The Sydney Folk Festival’s three-day program will reflect the changing nature of folk music and, at the same time, showcase some extraordinary talent.

For quite a while folk music had an identity problem – was it quaint singalongs, bearded old men singing really old songs, over-serious singer songwriters on a mission to save the world? Folk music has moved on from the stereotypes and is representative of some of the most interesting music imaginable, especially those genres impossible to pigeonhole. The folk music umbrella, as our festival will show, celebrates musical diversity including music rooted in tradition (where everything old is new again), world music (particularly our corner of the world), songwriters (our musical voice tells stories, our stories) and, frankly, so many other expressions that stereotyping is impossible. Relax, stroll around the festival, explore, participate and be musically challenged.

Balkanski Bus
Balkanski Bus, one of many fantastic performers at the Folk Festival

Folk festivals are unique in as much as we encourage participation. Many of the sessions are designed for players and singers to join in, learn new tricks and have fun. You can bring your tin whistle (go and buy one), harmonica and maybe a mandolin. Ukulele or guitar, and attend a workshop where you’ll learn from the bet. Want to sing? Come to sessions like The Joy of Singing or the Ballad session and join in singing. And then there’s the famous Session Bar which will operate every evening from around 9pm (we’ll have some programmed music to kick start the evenings) – bring your instrument and vocal chords for this is where everyone can shine. There will be impromptu music-making everywhere. Its great fun and as the night moves on (it closes around 2am) you’ll hear some extraordinary music.

There’s a number of conversation starters at the festival. Hear bush songs, or convict stories and songs from Norfolk Island, or maybe squirm and learn about the history of Aboriginalities. Another session not to be missed is Margaret and Bob Fagan’s Songs of the Battlers – songs from the mean and lean times.

We have three theatrical highlights at the festival. Henry Lawson (Max Cullen) and Banjo Paterson (Warren Fahey) will feature in the very last performance of their hit musical play ‘Dead Men Talking’ (there two poets meet in the Leviticus Bar & Grill, Heaven’s Gate, to reminisce about their lives and literary legacies – it’s a hoot). As a festival special there will be a revival of the 1950s play ‘Reedy River’ with a cast of twenty – set in the stormy days of the 1890s shearing strike this musical celebrates Australian bush songs. The Soul of the Poet, is a musical ramble through Henry Lawson’s life.

Australia, the most multi-cultural country in the world, has produced some top world music artists and our festival features the return of the pioneering ensemble, Sirocco, and matches them with Mara! And Chaika, the two leading names in Australian world music fusion. We are also proud to feature the great African (Mali) guitar pleaser and singer with his band Wassado – guaranteed to have you on your feet with joy. As you venture out you can also hear Venezuelan music with local group, Strangelove.

We were looking for something very special in our indigenous salute and are delighted to have Eric Avery as a performer. Eric is a violinist for borders folk and classical and ambient sounds and also sings in his own NSW language. The festival acknowledges it is held on Gadigal land and respects its elders past, present and future. As Yothu Yindi advised in song – ‘Treaty’.

Our Birrung Ballroom in the City Tatts will have a dance program where you can learn set dances, contra and many other social dances of yesterday like the polka, mazurka, schottische and waltz. Sydney’s own Morris Dance team, Black Joak, will also be performing at various venues across the festival – you’ll hear the jingling of the feet before you see them – don’t miss this continuation of an old tradition. Feeling energetic? Dance to world music rhythms at our Sunday afternoon World Dance with Sirocco and Balkanski Bus- this will be quite something!

There’s no denying the influence of the Irish and Scots on Australia’s musical heritage and the festival will celebrate this connection with some wonderful musicians including harpist, Cliona Molins, guitar player Stu Tyrrell, The Last Aurochs and The Mutual Acquaintances, to name a few. There’s also two bands featuring the Celtic-connections of Galicia and Brittany. Look out for Seanchas and Kejafi.

Traditional Graffiti, a high-energy Sydney band combines old songs with vibrant originals – there’s even a song about ‘When the Virgin Mary Came to Coogee!’ The Ballad session will explore a darker side of British song – ballads, those age-old songs, deal with incest, murder and mayhem. Being an island continent the sea has played a vital role in shaping our national identity. Hear sea songs and shanties (and join in on the refrains) when The Shanty Club and 40 Degrees South belt out the classics that kept the old clipper ships moving across the globe.

If there’s one area where the term ‘folk music’ has gained respectability, it’s with younger performers, especially songwriters. Our festival will celebrate younger performers including singer songwriters Allegra Dunning and Amber Stanton, both young songwriters and seasoned performers. Arlo Sim, at 17, has been performing since 9 year’s old and he has to be heard to be believed. Megan Roweth, from the musical Roweth family, is a bush poet ready with a rhyme. As a special treat we will also present the 15 member strong Hunter Signing Choir who prove hearing disabilities are no barrier to music-making. In complete contract to the young folk we are proud to present Charles and Yolanda – Charles, at 92, will amaze and entertain you with songs and ukulele.

There’s no denying the role the guitar has in music-making, especially folk music. The festival will present some of the leading stringed instrumentalists. Marcus Holden will launch his book of Ray Schloeffel’s fiddle tunes, Kate Burke will present a session on open tuning for guitar, guitar virtuosos John Kane and Andy Gordon will pick and strum in unimaginably complex solo and duo arrangements, and, visiting musicologist, Victor Mishalow, will unveil beautiful Ukrainian music on the 64 string bandura.

Get up early on Sunday morning to be at the Poet’s Big Breakfast at the Ed. Hear Banjo Paterson, Lawson and the old bush poets who entertained generations of Australians before the television ruined everything! Hear some classic bush yarns and, of course, some new bush poetry – it’s enough to stop the chooks laying for a week!

We have so many great songwriters in so many styles from storytellers to tune weavers. Don’t miss Keith Potger (of The Seekers – and a top songwriter and storyteller), Francesca Sidoti, Michael Kopp, Josh Maynard, Westminster, Den Hanrahan (and The Rum Runners) will dazzle and Luke Plumb and The Circuit will show all things great about folk music. And, of course, our featured artist, Eric Bogle, will appear twice in the festival program.

A special tribute to Bernard Bolan will celebrate his contribution to Australian contemporary folksong. Led by Denis Tracey, Kate Delaney and Justin Miller, and featuring guest singers, this is not to be missed with songs like Send The City Sunshine, The Rose Bay Ferry and even a song about the Folk Federation of NSW (Bernard was an ex-President)

And there’s another songwriter session in the Sydney Songster – songs about our fair (and sometimes unfair) city – old and new songs. This will be a fun concert full of surprises.

Our Club Ed, upstairs in the Edinburgh Castle, will be more like a folk club with intimate ambiance and some wonderful musicians offering old-times, jazz, blues and beyond. There’s also a lot of bluegrass and old times music programmed at our festival – because it’s great music – wild banjos, fiddles, harmonicas and songs.

Sydney’s late night reputation has been a bit skewiff over the past ‘lockout’ years and we intend to shake and wake Sydney up a little later than usual. The Button Collective is a real highlight for the festival with their highly original songs and tunes that challenge preconceptions of music. And then there’s the slamming Aussieness of the Handsome Young Strangers who will definitely shake the Ed on Sunday night. The Bottlers are another Sydney band worth shouting for – their brand of bush punk is just what the nanny state needs.

The weekend of our festival is the same weekend as the 50th anniversary of the famous Woodstock Festival. Don your beads, put some flowers in your hair, and come along and join in the singing of all the Woodstock hits led by the Roweth Woodstock Band. This is definite proof that folk music is now music for the times.