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The Folkways Music Shop
An Article by Warren Fahey

The Folkways Music shop in Paddington closed its doors for the last time today. The owners have decided to get out of the music business.

I started the shop in 1973 - 36 years ago - and from extremely humble beginnings (I was terrified and troubled how I could afford the $38 a week rent) it grew and grew to claim an international reputation for carrying obscure music, especially folk music. In 1973 the term 'World Music' did not exist and there were very few catalogues of folk music. The first shipments I received after opening the store were from the US Folkways label and the British Topic records when it was stilloperated by the Worker's Music Association. The first LPs I sold wereof Pygmy Music from the Ituri Forrest, a recording of Inuit Indian songs and a compilation of Irish fiddle tunes.

I resisted carrying pop music, rock and anything that smacked of commercial music preferring strange recordings of beat poetry, documentary recordings, soundeffects, blues, jazz, experimental classical music like John Cage and Terry Reilly, bluegrass, old timey, Celtic and folk music from all over the world. The shop also sold music books and books about music and, for many years we sold Maton Guitars and various musical instruments. I reckon that over the twenty years I had Folkways (or did it have me?) I sold around 75,000 harmonicas, 50,000 tin whistlesand 5000 jaw harps. Folkways also had a music school where we taught people to sing without an American accent (and also banjo, mandolin, guitar etc).

The shop also spawned Larrikin Records which operated from the building's basement as I stood on milk crates and picked LPs and later CDs to ship across Australia. One thing that sticks in the mind of many of the shop's regular customers was the sign on the awning declaring 'Real Music In A Sea of Shit!'. This was one of the first things the new owners removed but it had been there for 20 years and not one complain, I guess it was a personal statement. The other memorable feature was the huge neon logoin the window. It was featured in David Bowie's Black Book.

The shop saw loads of famous visitors - Brett Whitely was a regular and most visiting international singers eventually found there way there. I remember Barry Manilow coming in one evening and asking if I carried 'Meo'. He had actually asked if I carried his recordings ('me') but I hadn't a clue who he was and assumed he was after some rock group called Meo. I responded, "No, we don't carry pop crap here." Oops! Of course all the artists presented by Larrikin in its annual concert series visited the shop: Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Johnny Shines, Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Shirley Collins, A.L.Lloyd, Stefan Grossman, John Renbourne, Little Brother Montgomery, Mike Seeger, Hazel Dickins, Vin Garbett and so many more. It was also a crash pad for many Australian touring artists and the upstairs office was often converted to a makeshift bedroom.

I sold the shop in 1993 to finance my other folly, Larrikin Records, which I also sold in 1995 to allow me to escape from the business world and concentrate on folklore studies and writing, performing. I don't regret a thing but can't help but think about how much great music passed through those doors. The owners have invited me to the 'wake' later today. At least we have the internet and live music.


Many thanks to Warren Fahey for permission to add this article to the Australian Folk Songs collection

Visit Warren's Australian Folklore Unit at


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