Woodford – Richer for the Experience
by Mike McLellan
“Where the f**k have you been?” he said with a wry smile on his face and a large bottle of water in his hand which he swapped from right to left as he reached to shake mine.
I had just finished the first of three performances at the 2017/18 Woodford Folk Festival, and while the question wasn’t put to me quite so prosaically, a number of others made the same enquiry. Although one much younger bloke, who I am sure immediately felt rather apologetic, asked, “Who are you?” I haven’t played Woodford in well over 20 years and coming back after so long would certainly have prompted that question from those who knew nothing of my music and had never seen me perform until they happened upon my sets in the Garland.
The history of my involvement with Woodford goes all the way back to the second Maleny festival that Bill Hauritz ran in the Maleny showground in 1987. I played several after that first appearance. Maleny was the template for what Woodford has become. Back in 1992 I wrote regularly for the Sunday Herald Sun, the Melbourne weekend newspaper, and after playing Maleny that year set aside the CD reviews that usually filled my column and wrote about the festival:
“The range of music this festival has presented since it began is extraordinary. Performers from all over the world have brought their
traditional music to wonderfully receptive audiences. From within Australia almost all the many diverse cultures have been represented and Maleny has become an important forum for the presentation and discussion of Aboriginal issues. In fact the sheer
breadth of events is now quite daunting.”
And I thought 1992 was daunting? Now, it is almost overwhelming.
I recall talking with organisers on the final night of one Maleny festival – I am not sure which one – we were well lubricated by the end of the evening. They were, as they’re still today, utterly committed to the vision they had for the festival. That vision has come to pass. It is a vast, sprawling cultural smorgasbord, so diverse it assaults the senses in almost every imaginable way. And they’re still dreaming.
Many have devoted their lives to Woodford, lived every moment of the heartache, turmoil, frustration and joy of running a festival that has stumbled, almost fallen, survived and grown into one of the most unique cultural events held anywhere in the world. With annual revenue of over $13 million and a full-time staff of over 25 people, the sheer complexity of running an event of this nature is enormous. That those organisers are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met is a given for they have a wonderful capacity to take people with them on this journey that began all those years ago. From the GM, Amanda Jackes, who began with Bill as a young girl back in the Maleny days, to the multitude of organisers and volunteers who give so generously of their time, passion and commitment to Woodford’s success, they are all living proof that many thousands have bought into the dream, completely.
Certainly there are other festivals of a similar size but none, at least that I know of, that challenge both its audiences and organisers in quite the same way. Woodford has shown that a festival is not just about music. It is about where that music springs from, what cultural influences shape the way we express ourselves, in whatever way we might choose to do so. Woodford has become a powerful forum for political and social discourse, for the exploration of the environmental issues we face and for the healing we must continue to pursue to ensure our aboriginal people occupy their rightful place in this land they have called home for over fifty thousand years.
Yes, the music is central to the very core of what Woodford is all about. For if you think about it there is probably not a culture anywhere in the world that does not have a heart that beats to the sound of music. Almost every major cultural event is celebrated
through music, whether you live in Mali, Afghanistan, Chile or Mongolia.
I have spent my life making music and while I may have been asked on numerous occasions since resuming writing and performing full-time, “Where the f**k have you been?” I have never strayed far from the spirit of what Maleny gave me all those years ago. I loved coming back and will continue to do so, whether I perform or not. I love the embrace that Woodford gives to all those who choose to come, for they go home far richer for the experience than they might ever have imagined.