Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Buried Country and the history of Aboriginal country music

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, May 2015

Two years ago during a visit to Alice Springs, I was invited to an open mic at one of the town’s few music venues, the Todd Tavern. Among a line-up of acts full of contrasts in terms of both style and quality, there was one smiling, fairly unkempt middle-aged man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and check shirt who played his own set of country ballads on acoustic guitar, before later joining several other musicians who performed as the night wore on.

This turned out to be Warren H Williams, one of the Northern Territory’s most treasured musical exports, revered nationwide for continuing the spirit of Indigenous country music, a movement documented with zealous passion and rigorous attention to detail in Clinton Walker’s Buried Country: The story of Aboriginal country music, a revised and updated new edition of which was recently published by Portland, Oregon-based Verse Chorus Press.

In the original 2000 edition of the book Williams is portrayed as a more nascent talent emerging from the fog of alcoholism. His late father, however, Gus Williams, is one of Buried Country’s stars, along with artists like the clean-cut, showbiz-ready Jimmy Little, the melancholic troubadour Dougie Young, boxer-cum-singer Lionel Rose, songwriter Herb Laughton with his more sensitive artistry, the combustible Bobby McLeod and many more.

The new edition of Buried Country features a poetic foreword by Paul Kelly, as well as an updated introduction and afterword from Walker. The rest of the book, with each chapter dedicated to celebrating one artist or community of artists, remains largely as in the original edition. Its reprint comes as a timely, gentle reminder of this rich Australian musical tradition.

But to many, it may be strange – Aboriginals appropriating a music that is often associated with the white American South and the potentially dubious ideologies that come with that, seems like an odd match. But after 20 years of observing its ebb and flow, Walker remains as convinced as ever of the profundity of Indigenous Australia’s connection with country music. Of course, the soundtrack to Warwick Thornton’s wonderful 2009 Alice Springs-set film Samson and Delilah, with its Charley Pride songs, hints at this relationship too.

“I found, and still find, that the love for country music among Aboriginal people is genuine and incredibly enduring,” says Walker from his home in Sydney’s Inner West. “I understand why it can be seen as kind of bizarre – why didn’t Aboriginal people do, say blues music? One simple answer is that the exposure of Aboriginal people in Australia, or any people in Australia, to black American music was really limited. It just didn’t reach here. But country music was always popular.”

Sheer musical logistics is one reason for country’s popularity among Aboriginal musicians – the style was all that could be heard outside Australia’s cities for many years in the first half of the twentieth century. Other reasons, Walker notes in his new introduction, include that country music was dominated by story songs, something that chimed with Aboriginal culture’s oral tradition; the fact the style is played mainly on guitar, rendering it portable and accessible; the fact it allowed Aboriginal artists to utilise their tradition of mimicry and therefore “throw the white man’s songs back at him” and finally, and arguably most importantly, its rhythms and melodies were infused with a mournfulness and sense of loss that Aboriginal people could identify with all too easily.

Though Buried Country is a warm tribute to unheralded voices, as with any study that addresses Aboriginal culture in the twentieth century, there is a thread of deep sadness running through this tome. Walker tells some confronting, disturbing tales, including that of Herb Laughton, who was stolen when he was two years old and spent much of his early life trying to find his mother, leaving him with emotional scars that led to him to attempting suicide in the eighties. His music endured. Alcoholism, violence, mental illness and incarceration are all themes in the lives of Dougie Young, Vic Simms, Bobby McLeod and Roger Knox. The best of the genre’s songs, too, are infected with tragedy, none more moving than Bob Randall’s ‘Brown Skin Baby’ with its haunting wail and elegiac lyrics for the stolen generation (Randall’s death was recently reported).

Despite this, Walker managed to give the book a strong sense of hope, while still being unflinching about the injustices many of these musicians suffered. “Of course I wanted to keep the focus on the music,” he says, “but I had to put it in the context of the larger background, that’s how I tell a story.

“Many people comment that there is an uplifting nature to the book, though I don’t know if I set out with an agenda to have that. Obviously I didn’t want it all to be down, as it’s difficult to make that work as a writer, but I think this is a story about ‘doing it’, about not surrendering. That’s what’s so amazing about these people, the mere fact that they did it.”

Sadly, this perseverance did not lead to a recorded legacy for many artists. Walker’s favourite albums of Aboriginal country include Vic Simms’ The Loner, recorded in 1973 while Sims was in Bathurst Gaol (and recently reissued by Sandman Records); Olive Knight’s more recent Gospel Blues at the Edge of the Desert and Black Allan Barker’s Fire Burning, a cassette-only album that is now nigh on impossible to find. There are, however, countless artists who didn’t even get that far.

“There were lots of black artists that didn’t get through by dint of the way music in those communities worked – people just going around and playing little dos. There’s probably a lot of people we didn’t get to hear, and that’s a terrible loss.”

Another factor that contributed to Aboriginal country artists not achieving more success than they did is adroitly described in the book: “The very Aboriginal concept of collective ownership discourages self-promotion. Songs are shared around – only for the common good, not commercial gain.”

Bob Randall, for instance, insisted on not accepting royalties for ‘Brown Skin Baby’, while most performers profiled and interviewed in Buried Country exhibit a rare, soft humility. However, the issue of Indigenous culture being at odds with self-promotion and, let’s say, artistic ego, is one way the landscape of Aboriginal country music has changed since the book’s first edition in 2000. In short, the democratisation and self-publishing possibilities of the internet have determined that Aboriginal artists must now make at least some claim on their original work.

“Aboriginal copyright is a white-hot, or black-hot issue,” says Walker. “The Aboriginal artists that I’ve met and got to know, like any songwriters, have their identity threatened by the internet and the destruction of copyright.

When Aboriginal people first came to modern music, it was indeed those old ways or principles that might have held them back a bit. But as soon as you hit the music business, you have to protect yourself because otherwise you're going to get ripped off, and that happens to white as well as black. So as much as promotion, it's protection, or self-preservation, and Aboriginal artists quickly adapted. I think most anyone who writes a song in this day and age will be trying to protect their creation to some extent.”

Readers of Buried Country will note that the history of Aboriginal country music is, largely, male – simply due to which artists were able to penetrate rather than any omissions on Walker’s part. The women featured in depth include Wilga Williams, the Pitt Sisters, Auriel Andrew and Ruby Hunter – all remarkable stories, yet the book is dominated by male talents. This is partly why Walker’s next book will be a history of black female singers in Australia. Entitled Deadly Woman Blues, it is set for publication in 2016.

“I realised there was this other whole story,” says Walker of his experience researching the music of Australia’s Deep North and discovering a diverse range of female sounds and characters, which then led to him delving into black female vocalists from across the country, dating back to the nineteenth century.

Deadly Woman Blues will be somewhat more adventurous in terms of format than Buried Country, in that it will be an illustrated, Robert Crumb-inspired piece of graphic non-fiction, “kind of like a comic book”. Walker has been an artist since childhood and cites Guy Peellaert and Nik Cohn’s 1973 book Rock Dreams, a seminal fusion of image and text as music journalism, as a formative influence along with Crumb. Over 100 singers will be covered.

“It will be a bit like a set of bubblegum cards – presenting an image and then you flip over the card and there’s a profile of your favourite footballer.

“There are amazing stories of Aboriginal women who filtered through the early days of jazz, blues, folk and serious opera singing. There were also black women who moved to Australia at the turn of the twentieth century and became big vaudeville stars.

“I suppose the centre of the book is the sixties and seventies, and maybe one way of describing it is that it will tell the story beyond the Sapphires. That was one Aboriginal vocal group that had its moment – and never cut a record – but there were many other women on the club circuit.”

Until Deadly Woman Blues is published next year, Walker will continue on the promotion treadmill for Buried Country – something of a challenge for an author working with an independent publisher based overseas – as well as work on his PhD, a cultural history of Saturday Night Fever.

The death of Bob Randall marks the passing of another important voice in this genre, yet this, and the new edition of Buried Country, can stand as impetus to revisit this desperately soulful, often heartbreaking trove that is Aboriginal country music.

“I can’t describe it in any other way than ‘sad ballads’,” says Walker. “There’s some kind of tone, it’s in the language, it’s in the rhythms, it’s in the textures that come through.”

Buried Country: The story of Aboriginal country music is available now through Verse Chorus Press.

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