Our musical mystery tour

There are some decisions that you regret even before you make them. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those. A bit like trying to get in a few quick minutes of work at the computer while the kids do some unsupervised painting, with non-washable paints and the dog. You end up scrubbing your kids and formerly golden Retriever in the bathtub, saying “Why, oh why, did I think that was a good idea?”

This decision didn’t involve paints, but a very long drive, camping, kids, and hundreds of other participants. However, as with the paints, once the decision is made, one has to live with the results.

So, we have finally arrived in Canberra. It’s 1:30am, bitterly cold and we’re camping in what is meant to be the “family-friendly zone.” That is, early to bed, early to rise. However, several metres to our left, two tent-loads of teenagers are joining in on a medley of old Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash songs, probably written before their parents were born.

Thankfully, I have an outlet for my discontent; his ear conveniently located just a harsh whisper away from my lips. How did Darryl ever persuade me to coax, bribe—and ultimately force—our three young boys to drive seven hours, endure hot days and freezing nights, and camp alongside a horde of others for four days to pursue a love of music and, hopefully, encourage it in our children?

Yes, we are tugging our kids along to a music festival, the National Folk Festival in Canberra. “The National” as it’s called by the diehards, and there are loads of them, has occurred annually since 1967. Carloads of music lovers of all ages—including, it must be said, plenty of vintage 1974 VW vans spilling out ageing Boomers—pull into dusty Exhibition Park and begin setting up tents. We look starkly suburban in our 2002 Holden Zafira without a tie-dyed item of clothing between us. My faith in this idea is waning.

Hours before the Festival begins, impromptu jam sessions are bubbling up across the sprawling tent city. This is not just your standard guitar jam. No, we spot bagpipes, tin whistles, bodhran, mandolins, eco drums, fiddles—like a stroll through the native bush identifying rare plants. I’m getting the feeling that anything goes here at the National.

We’ve been told that the thousands who gather here, across 22 venues, will hear Contemporary and Traditional Folk, World Music, Spoken Word, Comedy, Blues & Boogie, Gypsy Swing, Bluegrass and other little known forms of musical expression. Dance also features heavily at the National—Scottish, Irish, Western, Belly; basically, if it involves music and movement, someone’s doing it in Canberra this Easter weekend.

One of the real highlights of the National is a strong emphasis on participation; at least that’s what Darryl told me, pleadingly, at 11pm last night in our driveway, while making his case for stuffing both his button and piano accordions into the back of our heavily weighed-down car. Why couldn’t he play a practically-sized instrument such as, say, the harmonica?

To be fair, some of the blame for this weekend belongs with me. Like Darryl, I have developed a co-dependent relationship with music; reliant on it, moved by it, even—dare I say?—changed by it. And as comforting as I may find Joni Mitchell on my car CD player on the way to the dentist, nothing compares to the up-close and personal sound of a pick crossing a steel string or the emotional cracking of a voice in a real-time performance. After hearing Winchelsea-based singer-songwriter Tiffany Eckhardt sing achingly honest songs about life and its “deep dark holes”, I was converted to live music.

The National is not actually our first family music festival, just the furthest and longest yet. It hasn’t always been easy; our boys haven’t always been enthusiastic music lovers. So festivals have been a combination of treats and trade-offs with our kids. Folk, Rock, Christian, Classical—at different stages they have all been companions. Of course, many of us parents were music-lovers before giving birth and permanently misplacing our free time. Do we cast the musical leg of our lives into the pit along with Saturday morning sleep-ins?

Let’s hope not. In fact, passing on the things we love—and those that help us cope with life—to our kids is an aim for most parents. But how do we explain that music soothes our soul? That it comforts and befriends us? Gives us hope? We have known its presence in our lives so long, verbalising it is about as easy as getting very-Italian Grandma Rosa to put her Bolognaise recipe on paper.

Of course, like all aspects of parenting, we may have fairly specific aspirations for what kind of music our children will like. Not just anything, after all. While trying not to be too prescriptive, can’t we be forgiven for hoping they come alive to Bruce Springsteen but are unmoved by Celine Dion? Or, if we come from a long line of violinists, we’ll accept Bach, Mozart, even Tchaikovsky; but please, not Bond. We know what we want and cross our fingers they’ll want it too.

For many families, conventional instrument lessons are the chosen path to music initiation. So far, pushing our kids down that path hasn’t worked. Instead, we’re going the Festival route. I recently read an interview with a young boy attending the National who is learning to love music through playing it for others.

“I am ten years old. When I was eight or seven, I was busking with a tin whistle here(at the National); a plastic tin whistle and I earned twenty dollars. But I didn’t want to spend it.”

“He didn’t want to spend it on junk at the stalls which we thought was great for a seven-year old,” said Mum.

”I wanted one of these little accordions but I only had twenty dollars and it was thirty dollars.”

“So we chipped in the last ten dollars and we got him one” added Mum.

”So that is what I am busking with this year. And I’ll buy a guitar with my busking money this time.” [1]

Back at the National, it’s Day Two for us and prospects are looking up. Our nine and six-year-old boys attend the flute-making seminar in the morning, managing to create an instrument with astonishingly sharp sound for a piece of PVC pipe. Next we bump into Mike Jackson, the balloonologist. Our kids are enchanted by him. We met Mike on the old steam train at the Maldon Folk Festival the previous year and watched him cast a spell over the half-dozen kids with his songs, tricks and tales.

After a layover at the food stalls—the organic corn on the cob becomes a family favourite—we encounter the Wise Family Band. Louisa, Scott and their three teenage daughters Ruth, Lucy and Rowena are a 21st century Australian Von Trapp Family. They play fiddles, mandolins, guitars, bodhran, slide guitar, triangle and, of all things, spoons. Dad makes the instruments, everyone sings and plays, and 45 minutes later my sons realise that music is a gift which can be theirs, too.  Several months after this concert, our eldest son takes up the guitar, completely on his own initiative.

Two days later we are driving home, straight into a dramatic, deep purple sunset. Our car is weighed down by accumulated dust, and us by too much organic corn and falafels. Our exhausted two-year-old has slipped into a heavy sleep. The rest of us are singing along with the newly purchased Wise Family band CD.

Just close your eyes and then you’ll see…

Let the music teach you how to pray

Let the music flow, let your troubles go

Climbing up, climbing up

Up and down that music tree

Watching my 9-year-old boy sing Music Tree with the same gusto he would put into bowling Brett Lee-style, I know my regrettable decision was worth it. We’ll be back; if not at The National, then another celebration of music. But next time, I might just include earplugs and get a good night’s sleep.


[1] www.folkfestival.asn.au Click on The Festival and then Stories, then Story 5. It’s number 5.11.