Port Fairy Folk Festival – A brief history…
By Founding Director Jamie McKew OAM
The festival story started in December 1977 when the festival came to town – it was literally on the back of a truck – as a freewheeling cultural freedom ride of sorts. In 2017 we celebrate the 41st event as the achievement of community, volunteers, music industry, artists and staff along with our passionate audience – inspired by folk & roots music – powered by volunteers. Together we become one amazing festival gathering singing by the oceans of the south-west coast.
The Plot…The plot for a folk festival at Port Fairy was hatched around August 1977 in the Bush Inn hotel in Geelong by the small group who had restarted the Geelong Folk Music Club in May 1977. With successful clubnights and bush dances – the unique ‘Bullockies Balls’ – there was just enough money and plenty of blind faith to have a go. Jamie McKew suggested looking at Port Fairy, his grandmothers home town, as it offered very good venues and amenities and had a very traditional and historic atmosphere. The flavour of folk music was more traditional Celtic and Australian. The first festival was to be highlighted as presenting ‘Irish and Australian’music.
The first festival was in December 1977, second one in December 1978, third one in December 1979 and the fourth in March 1980 continuing every March since then opting for the long weekend and the usually more reliable weather. Since 1977, just over 2000 acts and around 8000 artists have appeared at the festival.
We asked co-founder Jamie McKew…”People often ask me why the festival is at Port Fairy. One answer is the festival is because my grandmother lived just near Port Fairy at Rosebrook. In fact my grandparents were once the curators of the Port Fairy gardens. It is a part of my personal history. So my mother came from Port Fairy and in fact went to school with Shane Howards mother, still friends to this day. Each summer our growing family went to holiday with the grandparents at Port Fairy and one way or another I got to know the town and some of the people quite well.
Years later living in Geelong in 1977 I had restarted the Geelong Folk Music Club. Our small organising group started thinking about beginning a folk festival and I suggested Port Fairy as a venue. We were somewhat inspired by a very enjoyable National Folk Festival held in Adelaide the previous Easter. Around August on a trip down to visit my Nanna I visited some possible venues and sites around town with the enthusiastic help of John Brophy.
It soon became clear that the township was ideally suited to hold a small music festival as it offered small halls, a community centre, historic pubs, wonderful camping at the Gardens Caravan Park, and generally a traditional atmosphere. Most importantly there were people such as John Brophy with his merry helpers and over the years a great many more community spirited people willing to get behind the Festival.
In the first few years the Port Fairy assistance principally came from the Lions Club. The sites we chose were the small band rotunda at the gardensfor the main Sunday afternoon concert, for dances the Drill Hall (formerly the more romantically named Fairy Palace where my parents had their wedding reception) and the Community Centre for the concert. For many years Pat Glover did a great job organising dozens of keys and fees so we could actually get into all the places. And the stories he could tell would fill a library of books!
The poster was designed by Steven Thomas, the brother of Michael Thomas, from Weddings Parties Anything, who had recently been in a bush band with me called the Rybuck Bush Band. That poster design is the same one retainedtoday. The first poster was all green and the subtitle beneath the Port Fairy Folk Festival stated Australian and Traditional music. This subtitle was later dropped as the festival programming became more embracing.
In 1978 I had a successful band called Buckleys Bush Band and we played for the Friday night dance in the Drill Hall. I remember a few tense moments at the door when some local youths felt that we weren’t welcome on their territory but as the dancing and the fun ensued most of the young people were also won over particularly by the second and third festivals.
Over the weekends we dragged my band’s PA around from venue to venue and as the people rolled in and Saturday and Sunday passed there was music everywhere especially in the pubs where there were absolutely delightful sessions held and with everyone having a great time it was very clear that the Port Fairy festival really did have legs. The organising group for that first year included Marie Goldsworthy, Ivan Milligan, Cliff Gilbert Purssey and Fiona Longfield. More assistance came from Cliff’s friends in the Folk Song and Dance Society.
From then on the challenge was to keep it going and there were so many things that needed improving. It took a few years to really get on top of all the problems and logistics of launching a festival in a small town each year. A particular problem was the need for building stages as the event became bigger. The stages evolved from the band rotunda, to one truck tray, to one transport, to two transports with covers built by Russell Clark and his band of lads. Russell had a local building supplies business which we plundered and he became mayor at an opportune time as the festival was growing he helped enormously to open up venues and get the support of council behind it.
It is no coincidence that Russell in 1992 became chairman of the body which now runs the festival. He had been responsible for leading a long project of infrastructure development in which a very large amount as been invested to ensure smooth running of this huge event. This includes construction of stages, undergound three phase power to main stages, water and sewage mains, telephone communications, new storage sheds and equipment. Russell had a passion and drive to continue quality improvements of the festival as the major event in the town and district. The social and cultural benefits seemed bountiful.
One critical turning point for the future of the festival was the move to encompass the main venues in one arena; an essential move which solved huge and overwhelming problems. Russell’s crew grew to the entire Yambuk Football Club complete with the barbeque support group. The Yambuk Community are still coming each year to build the huge Hoekka marquees. Since 1992 the organising body was transferred from Geelong Folk Music Club to Port Fairy. After my two year ‘sabbatical’, the new committee invited me back to put their first festival together. With the new town based committee the local community support has grown enormously.
Highlights for me are many, but I’ll never forget that sensational acoustic/electric concert by The Bushwackers in 1980; the spine tingling midnight Boys of the Lough concert to open the festival in 1983; the singing of Jean Redpath; the audacity of Sirocco leading a hall full of audience out into the street…. and after that so many more, especially the wonderful people and great friends we have made.”
We asked Cliff Gilbert-Purssey…. “Jamie McKew had rung me and asked if I had a bit of spare time to help get a new folk festival off the ground. A bit of spare time? Of course I did. This was the 1970’s (Flared pants, sideburns and not an economic rationalist in sight. The only serious trouble on the horizon was the Packer cricket circus.)
I had fond memories of the Western District – balmy days along the coast, staying with friends at Koroit, exploring Tower Hill… and here we were heading out towards Port Fairy to see what might come of this new idea. We passed by places with names like Killarney and the Moyne River. Jamie remarked that Port Fairy used to be known as Belfast last century.
From the start it was ideal. The atmosphere, the architecture, the fishing port, the history, the pubs, the sheer Irishness of the place lent itself to folk music and dancing revelry. There was a bit of magic about it all. Jamie had a grandmother living nearby – a sparkling, energetic woman of 84 who was very much in tune with her garden and people and the world and was just a little bit “fey”. A leprechaun would not have been out of place here.
I can’t remember much about those early meetings. I think our mission was twofold – to win the locals over and reassure them that sharing their town with a folk festival would not result in mass pillage and mayhem, and to start work on the logistics – the venues, the facilities and catering. It all came together of course. Just a small festival of a few hundred that first year. I have abiding memories of sessions in The Caledonian and somewhere drinking a heady local concoction called Blue Mako (I wonder if they still serve it?) There was a happy and friendly buzz around town. Those locals who were sceptical were won over and those who had backed the idea were pleased and vindicated. A successful relationship had clearly begun.
I came back again the next year. It was bigger and better but I had less to do with the organising. I think I was with the band then, or perhaps I did a concert spot or a workshop? Might have even done a “foot-up” in the square (Is it really 20 years?).
Other festivals we started around that time are long gone – Chiltern, Yinnar, even the names are forgotten. But not this one. Jamie was a dynamo. He had inspired a team of hard-working people both in Geelong and in Port Fairy. He had obviously seen the potential for something special. And then it ended for me. For some reason I couldn’t make it the next year and then I was off overseas and interstate and haven’t been back since. Well, not quite. I called in with my family one August night a few years ago. Here was the same quiet, old Port Fairy, almost unchanged. I found it hard to imagine the many thousands of people who, I was assured, flock there each March. I promised myself that one year soon I’d come back at festival time and see it all for myself. One year soon.”
We asked Marie Goldsworthy…”The first ever Port Fairy Folk Festival was held on the weekend of December 2, 3 & 4 in 1977. It was a small event by comparison with later developments, but surprisingly successful for the organisers, a small group of members of the then recently formed Geelong Folk Club.
Only months earlier, Jamie McKew had a great idea – a folk festival featuring Irish music, held in the town first settled by many Irish immigrants because of the availability of rich soil for potato-growing and good fishing. The date was chosen to coincide with the local Moyneyana Festival which was already being held in December. Jamie’s remarkable grandmother also lived just out of Port Fairy, so the organisers had a ready made base when we travelled there to make arrangements! Another story could be written about Jamie’s grandmother – she deserves to be fondly remembered.
A meeting of the organisers (Jamie McKew, Marie Goldsworthy & Fiona Long field, Fay and Morgan McAlinden from Geelong, Cliff Gilbert Purssey from Melbourne) was set up with the Mayor of Port Fairy in the Council Chambers there. Ivan Milligan was unable to attend that weekend, but his enthusiasm and ideas were valuable in the planning which resulted. Various venues (some still an integral part of the weekend) were inspected and selected and the now famous large posters featuring fishing vessels were designed and printed – as close as we could get to shamrock green!
The first Festival was to feature Irish and Australian Tradition. A weekend ticket cost $4 (yes, four dollars!) and entitled entry to both concert/workshop in the Community Centre Theatre at 3 p.m. on the Saturday and the Ceilidhe at the Drill Hall over the road that evening. Colonial dancing was popular and enjoyed by the participants in between various performances.
Accommodation was not a big problem on that first weekend festival. I stayed at the centrally located Youth Hostel, a short walk from the main venues. Now almost 20 years on, my strongest memory is of walking about with my pockets bulging with the entire takings from the sale of weekend tickets at the door of the Community Centre – about $1000 – and the distinct feeling that the Port Fairy Festival was indeed a success!”
We asked Russell Clark… “I first became really involved helping out with the building of stages. Pipe from the building supplies was used to make covers over the transport trays which in the early days were on the Gardens Oval.
From then on there were so many little and big problems arising I was on the go all the time trying to solve difficulties with power, plumbing, water and so on. More than once the sparks were flying as winds tried to rip down marquees.
Later on I built stages for the marquees in Southcombe Park when we moved down there. But these were on a bed of drums and just were not stable or safe. I well remember the year we lifted Cathal MacConnell of the Boys of the Lough from the stage still sitting in his chair! We had pulled him out of The Stump just before the concert and he played as brilliantly as ever. But he wasn’t up to navigating himself off the high stage. I knew then it was time to build better ones. Eventually we began making the solid modular stages that are now in use. These are being modified at the moment to make them quicker to assemble.
When I became mayor I could see that there was a need to open up more facilities around the town and get the council services behind the festival. The real turning point came when the running of the festival was transferred to a new town based committee. This has made all the difference with much more local involvement and I am very pleased that we have such a talented team.
Highlights have been many but winning the three Australian Tourism Awards in a row and now the Hall of Fame Award has been great for us. I feel very lucky to be involved with this amazing festival and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” (Russell Clark 1992 – 1998)