Clinton Walker, Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music, Pluto Press, Sydney, 2000, 323 pages.
Buried Country, (Andy Nehl, 2000) Film Australia.
Buried Country: Original Film Soundtrack, Larrikin, 2000.
The title of these works only hints at what lies within. Nor should you underestimate the need for the existence of the book, film and CD. These are no mere merchandising spin-offs. Each version of Buried Country contains its own unique revelations, adding up to a major reference work. In its own words it "…debunks the dominant myth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as exotic and tied to traditional music. The reality is that many are country people, and like rural and working class white Australians, have long found solace and creative expression in this American musical form. "
In the book, Clinton Walker has created a series of profiles that tell a story that is not just limited to Country Music. The opening chapter on the life and career of Jimmy Little is almost a potted history of the Australian show and music business, from the fifties to the present. It was written just prior to a major resurgence for Jimmy, following the release of his highly acclaimed album Messenger (Festival, 1999), that saw him winning several awards and being embraced once more by the music industry. Walker accurately portrays 'Gentleman Jim' as a hard-working, dedicated family man who has always visibly and calmly campaigned for racial as well as musical harmony. His, is a story of urban success, and of inspiring others by example. As he told Young Modern magazine in 1963, '...on a piano there are a number of white notes and a number of black notes. On either alone, you can play assorted tunes, but you can only achieve full harmony if you use both black and white.'
The chapter on the life of Herb Laughton practically begs for a book of its own. This is the story of a life of cruel twists that begin with him being stolen from his mother at the age of two, and growing up the victim of severe mistreatment in an Alice Springs institution. He survived this, and a perilous period of travelling, and went on to practically institute the traditions of Country Music into the Northern Territory. He never got his just recognition, largely due to an illness that robbed him of his voice and kept him from performing for 20 years. Woven into his story are not only the 'whitefella' influences that damaged the traditions of his culture, but also his explanation for the Aboriginal people's fascination with Country Music: 'Storytellers…That's what their old ancestors were like, they'd tell Dreamtime stories. Then when they heard country music, it was just like their old ancestors telling stories the whitefella way'.
As each subsequent chapter unfolds, the author allows the voices of the characters to tell their own story. The historical backdrop of each tale carries almost as much weight as the musical factor. Thus, we read about Lionel Rose rising to prominence through his boxing career, and capturing the heart of a nation; child star Vic Simms falling on hard times and then singing his way out of Bathurst Jail, just prior to the riots of 1974; and Bobby McLeod, who went from the failed 'assimilation' housing project of Green Valley to a residence in the Tent Embassy on the lawns of Government House.
There are also dramas that occur in the biographies of so many music stars, including the story of Roger Knox who escaped a plane crash that sadly claimed the life of drummer Ken Ramsay. Badly burnt in the wreckage, Roger's promising career was put on hold. Eventually his great auntie brought him pain relief with natural cures including a bath oil made by boiling the Eura bush, and spiritual healing with her singing and chanting. Given the determination to continue, Roger and the Euraba band (named after the healing bush and the settlement where his father was born), toured and recorded, making a huge impact on the Australian Country music scene of the time. They redefined the modern Koori style of music, while at the same time Roger's performing style and charisma drew him comparisons with Elvis! His story also provides much insight into the politics of the Tamworth music business of the time.
It was the making of the documentary film Buried Country that enabled Clinton Walker to complete the research for his book. The film follows a more linear timeline; the visuals making it possible to switch from character to character while still maintaining the forward thrust of the narrative. We see how the white church missionaries fuelled the Aboriginal musical fire by infusing their message with Gospel songs. Musically speaking, it would have been a small leap from there to the Hillbilly 78rpm recordings that would inspire many of these fledging singers, and provide them with much solace through what were very troubled and sometimes traumatic times for them. Indeed, it was an old Gospel tune The Royal Telephone that provided the breakthrough into the pop charts for Jimmy Little in 1963. The film includes some startling footage that predates that moment. From the 1933 film The Squatter's Daughter comes the image of the Aboriginal Gum-Leaf Players orchestra performing at a white social ball, and Jimmy Little in 1959 making his acting debut in Shadow of the Boomerang, a film produced by American evangelist Billy Graham. More incongruous than startling is a sequence from the sixties TV show Reg Lindsay's Country Hour, wherein a vivacious young Auriel Andrew bounces through a Buck Owens' song in front of a self-conscious studio audience, so typical of the era.
As it progresses, the film, which is narrated in a calm authoritative tone by Kev Carmody, goes on to emphasise the influence of Slim Dusty and Buddy Williams on Aboriginal Country Music, particularly for their constant touring to out of the way towns that no one else bothered to visit. They were however, as the story reveals, predated by Billy Bargo, a contemporary of Tex Morton with whom he toured before the Second World War. Probably the first Aboriginal hillbilly singer, Billy Bargo is not shown singing, but performing whip-cracking stunts as part of a Wild West Show. As the film reaches 1968, we see the familiar news footage of Lionel Rose winning the world bantamweight boxing title. Rose describes to the camera the simple joy of making music, which ultimately lead him to have the very first Aboriginal Number One record.
The political thread of the story unfolds in the film with the stories of the singers. It is interesting to follow the progression; funds from the sales of the single Gurindji Blues by Galarrwuy Yunupingu helped to fund the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House in Canberra in early 1972. It was from there that activist Bobby McLeod, frustrated by having to repeatedly explain the reasons for protest, was inspired to turn those explanations into songs. It is a strength of the film that many of the characters tell their own story in first-hand interviews, now preserved here for posterity.
Ultimately, in telling the story of the songs, one must turn to the songs themselves. Buried Country: Original Film Soundtrack is a 2-CD collection of 45 songs, with liner notes that contain a synopsis to each track. This compilation manages to include nearly all of the rare and classic songs that feature in the Buried Country story, leaving aside much of the music that was made purely for entertainment and focusing on the more 'significant' compositions. The hillbilly-styled Cut A Rug by Dougie Young, the tragic Brown Skin Baby by Bob Randall, and the aforementioned Gurindji Blues are all here. What stands out most about the music is how so many different styles have been adapted to tell the tales of social struggle and injustice. From straight Country and Western through to Gospel, from acoustic blues to nightclub jazz singing.
Chronologically, the story completes a neat circle with the earliest 'mainstream' Aboriginal Country star Jimmy Little making a huge comeback while, the 'new blood', Troy Cassar-Daley reaches the heights of the business for the first time. Both singers, truly regarded as two of the gentlest and admirable men in show business, have achieved their success through determination and an intrinsic respect for their heritage. Indeed, it is a theme that runs through all the stories of Buried Country. Troy sums it up, "…it is a really universal music, Country, to be able to affect a little Aboriginal kid growing up in Grafton the same way it affects, say, a kid growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. The fact that there is a story to this music and it takes a lot of pride in the lyric, I think that's the thing that really gets you in the first place."
Bob Howe has been a musician and music writer for over 30 years and has been privileged to work with many of the artists featured in Buried Country.
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