareness in schools and absence of training in universities and cultural institutions
  • As a group, we don’t make enough connections with others who may be interested and can contribute, and vice versa – Oral historians, storytellers, historians (including those of country music) anthropologists, heritage, museums…
  • ‘Folk’ is still a four-letter word in the cultural apparatuses of publishing, media and some sectors of the academy – reasons are historical and complex, but it remains a fact.

 Q and A

I’ve talked mainly about the achievements of the past, and where we are now, but the important question is: Where to from here for the next 50 years …?




As I stitched this talk together, I discovered that the history of folklore studies in Australia is poorly documented. Consequently, a large proportion is based on my recollections and involvement over the period, as well as conversations with others. Memory is a notoriously faulty mechanism, so amendments and additions are welcomed.

I also used the websites of some of the organisations mentioned, mainly accessed February-March 2018.

Some other relevant works include:

Gwenda Beed Davey and Graham Seal (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore, OUP, Melbourne, 1993.

Seal and Jennifer Gall (eds), Antipodean Traditions: Australian Folklore in the Twenty-First Century, Black Swan Press, Perth, 2011, particularly chapter 19, Brian Samuels ‘The Australian Folk Revival: an historical chronology’, pp. 290ff.

Keith McKenry, ‘Origins of the Australian Folk Revival’ at http:/

Malcolm J Turnbull ‘The Great Folk Revival’ at

Graeme Smith, Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music, Pluto Press, North Melbourne, 2005.

%d bloggers like this: