Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hidden histories: Aboriginal country music

Since handing in my history dissertation I’ve (finally) set my turntables up and have been spending a lot of time rediscovering my music collection. While sorting through jazz, northern soul and hiphop today I came across an old Buddy Williams record.

Williams was one of the first Australian country music performers. Originating in the United States, country music was born out of contradiction - a clash between Europe and Africa with roots in folk, celtic and gospel music.

Known initially as ‘hillbilly music’, Australian performers began to localise American songs in the 1930’s and 1940’s in which hobos became ‘swagmen’ and cowboys became ‘boundary riders’ or ‘ringers’. They also began to write new material and developed the first Australian bush ballads. For rural Australians, this simple and unpretentious music didn’t just talk about their life, it talked like their life.

Artists such as Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty spent their careers touring rural Australia, and often performed in remote areas, aboriginal settlements and missions. From the beginning, indigenous Australians felt connection to country music - story songs telling tales of land and country, of leaving home and coming back again. The music also had an intangible quality with simple rhythms that could express complex feelings of longing and loss.

In addition, country music was inherently egalitarian. Guitars and harmonicas were portable, easy to play and cheap. In fact, it was common in the early days for performers to make their own instruments. The first time Slim Dusty heard country music he was seven years old – and it was sung by an Aboriginal man playing a homemade guitar.

As I played the record I was reminded of a story told and retold by my grandparents who grew up and lived (as I did) in Mullewa, a small country town in Western Australia's north. In 1966 Buddy Williams visited Mullewa to perform a concert in the Town Hall. It was exciting day for the entire town, including the Yamaji community. The day was tinged with sadness for the Dingo Family, as they were mourning the loss of a family member.

Les Dingo was well known in Mullewa and throughout the Murchison - a handsome Yamaji man with a huge smile and even bigger personality. He had died tragically six months previously as he attempted to cross the Gascoyne River during a flood. Williams had known Les from his buckjumping days, and his regular attendance at his shows. As a gesture of honour he invited Les’s Mother Ulie and his family to attend the concert for free.

The Town Hall was packed to capacity, and during the second half on the concert, Buddy sang a new song;

The Gascoyne river was in flood.
It was running wild and wide
Carnarvon town was cut right off.
And was short of food supply.
The mailman couldn’t get to town
Cause the Gascoyne was too high
So he left the mail for Carnarvon folks.
On the bank of the river side.
A coloured man with heart so brave
Volunteered to get the mail
He swam the raging rivers wild
Les Dingo was his name.
Les Dingo was his name
Les Dingo he died game
A coloured man with a great big smile
Les Dingo was his name.
Upon hearing the words, Ulie rose from her seat and walked slowly to the front of the stage where she stood with tears running down her face. Buddy, his band, and many of those in the audience cried too. It was an extraordinary shared moment in a town divided. During a time in which Australia’s indigenous population were marginalised within society, Mullewa’s Yamaji community was placed centre stage.

This story is not uncommon; before anything else, country music gave aboriginal people a voice in Australia.
My next post will explore some stunning contributions of Aboriginal musicians to jazz, rock & roll and country music in postwar Australia... and reveal a lost classic album of black protest music that every Australian should hear.